When the ball is bounced on Saturday night to kick off Essendon’s season opener, it will mark 1,666 days since the last game the Dons played without the spectre of the supplements looming over its head. To put that in perspective that’s 4 years, 7 months and 25 days, or roughly the same amount of time Channel 7’s commentary teams have collectively salivated over Cyril Rioli.
Before the season kicks off, let’s take a look at what Essendon’s best 22 may look like.
B: Mark Baguley, Michael Hartley, Patrick Ambrose
Coming off such a trying year defensively, curbing the big men is going to be a point of emphasis for Worsfold’s troops. Expect to see the Bombers play three talls down back – Hartley, Ambrose and Hurley – especially against sides with multiple tall options such as the Hawks, Crows and Giants. Don’t be surprised to see Mitch Brown take Ambrose’s place against teams with fewer taller options up forward. There’s a lot of versatility amongst Essendon’s talls and that should mean Worsfold will take a horses-for-courses approach to selection. Baguley is coming off an injury-interrupted season and should slot back in as Essendon’s number one small defender. Look for him to resume hostilities against the likes of Puopolo, Betts, Garlett and LeCras.
HB: Martin Gleeson, Michael Hurley, James Kelly
Kelly was a genuine surprise last season, going from a happily retired one-club player to equal 2nd in Essendon’s Best and fairest. He made the switch to Essendon’s half back flank in 2016 and proved a steady hand in defence. Essendon’s slow game style suited him well, as his short passing helped set up Essendon’s forays into attack. Worsfold will no doubt be conservative in selection when it comes to Kelly – he will likely be left out of long interstate trips and games off the back of six-day breaks.
Gleeson continued his development last season, nailing down a permanent spot in the back six. His intercept marking was a highlight, as he proved he wasn't afraid to back his 40 kg frame back into packs to cut off opposition attacks. His disposal has improved consistently over the years and will no doubt relish some more freedom in Essendon's quicker game plan.
C: David Zaharakis, Jobe Watson, Travis Colyer
Watson looked like he barely missed a beat in the JLT series, racking up contested possessions just like the old days. His size and presence in the trenches will be a welcome relief to David Zaharakis, who as Essendon’s best remaining midfielder in 2016 found himself tagged into oblivion on several occasions. He will savour the extra freedom in shifting to a more natural outside role, where he can display the run and carry that saw him win the Best and Fairest in just his third season.
In possibly the biggest surprise of the pre-season, Travis Colyer was one of the few Essendon players to return without a man-bun this year. In every other way, he looked just like his old self, providing run and carry on the outside. He was beginning to establish himself as a premier outside midfielder in 2015 before a stress fracture ended his season. Judging by his form in the JLT, he looks to have picked up right where he left off.
R: Matthew Leuenberger, Dyson Heppell, Zach Merrett
In events that surprised absolutely no-one, Leuenberger suffered a hamstring injury minutes into Essendon’s third JLT match against the Cats. He will slot straight back into the first ruck role when he returns, until at least the next stiff breeze shatters his leg. Matthew Leuenberger is injury prone, is what I’m saying. Which is unfortunate, because he was a much needed, if not unheralded addition to Essendon’s team in 2016. The departure of Paddy Ryder in 2014 left a huge hole in Essendon’s ruck stocks and after rolling out an uninspiring ruck stock in 2015, improvements had to be made. Leuenberger crossing from Brisbane to Tullamarine in 2016 added a level of consistency to Essendon’s midfield group in a rather tumultuous season. With a vastly improved midfield group to play with upon his return, we should hope to see Luey having a bigger and better year this year.
Zach Merrett was the shining light for Essendon last year. He was freed up considerably by the attention given by opposition taggers to Zaharakis last year, and with the return of Heppell and Watson to the midfield, he could potentially have even more freedom. Heppell will slot straight back in without missing a beat – he is a consummate professional and natural leader. He slowly built up his form over the JLT series, playing limited minutes in games 1 and 3. He should be back to his best in no time.
HF: Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti, Joe Daniher, Brendon Goddard
I thought I couldn’t fawn more heavily over McDonald-Tipungwuti after his sensational rookie season last year, but his game against Geelong in the JLT series proved me wrong. “Walla” was an absolute terror in the forward line, with his ferocious pressure and tackling making life difficult for Geelong’s defenders. His attack on the ball created goals for himself (bagging 4 sausages) and his teammates up forward. After adjusting to the speed of senior footy at half back for much of his debut year, Walla looks ready to make the permanent switch to the forward line.
Big Joe Daniher had to do it all for Essendon up forward last year. He turned out some fantastic games against Melbourne, St Kilda, Adelaide and Carlton and presented himself as Essendon’s only dangerous tall target nearly all year. The improved forward line will give him welcome relief, making him a more dangerous target. His kicking for goal remains a serious concern – after a solid performance in front of the sticks against Carlton in the final match last year, he reverted to checkside kicks from set shots from pedestrian angles in the JLT series. If he doesn’t improve in that area this year, it might be time for the Dons to utilise a Space Jam-esque scheme and try and steal Matthew Lloyd’s goalkicking talent and transfer it to Joe.
Goddard will spend a bit more time forward of the ball than usual, where he will look to use his foot skills to add a touch of class to Essendon’s forward entries. He’ll still spend most of his minutes in the midfield.
F: Orazio Fantasia, Cale Hooker, James Stewart
Not only does he possess the best name in the AFL, but Disney Fantasia is fast becoming one of the better small forwards in the game. He booted 29 goals from 19 games – the highlight being a 4.4 performance against the Giants in round 13. Like Joe, his kicking for goal needs improvement but the sky’s the limit for this kid. He’s Essendon’s best small forward since Darren Bewick.
Hooker trained with the forwards in the offseason, suggesting he will resume his spot at full forward upon his return. Hooker’s contested marking ability will be a great foil for Daniher, freeing him up the ground while Hooker occupies the goal square. Alongside him is GWS recruit and not-Academy Award-winning actor James Stewart. Stewart looked to have settled into his role nicely during the JLT series, providing another tall target to kick to.
INT: Brent Stanton, Darcy Parish, Kyle Langford, David Myers
Stanton appears to be transitioning from a full-time mid to a back flanker, playing a similar role as Matthew Boyd. Parish has gone from strength to strength, playing brilliantly in the JLT as an inside mid who isn't afraid of drifting forward and snagging a goal. Langford split his time between the forward line and midfield last season and should continue that role this year. Myers is recovering from a finger injury and his due to return to the side in a few weeks' time – he will add much-needed grunt to a midfield that was regularly belted in contested possessions last year.
It’s going to be a mish-mash year for the Bombers in terms of selections. Worsfold has the unenviable task of essentially trying to merge two different teams into one – it will be fascinating to see what direction he takes and which type of player he favours. Does he select the more experienced bodies, or continue the youth policy that saw many young players get an extended taste of senior footy in 2016? I have a feeling that the success of the side will dictate his approach – if Essendon falls out of contention quickly, expect to see younger players take the field. But if the Dons defy expectations and make a push for September, we could see Woosha favour the older guard. No matter what Essendon’s best 22 looks like, one thing is for certain – Bomber fans are chomping at the bit to see their club take the field without the spectre of the supplements saga looming over their head. On that point alone, Essendon’s year will be a success, regardless of the win-loss column.