AT HALF-TIME the chatter was around Hawthorn being in the frame for the wooden spoon. An hour later, at the end of a remarkable see-sawing contest against Essendon, the Hawks had completed an incredible comeback to claim a stirring one-point win.
It was a result that nobody could have seen coming.
BOMBERS v HAWKS Full match coverage and stats
The Hawks trailed Essendon by 39 points after the Bombers had banged in eight goals to one for the second term to take the lead into half-time. But after completing their own eight-goal-to-one third term, and again falling behind in the final two minutes, it was the Hawks who left Marvel Stadium victorious, 14.8 (92) to 13.13 (91).
Devon Smith looked to have won the game for the Bombers with a classy goal with two minutes remaining to put his side five points ahead but the Hawks immediately struck back, with Tim O'Brien's mark and snap the deciding moment.
It was a staggering result given the Bombers' dominance in the first half and was weirdly similar to Essendon's comeback victory over Hawthorn last year, when it overturned a 36-point half-time deficit.
Ben Rutten looked set to notch his first win as Essendon's senior coach after the Bombers' brigade stormed through Hawthorn to set up the strong lead, which was built on the backs of emerging youngsters Andrew McGrath, Sam Draper, Jye Caldwell, Jordan Ridley and Nick Hind showing great progress.
But the Hawks had other intentions, with Brownlow medallist Tom Mitchell shaking off an injury-hit pre-season to make a stunning return with 39 disposals. His third quarter lit the fuse for the Hawks, with the ball-getter collecting 17 disposals and kickstarting his side's comeback.
'WE WANT TO WIN' Alastair Clarkson and Ben Rutten react to the thrilling result
He had plenty of mates who rose to the occasion, with Jaeger O'Meara (30 disposals) and Tom Phillips (21 disposals, one goal) excellent, and young pair Will Day (28) and Changkuoth Jiath (22) also important contributors.
It was the fastest of starts for the Hawks, who goaled through Jon Ceglar from the opening bounce. Hawthorn's height in attack troubled the Bombers at times as they took a three-point advantage into the first break.
The Bombers had their chances, with a series of straightforward shots at goals missing, with Zach Merrett and McGrath dominant through the midfield.
They made the most of that strength in the second term, as they motored past the stagnant Hawks. McGrath's crafty snap kicked off the run for the Bombers, who cut open the Hawks from half-back and were unstoppable out of the centre.
Then it was the Hawks' turn. Hawthorn came out of half-time a different side, booting five straight goals in the opening 14 minutes of the third quarter to get back to within one point of the Bombers.
All of Essendon's control was completely flipped, with a fleet of small forwards – Tyler Brockman, Dylan Moore and Harry Morrison – chipping in and bobbing up for goals as Hawthorn took a hold of the game.
Moore kicked three for the quarter as the Hawks turned the tables on the Bombers by kicking eight goals to one for the term in an exhilarating showing that was powered by Mitchell.
Fatigue set in for both sides in the frantic final term before the Hawks broke ahead with a Ben McEvoy goal. His ruck counterpart Sam Draper struck back but the sides traded majors to the end, with O'Brien the hero in a memorable night for Hawthorn.
Young Hawk impresses on debut
Tyler Brockman's first game will be fondly remembered by Hawks fans for some time. The West Australian, who was drafted by the Hawks with pick No.46 last year, pushed himself into the round one line-up after a strong pre-season. He marked strongly and booted his first goal in the opening term but he bettered that effort in the third quarter with a brilliantly crafty checkside kick from the boundary line that curled through to help get the Hawks back into the game.
Half-back Heppell a hit
One of Rutten's major moves over the off-season was shifting skipper Dyson Heppell to half-back, a role he played when he burst onto the scene in his brilliant debut season. Since then Heppell has been a midfield mainstay, but the 28-year-old proved to be an instant hit. The Bombers captain picked up 10 disposals in the first term and was excellent by offering a calm and composed presence out of defence. Heppell finished with 25 disposals.
Midfielders hit the scoreboard
Last year, McGrath, Shiel and Merrett kicked a total of six goals from a combined 45 games. Together, the important Essendon midfield trio slotted four majors on Saturday night alone, which has to be a feature of the Bombers' play this year to help assist their new-look forward line. Rutten went into the season confident his side will be able to compete in attack with a range of goalkicking options despite the departures of Joe Daniher and Orazio Fantasia, and the midfielders doing their bit is a big part.
ESSENDON 2.4 10.6 11.10 13.13 (91)
HAWTHORN 3.1 4.3 12.3 14.8 (92)
Essendon: McDonald-Tipungwuti 2, Shiel 2, Smith 2, Draper, Hooker, McGrath, Merrett, Parish, Snelling, Wright
Hawthorn: Moore 3, Brockman 2, Morrison 2, O'Brien 2, Breust, Ceglar, Hanrahan, McEvoy, Phillips
Essendon: McGrath, Merrett, Heppell, Caldwell, Hind
Hawthorn: Mitchell, Day, O'Meara, Jiath, Moore, Phillips
Essendon: Cutler (unused)
Hawthorn: Downie (unused)