Essendon head coach Ben Rutten has claimed that while Anthony McDonald-Tipingwuti has returned to the club's base at Tullamarine, the small forward will be required to find match fitness before returning to action in a red sash.

The 28-year-old had previously taken a leave of absence from The Hangar to deal with off-field matters and is currently finding form on the track after being hampered with a calf complaint.

Although it remains highly unlikely that McDonald-Tipungwuti will take part in the Dons' season opener against Geelong in mid-March at the MCG, Rutten told AFL Media that the dreadlocked dynamo was making positive strides.

"He's going really well. We're trying to get behind him and support him as best we can," Rutten said.

"He's had a bit of off-field stuff he's been working through but he loves coming to the club, he loves his footy and I know that everyone's asking about him, which is a great sign because everyone does care about him and he is a much-loved player for us, and we're doing everything we can.

"I'd love nothing more than to see Anthony back out there with a big smile on his face in the middle of the MCG. I think that's what all footy fans want to see."

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 13: Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti of the Bombers celebrates kicking a goal during the round four AFL match between the Essendon Bombers and the Brisbane Lions at Melbourne Cricket Ground on April 13, 2019 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Despite the club already accustomed to life without the Tiwi Islander due to his absence between Round 21 and the cessation of their 2021 season, the second-year steward stated that new replacements would be called upon to help fill the void.

With the likes of Devon Smith, Matt Guelfi and Archie Perkins already at Rutten's disposal, the Bombers are not without attacking options. Still, Rutten also claimed the je ne sais quois that the fan favourite known as 'Walla' has brought to the field since 2016 was nigh on impossible to replicate.

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"He's [McDonald-Tipungwuti] really unique and I'm just like every other footy fan and love watching him play. But if we think we're going to be able to replace him, I think we're going down the wrong path there. It's about making sure we, as best we can, fill that role he plays," he said.

"Devon Smith has been playing a little bit more down forward, Matt Guelfi as well, along with Archie Perkins. We have some guys who can hopefully play a role for us down there but to be able to replace Anthony is going to be a pretty tough ask."

Essendon Bombers Media Opportunity & Training Session
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 21: Archie Perkins of the Bombers (C) in action during an Essendon Bombers AFL media opportunity at The Hangar on January 21, 2021 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

Should each member of this aforementioned trifecta be unable to match McDonald-Tipungwuiti's output, further ammunition could well be fired from alternative sources.

As it stands, Essendon currently has 190cm Western Australian Nic Martin training within their ranks this summer, with small forward option Tex Wanganeen - son of 1993 Brownlow medallist, Gavin - also on the track.

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Having slotted four goals in the club's recent intra-club hitout, Subiaco product Martin remains a likely option to snaffle one of two remaining list spots ahead of the March 9 cut-off date. But with his specific skillset still required, Wanganeen will also be considered a red hot chance.

Prior to their Round 1 date with the Cats, Essendon will face the Western Bulldogs and St Kilda in pre-season clashes across the course of the next fortnight.