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Five big questions: Round 17

TEL | North Melbourne preview Megan Hustwaite and Rohan Connolly preview our round 17 clash with North Melbourne. Listen in full at

Comeback is a word with some resonance when it comes to Essendon’s clashes with North Melbourne, the memory of the greatest comeback in football history – from 69 points down to victory - by the Bombers in 2001, always revived.

But the comeback (in a bigger picture sense) is on for Essendon in 2019, too, the Bombers having produced four wins in the past five games, and now outside the eight on percentage only.

There are many more hurdles to negotiate, of course, and this week brings one of the biggest, a North Melbourne side which has also turned its fortunes around under the stewardship of caretaker coach Rhyce Shaw, and sits immediately beneath the Bombers in ninth place.

This is a proverbial 'eight-point game', critical to whether either side might end up part of September, or talking end-of-season trips instead.

Despite Essendon’s easy win over the same opponent on Good Friday, both sides now look very evenly matched, both playing at a home venue in which their records are good. They’re difficult to split. But here’s five questions, the answers to which might do so.

1. Both teams have won four of their last five games. Which side’s form has been better?

Realistically, you’d have to say the Roos. Indeed, counting the last game of former coach Brad Scott’s tenure, it’s five wins from the past six. North has put away the Western Bulldogs, Richmond, Gold Coast, Collingwood and St Kilda, and was far from disgraced against GWS when the Giants were third on the ladder. The Roos’ wins over the Tigers (by 37 points) and Magpies (44 points) were the most impressive, Collingwood held to just five goals, its lowest score since the mid-1990s.

North’s midfield has gone up a couple of gears, and it is scoring a lot more freely, registering 99 points or more in four of those five victories.

Essendon’s sole loss in the same period was a barely competitive effort against West Coast in which even a 35-point margin flattered the Dons, and it has had to scrap hard for wins over Hawthorn, GWS and Sydney. By the same token, the Bombers have shown a welcome streak of resilience in the last two wins in particular, both times overhauling final-term deficits.

2. How has North Melbourne changed since we beat them on Good Friday?

Significantly, both in terms of structure and game style. Essendon’s midfield was completely dominant in the round five victory. You can expect that battle to be much closer this time, not only given the continued absence of skipper Dyson Heppell.

North Melbourne has beefed up its midfield stocks considerably with Jack Ziebell and Jy Simpkin both spending far more time in the centre square than they had been, helping ease the load on Ben Cunnington, who is having a great season. The Roos, held to just seven goals on Good Friday, are looking a lot more potent in attack, where latest Rising Star nominee Nick Larkey has emerged to offer valuable support to Ben Brown.

North is playing a harder, more pressure-packed game under caretaker coach Rhyce Shaw, winning more contested ball and playing less of a possession game. The Roos have been more direct and defending better, with their differential ranking for inside 50s consequently climbing from 14th to fifth in just six games.

North Melbourne hard nut Ben Cunnington is in fine form. (Photo: AFL Photos)

3. How important will the ruck duels be?

Very. For starters, centre-bounce clearances always play a big part in any game under the roof. Secondly, North Melbourne’s Todd Goldstein has had a fine season, fourth in the AFL for hitouts and currently rated the 15th most valuable player in the competition. And third, 'Goldy' is the major source of supply to Cunnington, who is the AFL’s leading centre clearance winner and equal leader for clearances generally.

Dylan Clarke will most likely get the task of trying to curb Cunnington’s influence. But that is a job which will be made so much easier if his namesake Zac Clarke can at least offer Goldstein some solid competition.

Clarke struggled for the bulk of last week’s win over Sydney against the more mobile Aliir Aliir. But, significantly, he lifted in the critical final term, dominating hitouts and taking an important mark. The Dons will be hoping that can be a springboard to a much bigger game against a better-credentialed ruck opponent.

4. Where might Essendon gain a critical advantage?

On the outside. With pace. This is the big hope for the Bombers. Win the clearances, where the Dons are ranked sixth compared to North’s 12th, get the ball with clean hands and feet away from the congestion, and let Dylan Shiel, Zach Merrett, Andy McGrath, Darcy Parish and David Zaharakis do their stuff.

The real ace up the sleeve, however, and not for the first time, could be the run from Adam Saad and Conor McKenna from half-back. North Melbourne, for all its midfield talent, isn’t an overly-quick side, particularly without Shaun Higgins, and will be relying upon Jared Polec for much of its run and gun.

Essendon has more mids with genuine leg speed. But it’s when the pair of running defenders begin to venture forward more frequently to link up with the midfield contingent that the Bombers begin to look extremely dangerous. McKenna had 26 disposals in that Good Friday win, Saad 18, and between them rebounded out of the defensive 50 11 times while also having five inside 50s. Big games from both and at least breaking even in the middle would go a long way to an Essendon victory.

5. What needs to happen up forward?

In a nutshell, the key forwards have got to start clunking some marks. In the last three games, against the Swans, GWS and West Coast, Essendon hasn’t taken any more than eight grabs inside 50. Not surprisingly, as a result, scoring has been an issue, the Bombers failing to pass 77 points in any of those games, and currently ranked only 12th in the AFL for points scored.

That has to improve, and a good template to do so would be the round five win over the Roos, the last time Essendon passed 100 points. That day, the Dons put 17 goals on the scoreboard.

Mitch Brown’s hard-working role as a key forward was pivotal to that, his running up and down the ground stretching North’s defence to breaking point and, significantly, opening up gaps for smaller forwards Orazio Fantasia and Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti to work into, that pair combining for six goals. Brown himself booted three in addition to taking seven marks and picking up 20 possessions. A similar game would be invaluable this time.

You can read more of Rohan Connolly’s work at his FOOTYOLOGY website.

The views in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the AFL or its clubs