After a horror 2020 campaign, the Bombers entered 2021 with few expectations under new coach Ben Rutten. But they surprised many by playing a reliable, consistent and attacking brand that saw them capture an unlikely finals berth.
Sunday's elimination final didn't go to plan, with the Bombers failing to kick a goal in the second half as the Western Bulldogs ran away with a 49-point win in Tasmania. But the result shouldn't dim the overall view of Essendon's season, which saw the Bombers become a more trusted team with a new breed of leading players.
Rutten backed in youth throughout the season, with NAB AFL Rising Star nominees Harrison Jones, Nik Cox and Archie Perkins all displaying high-end talent. Zach Reid, the No.10 pick from last year, also debuted while Sam Durham was a second-half-of-the-year sensation after being a mid-season rookie selection. Sam Draper and Jye Caldwell, who have played just 35 games between them, shape as long-term guns.
The Bombers were also able to score better than anyone predicted. They finished fourth in the AFL for points scored in the home and away season (averaging 89 points) and although that dropped back to 86 following their poor elimination final, they were still a five-goal better team in 2021 compared to 2020 (albeit with full quarters this year). Jake Stringer (41 goals), Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti (34), Cale Hooker (33) and Peter Wright (29) were all regular goalkickers in a functioning forward line.
The Bombers beat the sides they should have this season, a step up from recent years, but they still were well behind the best teams in the AFL. The only finals team they overcame was the Western Bulldogs in round 21 and three weeks later the Dogs flipped that result to trounce them in the wet. The Bombers came close against Sydney twice and the Demons and Giants, but were well beaten by Port Adelaide, Brisbane, Geelong. Their 2-6 start to the season meant they were behind the eight-ball from the beginning and next year they will be looking to match it with more of the flag contenders.
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What a rise it was for Darcy Parish in 2021. After being used as a half-forward with spells in the midfield last year and again in the opening two rounds of this season, it took injuries for the Bombers to finally play Parish in his designated spot as a clearance and ball-winning star. He showed why he should have been there earlier, averaging 30 disposals and 7.6 clearances a game, as well as being best afield on Anzac Day, Dreamtime in Perth and the Country game against Geelong. Having been crowned a first-time Therabody All-Australian, he then gathered 35 disposals and 11 clearances in Sunday's loss to the Bulldogs to confirm himself as a big-game player.
The move of Jayden Laverde from attack to defence was a masterstroke for Rutten. Laverde became one of Essendon's most consistent players across its campaign, shutting down some of the competition's best key forwards while also becoming a regular intercept weapon for the Bombers. Laverde, who was out of contract this season before reaching a trigger for 2022, put in a career-best season and will feature prominently in the club's best and fairest count.
Dylan Shiel's season was impacted heavily by the knee injury he suffered in round two against Port Adelaide which required surgery. But he returned for round 19 and played out the rest of Essendon's season to finish with eight games, including the elimination final against the Bulldogs. Shiel's numbers were solid but he has been overtaken within Essendon's starting centre bounce midfield and it will be interesting to see how he is used when a full complement is available next year.
The Bombers' round three win against St Kilda was emphatic. After their opening two losses of the season, there was concern about how Essendon's season was shaping. But they absolutely thrashed the Saints by 75 points while recording the first of seven scores above 100 points – 22.11 (143) against St Kilda. Hooker kicked five, Stringer booted four and Parish kickstarted his season with 34 disposals and 10 clearances in Rutten's first win as coach.
With their finals hopes in the air, Essendon had the chance to really solidify their top-eight chances against Greater Western Sydney in round 19. But the Bombers put in a flat performance against a Giants side that had lost two in a row and was out of form. It left the Bombers needing to come home with a rush to register a finals performance, with their backs-against-the-wall win over the Bulldogs a turning point.
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How should they approach list management?
The Bombers need a few things: a key position player at both ends, another bigger midfielder and a small forward. The lack of a groundball crumber was on show against the Dogs with McDonald-Tipungwuti missing. They should, however, be careful not to think a flag is around the corner and instead go again to the NAB AFL Draft, where they will hold pick No.11. They have salary cap space but should take a targeted approach.
Early call for 2022
Essendon has to be breaking the finals drought next year. It has lost six elimination finals since 2004, but after the development and progress of the club this season, the recommitment of key players such as Zach Merrett, Jake Stringer and Parish, and the fact this off-season it will retain its wider squad, a top-six finish next season has to be the benchmark.
6 out of 10. The Bombers bettered many expectations, blooded youth and bought in to a strong style but fell short against the best.