The Ups and Downs of Essendon v Fremantle

The welcome back to football in 2020 for the Bombers and the Dockers kicked off at a desolate Marvel Stadium with Essendon running away narrow victors over Fremantle.

Due to the enforced coronavirus restrictions, very few personal are permitted into the arena. This didn’t stop a cheeky Alastair Clarkson from making an appearance front and centre, taking notes for his trip to Perth next weekend. What he saw was a high-speed, run-at-all-cost Bombers side out-run, out-tackle and out-play the Dockers for the entire first half and part of the third, before Fremantle decided getting players other than Nat Fyfe, Rory Lobb and Brett Bewley into the game could potentially turn this contest on its head; and turn the game it certainly did.

Shiel and McGrath starred out of the middle, as the Bombers came out firing, kicking the first four goals of the game and dominating possession. Their relentless playing on and pressure denying the Docker’s every chance of reprisal, with former Tiger Jacob Townsend slotting three majors in the first half. However, yet another token late-game fadeout in the form of only two goals kicked after half time, saw Fremantle pile on five of the last seven goals, and the Bombers limp to a six point victory.

Here are my ups and downs as I saw it.

Ups –

Day of the debutant.

What a day it was for club debutants! Plenty of early fanfare in the commentary box over Jacob Townsend’s first half input had multiple commentators pinning the Best On Ground Badge upon his chest at half time. His first quarter stats alone had Bombers fans salivating; three contested marks, three shots on goal, five disposals and a direct goal assist, kicking two straight goals of his own. Not a bad return for a young bloke that was cheaply salvaged from the mighty Punt Road scrap heap.

With Joe Daniher’s playing future being about as predictable as an end date for the current COVID-19 pandemic, and with James Stewart and Shaun McKernan sitting fit on the sidelines, the timing for Townsend to make his mark in a notoriously irresolute Bombers forward line was perfect.

At the opposite end of the ground, a young lad named Sam Sturt made an impressive debut for the Dockers in front of less than one hundred people, with four of those being his lucky family members. His first effort that really caught my eye came early in the second quarter where he won the ball almost on the 50m line, a few paces in from the boundary line. He assessed his options, but much to the audible dismay of a nearby teammate; he opted not to pass the ball off, instead backing himself in for the set shot. A swift drop punt from the left-footer sailed directly over the goal umpires hat for his first goal in his first game at AFL level. His two last quarter goals well and truly kept the Dockers in the game and almost got them over the line.

Dyl’s Dodgy Disposal Done & Dusted?

Behind Joe Daniher’s future (wow, two mentions in the first two categories? I could be Damian Barrett’s apprentice with this kind of apparent-resentment), the possibility of Dylan Shiel improving his disposal efficiency and becoming that A-Grade damaging midfielder that the Bombers have long craved, was a major question on the lips of every red and black tragic.

If he could make today’s efforts close to his regular output, he would go a huge way to silencing a lot of his critics. He finished the day with 35 disposals, his equal highest tally since being at the Bombers, at almost 80% disposal efficiency, nine clearances, five marks, five score involvements and three tackles. His trademark busting out of the centre, weaving through traffic and breaking tackles was on display from the opening bounce.

In the absence of skipper Dyson Heppell, he was a shining light in the midfield. Can he continue this form into the season and show that he’s capable of achieving the heights that Essendon envisioned when recruiting him?

Bewley, you beauty!

Now I’m not going to lie, early in the first quarter when I saw this bloke end up with the ball time and time again I thought, ‘who the hell is this bloke and what rock have I been living under to not recognise the name?’. Playing only his eighth game, one would have been easily forgiven for thinking he was playing his 80th game. His composure around the ball was outstanding when you consider how much of a rush and flurry the Essendon players were running past most Fremantle players at a rate of ease.

In a start to the game that showed only his captain and maybe two fellow teammates standing up and having a crack, Brett Bewley showed that he can play a role beyond that of a medium half-forward. He had almost 200 metres gained before the first quarter siren sounded, finishing the day just short of 500 metres, leading all comers on the ground. Paired with his eight marks and 20 disposals at 85% efficiency, it was an impressive first round display from a young player that many saw as a fringe dweller this season.

Stringer vs Fyfe

On paper this may seem like pairing Floyd Mayweather with someone like Danny Green. Both amazing competitors in their own rights, both adored by some and hated by others, both have achieved a their own level of greatness in their careers.

Alas, one will always be the superior.

You can appreciate the achievements and the skillset of both men, however one will forever have the more decorated CV and longer list of accomplishments.

Ok, I’ll be honest, I realise that the above is a shithouse comparison, but if you watched the game today you will instantly know what in alluding to. Seeing a player of Jake Stringer’s calibre playing directly on an utter champion of the game like Nat Fyfe has the potential to go down a very risky path, however today it went down and extremely entertaining path. There was a period in the second quarter that saw these two line up directly on each other in the centre and around the ground multiple times. In the first occurrence, Stringer marked the ball strongly over Fyfe at half-forward. He immediately played on and took off, leaving Fyfe to chase as Stringer drilled the ball from 55 and nailed the goal on the run.

