This high stakes match was always likely to be played at a frenetic pace with both teams coming off disappointing results last week; Fremantle throwing away their finals dreams and a 10-point lead in the last two minutes against the Saints, while the Bombers succumbed to a 104-point thrashing against the Dogs.

Essendon needed one more win from their last two games to ensure a September invite, and with Collingwood looking ominous you wouldn’t bet on their chances in the Rd 23 Friday night blockbuster. Fremantle, meanwhile farewelled two club greats, Aaron Sandilands (271 games, four times AA) and Hayden Ballantyne (171 games, 2014 AA), as well as celebrating star Michael Walters’ 150th match.

The five Essendon omissions at the selection table signalled their intentions to go more attacking in response to some unusually dour performances over the past month. No doubt the inclusions of Hurley and Parish in particular providing organisation and grit to the chaos that ensued last week at Marvel Stadium.

Darcy Parish was tremendous throughout the contest, buzzing around the packs, more willing than most to get his hands dirty, but stood out with clean and creative disposal. His match was best described by an incident late in the third quarter with the Dockers streaming forward, he backed into a pack, beating four Fremantle players to the ball and his flying defensive effort, and then quick recovery to be part of the chain that ended in a momentum changing goal was the play of the day. He also hit the scoreboard in the first quarter after a dubious free kick, but excellent set shot and fired out a handball to his partner in crime, Merrett for a long goal.

No match report can be complete without a review of Jake Stringer, the polarising presence in Essendon’s front half. Whilst his general demeanour gives off the air of a cocksure magician in a sleazy bar, his actual bag of tricks is no less impressive, but you get the impression he is not pushing himself to the true heights of his potential. Tonight, he was again front and centre when the game was at its hottest, shrugging tackles, snapping on goal, but then in the next second barely putting in a half attempt to chase and tackle. David King commented he should be in the conversation for an All Australian spot during the telecast – I can’t see him remotely close to the consistent output of those he’d be competing with, but there is no doubt his talent would have him firmly in consideration should a coach or mentor unlock the keys to his full potential.

Fremantle looked to make three mistakes on the night that proved fatal

Number one – Their incredibly poor ball use that led to a resounding victory on conversion – the Dockers scoring a goal only with every 8.5 entries, while the efficient Bombers saluted every 3.7 times they went into their forward 50

Number two – The selection of retirees, Haydn Ballantyne and Aaron Sandilands. While I’m a sentimentalist and love the way clubs can and fans can honour their heroes, there is no doubt this selection decision compromised the Dockers ambitions of winning the game. Ballantyne looked like the game had passed him by, and his errors far outweighed the lift his teammates would have received in playing out the last rites of his career in front of an adoring crowd. Sandilands was better, but had the ruck stats to prop him up. Once the ball hit the deck, he was close to a liability. That is not to suggest one poor match will reduce their legacy in any way, in fact the tribute post-siren will provide a lasting and fitting exclamation point to two great careers in the purple.

Number three – The perhaps ill-fated marketing decision to fish the original awful purple, green and red anchor guernseys out of museum notoriety saw the players resemble their less than successful forbearers in an otherwise below average performance.

Essendon were also well served by Dylan Shiel, who despite his erratic disposal was instrumental in providing drive and run strangely lacking from their opponents. Zac Merrett was also a fantastic contributor, adding two well-executed goals to his 23 possessions, and most influentially, ten bruising tackles that set the scene for the game. The Bombers’ fierce attack on player and ball, along with their sound defensive structures and lightning fast ball movement are a credit to the coaching staff who turned around last week’s insipid display to confirm this side will play finals in 2019.

Fremantle, despite the comprehensive nature of the loss can take positives from their complete domination of the ruck. They were +41 hit outs, +14 in clearances (highest ever recorded differential for a losing team), and +10 in 1%ers.

If not for the woeful decision making and lack of poise the result might have been very different.

Michael Walters in his milestone game was a star, amassing 36 disposals and two goals further emphasising his class all across the field. Ed Langdon collected 37 touches in a power packed running display, while Cam McCarthy’s three goals/eight marks and Taylin Duman (18 touches and 11 one-percenters) gave a sneak peak of what Freo fans have to look forward to in 2020 and beyond.

WHERE TO FROM HERE:

The Bombers suit up against their traditional rivals, Collingwood in a manufactured but must-see match next Friday night. With their finals participation now confirmed, they might choose to rest Heppell and others with niggles so as to maximise their chances in the following Elimination Final.

The Dockers travel to Adelaide Oval for a match up with the Jekyll & Hyde Power, and have only pride (and a Nat Fyfe Brownlow push) to play for.

FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH:

Nathan Fyfe

The Brownlow favourite and one of the top stars of the competition began in customary manner, racking up nine belligerent touches in the first term, however his opponent for the day, Patrick Ambrose was already having an impact. The output dropped to just three touches for the second term and his first half included four clearances, but just one score involvement. Much like most of the Fremantle side, their superficial numbers looked impressive, but the disciplined Bomber structures and positioning mostly curtailed their impact.

Fyfe finished the game with 26 disposals, typically 21 of them contested, but was down on his season average of 30. He also failed to deliver in the air with only three marks, despite one superb hanger late that that felled his giant-in-waiting teammate, Sean Darcy. On a day that showcased the beauty of the aerial aspect of our game, Fyfe’s submission sat comfortably beside Lincoln McCarthy and Jeremy Howe’s masterpieces.

