The Lions and Bombers posted stirring upset victories in Round One which has added more intrigue to their matchup in Round 2. Will Chris Fagan inspire Brisbane to another surprise victory, or will Essendon march to a perfect 2-0 start?
The Bombers were superb last week, running the Hawks off their feet through quick, precise ball movement. When they moved the ball inside 50, they were surprisingly potent, with Fantasia, Daniher, Hooker and Heppell all bagging three or more majors. They'll be looking to pick up where they left off and run the Lions ragged.
Recorded what normally would be the upset of the week last week, were it not for the myriad of other wacky results that Round One tossed up. In a scintillating first half, the Lions made mincemeat of Gold Coast as they marched to a 44 point halftime lead. They almost let the game slip away but righted the ship in the dying minutes of the game to record a team-lifting 2 point win. The Lions will look to replicate their first half heroics and try and catch the Bombers on the hop.
Essendon Forward/Brisbane Defence
The Lions and Dons were brutally efficient up forward last week, scoring from 57% and 56% of their forward entries respectively. Essendon's new-found potency up forward was largely due to their intense defensive pressure applied from their small forwards and scintillating delivery into forward 50. Incredibly, 15 of Essendon's 17 goals came from either a long kick to the square or a pass directly in front of goal. The goals to come from other avenues were the two roosts from outside 50 by Heppell and McKernan. That's the kind of delivery forwards dream about and it directly led to Essendon kicking their highest score since Round 8, 2015.
Essendon's small forwards also played a big role in the win against Hawthorn. Fantasia, Green and Tipungwuti harrassed Hawthorn's defenders all game, not allowing them the time and space to set up attacks from half-back. Green pinged a hammy and will miss this week, with Ben Howlett coming in for his first game since 2015. The Bombers will need him to apply the same pressure that Green did last week if they are going to get the same production from their small forwards.
I'm interested to see who Harris Andrews ends up taking - with his height and long reach he may try to counter Daniher's leap and mark overhead. If so, expect to see Daniher lead up the ground as much as possible in an attempt to isolate Gardiner and Hooker deep in the forward line. Jack Frost comes into the side for his first game in Brisbane's colours - he'll need to be aggressive and proactive in coming off his man to help defend the long balls to Daniher and Hooker. Last week, Essendon did an excellent job of isolating Josh Gibson, preventing him from playing the third man up role he is suited to. If Brisbane can get help over the top from their defenders, they should be able to limit the number of marks inside 50. That will go a long way to preventing the Dons from kicking a winning score.
This is where the game will be won and lost. The Bombers moved the ball with clinical precision last week, routinely switching the ball into the corridor and exploiting the slow Hawthorn midfield. As mentioned above, this led to high-quality forward entries and a big score. The Bombers will look to switch into the corridor at every opportunity - Brisbane's midfielders and half-backs will need to zone off space inside the centre square if they want to curtail Essendon's forward entries. Denying the corridor will force the Bombers to go out wide, with long kicks along the boundary. That is Brisbane's best way of winning the midfield battle - force stoppages at every opportunity and bank on Rockliff, Beams, Zorko and Robinson to win the battle in the trenches. The conditions could help them out here - Brisbane has been drenched by Cyclone Debbie which could make the conditions more suited for a contested slog, rather than the end-to-end football that the Bombers played in perfect conditions against the Hawks last week.
Brisbane have to do a better job of defending the middle of the ground - if they allow 74 inside 50's again, the Bombers will cut them to shreds. Repeat entries will bring out the best in Tipungwuti and Fantasia, who are excellent at finding space inside 50 and exploiting the defence. A lot is riding on their midfielders to zone off and not allow Essendon to switch play into open territory.
Brisbane Forward/Essendon Defence
If Brisbane can play the game on their own terms and turn it into a contested battle, their next point of emphasis will be their key forwards. In the absence of Josh Schache, Eric Hipwood and Michael Close will have to present up the ground at every opportunity to give their midfielders a target to kick to. That could leave them looking a little thin up forward, so they are going to have to find goals from players like Taylor, McStay and Bastinac, who kicked three last week. Ironically, they could really use a player like Josh Green to create some forward pressure and try to lock the ball inside their 50.
Essendon's key defenders will like their chances this week. They blanketed the Hawthorn forwards last week, keeping Roughead, Vickery and Gunston to 2.3 between them. Hartley is the rock in defence, usually staying home and repelling long forward entries. He is fast becoming one of the best spoilers in the league - so Brisbane may look to drag him up the ground where he cannot influence contests inside their forward 50. Hurley and Ambrose will play on Brisbane's more mobile defenders - they are quite comfortable playing up the ground if necessary. The Lions will need to keep them honest if they have a chance to win - this means constant tackling and pressure from their small forwards. Mitch Robinson can play that role very effectively, so look for him to line up as a defensive forward and use his tackling skills to keep the ball inside Brisbane's forward half.
A lot is going to depend on what condition the ground is in. If the Gabba drains well and becomes a dry track, it's going to be hard for the Lions to keep Essendon's ball movement under control. But if they play on a wet track, that will be a huge advantage to the Lions. This kind of game is usually a trap game for Essendon, but I can't see Coach Worsfold letting the players get ahead of themselves. Brisbane have shown they are not the basket case they once were and they need to be shown respect. That said, I think the Bombers have too many weapons on each line and will get the job done. If given as many scoring opportunities as the Lions allowed last week, they won't let them off the hook like the Suns did. Essendon by 30 points.