Pioneer Zane Keighran. Bendigo faces Murray Bushrangers on Sunday. Photo: Andrew Perryman.

THE inaugural TAC Cup wildcard round is an opportunity for the Bendigo Pioneers to experience a finals-like atmosphere, something coach Rick Coburn hopes his players embrace.

For the first time, AFL Victoria’s under-18 competition will hold a wildcard round, where the eight teams that finished fifth to 12th on the table do battle in a series of sudden death matches for the right to play on in 2018.

It enables sides that historically struggle to compete with the traditional power clubs the chance to advance further into the postseason.

With Bendigo taking part in a triple-header at Carlton’s Ikon Park, it is also a further opportunity for the team’s draft prospects to impress a host of talent scouts watching on.

One of those will be top prospect Jye Caldwell, who played just his second game of the season last week after a hamstring injury ruined his national under-18
championships.

“Jye was probably a little bit underdone last week but even so you still just saw that class he has,” Coburn said.

“It was great to have him back and I’m sure he’ll be ready for a big performance on Sunday.”

Bendigo plays a team that has been its tormentor in recent years in the Murray Bushrangers, who finished fifth.

Bendigo has not beaten Murray since 2004, when Rod MacPherson coached the side. Pioneers products and AFL club captains Joel Selwood and Jarryn Geary (both drafted in 2006) were still playing under-16s last time Bendigo felled the Bushrangers.

But Coburn is making sure his side is ready for anything.

“They’ll get to play at Princes Park, it’s a good venue, being a triple header there’ll be a lot of attention in terms of recruiters and the boys understand the importance of it,” he said.

Coburn said the club had offered the chance for its players to play local finals and had left the decision up to them as to where they play.

“The boys that have played most of the year with us will play with us, but if they have played mostly club footy or have been half and half we have let them make that call,” he said.

The club will finalise part of its 2018 list on Friday, and Coburn has been impressed with its crop of bottom-aged players including Brodie Kemp, Aaron Gundry, Flynn Perez and James Schischka.

Several 16-year-olds including Vic Country captain Sam Conforti have also had their chances in recent weeks to impress Coburn and the coaching staff.

“We know that we have plenty there to pick from for next year, we have some strong 16s there as well and we think we’re in a strong position for next year but the other clubs may be as well,” Coburn said.

“We start our 2019 program on October 1 and we’re very happy with the way the younger blokes are progressing.”

The TAC Cup could look radically different next season with Tasmania set to enter the competition as well as the Gold Coast, Brisbane, Sydney and GWS Giants academy sides.

Coburn said the additions wouldn’t change much for the Pioneers and that major changes haven’t yet been communicated to Pioneers, indicating a final decision is yet to be made.

– Joel Peterson