See the five things we liked the most in Essendon’s encouraging eight-point victory over West Coast in the Marsh Community Series on Thursday.
1. The young mids standing up
Seeing how a squad’s brightest young players have developed over several months out of the spotlight is always a highlight of any pre-season competition and a number of young Dons came to the fore on Thursday.
It was most noticeable on the ball, where emerging midfielders Andrew McGrath, Kyle Langford and Darcy Parish led the way superbly.
McGrath was best afield in the opening half (with 16 disposals, eight contested possessions, 397 metres gained and six clearances), where his ability to find the right position and work his way through the traffic was sublime, while Langford (17 disposals, seven contested possessions, five intercept possessions and six score involvements including a goal to half-time) showed great class and composure with the ball in hand.
Neither player spent as much time in the centre in the second half as others took their opportunities, led by Parish who hunted the footy well to finish the game with a team-high 29 disposals alongside 13 contested possessions, five clearances, 600 metres gained and a goal.
Add an impressive performance from young wingman Brayden Ham (16 disposals, seven inside 50s, five score involvements and 578 metres gained) and a silky yet tough performance across half-back from Jordan Ridley (21 disposals, eight intercept possessions, six one percenters, five tackles and four score involvements) and there were many reasons for fans to be excited for the future.
2. A dynamic forward line
The wet and wild conditions at Mineral Resources Park were not conducive to easy scoring, but the Dons were impressive in putting 95 points on the scoreboard.
In-form forward Jayden Laverde was a constant threat in attack with two goals, while fellow tall Shaun McKernan battled well all night to finish with two goal assists and one major of his own.
Lower to the ground, Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti’s skill and craft helped him to two goals from just 56 per cent of game time, while emerging goalkicker Will Snelling was terrific with 20 disposals, seven tackles and eight score involvements including two goals from 65 per cent of game time.
Athletic small forward Irving Mosquito and draftee Harrison Jones chimed in with their first official goals in the red and black, while Orazio Fantasia threatened throughout.
Overall, it was a balanced performance from a forward group that still has much improvement to come with Jake Stringer and Joe Daniher – who have shared the club’s last six leading goalkicker awards – missing out on the game.
3. A fit and firing Dev Smith
There is no denying how much the Bombers missed Devon Smith last year. The 2018 Crichton medallist wasn’t his true self under an injury cloud in the opening rounds before being sent for season-ending surgery after round eight, leaving behind big shoes to fill.
Smith showed more than enough on Thursday to suggest he can get back to his brilliant best this year, entering the clash like a bull at a gate with his textbook pressure ensuring the Eagles earned every possession.
He closed out the match with 20 disposals, five intercept possessions and four score involvements including a goal, adding 30 pressure acts (six clear of the next best on the ground).
4. The immense pressure
Essendon’s commitment to making sure the Eagles didn’t have an easy time on the ball at their own home was plain to see.
From the very first bounce, the Bombers showed their intent to be physical and their repeat efforts and determination in the clinches were outstanding.
Despite controlling the ball to finish the match with 15 more possessions than West Coast, Essendon still laid 19 more tackles than its opponent.
Snelling (seven tackles), Smith (six) and Dylan Shiel (six) led the way in the centre and forward line, while young Bomber Matt Guelfi (20 pressure acts, 14 disposals, seven intercept possessions and three score involvements) also showed plenty of tenacity.
5. The new faces
Jones, trade period recruit Andrew Phillips, pre-season pick-up Jacob Townsend, Irish rookie Cian McBride and trialling prospects Nigel Lockyer and Brynn Teakle all took part in their first official games in the red and black on Thursday, while the pre-season match was Mosquito’s first in the ‘senior’ side.
Phillips took on the leading ruck role seamlessly with 12 disposals, 21 hitouts, four tackles, four inside 50s, three clearances and a goal, while Townsend did what Townsend does, throwing his weight around to have a positive impact for the Dons.
Lockyer warmed into the contest well with a courageous and skilful intercept mark in the final term a clear highlight, while Teakle competed nicely against the star-studded Eagles.
Jones worked tirelessly pushing in and out of the forward line and making a contest where he could, and Mosquito added a vital spark in the second half to help get the side over the line.
McBride was perhaps the most impressive ‘debutant’, following on from his strong effort in last week’s scratch match against Melbourne with another great defensive performance in just his second Australian football game.
It was certainly a positive start for all concerned.