Essendon v Sydney – What Happened?

There’s something glorious about the MCG awash in resplendent mid-July sunshine. It is like a cauldron, a beacon to September hopes, and with two sides who have legitimate, if uphill, hopes of playing finals this year, it seems the perfect venue.

It was a tantalising match up, this one. Neither side was really at full strength; the Swans, notably, were without Buddy Franklin and lost Cal Sinclair to a shoulder injury, meaning their forward and ruck stocks were both depleted; while the Bombers had their own, well documented issues with big men going down injured, heading into this game without Joe Daniher and Tom Bellchambers, in addition to the losses of Sam Draper to an ACL, Devon Smith to a separate knee injury and Dyson Heppell as a late out.

Both sides also headed into this game in decent patches of form. After a lacklustre beginning to the season, for the second year running, the Bombers have lifted, winning three of their last four, leaving them level on points with Freo in eighth heading into this game. The Swans, on the other hand, have turned a 1-6 start into 6-8, having won their last three. Sydney did beat Essendon in Round Eight, in controversial circumstances, but also haven’t beat the Dons at the MCG in close to a century. In one of the most interesting games of the round, here’s what happened:

No Rucking Worries for Sydney

Sydney may have lost this game in the end, but that was to no fault of new Swans ruckman Aliir Aliir, who was by far the dominant player on the ground after a relatively quiet first quarter. Opposed for the most part to the much maligned Zac Clarke, who had a truly dirty day, the Kenyan-born former defender used his athleticism around the ground to truly dominate. Though the Essendon pairing of Clarke and the much more effective McKernan won the hitouts 36-22, Sydney won the clearances 33-26 in a game which was fairly free flowing and lacked a number of stoppages.

Indeed, Aliir’s work out of the centre was probably the most notable part of his day. Although many times Clarke won the hitout at a centre bounce, Aliir often won the clearance, with six of his eight for the day coming from the middle. Only Josh Kennedy, who is a noted bull, had more clearances of any player on either side, with nine. Further, though, Aliir sent the ball inside 50 a game high eight times, bursting away from stoppages with outstanding speed for a man who stands 195 centimetres tall.

Of his five score involvements for the day, a handy return given the Swans only scored 21 times, two were direct goal assists. In every metric, essentially, the South Sudanese athlete was in the top handful of players on the ground, including in metres gained, being the fourth ranked Swan with 492. He was very good last week against the Suns after Cal Sinclair went down early with injury, but this week Aliir Aliir gave opposition clubs a little bit to think about as he went seriously close to winning this game for his side.

Conversely, for the Bombers, having suffered an injury crisis to their big men, it may be time to start to worry. Zac Clarke is simply not up to AFL standard, finishing the day with just five touches, and dropping marks that most ruckman would gobble up. I reckon John Worsfold would love to deploy Shaun McKernan in the ruck more often, and when he did go into the middle Aliir’s dominance on the game was diminished, although not totally eradicated. However, moving the former Crow onto the ball is like robbing Peter to pay Paul, as without Joe Daniher the Essendon forward line is already devoid of tall targets. It ultimately proved irrelevant today, as the Bombers willed themselves home, but with the inform Todd Goldstein to come next week, these injuries could come back to bite Essendon.

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Bombs Away

It would be unfair to suggest the Bombers were lucky to win this game in the sense that they were soundly beaten and just scraped home. This was a contest which seesawed all through the day, culminating in a tense last quarter in which John Worsfold’s men simply hunted the ball harder and arguably wanted it more. Instead, it would be more accurate to suggest that the Dons were lucky to win this because

A.    Sydney didn’t capitalise when they had the ascendancy

B.    Essendon often butchered the ball going forward

Too many times, throughout the first half, Essendon players kicked the ball high and long, but without tall marking targets there to at least contest, the likes of Rampe and Lloyd ran amok. The Bombers had 28 inside 50’s in the first half, but managed just four goals as time and again they wasted the ball going forward. A big culprit of this, especially early, was Dylan Shiel. I’m a fan of the former Giant, and he may well end up being the player his new side thought he would be when they traded for him, but his year to date has probably been underwhelming. He was good without being great today, and I reckon his kicking was overlooked a little bit at GWS because of the tremendously skilled players, like Lachie Whitfield and Josh Kelly, surrounding him. Going from being a big fish in a large pond to being the biggest fish in a much smaller pond is always a challenging transition, but it easily could have cost the Bombers the game today, such was his profligacy going forward.

In the third quarter, the tides turned, and Sydney dominated general play all through the quarter. They won the inside 50’s 15-9, and the clearances 15-4, but Essendon’s efficiency when they actually got the ball forward was what kept them in the game to three quarter time, and ultimately what got them over the line. They kicked three goals in that third term, to Sydney’s four, and every time their opposition looked like kicking away, they managed to just pull one back. David Zaharakis was hugely important all through the day, with two goals in the first half, but it was his third quarter which was the most influential, as he first followed up a poor kick to set up Orazio Fantasia in the pocket for his most meaningful contribution of the day, before seizing on a Jake Stringer-created turnover to kick his third goal of the day. Having played 200 games, Zaharakis is an important leader at Essendon, and in the absence of Heppell and with Merrett missing most of the second quarter, the 201 gamer stood up in a big way to get his side over the line.

