MAKE no mistake, Essendon is some time away from challenging for a premiership.
Its four wins this season – against North Melbourne, Fremantle, Collingwood and St Kilda – have come against sides bottom-eight sides and it has been off the pace against flag contenders. They head into the midway point of the season a win outside the top-eight.
But for the first time in some years, the Bombers look to be on the right track after a snap rebuild that happened by necessity at the end of last year following the exodus of several stars.
Here are seven reasons why the wheel has started to turn for the Bombers.
1. Faith in youngsters
Nik Cox has played every game and already has clubs searching to find the next version of the player who can do it all: play in nearly every position, kick on both feet and run all day. Harry Jones has kicked 13.1 since missing his first four shots at goal in his round one debut. Archie Perkins has shown his exciting moments and confidence since stepping into the side in round three and Zach Reid was handed a debut and has many at Essendon thinking he could be as talented as any of them. The kids at Essendon have become some of the first picked rather than the first out.
2. 'Truck' in the driver seat
At the end of last season, as Essendon reviewed what went wrong in 2020, a theme out of the club's internal report suggested that mixed messaging in the Bombers' coaching handover had led to some confusion. But with Ben Rutten now fully at the helm, there is no doubt at Tullamarine who is in charge, with Heppell also recently saying the group was as connected as it has been for many years. The building of strong standards and accountability has seen a buy-in from the list.
3. No longer a reliance on the senior players
Not so long ago the Bombers being without Michael Hurley for more than half a season would have spelled real trouble for their defence. But they have found ways and got by without the much-loved key defender as he slowly returns from his nasty hip infection. David Zaharakis has played the past two weeks in the starting 22 but had previously been used as a medical substitute, while the decision to move Heppell out of the centre square and onto a half-back flank has afforded opportunities to a young and building midfield.
4. Playing Darcy Parish in the midfield
It shouldn't have taken long-term injuries to Jye Caldwell and Dylan Shiel for Parish to become a full-time midfielder, but it did. Parish has done the rest, pushing himself into All Australian contention with a brilliant block of football that has seen him average 33 disposals and eight clearances from round three onwards. Included in that was four games where he might have claimed three votes as best on ground: St Kilda, Collingwood, Fremantle and North Melbourne. Parish is playing the type of football he would have been playing two years ago had he not been shuffled onto a forward flank so consistently, and sits ninth in the AFL for disposals, third for clearances and second for centre clearances.
5. Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti hitting career-best form
Is the Essendon cult hero headed for his first All Australian jumper? After 10 games he has kicked 25 goals, making him the only small forward in the top-10 on the Coleman Medal leaderboard. After struggling in patches last season, the 28-year-old is playing the best football of his career and remains one of the AFL's best finishers around goal. He's fit and ferocious and is the club's most durable player.
6. Tweaking the game plan
The Bombers wanted to be more blue collar this season, a more trustworthy outfit than previous years. They've been blown away twice while on the road – by premiership contenders Port Adelaide and Brisbane – but their other four defeats have come at an average of five points. The pre-season concern on Essendon was how they were going to kick their goals having lost Joe Daniher and Orazio Fantasia, but they sit second to the top-of-the-ladder Western Bulldogs for points scored so far after ranking 14th in the AFL last year in the statistic. It is a simple measure of how the Bombers have added some meat to their style without losing their firebrand streak.
7. Experimentation with positions
Two years at Essendon before taking on the senior mantle gave Rutten a grounding in what had worked at the club and what was worth a try. The decision at the end of last year to switch Jayden Laverde to the backline has been a revelation, with the former No.20 draft pick producing easily his best run of form as a marking, shutdown defender who can play on a number of forwards. Making Cale Hooker play forward has worked as well, with the All Australian defender second in the club's goalkicking with 24 majors, and deploying James Stewart as a tall defender has given the Bombers some options down back.