IN CONSECUTIVE matches, Essendon has sold out stadiums – in Perth and Tasmania – and if COVID-19 hadn't again recently locked down Victoria, there would have been another massive attendance next Saturday night.
Essendon's surge back to credibility, while in obvious infancy, is real, and is being embraced by people around the country, like the glorious old days. It also has a gritty edge – evidenced in Sunday's thrilling win against old-time rival Hawthorn in Launceston.
Given the 60,000 capacity Optus Stadium in WA was sold out in less than 24 hours for a round 12 match against Richmond, and access to Launceston's University of Tasmania Stadium for Sunday's game against Hawthorn also was shut after just two hours of sales, the mind wanders as to what number of fans would have been attached to round 15's game against ladder-leading Melbourne.
With the Bombers' rejuvenation coinciding with an even more pointy-ended resurrection by the Demons, it would have been a fair bet the MCC members' section would have been jammed in normal pre-COVID-19 circumstances. Instead, we all again await the latest set of rulings by the Victorian Government and its health authorities on what percentage of seats will be allowed to be sat in.
Against the Hawks, Jake Stringer was brilliant, his 29 disposals, four goals and seven tackles telling only part of his dominance. There is no statistical measure for the aura and authority with which he displayed in arguably his best match for the Bombers.
Harrison Jones' composure beyond his 20 years of age was again crucial for Essendon, as was Nick Hind's ability to defy fatigue. Hind's coolness and risk-taking with disposal has been a 2021 season highlight, and not merely for those with red and black in their veins.
Essendon was not able to sustain the required pressure against the mighty Richmond in round 12 in Perth. But it absorbed everything the Hawks could throw at it in round 14. And in between those matches, one of the biggest wins of the year was registered when, as the club rested with its bye, the signature of Zach Merrett appeared on a contract to keep him until the end of 2027.
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While a 2021 finals berth is still unlikely, a finals dream remains alive. It is unfortunate the game against Melbourne will be played in front of a Victorian Government-ordered very limited crowd.
Words have changed, Blues' results haven't
While Essendon's stocks improve by the day, Carlton's slump by the match.
In a damning outcome for everyone attached to the Blues' football department, Saturday night's loss to GWS proved why incoming president Luke Sayers was right to call for a full-blown review of football operations.
Surely the playing group realised that it, too, was a focus of the review, not merely the people around it. It was inconceivable that the Blues could play so lamentably in their first match since the screaming headlines attached to the review, and whatever comfort coach David Teague may have felt about the intended outcomes of the inquiry, he too now surely knows that his own role is as open to questions as any at the club.
Teague's post-match words after losses in 2021 had been ridiculously positive. There was a shift in demeanour on Saturday night, the false platitudes being replaced, rightly, by an acknowledgement of many deficiencies.
Nine matches remain in 2021 for Carlton. On paper, those nine games are far from the toughest set of assignments, but we have long learnt that no match in which Carlton plays could ever be considered a guaranteed win.
Next up is Adelaide, which lost its first 13 matches of last season. The Carlton review will take on even greater scope if another loss is registered.
Already, the club has announced, unusually, that three senior players – captain Patrick Cripps and defenders Jacob Weitering and Liam Jones – will front the media first thing Monday. While that is an attempt at fronting up to the problems, it is also a desperate initiative. And already for too long, there have only been words, and rarely, if ever, meaningful action, coming out of the Blues.
It's past time for Suns to get real
If Carlton is under full review, surely Gold Coast is, too.
Then again, this club has already had nearly half as many reviews as it has seasons of AFL life, so another one probably wouldn't improve fortunes anyway.
In their 11th year in the AFL, the Suns are again headed for a very low finish. That 50-point losses have become expected, as happened against Port Adelaide on Saturday, is damning, particularly when the 2021 season was touted by the club as the one that finally resulted in a meaningful surge up the ladder.
The club has never finished higher than 12th. Twice it has finished last, on three other occasions, second-last. After 13 matches of 2021, it is where it so often has been – third-last.
Two coaches have come and gone, as well as dozens of players since Gold Coast's first season in 2011. Stuart Dew is now in his fourth year as coach. He is a realist, his post-Port Adelaide match words reflecting the club's plight, where he admitted everyone was rightly under pressure.
The AFL bent, moulded, loosened – use whatever word you deem fit – its own rules at the end of 2019 when it allowed the Suns access to the first two selections in that year's NAB AFL Draft. It was meant to be a final allowance of special assistance to its second-newest club, and allowed the Suns to recruit the two best midfielders of that year's intake, childhood friends Matt Rowell and Noah Anderson.
Access to talent has never been an issue for Gold Coast. Retention and development has, though. So, too, relevance within the AFL system. And right now, 10 seasons and 13 matches after the club joined the national competition, there are nearly as many aspects of operations exposed to review as at any stage of its short life.
And yes, Tony Cochrane, I'm well aware participation and interest rates at junior and local levels are through the roof. But when it comes to the only facet that really matters in the AFL competition – the win and loss columns – the Suns are entrenched in mediocrity, with no obvious sign of improvement. Again.