When you consider what Tendai Mzungu was able to achieve under difficult circumstances last season, Fremantle is right to be excited about the mature-age recruit’s potential in 2012.
Fourteen senior games and acknowledgement as your club’s best first-year player is a solid debut season under any circumstances.
But for Mzungu, there was a significant curve ball thrown in at the worst possible time, making his season all the more impressive.
After blitzing his first pre-season, Mzungu was struck down with a knee injury during Fremantle’s last practice match, ruling him out for eight weeks and undoing months of hard work.
He returned to average 19 possessions in his 14 matches, however, and has plans to improve this season given a clean bill of health.
“I feel fitter and a bit stronger than last year, so having a year under my belt now I feel like I’ve got a good base to work with,” Mzungu said.
“Having a full pre-season … I definitely want to try and build on last year.”
Mzungu has been one of the standout performers for Fremantle this pre-season, but his likely role under new coach Ross Lyon remains unclear.
Slated as a replacement for injured defender Roger Hayden when he arrived at Fremantle, Mzungu spent time at half-back, half-forward and in the midfield last year, impressing in run-with roles late in the season.
“Hopefully I learned a little bit from each position and if I settle down in a position this year I’m sure that’ll help me,” he said.
“Just start in the team I think would be my first aim, but playing many roles last year will probably help me.”
Mzungu won the Beacon Award as Fremantle’s best first-year player in 2011, and it’s recognition that he says has helped him feel like he belongs in the AFL after years of being overlooked.
The 25-year-old, who earned his AFL chance after winning the 2010 best and fairest award with WAFL club Perth, is already highly regarded at Fremantle for his professional approach.
He said his focus this summer had been on improving his skills and learning Lyon’s detailed game structures.
“It’s really important to get on top of that,” he said. “Ross is really big on that, so that’s the main one at the moment.
“He’s really driving structure and how we want to play, so it’s been a strong emphasis for the group.”
While Mzungu made an impression when used in the midfield last year, he understands that it will be a different group to break into this season.
Following an injury-ruined season, numbers on the track for Fremantle are swelling towards 40, and Michael Barlow, David Mundy and Anthony Morabito – all missing for large parts of 2011 – are making strong progress less than a month out from the NAB Cup.
“I enjoy playing midfield and if I can get a spot in there I’d take it with both hands, but I think it’s going to be pretty tough to get a game in there,” Mzungu said.
“We’ve got a lot of weapons through there – guys who can go in and win it and also guys who can hurt you on the outside.
“It’ll definitely be a strong weapon for us this year.”