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Cale Hooker's 2018 position

Callum Twomey, AFL Media   December 27, 2017 1:59 PM

BTV: The 2017 Wins | Comeback Story We take a look back at the win that signified the start of our Comeback Story in 2017.

Essendon made the bold decision to move All Australian defender Cale Hooker to the forward line last year in a switch that was a success.

But, with a focus on improving their defence and conceding less next year, the Bombers can't be quite as fixed with the 29-year-old's spot in 2018. 

John Worsfold turned Essendon into an attacking and exciting team last season that – finally – could score. In 2017, the Bombers passed triple figures in 11 games. In the previous three seasons, including when they made the finals in 2014, they managed that feat a combined 10 times.

Hooker was a big part of that, not only for the 41 goals he kicked but the structure he provided. Because of his ability in the air, Hooker was always a threat. His presence made it harder for defenders to zone off and double team Joe Daniher, Essendon's primary target and match-winning goalkicker. 

However, the addition of Jake Stringer at Essendon, plus the emergence of last year's recruit James Stewart as a genuine goalkicker and tall forward option, means the Bombers can take a more horses-for-courses approach with Hooker. 

Essendon's backline set up last year saw the Bombers try to isolate Michael Hurley as much as possible to patrol the defensive 50 and set up rebound. He is clearly one of the club's most important players, and the plan to get the ball in his hands more worked: he averaged a career-high 25 disposals last season and returned to the All Australian team. 

But Essendon's increased focus on having Hurley play that role meant they often chose to have him play on the second-best key forward. Michael Hartley generally had the responsibility of stopping the main man, with Patrick Ambrose and Mitch Brown also called upon when fit as tall defensive options. 

There is no doubt a Hooker and Hurley combination would be a better defensive pairing. But Worsfold and the Bombers believe the net result of Hooker playing forward is a better outcome than having him back.

Worsfold, set to head into his third season at the helm of Essendon next year, says the club is planning to have Hooker in the forward line and Mark Harvey, the Bombers' defensive assistant, said pre-Christmas he isn't expecting to have Hooker in his group in 2018.

Footballers crave continuity and the idea of moving from one end of the ground to the other one week (or quarter) to the next might not sit comfortably with Hooker. But for the sake of Essendon becoming a tougher team to score against, they could use their All Australian defender more in his most natural habitat next year.

Defence is now an all-ground effort, but it still relies on the best possible backline being assembled, and Essendon's forward line should be able to cope without Hooker if he is pushed back intermittently. 

Stringer is likely to spend more time in the midfield, but the Bombers would still be hoping for more than 30 goals out of the Western Bulldogs premiership star. Stringer is good enough overhead to be a marking target if Hooker is not the get-out kick close to goal. 

Small forwards Orazio Fantasia and Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti combined for 73 goals last year and should only improve their output. And Daniher would be one of the early Coleman Medal favourites after booting a career-high 65 goals last season.

With Hurley, Hooker and Daniher at his disposal, Worsfold has a great hand of talls at his disposal. Hooker being pushed back is a card that could be played a little more next year.