MICK Malthouse says Essendon would "hijack" the NAB Challenge if it refuses to field a team, with the Carlton coach calling on the AFL to step in to ensure the Bombers play.
And he's found an ally in Collingwood coach Nathan Buckley, who says the competition should expect "strong leadership" from headquarters in making the Bombers take part.
Essendon's participation in the NAB Challenge has been clouded for weeks with 17 or 18 current Bombers among the 34 players facing charges at the AFL Anti-Doping Tribunal.
All of those players have been provisionally suspended since they received infraction notices late last year.
Essendon confirmed on Wednesday that those players facing ASADA charges would not play in the NAB Challenge, the announcement coming after ASADA confirmed that any who played during their provisional suspensions wouldn't be able to have those suspensions backdated if they were found guilty by the Anti-Doping Tribunal.
It remains unclear what this means for the club’s participation in the pre-season tournament.
The club has been meeting with the AFL this week in an attempt to thrash out a solution but Malthouse told reporters on Thursday that allowing Essendon to withdraw from this year's pre-season was not an option the AFL should consider.
"This is a national competition, it can't be hijacked by one football club," Malthouse said.
"This is a great test for the AFL and its administrators to be very firm and strong – and I know it's a loose term and it's been used a lot – but the tail cannot wag the dog.
"I don't think under the circumstances of what's happened over the last two years that people can start dictating whether they're going to play or whether they're not going to play.
"The rules are in place that there's a competition at stake and I would personally expect that there will be nine games in the first round contested by 18 teams."
Essendon is scheduled to open its NAB Challenge campaign against St Kilda at Morwell on March 7, and is then set to play Greater Western Sydney at Spotless Stadium on March 13 and Melbourne at Etihad Stadium on March 20.
Buckley agreed the AFL should step in and ensure the Bombers lined up in the scheduled matches.
He added the club should be granted permission to use players from outside the club if they struggled to bring together a team.
"There's got to be a capacity [that] if you need to find players from outside, then allow it, it's an exceptional circumstance," Buckley said.
"I agree with [Malthouse] in that regard - it's an 18 team competition and the AFL need to be strong in the way that they enforce their regulations and their expectations on each and every one of the clubs.
"It just so happens that it's Essendon on this occasion and you'd expect strong leadership from the top."
As the saga drags into its third year, Buckley believes a resolution simply needs to be found.
"I think the feeling is it would be better put behind us and the quicker we can do that, the better," he said.
"The AFL aren't entirely in control of it, ASADA have clearly got the reins at the moment and the sooner those findings come back down the better, and everyone can get on with business."