PETER Wright, it's your night.
After Essendon's past month of form, its ongoing injury woes and then an unprecedented five late changes an hour before the bounce as illness swept through the club, few expected the Bombers to challenge Hawthorn on Saturday night.
But Essendon's in-form spearhead Wright was the hero as the Bombers came from behind to overrun the Hawks and win by 27 points, with Wright kicking six goals in a match-turning performance.
The Bombers had hung in against the Hawks throughout the contest but trailed by 15 points at the last change. But Wright was massive in the frantic final term, kicking three goals as Essendon piled on eight majors and powered its way to the 16.12 (108) to 11.15 (81) victory.
BOMBERS v HAWKS Full match coverage and stats
Coach Ben Rutten implored his side to play with more dare against the Hawks and they delivered, running all over the Hawks, who kicked just one goal in the last quarter.
As well as Wright's dominance (which took his season tally to 23 goals), Nic Martin was sensational for the Bombers with 22 disposals and two goals, while midfield pair Darcy Parish (32 and a goal) and Zach Merrett (28 and a goal) were instrumental and Mason Redman (27) terrific from defence.
It came after the Bombers had lost Jordan Ridley, Jake Kelly, Matt Guelfi, Alec Waterman and Sam Durham pre-game as a virus – not COVID-19 – ran through the club this week.
The pre-game changes had a sharpening effect on the Bombers early in the clash, with Rutten's side bursting out of the blocks with the first two goals.
But the Hawks fought back, with a clever pass from Josh Ward setting up a goal for Max Lynch, with the ruckman booting his second for the term later in the quarter to help the Hawks to an 11-point lead at the first change.
Goals were traded in the second term as the Bombers got back to within five points when Aaron Francis marked and converted his shot inside 50, before late goals to Dylan Moore and Jacob Koschitzke saw the Hawks extend their lead to 18 points at the main change.
Both sides were vulnerable in the air in defence, with Wright proving a strong target for Essendon and his Hawthorn counterparts Koschitzke and Jack Gunston also effective at the opposite end.
Skill errors for both sides riddled the third term as back-to-back goals for Wright and Ben Hobbs kept the Bombers in it.
A critical moment late in the quarter, however, tipped the game in Hawthorn's favour at the final change, with Finn Maginness slamming home a long goal after Essendon coughed up the ball in the middle of the ground.
The 15-point buffer looked enough for the Hawks, but the Bombers had other ideas, storming home in their best performance of the season.
Pre-game chaos for Bombers
Non-COVID related illness has swept through several AFL clubs in recent weeks and Essendon copped it ahead of the clash with the Hawks. The Bombers were decimated pre-game by players pulling out through illness, with Ridley, Kelly, Guelfi, Waterman and Durham all out. The Bombers didn't have many players to choose from on the sidelines, but Brayden Ham, Kaine Baldwin, Brandon Zerk-Thatcher and Francis all came in, as did Devon Smith, and Alastair Lord as the medical substitute in his AFL debut.
Hobbs snags his first goal … eventually
Essendon players swarmed first-round draftee Hobbs when his snap from the top of the goalsquare sailed through for the first major of his career. But Hobbs' goal was short-lived, with the midfielder's goal wiped by the AFL's score review system which showed it had been touched on the way through. The Bombers would have taken a 15-point lead had the goal been allowed, but it was a turning point in the game, with Hawthorn kicking the next three goals of the term and taking an 11-point lead into the first change. Hobbs had his moment, though, slotting a set shot in the third term that drew his teammates for a goal that couldn't be taken away and he was important in their win with 19 disposals.
Jai's the guy
The NAB AFL Rising Star field is strong this year and Jai Newcombe belongs in the conversation. The Hawthorn youngster has fast risen into perhaps his side's most prominent midfielder and he enjoyed another strong outing on Saturday night with 28 disposals and five clearances. Newcombe, who was the Rising Star nominee in round five, joined the Hawks less than a year ago at the mid-season rookie draft and has quickly become a key part of Sam Mitchell's side.
ESSENDON 2.2 6.3 8.10 16.12 (108)
HAWTHORN 3.7 8.9 10.13 11.15 (81)
Essendon: Wright 6, Martin 2, Francis 2, Baldwin, Caldwell, Hobbs, Parish, Merrett, Perkins
Hawthorn: Gunston 2, Koschitzke 2, Lynch 2, Breust, MacDonald, Maginness, Moore, Morrison
Essendon: Wright, Martin, Redman, Parish, Merrett, Hind, Hobbs
Hawthorn: Newcombe, O'Meara, Scrimshaw, Day, Morrison
Essendon: Shiel (leg)
Essendon: Jordan Ridley, Jake Kelly, Matt Guelfi, Alec Waterman, Sam Durham (all illness) replaced in selected side by Brayden Ham, Kaine Baldwin, Brandon Zerk-Thatcher, Aaron Francis, Devon Smith
Hawthorn: Chad Wingard (illness) replaced in selected side by
Essendon: Alastair Lord (unused)
Hawthorn: Liam Shiels (unused)