There’s no escaping the disappointment for an entire football club of last week’s 104-point thrashing at the hands of the Western Bulldogs.
Nor the ramifications. From having all but secured a finals berth with five consecutive wins, Essendon is back in the position of possibly having to win both its remaining games to guarantee it is part of September again.
They’re tough assignments, too, a huge Friday night clash with Collingwood to finish, and before that, the longest and arguably toughest of interstate assignments, a trip to Perth to take on Fremantle, itself still the slimmest of finals chances.
Restoring confidence will have been a key priority on the track at The Hangar this week. But the Bombers have bounced back on other occasions this season. And there’s some pretty handy inclusions this week.
How can Essendon get its finals charge back on track? Here are the key questions.
1. How do we bounce back from a performance as poor as last week’s?
Like skipper Dyson Heppell said after the game last Saturday night, by owning it. In fact, perhaps the one positive in the immediate aftermath of that belting at the hands of the Western Bulldogs was the frankness with which both Heppell and Dylan Shiel spoke in interviews, knowing even a long injury list could be no excuse for the display which had taken place.
Nor has there been any grandiose statements over the past week from players or coach John Worsfold, who refused to take the bait dangled by various media representatives looking for an animated response.
It was a week for bunkering down, remaining a tight-knit group, focusing not just on a committed subsequent performance by way of a statement, but the fact that however humiliating that defeat, this is still a team in seventh place on the ladder with its destiny in its own hands.
The last six quarters of football from Essendon have been disappointing to say the least, but there’s been enough out of the preceding 74 not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
2. There’s five changes to the side to play Fremantle. How big a difference will they make?
Potentially massive. The return of Michael Hurley after missing the past month with a shoulder injury is a huge plus in any sense. But against the Dockers, who last week didn’t even field a recognised key forward and this week will have only Cam McCarthy as a genuine forward marking target along with ruckman Sean Darcy and Nat Fyfe, Hurley can really exploit his ability to zone off and rebound.
Ditto for Aaron Francis and his intercept ability, while Adam Saad’s tandem with Conor McKenna as attacking half-backs is a crucial plank of the Essendon game plan.
Darcy Parish obviously improves the Dons’ ball-winning capacity, especially on the contested-possession front, where they were hammered last week, and in which the Dockers out-rank the Dons, while Brayden Ham, a raw talent, gives the Bombers some more run, an area in which they can genuinely hurt the home side. This is certainly a 22 which looks a lot more balanced across all areas of the ground, than did last week’s version.
3. What should we expect from Fremantle?
Who knows? Along with Port Adelaide, the Dockers have been arguably the most unpredictable team in the competition this season. At the start of the year and again over the last month, Freo has swapped wins and losses. In between they’ve had strings of three losses, three wins and four losses.
Just a fortnight ago, the Dockers turned in close to their best performance of the season against ladder leader Geelong.
Last week, they failed to back that up, losing a thriller against St Kilda after being nine points up with less than three minutes to play.
Freo continues to struggle to score nearly enough, averaging just 72 points per game, less than all but the bottom two teams on the ladder.
Champion Docker and Brownlow medallist Nat Fyfe has, though, been in superlative form all season, and presents an obvious threat both in the midfield, averaging 29.5 disposals per game, and up forward, where he’s averaged nearly a goal per game.
David Mundy is always solid, and the other two big dangers are the pace and brilliance of both Michael Walters and Brad Hill.
Walters looms as one of the dangermen in his 150th game. (Photo: AFL Photos)
4. How relevant is the clash between these two teams in round nine?
It’s relevant in that it gives an indication how hard the Bombers are going to have to work to pull off a second victory over Fremantle this season.
Essendon’s seven-point victory on a Saturday night in May at Marvel Stadium was one of the scrappiest, most error-riddled games of the season. The Bombers’ 8.12 (60) was their lowest winning score all year, and the Dockers, who kicked 7.11, certainly had their opportunities to snatch the win.
Fremantle managed to a degree to shut down Essendon’s running game, though a big last quarter from Bomber on-baller Dylan Shiel was pivotal in the Dons’ winning final term.
The Dockers certainly had a lot more firepower up forward in the first clash, too, with Jesse Hogan, Matt Taberner, Rory Lobb and Brennan Cox all in the line-up. None will be there this time.
In defence, also, the Dockers look weaker this time around, with Luke Ryan, Alex Pearce and Nathan Wilson all there in round nine but out injured now. Essendon was missing Orazio Fantasia, Shaun McKernan, Marty Gleeson and Mitch Brown in the first clash. They’ve all made the trip to Perth.
5. Essendon has lost eight of its past nine games in WA by an average 47 points. Is that cause for concern?
Only if you’re going out of your way to look for bad omens. The bottom line is six of those nine games were played at Subiaco, a venue no longer being used.
Optus Stadium has been the scene of Essendon’s last three games in Perth. It has a different feel, and is a different configuration, of very similar dimensions to the MCG. The Bombers are now 1-2 at the ground following the round 14 defeat at the hands of West Coast. But the win over the Eagles last year was a good one, and the two losses, against Fremantle early last season and this year against West Coast, were by only 16 and 35 points respectively.
Optus Stadium is a ground which should suit the Bombers’ run. As for the travel aspect, Essendon has won eight of its last 10 road trips, a 5-1 record last year followed by 2-3 this season, with one of those defeats by just five points to Sydney. Teams which win frequently on the road speak about the importance of the psychology involved. Essendon appears to have found a routine which works, and with back-to-back interstate wins against Adelaide and Gold Coast only three weeks ago, has recent travel experience upon which to draw.
You can read more of Rohan Connolly’s work at his FOOTYOLOGY website.