The standard Jake Stringer reaction and retaliation saw the two of them pushing and shoving before lining up on each other at the very next centre bounce. This clearance went the way of a darting Fyfe, only to be caught up and tackled on the run by a hard-tackling Jake Stringer. The ball is thrown up, a specialist tap from Tom Bellchambers hits Stringer lace out in his chest, seeing him run clear, break the tackle and take off from a visibly frustrated Fyfe yet again. Sometimes it’s the little things in footy that catch your eye, but the battle between these two was certainly a highlight.

Handballing Bombers.

It’s inevitable, they’re going dissect and compare every action of Essendon’s to that of Richmond’s successful gameplan that has seen the Tigers emphatically win two of the past three grand finals. Probably rightfully so seeing as how Essendon poached two of Richmond’s top coaching staff.

Will it pay off for the Bombers? Will this wealth of knowledge be enough to turn around Essendon’s finals slump? Time will tell. In the short term though, didn’t that aggressive handballing and forward running gameplay from a shorter, faster Essendon look a lot like that of Richmond’s? A comment was made during the game that it must be hard for Fremantle to tackle, giving that the Bombers were seemingly one link in the handball chain ahead at all times. Looking at the first half stats, this was probably a very valid point. The tackle count at half time was 28-14 Essendon’s way. It seemed the Dockers just couldn’t get their hands on an opponent as the Bombers looked deadly by handballing forward. Even when they did get under pressure or ran themselves into trouble, it seemed they always had a player to pickup the slack and provide an out. It will be intriguing to see if the Dons manage to implement this gamestyle against the top teams and see whether it pays off for them or not.

Downs –

Is Don, Is still fading out late in games.

Although it’s much too early to make big calls on a teams future for the rest of the season, Bombers fans have every right to be worried by their second half fadeout today. They made the Dockers look second rate for more than half the game, before getting bullied and bustled off the ball with ease, losing composure and allowing multiple inside 50s and subsequent goals against them.

Full credit to Fremantle for turning up eventually, but I feel the Bombers almost came unstuck due to their own lack of composure. Perhaps it was tired bodies, is their new and improved run-and-dash game going to tire their players prematurely? Did they take the foot off a little too far too early and allow Fremantle back up off the canvas? Or was it a plucky Fremantle outift decided to not just rely on Nat Fyfe, Michael Walters and Crispin Glover’s long lost son, Rory Lobb to do majority of the work? (Crispin Glover is Marty McFly’s Dad from Back to the Future for those wondering what the hell I’m talking about)

The correlation between Fremantle playing as a team and winning their own ball whilst punishing the Bombers on the scoreboard unfortunately came too late for the Dockers. But only just!

Hurley’s last quarter.

He wasn’t the only Bomber to struggle and concede in the last quarter, but he certainly looked the most prominent in that department. It was a quarter to forget for Michael Hurley, he was beaten soundly on a couple of attempts by a first gamer, made to look eternally worse by giving away a horribly undisciplined free kick. Maybe it was first game back jitters, maybe it was the pressure of being a fill-in captain and watching your almost 5 goal lead wither away.. Nevertheless, it wasn’t a quarter that Hurley will want replayed at training too much this week. The fact that they held on, just, may be the reprieve that keeps the torch from singling him out.

Spray of the day.

We all saw the Spray that Michael Walters delivered at his teammate, Matt Taberner after a lack of communication caused them to collide and cost a near-certain goal. But it was the ones that the commentators didn’t highlight that really caught my eye. Some players are quite demonstrative in the way that they deliver their messages as leaders. Brendon Goddard wore this moniker for most of his career, Heath Shaw is another well known to give his teammates a verbal bashing onfield. The total lack of crowd presence in the stadium today meant that external and umpire microphones were picking up more player speech than usual. I chalk it down as the reason why I noticed so many of the barbs directed at his teammates by Walters. But when you’ve had an average start to the game yourself, it’s probably not the best time to be caught telling a 2nd year player to “have a crack or get the F*ck off!” Especially when he’s had more of the ball and more influence than you have.

Dead crowds.

How strange is it watching a crowdless game of top-level AFL? It almost doesn’t feel real. Between that and the shorter quarters, it’s hard to accept as the real deal.

Minor observations

– Jordan Ridley has immense composure for a kid who’s played 10 senior games. Light frame, long gangly arms, at times he looked like a darker haired, young Dustin Fletcher going the spoil or side stepping a tackle to deliver a penetrating kick as opposed to a quick handball to an under-pressure teammate.

– The Bombers are a much better side with a fit and firing Devon Smith.

– If Darcy Tucker can continue to improve the way he is, he will have a long career at Fremantle.

– Kyle Langford learning not to panic every time he gets the ball must be a welcome feeling for Bombers fans.

– Logue, Hughes, Taberner, Darcy and Ryan didn’t register a tackle between them.


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