It only took two hours on a Saturday night for the emotional turmoil Essendon fans have gone through over the last 4 years to be lifted. Once Essendon jumped out of the blocks and established that they wouldn’t be easily rolled, the 78 000-strong crowd settled in and did what they couldn’t do since 2012 – enjoy watching the Bombers play footy.
There was no denying the emotion in the stands. Jobe Watson got a standing ovation whenever he was in the same postcode as the ball. Each of the returning players received huge cheers when they had their first touch. Each goal, each handball, each centring kick washed away four years of pain, anger, frustration and misery that Essendon fans endured week-in, week-out.
There was another equally emotional, but much more significant comeback story for Hawthorn. Seeing Jarryd Roughead do what he does best – clunk contested grabs, inject himself into the midfield, deliver beautifully executed precision passes and kick critical goals – was an absolute pleasure to witness. Roughy transcends footy colours, and every possession he had was met with raucous cheering from all sections of the crowd. Cancer really sucks, and to see one of the AFL’s favourite sons come back from it was nothing short of moving.
In between all this outpouring of emotion, there was a game of footy played. A game that happened to be one of the most entertaining of the round. Possibly the biggest question mark on the Bombers coming into 2017 was how well the returning players will become reaccustomed to the pace of the game – coming off a year out of the system, would they struggle to find their touch early in the season? The Hawks, without their trio of premiership heroes in Hodge, Mitchell and Lewis, were embarking on a brave new world, one championed by young guns Tom Mitchell and Jaeger O’Meara. How would the new troops acquit themselves in Clarkson’s system? How well could they cope with the absence of their three generals? In the end, it was probably the absence of at times-unheralded outside runner Bradley Hill which hurt the Hawks the most.
It was a game of momentum shifts early on – Essendon burst out of the gates with three quick goals before Hawthorn slowly worked their way into the game. With 11 minutes left in the third quarter, Luke Bruest snapped a goal front and square to put the Hawks 12 points clear and it looked like the Hawks would run away with it. But the Bombers answered back with 10 of the last 12 goals to close out the match 25 point winners.
Let’s look at how Essendon won the match.
Hawthorn has won multiple premierships on the back of controlled ball use, maintaining possession and precision disposal. Their modus operandi is to cut through opposition defences with short accurate passes and dynamic outside run, culminating in surgical-like accurate delivery to their potent forward line. To beat the Hawks, Essendon's number one goal was to deny them the ball. They did that with ease on Saturday night – the Bombers smashed the Hawks in uncontested marks, uncontested possessions and disposals. The Hawks couldn't get their hands on the ball. When they did, they wasted crucial chances in front of goal – Mitchell, Langford, O’Meara and Vickery combined for 0.9, while Roughead and Rioli missed two easy set shots in the first half that would have extended Hawthorn’s early lead. After some early yips in front of goal, the Bombers were deadly accurate, posting 11.4 after starting the match 6.10. The Bombers had more of the ball, were cleaner with their disposals and made the most of the chances in front of goal.
Running the Hawks off their feet
The Hawks were never a ‘fast’ team, relying on a few players to generate line breaking run on the outside. The loss of Bradley Hill to Fremantle seemed to hurt them more than expected against Essendon, with Isaac Smith and Billy Hartung the only two midfielders looking capable of getting off the leash and running with the ball effectively. Essendon, however, had an army of pacy players who could exploit the slow Hawthorn midfield. Gleeson, Colyer, Zaharakis and the Mosquito Fleet up forward of McDonald-Tipungwuti and Josh Green were all able to use their speed to hurt the Hawks with and without the ball.
The Mosquito Fleet is back at Windy Hill
If Josh Green plays the way he did on Saturday, he will be Essendon’s best recruit since Brendon Goddard. Playing Green alongside Tipungwuti and Fantasia instantly transformed Essendon’s forward line – from a one-trick pony that needed Daniher firing to function properly to a multi-pronged attack that had Hawthorn constantly sweating.
They had Hawthorn sweating because the Hawthorn defence couldn’t possess the ball for more than 5 seconds without one of the Mosquito Fleet tackling them or affecting their disposal. The defensive pressure Essendon’s small forwards applied against the Hawks was the most intense I have seen from the red and black – having three small forwards who are equally capable of being a scoring option and can effectively lock the ball inside the forward half through defensive efforts has revolutionised Essendon’s forward line.
One of Tipungwuti’s skills that I feel has flown massively under the radar is his uncanny knack to find space inside the forward 50. Have a look at this passage of play – notice the number of players inside forward 50 and the amount of space Tipungwuti finds. Note the unselfish play too – for the second time of the night, he correctly dishes a handball off to Stanton, who drills it from outside 50:
Good forwards take up space inside 50 at the correct time, and that’s what Tipungwuti does. He was unselfish tonight, dishing off two to Stanton from set shots, but with the effort and intensity he brought to the game expect him to show up in the goals column more often than not.
Daniher is more than his goal tally
So much of the analysis dedicated towards Joe Daniher throughout his career has been centred around his goal kicking. It’s certainly not unwarranted – that’s what he’s paid to do and it’s an area that he has struggled in. But Daniher is worth so much more to the Bombers than what he adds to the scoreboard, and there were a couple of passages of play on Saturday night that highlighted just how damaging of a player he is around the ground.
Late in the third quarter, as Essendon began to take control of the match, Daniher found himself on the receiving end of a Tipungwuti handball as the Bombers streamed towards goal. That itself is an indicator of how good a player Daniher is around the ground – normally when a team is on a fast break, they tend to avoid handballing to a stationery two-metre-tall centre half forward. But Daniher isn’t like most key forwards, and he showed just why the decision from Tipungwuti to handball to him was the correct one:
That’s about as perfect a delivery to a player inside 50 as you could hope for. If you listen closely, you could hear Richo in the commentary box practically salivating over it. To have the footy IQ to diagnose the situation and make the correct decision to kick it long to the square, then have the ability to put the ball right in Heppell’s pocket where no Hawthorn defender can affect it – while Heppell is running at full speed, mind you – is proof that big Joe is the most dangerous key forward around the ground.
Here’s another one of his efforts late in the match, as Hawthorn attempted to mount one final comeback:
That’s a 2 metre forward chasing and affecting the kick of one of the quickest players in the brown and gold, forcing Hartung to turn the ball over. Those of you who went to the game on Saturday night would remember how humid it was – players were dropping with cramp everywhere by this stage. To put in this kind of effort this late in the game in conditions that would have made Queenslanders uncomfortable is a great sign that Daniher can run out games in any conditions.
Make no mistake – this was a game run on pure emotion for Essendon. They were able to run out the game well this time, but that sheer emotion won't be present for the rest of the season. The onus is on the players to replicate that effort, no matter who their opponent is. In that regard, they have the perfect test next week. They travel to Brisbane to face the Lions, a team similarly rejuvenated, this time from their new coach Chris Fagan. But one thing is clear – this Essendon team are finals contenders this season. Their disposal was exceptional, they took risks at opportune times, they used the corridor effectively and most importantly, they now have the weapons in attack to give them a winning score. This was a monumental win for the Bombers, but it was only 1 of 22. In the words of the immortal Bill Belichick, we're on to Brisbane.