It would be remiss of me to forget to give proper commendation to the Essendon backline, who restricted the Swans to their second lowest score since Round 3. Between the four of them, Michael Hurley, Adam Saad, Aaron Francis and Marty Gleeson had 33 intercept possessions, killing off a number of Sydney forays forward. Saad and McKenna had 829 metres gained between them, a decent day out, but it was the former Sun’s ability to keep Papley quiet which was most notable, keeping the Swan to 14 touches and 1.2. Meanwhile, Hurley was the general of the defence, again, with 23 touches including 12 marks, as a somewhat undersized Swans forward line managed just nine goals, and as his side moved, at least temporarily, into the top 8.

A Bridge Too Far for Young Sydney Lineup

If it sounds like I’m not giving enough credit to Essendon then I apologise. I thought they were very good on the day and, again, wanted the win more than the Swans in the end, with their experienced heads standing up at the death to get them over the line. However, it isn’t all doom and gloom for Sydney supporters, with a number of young players showing the future is bright. In a Franklin-less forward line, youngsters like Nick Blakey showed they have a strong career to come in the game, and with Isaac Heeney the best player on the ground in the first half, their midfield looks set to revitalise itself in years to come.

Speaking of those two players, it was great play to set up the first year player for the game’s first goal. Many times today a player in Heeney’s position would have tried to bomb the ball inside 50, but instead he looked sideways to hit up James Rowbottom, who sent the ball long to Blakey’s advantage. It looked, at times throughout the first half, that no one wanted to go near Heeney, who had 21 touches but only five contested at half time. Mason Redman ultimately went to him in the third quarter, when the Swan went forward, and though he ended the day with 33 touches as one of the better players on the ground, his second half was significantly less influential.

It probably still flies under the radar a little, despite his prolonged success, given he’s out of the saturated Melbourne media market, but Josh Kennedy’s work today should remind many in the competition he’s a long way from past it. He was outstanding in the first three quarters today, and was a big factor in his side having the lead at three quarter time, despite fading late. He finished the afternoon with 35 touches, 20 contested possessions and nine clearances, although his last quarter statline was four touches and zero clearances, a big factor in getting Essendon the win. Still, his hands off the deck in the second quarter to dish the ball off to Papley, who set up Luke Parker for a goal, were simply exquisite.

Speaking of Parker, I have no idea how Will Hayward missed him in twenty metres of space in the goal square late in the third quarter. It was a golden chance to give Sydney the momentum going into the last, but instead the ball was turned over and it came to nought, as Essendon ran away with the win. As I said earlier, the Swans certainly had their chances to win this game. They wasted a lot of them in the third quarter, while they missed so many targets and wasted so many chances going forward in the last quarter it’s almost a wonder they managed to kick two goals. Sydney ended up winning the inside 50 count 54-50, and had the same amount of scoring shots as the Bombers, but simply lacked composure and experience forward of centre.

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Hooked On A Feeling?

With Essendon trailing at three quarter time by three points, after having been dominated around the ground by Sydney, it was almost no surprise that John Worsfold threw his swingman Cale Hooker forward at the last break, after he changed the game last week with virtually the same manoeuvre. While it didn’t come to much in terms of actual scoreboard impact by the 2014 All Australian, after Tom McCartin kicked the first goal of the last quarter from an Aliir clearance, the Dons kicked four of the next five goals, indicating that Hooker did have some impact in terms of at least changing the structure of his side’s forward line.

It was a seesawing final quarter all throughout. Ultimately, it was Essendon’s ability to capitalise on their chances in the last which saw them prevail, after struggling to do so all day. You need only look, for example, at Jake Stringer’s soccered goal, his second of the afternoon, as he managed to work his way out the back and score, despite dropping the mark. Meanwhile, at the other end of the ground, Nick Blakey took the advantage when he probably shouldn’t have, wasting a golden opportunity, while the ordinarily reliable Tom Papley missed a straightforward set shot which would have put the Swans back in front, as did Heeney, who missed a golden opportunity to put the pressure on Essendon.

It was the young blokes standing up in the last which would probably be most pleasing to Essendon supporters. Andy McGrath’s work around the ground in the fourth quarter was exceptional, and a big reason why his side won the game, with seven touches, while Darcy Parish was good all day and nailed an important goal from a snap to give his side some breathing room.

Concluding Thoughts

If nothing else this game was an intriguing one both before the bounce and all throughout. Both sides wasted a number of chances, but any time there’s less than a goal between two sides at three quarter time, you’d reckon you’re in for a pretty enthralling last quarter. While it may not have lived up to the quality of the fourth quarter last night, it was still fairly engrossing.

For the Bombers, their season remains well and truly alive at 8-7 and in the top 8 at the conclusion of today’s game. You’d think that 12 wins guarantees finals, meaning they’d have to win at least four of their final seven games to make it, though they do play Freo and Port, their two most immediate rivals on the ladder, in the run home. Next week though, they turn their attention to an in form North Melbourne at Marvel in what is sure to be a big test for the Bombers.

For the Swans, their season is now probably over, at 6-9 and needing to win at least six of their last seven games to get close to September action. It hasn’t been a bad year for the Swans, by any stretch, and they were certainly in the game today, but they will be better for the run and are probably better off looking forward to 2020. They have Carlton next week, who challenged them in Round 3 this year, though they certainly go into the game as favourites.

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