Good Friday footy returns this season for the third consecutive year in the form of a double header. It feels a bit strange, given the AFL’s avoidance of the religious holiday for scheduling in previous years, but it also feels like a great day for footy and, by highlighting a worthy cause, the League have turned what used to be a black spot into a huge positive.

To the footy though, and in their last two meetings North Melbourne and Essendon had totalled over 230 points between them, so it would have seemed like we were going to be dished up a treat. These two sides have been hard to get a read on so far this year, with the Bombers looking insipid in their first two games and then excellent in their most recent two, while North were awful and justifiably lambasted by the media until their breakthrough win against the Crows last week. It appears though, after today’s events, that while the Dons’ start to the season may have been an aberration, North’s may have been more reflective of where this side is at. Here’s what happened:

The Appeal of Good Friday Footy

A quick point, early, but the host broadcaster and the AFL seem to have nailed Good Friday footy. The focus pre-game on the Good Friday Appeal and the important work that the Royal Children’s Hospital does makes this game stick out on the calendar and, while there have been some calls that this game should be given to a bigger club than North Melbourne, the almost-50000 strong crowd highlights that there is genuine interest in this game from the footballing public. With around $7.5 million raised for the Good Friday Appeal, it’s clear that this game will be around to stay long into the future.

The Man, The Myth, The Moustache

There may be a little hyperbole in this title, but there are few players who are more enjoyable to watch, and few players who look like they enjoy playing football more, than Joe Daniher. While there certainly was a little bit of controversy surrounding his late inclusion ahead of Zac Clarke, he provided a bit of spark to an Essendon forward line that has been on the improve over the last three games.

He seemed unfazed by Scott Thompson getting stuck into him early, and did plenty of good things, including a hard lead before shanking a very kickable set shot. His first goal was a clear display of his mobility for a tall forward, as he 50-50’d a contest against Scott Thompson then snapped a goal under admittedly little pressure from the North defence.

You can clearly see why Essendon were so keen on getting him back into their side, in spite of the fine they will have to pay, and, in spite of a few fumbles and shanked kicks that were demonstrations of his lack of conditioning before today, he was certainly not disgraced. With six score involvements and five marks from 10 touches, and 2.1, the second of which was a glorious long bomb from 60 out, he will certainly be better for the run.

If he’s fit, and the other forwards, like Brown, Fantasia, McDonald-Tipungwuti and even Stringer keep up their form from the last two weeks of footy, the Dons are going to be hard to beat.

Under (no?) pressure

At the start of this game, for a time, it looked like this game was going to be tight and contested, with a series of strong tackles from players seeking to provide the tempo for their sides. At the end of the first quarter, however, while there were only 17 tackles between the two sides, Essendon’s pressure was certainly a feature. Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti won a holding the ball decision to set up Daniher on the lead, though he missed his shot, while Matt Guelfi at the other end laid a goal saving tackle on Ziebell. Orazio Fantasia looked very dangerous off the ball in the first quarter too, winning a couple of holding the ball decisions and kicking 1.1.

Even in an open game like today’s ended up being, it’s clear that tackling is as important a stat as there is in footy. In the third quarter, Dylan Shiel’s ability to create a turnover through pressure set up ‘Tippa’ for the goal that arguably sealed the deal for Essendon. Despite being +30 in disposals, the Bombers were +15 in tackles, indicating their willingness to work both ways, and demonstrating the reason why Essendon won this game so comprehensively.

Where do North’s problems begin, and where do they end?

It would be tough to argue that any particular section of North Melbourne’s team today was more to blame for their loss than any other. While their midfielders weren’t awful, they were comprehensively beaten by their opposition. Their backline could hardly cope with the amount of ball coming in and their forwards could barely get their hands on the ball, though when they did, they were wasteful. In truth, though the better team inarguably won, North kicked themselves out of this game. From their first 11 set shots, they could only muster up an abysmal 0.6, and their scoreline read 4.14 early on in the last quarter. They could have even led at quarter time, but misses from Davies-Uniacke, Cunnington, Goldstein and two from serial offender Mason Wood meant that the Roos were essentially chasing the game from the start.

