The Bombers will be truly tested in Perth on Friday night. Season-opening wins over the cocky Crows and demoralised Demons have been good for confidence and percentage, but now they face Fremantle, which is the real deal – and the past few days of media scrutiny has not been ideal. If Essendon can win or get within a couple of goals, it should be well pleased.
James Hird’s boys teased last year, winning eight of their first nine games. The Windy Hill faithful got excited, some even dreamt of a premiership, but it quickly turned into a nightmare as injuries mounted and confidence crashed. They lost their last seven games, had huge scores kicked against them and tumbled out of the eight.
But lessons are learnt in adversity. The Bombers had to become faster, stronger, build midfield depth and improve their defensive mindset. In 2013, the signs are good. Playing three ruckmen (David Hille, Tom Bellchambers and Paddy Ryder) doesn’t work; it’s too top-heavy. With Bellchambers’ improvement as a forward, and Ryder’s development as a ruckman, Hille loses out.
The Michael Hurley experiment is over. Good. Leave him as a rampaging forward who will put the wind up opponents. With the ever-improving Stewart Crameri, and the eventual inclusion of star recruit Joe Daniher, it means there will be plenty of strong marking options up forward.
And time is up for either Leroy Jetta or Alwyn Davey. Neither can help in the midfield, so the days of two permanent small forwards are gone. Young Jackson Merrett, who can play in the midfield and forward, will replace one, giving far more flexibility.
The Essendon midfield is steadily improving. Jobe Watson and Brent Stanton are the stars, with Dyson Heppell about to join them. Heath Hocking is a tough, determined tagger who can close down the opposition’s best. David Zaharakis gives classy outside run and finish, and David Myers is big-bodied, a thumping kick and strong in contest situations. Veteran Jason Winderlich will be handy if he overcomes injury problems, and youngsters Jake Melksham and Travis Colyer can only improve. The huge bonus, of course, is having former Saint Brendon Goddard now wearing red and black. He wanted to play in the midfield for the Saints, but was needed elsewhere. Now he will have a chance to thrive.
Another bonus is the amazing development of Ben Howlett. Now into his fourth season, Howlett finished top five in last year’s best and fairest. He looks ready to become a gun.
The Essendon back line is still built around ”Grandfather” Dustin Fletcher. But he is getting much-needed big-man support from 200-centimetre Jake Carlisle, 21, who could be anything.
Courtenay Dempsey is given licence to break the lines with his speed and dare, Kyle Hardingham is learning to play defence. What is needed is for one or both of Tayte Pears and Cale Hooker to stand up and be reliable defenders. Both have been at Bomberland for five years and time is running out.
So what can the Bombers expect as they venture west? Relentless pressure, that’s what. The Dockers under Ross Lyon are a super defensive team, and it starts up forward where the Dockers will press to keep the ball locked in their front half. Hayden Ballantyne, Matt de Boer, Chris Mayne and Tendai Mzungu will be ferocious in their attack on the opposition.
Last week against the worst defensive team in the land, the Bombers banged on 28 goals. They won’t here. In the space of six days, they will go from playing the worst defensive team to one of the best. There will be panic and pain on their faces as the Dockers strangle and choke them.
It will be interesting to see if Essendon wilts or stands firm.
The midfield battle will be intriguing. With Aaron Sandilands out, Bellchambers and Ryder should have the edge in the ruck. At ground level, it will be on for young and old. The Dockers have quality in Stephen Hill, Nat Fyfe, David Mundy and Michael Barlow. Danyle Pearce has settled in well to his new club, and the former Port Adelaide winger now appreciates not being the one who is always tagged. His outside run is just what the Dockers needed. Ryan Crowley won last year’s best and fairest and arguably is the best lock-down player in the game. Will he get Watson or Stanton? Nick Suban had a great pre-season. As such he’s been promoted to midfield/forward roles, where his long left-foot kicks cause damage.
Up forward, captain Matthew Pavlich has yet to hit his straps. But the goals are being shared by plenty – in particular look out for the elusive Michael Walters. He is another Docker who has taken his fitness and form to another level. Not fleet of foot, but super quick with brain and reflexes, he is getting close to being the best small forward in the game, even though he has only player 23 senior games.
Down back, three talls – Luke McPharlin, Zac Dawson and Michael Johnson – can usually account for the opposition’s working forwards. Paul Duffield and Clancee Pearce have grown under Lyon’s coaching and their long, precise kicking sets up quality rebounds.
Predictability is what the Dockers are all about. They are drilled continually to know what’s required in all kinds of situations. Both teams are works in progress with premiership aspirations but, for me, the Dockers are further advanced.
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