Archie Perkins, Jye Caldwell and Xavier Duursma during the round one match between Essendon and Hawthorn at the MCH, March 16, 2024. Picture: Getty Images

THE TIGHTNESS of Saturday's round one clash between Essendon and Hawthorn was reflected in both teams' demographics. The Bombers squad had an average age of 25.7 years to Hawthorn's 25.1, while Essendon's average games played across its line-up was 102.3 games to the Hawks' 88.9.

The numbers are even closer if veteran recruit Todd Goldstein was swapped out for the Bombers' preferred ruckman, Sam Draper, who played in the VFL on Saturday as he returns from his groin injury. In that case, the numbers are about equal, bringing Essendon's average back to 25.2 years and 90.1 games.

Data can be spun to tell any story, but the numbers cut through the pre-season haze on Essendon's capability, expectations and ambitions and what public messaging actually means. It also shines a light on two developing teams with similarities in their build but differences in external benchmarks, with reality at times clouded by history.

Bombers coach Brad Scott has been consistent since arriving at Essendon at the end of 2022 that restoring the club to glory would not be rushed. Last week, ahead of the Hawks' game, he spoke about the end of short-term "sugar hits" and the focus on building a sustainable, reliable, consistent style of play and performance.

Brad Scott during the Essendon Team Photo Day at the Hanger, February 13, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

Internally, the Bombers are aspirational, with players setting themselves and believing in the plan. High-profile recruit Ben McKay last week told that he saw potential success as a big factor in choosing Essendon over other suitors, with Hawthorn second in the race for the free agent. Essendon is chasing its edge but is doing it without the big talk that has often mixed up its ambition with its ability.

In trying to push Essendon to a more rounded game style, in growing a development program that is better resourced, in finding extra avenues to improve his players, Scott is also hoping to up-end two decades of mediocrity. But the Bombers' 20-year drought without a finals win is an inherited problem for the current regime rather than one of their own making.

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Adding to the external impatience on Essendon is the flipping of strategies across the past 10 years; of having three top-six picks from 2015-16 then trading out three successive first-round picks from 2017-19 to then returning to the draft in 2020 with three top-10 picks. It has been hard to track exactly where Essendon thinks it has been in the past – the answer to that question is far clearer under Scott and chief executive Craig Vozzo, who on Saturday also outlined the Bombers' hunger for success as soon as possible.

Zach Reid, Archie Perkins and Nik Cox, at the NAB AFL Draft media opportunity at Marvel Stadium, December 10, 2020. Picture: AFL Photos

The Bombers' list makeover has been done with a less blunt force than Hawthorn, who scaled back and aggressively shed experience in the post-Alastair Clarkson era, which landed premierships between 2013-15 and saw the Hawks chase further silverware for several more years before turning to the draft.  

But the numbers pit both clubs as similarly placed. Since 2019, the Hawks have had seven first-round draft picks. Essendon has had six in the same period. Both clubs have ample cap space to again hit the market after each bringing in four players from rival clubs last season. Both have had a turnover of 21 players in the past two off-seasons.  

Essendon was the equal seventh-youngest team across round one and Hawthorn was the equal third-youngest. Across their respective 2024 squads, Essendon is the seventh-youngest side and Hawthorn is third-youngest (24.4 years to 23.6 years).

Hawthorn underwent upheaval in the years following Clarkson’s exit as did Essendon from the end of 2022 onwards, with the Bombers replacing their coach, chief executive (twice), president, board members, football boss and captain over a matter of months.


Hawthorn coach Sam Mitchell spoke to on the eve of this campaign, his third in charge of the club, about his first two seasons being "about building a foundation that we can rely on and that will be strong and stand the test of time".

"The foundation is there but how quickly can we build upon that foundation to take the next step in our journey?" Mitchell said.

The same question can apply to Scott's Bombers, who remain a work in progress and whose younger players, in the Archie Perkins, Sam Durham, Jye Caldwell and Nik Cox bracket, will largely determine their trajectory this season as they did in Saturday's win over the Hawks.