BRISBANE LIONS 3.2 5.6 11.9 12.12 (84) def. ESSENDON 4.2 10.5 12.8 17.9 (111)
Not many people would pencil this contest as a must-watch for the year but for both clubs, this was a game to make a statement early in the season. Were the Lions going to prove that their performance against the Suns was more than a lucky win? Was the Bombers' emotional win against the Hawks more than heart and passion?
Essendon flew up to Brisbane to face the Lions at the Gabba, a venue under scrutiny in the last fortnight for its surface conditioning and its ability to prepare after horrible Queensland weather. The GABBA still lived up to its greasy and sandy surface, but overall looked good and didn't cause any players harm (phew!).
It was a big game for the Dons as they had not won a game interstate for the last two seasons and a win on the road would grant a huge confidence boost for the rest of Essendon's 2017 future travels. Only one change was forced upon the Bombers this week, with Josh Green, unfortunately, minorly injuring a hamstring during the Hawks game and unable to play his old team (we play them again this year Josh, you'll have another chance to show off your better colours). This change brought Ben Howlett (Bobcat) into the team for his first game in over a year. It was also Brent Stanton's 250th game, a well-respected player and leader amongst the club adding more motivation for a Bomber win from his teammates.
The Midfield Battle
The class of Brisbane's midfield was always going to test the Bombers strength. Lining up for the Lions centre was Beams, Rockcliff and Zorko: a very handy trio who have all in the past been high accumulators of the ball and game changers. New coach Chris Fagan knows these three leaders are the guys to give Brisbane premiership points in 2017. Fagan uses them similarly to Hawthorn's old midfield structure of Hodge, Lewis and Mitchell. A rarely beaten trio! Essendon's Heppell, Merrett and Watson had to limit the Lions midfield ensemble to ensure their song was played at games end.
Zach Merrett's overall game was exceptional and is catching the eyes of many in the competition. Led the team like a true Vice-Captain by threading his kicks and nailing his tackles. Merrett gave the Bombers a singular goal lead at the quarter time break by bringing down his opponent (zackle) in the 50 and capitalising his opportunity with a goal; leadership at its best! He finished with a team-high of 24 kicks and five tackles even with the attention from Brisbane tagger Mitch Robinson.
Jobe Watson had an interesting game, probably frustrated a few fans by coughing up the ball half a dozen times by halftime, but he was certainly the match winner in my eyes. Jobe fed the ball out beautifully to his leading runners in Colyer and Merrett, a combination many Bomber fans are loving right now. Jobe brought the team back to life by topping the score involvement and clearances chart for the Bombers in the second half after resisting a dominant Lions third quarter.
Shaun McKernan would be given a lot of praise from the coaches and his teammates after his performance. A lot of fans would argue this, purely because Stefan Martin from the Lions was the most influential player for the Lions and that's a fair call. This is a guy that is less than two metres tall and is competing against giants; he is not expected to be a tap ruckmen. McKernan played to his strengths and managed to out jump and tap away from the Lions big men at times, but this was enough for Essendon's Heppell and Watson to claim first touch and dish out quickly to teammates. This was expressed in the second quarter when the Dons' midfield dominated the clearances and impacted the scoreboard heavily, restricting any active ball movement from the Lions. McKernan stamped his input in the game by claiming 22 hit outs and five clearances (2nd team-high) due to his follow-up efforts and high work rate.
Third Quarter Response
The Bombers got smashed in all aspects of the game in the third quarter, mainly through contested possessions, tackles and clearances. It all started with Stefan Martin in the middle cleanly palming it to Rockcliff and Zorko who pumped the Sherrin deep inside 50 for the Lions multiple times, suffocating the Bombers ball movement and leaving them on the back foot the majority of the quarter. The midfielders defensively let the team down by allowing Brisbane first use of the corridor, and with the GABBA being a smaller ground, this made the back six defenders be under severe pressure with entries coming in the Lions forward half too quickly. This pressure was the test of the game for the Bombers with an excited fan base against them and the young Lions surging.
John Worsfold and Guy McKenna sent a strong but simple message to their midfielders to match the Brisbane centre outfit as this was the point of difference in the third quarter and was heading that way for the rest of the game. Worsfold mentioned in his post-game conference that he decided not to send extra players to the contest to sabotage the Lions attack on the ball, but rather wanted a rise in leadership. The Dons responded aggressively "getting in their face" (as described by Zaharakis post-game) by evening the contested ball and physical side of the game. This allowed the backline players Ambrose and McGrath to enter the game and provide another avenue of attack. McDonald-Tipungwuti excelled the coach's requests at the break by demolishing any time the Lions had on their back half to move the ball efficiently, giving the Bombers space and time to capitalise on the scoreboard, helping the team post the last five goals of the game.
Who does not love this exciting forward line? It's been a long time since there have been scores of 100 plus in consecutive weeks. This trend is a fresh set up, and it's proving to be very dangerous despite the forward line only spending two games together. The major improvement fans are seeing thus far this season is the efficiency. 53% of the forward entries against Brisbane were turning into shots on goal, a statistic that Essendon has been on the bottom end of for multiple years.
Daniher and Fantasia opened their scoring accounts early in the game giving them a much-needed confidence boost, and it paid off with both players kicking 100% towards goal for the night, Daniher kicking three goals and Fantasia finishing with 5. Cale Hooker's marks in the last quarter evidently convinced fans that he is required forward. This was quite apparent when opponent, Harris Andrews blanketed Daniher for the majority of the second half and Hooker was the man to stand up and show leadership (hence his Vice-Captain appointment). There is no-one else fit for this position other than Hooker. That is what Daniher and the team need; leadership and another strong target when moving forward. Hooker also impacted the scoreboard kicking two goals himself, adding another string to Essendon's bow. McDonald-Tipungwuti (Walla) brought a high-intensity game to Brisbane, causing turnovers and creating scoring opportunities all over the ground. He is turning into a serious weapon, and his performances so far are indicating this will be a par game for ‘Walla'. The showcase for Saturday night was Fantasia (Razzle Dazzle), he outclassed all of his opponents for the night with speed and skill while offering the best leads and options for his midfielders. Proving himself as a top quality forward and deservingly sitting 3rd in the Coleman tally after this round. If the Bombers are to kick 17.9 every week, the Essendon forward line will be the most improved and one of the most dangerous in the competition. Keep pushing Dons!
Essendon faces the Blues at the MCG on Sunday, with selection headaches being on the coaches' agenda this upcoming week (good ones). The return of Matthew Leuenberger will structurally change the Bombers line up and how John Worsfold will form the pieces will keep fans and opposition intrigued.