Great credit must be given to Ambrose for his commitment to the task, and this was best illustrated by the non-stop harassment that led to a woeful skill error as Fyfe was streaming away from a clearance, hitting the wrong half of his foot with the ball curling to the boundary, rather than another dangerous forward 50 entry. The resultant free kick for deliberate also perfectly illustrated umpire Margetts complete lack of understanding for AFL that he repeatedly reminds us of weekly.

Michael Hurley

There is no coincidence that Essendon’s recent run of inconsistent form has coincided with the injury layoff of their backline general. Concerns that he had been rushed back too soon from a nasty A/C surgery were abated in the first few minutes as the bullocking defender pulled down a strong pack mark, and usual transmission continued for the remainder of the night.

Hurley returned 19 strong disposals, and seven marks, five of which were intercepts inside defensive 50 out of a team total of nine in an encouraging display for the weeks ahead. Hurley’s role has evolved this year, and the coaching staff, his fellow backmen and the guile of the veteran himself should all be applauded in the way they are able to free him up to play that loose man where he can create the most value for his team. Last year it seemed at times as though he and Brendon Goddard were trying to play the same role, but now with the licence to command the back six, Hurley is looking every bit the defensive commander.

No doubt the Fremantle forward line, missing their three preferred tall options, Hogan, Taberner, Lobb assisted in the Bomber defensive dominance, but Hurley’s calm presence in the back half hastened the constant Fremantle mistakes that often led to brutal counter attacks for the winners.

Adam Cerra

I’ve watched a lot of Fremantle games this season, and while I’m bullish on their prospects in the near future, I have growing doubts about the role that highly touted youngster Cerra will play. He’s still a kid finding his way in this unforgiving game, and this is not designed to aimlessly pot him, but there are worrying trends that he will need to focus on in the off-season lest his position in the team be quickly overtaken.

For starters he doesn’t get to enough contests, and when there appears reactionary rather than making the ball his sole objective. This is exemplified by his strong tackling, including a brilliant effort to bring down a rampaging Stringer and force the holding the ball decision. His pace is a concern, and I don’t see him as an outside runner, but then his inside numbers are disappointing, only four contested possessions from 24 touches last night, and no clearances – the tenth such occasion in 2019 where he has not once retrieved the ball from a stoppage despite spending significant time in the position to do so.

He is averaging less tackles, clearances, I50s and goals than last year – his first in the AFL and I’m concerned that his development has stalled when the team really need him stepping up to support his more illustrious teammates, Fyfe, Mundy and Walters. Whilst his role in defence will obviously impact that, I have to wonder if this is the right option for the talented young man. I’m not sure you use pick five in the draft to acquire the services of a back pocket player.

Last night he was serviceable and far from his team’s worst. Actually contributing some of Fremantle’s best highlights, most notably multiple spoils on McDonald-Tipungwuti in front of goal, and his persistence after dropping an easy mark to become the outlet option which ended in a shot on goal by Crowden. However, there were also two diabolical defensive howlers that led directly to Bomber goals, one an ill-fated spoiling attempt where he barrelled his teammate, setting AMT free for the easy snap, and secondly a dreadful skill error turning the ball over inside Essendon’s forward 50.

How he is used in 2020 will be a must-watch for Freo fans.

Shaun McKernan

The big bomber swingman has been a maligned figure, despite the important role he plays both up forward and in stints on the ball, even emerging as the match winner on more than one occasion this season.

Enjoying one of his best seasons from a games-played perspective, his 14 games are only two short of his career high in just his second season with the Crows, McKernan has made an impact, recording the league’s second best contested marks average. Again, last night this aspect of his game came to the fore, dragging down a match high three contested grabs, including a brave effort backing into a pack to record a steadying goal for the away side.

Coupled with 15 disposals, eight marks and six inside 50 entries, the coaches would have been pretty satisfied with Shaun’s contribution last night, especially the way in which he refused to yield after matching up to Fremantle star Joel Hamling who outpointed him at times. Apart from the mark and goal, McKernan set up AMT’s lone 6-pointer with a masterful handball into space after bursting through several tackles, and sacrificed his body to hold up a pack dominated by Freo defenders, the resultant fist rather than uncontested mark fell into Dylan Shiel’s arms who snapped a nice major.

Saad vs Hill

The two speedsters, firmly in AA contention were not directly opposed but are so integral to their teams’ fortunes that I’ll review them together.

Hill is averaging career highs in disposals, clearances, Rebound 50 exits, and Inside 50 entries, along with 481 metres gained and 1.1 running bounces per game. Meanwhile Saad is also averaging career highs in disposals, tackles and Rebound 50s, while returning 345 metres gained and 1.8 running bounces.

Last night the difference was in the ball use. Hill’s 32 touches at a staggeringly low 46% were symptomatic of the Dockers struggles, while Saad’s 27 possessions were at the crisp rate of 89% efficiency. To Hill’s credit he remained involved until the final siren, and contributed eight inside 50s and 538 metres, he was just lacking his usual accuracy and deft touch which may also be a result of the Bombers defensive organisation.

Saad, however, had no such problems, storming through the middle of the ground with disdain for the chasing mob, collecting six bounces alongside 505 metres and delivering the ball lace out to Stringer at the top of the square for the play of the day.