A FEW things hadn't changed. The crowd again lined the cycling track around the Wangaratta Showgrounds' oval sitting in deckchairs and on blankets. The game was a sell-out before a ball was bounced, with 11,000 or so packed in.
Locals made the most of the extra business behind the canteen. Brendon Goddard racked up a lot of the ball.
But this year was vastly different to last, when Essendon's chartered plane failed to land in the region due to torrential conditions and the club forfeited its NAB Cup clash with St Kilda, who went on to play an intra-club match to appease drenched fans.
This time, the sun was out, it was hot, and players applied zinc to their faces. Goddard was still getting a lot of the ball, but in a different coloured jumper.
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The Bombers, with an almost full-strength squad, played Richmond. But despite more senior experience and a more balanced side, the Tigers triumphed by eight points in an unlikely victory.
After a close first half, an even tighter second half ensued, with the final key moment belonging to Tiger Ricky Petterd.
The former Demon, who crossed to the club at the end of last year, gathered the ball outside the 50-metre arc and kicked a long supergoal to hand the Tigers a seven-point lead with moments remaining.
Petterd had been solid in his new defensive role, but relished his moment up forward when it came his way.
Dons disappointing: Hird
The Tigers kicked another point after Petterd's long bomb, their ninth of an inaccurate final term, to win 2.8.20 (86) to the Bombers' 1.10.9 (78).
It was a win which was unexpected given the strength of the two sides on the park.
Apart from David Zaharakis (quad) and Jason Winderlich (groin), this was close to Essendon's best side as it ramped up its preparation for a round one encounter with Adelaide on March 22.
Paddy Ryder, Michael Hurley and Stewart Crameri worked themselves into the game in attack.
In defence they were organised too, with Jake Carlisle convincingly winning his battle with Tiger spearhead Jack Riewoldt, who was Richmond captain for the night.
Essendon coach James Hird said Carlisle had been given the job to stop Riewoldt, and had taken on the responsibility.
"It's probably the first time we've played him on their best forward," Hird said.
"Normally we play him on their second stringer and we thought we would give him a go and I thought he was really good."
The Tigers were missing a host of key players, including captain Trent Cotchin, vice-captain Brett Deledio and ruckman Ivan Maric.
Steven Morris, Reece Conca and Chris Knights also didn't play.
Tigers stars set to return
Those who took their place clearly made an impact. David Astbury, who has had an injury ravaged two seasons was important early, youngster Nick Vlastuin continued his push for a full AFL debut, and Shane Edwards won a lot of the ball.
Luke McGuane showed he could play a part in Richmond's attack with two goals, and ruckman Orren Stephenson put his hand up for a spot on the Tigers' senior list with 14 disposals and 19 hit-outs.
What it means:
A great win for the Tigers considering the players they were missing, and a disappointing finish for the Bombers who never really owned the game as most expected. Richmond has found a player in Nick Vlastuin and he will likely line up in round one against Carlton while the Bombers have a little bit of work to do with their first game for premiership points less than three weeks away.
What they said:
"We're really pleased with what we got out of the game. We got some significant game time into players so overall it was a good result for us." – Richmond coach Damien Hardwick
"The game was pretty disappointing the way we played the majority of the day. I think we had our good patches but for the whole game it wasn't what we wanted, but it certainly gives us some things to work on over the next two weeks." – Essendon coach James Hird
Brent Stanton can be overlooked as an AFL Fantasy option at times, but there's no doubting his ability to amass points. Against the Tigers he led the game with 108 Dream Team points, which included 21 disposals, five marks, six tackles and two goals. Here's another thing Fantasy coaches should be aware of: Stanton has a knack of starting seasons in flying form, so he should be on your radar for round one.
Pick your NAB AFL Fantasy team now.
0.2.2 1.5.4 1.8.7 1.10.9 (78)
1.2.4 1.4.9 1.7.11 2.8.20 (86)
Ryder 3, Stanton, Hurley 2, Crameri, Kommer, Hille
McGuane, Tuck 2, White, Arnot, Nahas, Riewoldt
Carlisle, Goddard, Hibberd, Heppell, Crameri, Ryder, Hurley
Grigg, S.Edwards, Rance, Astbury, Vlastuin, McGuane
11,000 at Norm Minns Oval, Wangaratta Showgrounds