THE WESTERN Bulldogs' ability to play the conditions better and put themselves in positions to win crucial free kicks in Sunday's elimination final ultimately proved costly for Essendon, according to coach Ben Rutten.
The Bombers conceded five goals from free kicks, including four to match-turning forward Cody Weightman, whose back-to-back goals in the third quarter launched an unanswered eight-goal run for the Bulldogs.
Rutten said the free kicks were "part of the game", with his team ultimately overpowered by the Bulldogs' ability to win the contested ball (170-149) and surge forward in the slippery conditions in Tasmania.
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"It was those conditions where the team that put itself in the best position with their head over the ball and were prepared to absorb the tackle, there's opportunities for free kicks," Rutten said.
"They probably did that a fraction better than us in that third quarter and it was costly for us on the scoreboard."
A bitterly disappointed Rutten described Sunday's loss, which extended a 17-year drought since the Bombers' most recent finals win, as a bump on the road in the club's journey to achieving success.
The 49-point defeat came without small forward Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti, who was close to being available as the club places "a support program around him to get him back to his best".
Important rebounding defender Nick Hind was also sidelined after visiting a COVID-19 exposure site in the build-up to the match and being forced to isolate for 14 days.
"He's been pretty flat and disappointed about the whole circumstances," Rutten said of Hind.
"He's running through the 'what ifs', but it's part of the world we live in at the moment and it's really hard to forecast what’s going to happen.
"He's been a fantastic contributor and he played such an important role for us all season."
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Rutten said it was too early to tell definitively how the Bombers would handle the player movement period, but it was likely at this stage they would seek to hold onto their first selection in the NAB AFL Draft.
He praised midfielder Darcy Parish, whose first Therabody AFL All-Australian season can be chalked up as one of the Bombers' biggest gains in 2021.
The gun onballer finished Sunday's final with 35 disposals (17 contested), six inside 50s and a game-high 10 clearances.
"He's grown into something really special this year, but there's another level there for him," Rutten said.
"Whether that be leadership, influence over others, or just his game in general, he can take that to another level."
As well as Parish, several Bombers showed significant improvement in 2021 to drive the club from 13th in 2020 and back into finals, with the club growing "strong roots" to now build on.
"I'm just so proud of this group and this footy club with some of the gains that we've made in such a short period of time," Rutten said.
"The way they've applied themselves and the work that they've put in. They've given of themselves and put the team first.
"All those sorts of things are going to hold us in really good stead."