It wasn’t just the fault of the goal kickers, though. In the first half, before Essendon got their run on and put the game to bed, the Roos midfielders a couple of times really struggled to hit up targets either between the arcs or inside forward 50. They managed to bring their opposition down to their level, and for a while it seemed the game was going to be fought on their terms, but even then they hardly seemed to be in the game.

For the first quarter and a half, they looked to take the game on and, while they made mistakes in doing so, they at least looked moderately competitive. Once the Bombers really started to turn the screws though, North really went back into their shells instead of looking to take the game on and trying to score. Chief offender here was Shaun Higgins, who had 30 touches but racked up plenty of those across half back in the first three quarters. He was hardly sighted in the first half, though he was not alone here, as Aaron Hall was also below his best, while Jack Ziebell had just two touches to half time and finished the game with six. Likewise, Trent Dumont got plenty of the ball but more than once, as his side were looking to go forward, his poor kicking brought the forward thrust undone.

To be fair, Jack Ziebell was comprehensively beaten by Michael Hurley on the day, with the All-Australian a good match up for the type of forward the North skipper is, and with him down, and Ben Brown essentially shut out of the game and forced to get up the ground to get his hands on the ball, the Roos’ forward line looked completely dysfunctional. I don’t reckon Brown would have played many games worse than today. He did finish with 2.2, but the two behinds both came from set shots that, by his standards, should have been kicked, and he had next to no impact in the first half when the game was there to be won.

It’s hard to see where the improvement comes for North, at least this year. I was bullish on them after their loss to the Lions but, in the context of the rest of their season, they have been uncompetitive far too often. There’s a lot of youth in the side though, and talented youth at that, and so in future they almost certainly will rise back up the ladder.

 

How good can Essendon be?

On commentary for Channel Seven, Bruce made reference to the ‘two-week cycle’ of footballing news. Arguably nothing sums up the Bombers season more than this, as people seem to have forgotten their awful opening two weeks and now look at them to be a fair shot at contending. It’s strange to think that less than a month ago, people in the media were starting to question John Worsfold’s job. He should definitely feel a lot safer in his position now.

Today, against North, they looked to be unbeatable, as they cut through the North defence with precise kicking, and by taking risks that paid off. A couple of players who deserve recognition from their performances in the first quarter are the debutant Brayden Ham, who set up McGrath for his first, and Mason Redman who looks to be a beautiful user of the footy and teed up his captain who managed to miss the lot.

Six marks inside 50 in the first twenty minutes of the game makes for good reading for the Essendon forward line, who managed to outwork their opposition, but they definitely could have been further in front at quarter time, as it only translated to two goals. It’s not hard, though, to see how they’ve managed to kick 100 points in each of their last three games, but what has been arguably most impressive has been that the Bombers have conceded progressively fewer points in each of their wins as they have become more cohesive as a side.

What was required for Essendon to put the game to bed came in the form of a huge lift from Merrett and Shiel in the last half of the second quarter. While Heppell had been, and continued to be, good all day, the other two midfielders worked their way into the game hugely. They started to move the ball quickly and, when they do this, they look like a definite top  four side. Dylan Shiel has made a big difference to this side (as long as you don’t mention his goalkicking), who didn’t seem to miss Zaharakis and Smith too much on the day.

Essentially, Essendon let North go with them for the first quarter and a half without really putting the foot down, but goals from McGrath, McDonald-Tipungwuti, Brown and Fantasia in the last ten minutes before half time almost put the game out of reach, as the Bombers managed to cut through their opposition’s dour style. Their real test will come next week, in a huge ANZAC Day game against an up and about Magpies side.

Final Thoughts

Despite the margin, the first half of this game was actually fairly entertaining. It was let down more by poor goalkicking than anything else, though it was at times scrappy. A fair bit of the fizz went out of the game in the third quarter, after Essendon got their run on either side of half time, but ultimately the Bombers were deserving winners, with better players on every line.

Next week shapes up as fascinating for both sides, as the Dons take on the Pies on ANZAC Day while North travel to the Adelaide Oval to take on a thus-far up-and-down Port Adelaide side. Lose that, and it might almost be curtains for Brad Scott.

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