CRUNCH time hasn’t even arrived yet for Essendon.
At 2-7 coming off the worst loss in Ben Rutten’s tenure as coach to Sydney last week, the Bombers face Richmond in the annual Dreamtime at the G game on Saturday night and then head to Adelaide Oval to take on Port Adelaide before their bye in round 12.
But after that, the watch will be on for stark improvement: in effort, style, execution and performance.
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A triple header of Friday night games from round 13-15 will shine the spotlight firmly on Essendon’s fortunes or failings, beginning with its 150th year celebration game against Carlton, a contest the Bombers lobbied to stage as the round opener.
They then face a resurgent St Kilda at Marvel Stadium before travelling to Perth to take on West Coast at Optus Stadium.
The Bombers should have a better team to choose from by then. Jake Stringer is expected to be back from injury, as should Kyle Langford, Will Snelling and Harrison Jones, with the Bombers’ desperately missing all four through their absences this year.
But it is the triumvirate of matches in June that could shape the club’s next moves as they come to grips with a season that hasn’t recovered from a round one thrashing.
Essendon knew it would not automatically progress up the ladder after reaching the top-eight last year. In separate interviews with AFL.com.au at the end of 2021 and then again on the eve of 2022, Rutten was quick to warn it wouldn’t be a smooth rise.
But just as last season exceeded expectations, this year has gone far worse than anyone could have predicted as the Bombers sit third bottom, ahead of only West Coast and North Melbourne on the ladder.
Rutten’s ambition to make Essendon a 'blue-collar', consistent and reliable team is far from what it has produced, with the lamentable showing against the Swans the latest in a string of non-competitive defeats, including to Geelong, Fremantle and the Western Bulldogs.
Ahead of the clash with the Hawks in round eight, Rutten asked his team to play with more flair and excitement, which they did for the final quarter, but assessing the Bombers gameplan has been difficult when they have nosedived in contested possessions, scores from stoppages, clearance differentials, tackles and pressure factor from last year to 2022. The Bombers have battled to win the ball, move it, keep it in attack, score and stop the opposition.
Essendon ranks as the second-youngest side on average this season as well as the second least experienced in terms of games played, but still has a strong core of players to implement plans.
Rutten prides himself on being a 'fundamentals' coach. He identified a senior coaching role as his aim from when he was playing with Adelaide, but it was a comparatively quick rise into the top job: four years as a line coach at Richmond, one year as an assistant at Essendon and then the club’s succession plan was announced for 2020 as the Bombers sped into a deal to keep him at the club as John Worsfold’s next-in-line.
He is contracted for next year, but the spectre of Alastair Clarkson hangs over many clubs in the competition after the four-time Hawthorn premiership coach’s recent statement that there are 18 teams he would love to coach.
Players in focus
Essendon gathered post-game in Sydney on Saturday night for Dyson Heppell’s 200th game and 30th birthday, but the post-game event was more subdued than the pre-game, when the captain’s family and friends gathered on the field as the skipper ran through the banner.
They would have been well aware that a wave of scrutiny was headed the club’s way, which started on Sunday as Bombers legend Matthew Lloyd again questioned the spirit, attitude and resilience of the team.
The reality of Essendon’s season is that very few players have performed consistently or improved. Peter Wright is enjoying a career-best campaign in attack with 25 goals, Nic Martin has been terrific as a first-year pick-up, Darcy Parish leads the AFL for disposals and has shouldered the midfield and Mason Redman has been among the most consistent there.
Archie Perkins has done what has been asked of him in attack but needs more midfield time, Ben Hobbs has shown snippets of why he was a first-round pick last year and Matt Guelfi has taken on his role inside-50. But the plateauing of the group, plus recurring injuries to Stringer (hamstring), Jones (ankle), Langford (hamstring), Snelling (calf) and Nik Cox (ankle), has meant for selection troubles and no continuity.
Heppell on Monday night backed the Bombers’ leaders for their work behind the scenes but the club needs to fast-track its next group of leaders. Do vice-captains Zach Merrett and Andrew McGrath share the captaincy next year?
Merrett’s football stands for itself while McGrath is often playing three roles within the one game – in the midfield, on the wing and across half-back – so settling into a permanent position has to be a priority for the rest of this year.
List gaps uncovered
The season has exposed the holes that exist on Essendon’s list.
With Jones missing the first half of the year, there has been a significant reliance on Wright as the key forward. Kaine Baldwin is young but been given experience, while Aaron Francis is into his seventh season but not progressed consistently in attack. Putting father-son Joe Daniher aside, Essendon has not drafted a first-time key forward who has played more than 20 games for the club since Stewart Crameri in 2010.
The Bombers are among the clubs to have looked at Ben King before he re-signed at Gold Coast and will also be tracking free agent Dan McStay at Brisbane as a forward option.
In attack they have also felt the absence of Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti more than they would have hoped, with the lack of a small goalkicker being obvious at ground level. Their chase for Bobby Hill last year was unsuccessful, but hopes can’t be pinned on father-son prospect Alwyn Davey Jnr to fill that spot straight away through the draft.
In defence the Bombers are undersized, with Jayden Laverde tasked with playing on Lance Franklin last week and regularly asked to play above his height. Zach Reid has been earmarked to fit one of these spots long-term and has added class to their defence in recent weeks. He will be a player.
At full strength Essendon’s midfield is its weapon, but this year it has been exploited. The omissions of Devon Smith and then Dylan Shiel also point to the issues, with the pair costing the club three first-round picks across 2017-18.
In comparison, across the same two off-seasons Melbourne nabbed key defensive duo Jake Lever and Steven May for three first-round picks.
Smith and Shiel both began their careers strongly at Essendon after crossing from Greater Western Sydney but have battled for form since the start of last year.
McGrath, Jordan Ridley, Sam Draper, Perkins, Caldwell, Hobbs, Cox, Reid, Jones, Martin and Sam Durham are all 23 or under, giving the Bombers a strong young core group, but more talent and depth is required. The club doesn’t currently have a vacant list spot to use an early pick at next month’s mid-season rookie draft, whilst holding its end-of-year national draft selection – which could be a top-five choice – is also important.