ESSENDON's comeback got off to the perfect start, with the back-to-full-strength Bombers blitzing Hawthorn to record a stirring 25-point victory at the MCG on Saturday night to the delight of an almost deafening army of club faithful.
The Bombers welcomed back six of their 10 listed players that served WADA suspensions last season – Dyson Heppell, Jobe Watson, Michael Hurley, Cale Hooker, Travis Colyer and Brent Stanton – and played a fast-moving brand of football that suggests they will be a force to be reckoned with now they have finally shed the crippling burden of the four-season long supplements saga.
Powered by 37 possessions from Zach Merrett and an outstanding captaincy debut from Dyson Heppell, the Bombers overcame a mid-match lull to secure a convincing 17.14 (116) to 12.19 (91) victory.
The Dons burst from the gates on Saturday night with the game's opening three goals and led by 13 points at quarter-time.
But the Hawks hit back with a four-goal-to-one second term and led by 14 points when Isaac Smith kicked the opening goal of the second half.
Alastair Clarkson's men still held a 13-point lead at the 17-minute mark of the third term, but the Bombers then piled on five unanswered goals in 11 minutes – the first a brilliant left-foot snap by Orazio Fantasia, the last a clinical finish on the run from 50m by Shaun McKernan – to jump to a 16-point lead at the 30-minute mark of the third term.
Ben McEvoy ensured the Hawks went into three-quarter time with a sniff when he goaled just before the final break, but majors to Heppell and Hooker in the opening two and a half minutes of the final term effectively killed Hawthorn's hopes.
The Bombers finished the term with five majors to the Hawks' two, maintaining a comfortable lead that allowed their fans to savour every moment of the final 15 minutes.
After standing up for the Bombers in their hour of need last season, Merrett started 2017 in a way that suggests he could finish the year comfortably ensconced among the competition's elite midfielders.
The 21-year-old had racked up 26 possessions by half-time and his constant run in the second half helped the Bombers overhaul the Hawks and power away from them.
Jobe Watson belts out the song with gusto after the emotional victory. Picture: AFL Photos
Heppell (34 and three goals) showed no rust playing his first game for 566 days – as were Hooker, Hurley and Stanton; Watson was playing his first game in 629 days, Colyer his first in 651 days – underlining the fact the Dons have found the right man to led them into a new era.
Orazio Fantasia was lethal at ground level inside the Bombers' forward 50, kicking a game-high four goals, including a brilliant left-foot snap midway through the third term, while Hooker and Joe Daniher booted three each.
Essendon coach John Worsfold said the Bombers still had scope for improvement but praised their ability to withstand Hawthorn's mid-match surge.
"We're going to build on that. This group is going to build a lot more chemistry and understanding, which will mean they'll keep getting better if they're prepared to work hard," Worsfold said.
"After starting well, that middle 30 or 40-minute period was tough and Hawthorn got the ascendancy and worked up a 10-point lead but they never got too far from us, and they had to work really hard for their opportunities.
"Our boys just kept coming at them, which was great, and then to work back into the lead and run away with that was awesome."
Brendon Goddard, Darcy Parish and Watson were also influential ball-winners around the ground for the Dons.
The Hawks were also fielding a new-look team on Saturday night, playing for the first time since round 10, 2002, without at least one of Luke Hodge (suspended), Sam Mitchell (traded to West Coast) and Jordan Lewis (Melbourne).
Former Swan Tom Mitchell showed he will help cover the loss of Mitchell and Lewis, finishing with an equal game-high 37 possessions.
In his first game as skipper, Jarryd Roughead (two goals, six tackles and two contested marks) made an encouraging return from his successful battle with a recurrence of melanoma, while Will Langford (27 possessions and seven clearances) made a welcome return to form and Shaun Burgoyne (22 possessions) did his best to stem the irresistible Essendon tide.
Hawks coach Alastair Clarkson said Essendon's victory had been built on their ability to win uncontested possessions, with their 128-76 edge in uncontested marks a telling statistic.
"They controlled the ball. Particularly early in the season, the rule of thumb for me is if a team wins uncontested marks by that margin you're going to be in some trouble," Clarkson said.
"But having said that strangely enough we had our chances. We kicked 12.19 and some of those goals I'm thinking we usually nail.
"But that's poor football when you don't convert your chances."
Playing with freedom and speed – and spurred on by the vociferous support of their fans – Fantasia, Hooker and Daniher all goaled in the opening nine minutes to put the Dons 19 points up.
Hawthorn's opening goal did not come until the 12-minute mark, when Liam Shiels slotted a clever goal on the run. Less than three minutes later, Cyril Rioli roved cleverly to add another major for the Hawks, who got back to within five points when Rioli and Roughead then added consecutive behinds.
The dangerous Fantasia hit back for the Bombers with a late goal that sent them into quarter-time with a 13-point lead.
Hawthorn was able to slow the pace of the game in the second term and, in doing so, got the match back on its terms.
The Hawks kicked four goals to Essendon's one for the quarter to go into the main break eight points up. Their lead would have been greater but for an inaccurate 4.7 return for the term.
Essendon: Last year's No.1 draft pick Andrew McGrath (22 possessions) made a composed debut, looking at home in the furnace of AFL football, while former Brisbane Lion Josh Green (two goal assists) was lively in attack.
Hawthorn: Mitchell made a strong start to his career in brown and gold, but former Sun Jaeger O'Meara had a quiet start to the game and did not have a huge impact despite finishing with 23 possessions and eight clearances. Maligned former Tigers tall Ty Vickery was well held by Michael Hartley for most of the match and missed two set shots in the third quarter when the game was still in the balance. Former Crow Ricky Henderson (21 possessions) made a promising start, showing he can add to the Hawks' midfield depth this year.
Essendon: Mark Baguley went off to have his ankle assessed in the last quarter but the Bombers were confident after the game it was nothing to be concerned about.
Hawthorn: Rioli appeared to suffer a corked thigh in the first quarter but played out the game and was as dangerous as usual in attack. Alastair Clarkson said post-match Rioli had been restricted by the injury during the game but expected him to be fit for round two. Key defender James Frawley was taken to the rooms for assessment after copping a head knock in the second term, but returned soon after.
The Bombers travel to the Gabba next Saturday night to face the Brisbane Lions, having defeated the Lions on their home ground in their past two encounters. The Hawks host the Crows at the MCG next Saturday and have won their past seven games against the Crows.
ESSENDON 4.4 5.8 12.12 17.14 (116)
HAWTHORN 2.3 6.10 10.14 12.19 (91)
Essendon: Fantasia 4, Daniher 3, Hooker 3, Heppell 3, Stanton 2, Zaharakis, McKernan
Hawthorn: Roughead 2, Puopolo 2, McEvoy 2, Rioli, Bruest, Schoenmakers, Shiels, Hartung, Smith
Essendon: Merrett, Heppell, Goddard, Watson, Daniher, Parish
Hawthorn: Mitchell, Langford, O'Meara, Burgoyne, Birchall
Hawthorn: Rioli (thigh)
Umpires: Foot, Findlay, McInerney
Official crowd: 78,294 at the MCG