Sydney v Essendon: What Happened?

 

Games between Sydney and Essendon in recent history, and more broadly across the last three decades, have had a history of turning up moments both insane and scarcely believable, especially at the SCG.

Last year’s tense clash ended with Dane Rampe doing his best koala impression, while two years ago the Bombers gave up a 19 point lead with three minutes left, capped off by a Gary Rohan goal after the siren. Looking back even further, moments like Adam Goodes’ and Tony Lockett’s post siren behinds, with contrasting results for the Swans, loom large. Even amidst the craziness which has gripped the world this year, another close game between these two sides might have suggested that footy was well and truly back, and while it may not have been the best game, it was certainly enjoyable.

Round One seems, and in reality was, a long time ago, and so it’s worth casting an eye back to these two sides’ performances, even if their form may well have evaporated in the three months since. First, the home side, who managed to just hang on against the Crows in Adelaide. I think it’s fair to say it’s hard to know what to expect of the Swans this year; the more games their young guns play, the better they look, but to expect them to play finals this year is maybe a bit premature. They’ve been tenacious in both games thus far this year, though, and it’s hard to imagine this “rebuild” will be much more than a brisk regeneration. The impact of Buddy Franklin on their side as a whole, either through his presence or lack thereof is, as always, fascinating, and that will be discussed later on.

In regards to the Bombers, their Round One fixture followed a relatively similar script to Sydney’s. Opposed to Fremantle at Marvel Stadium, they led for the entire match, but never managed to put the Dockers entirely to the sword, and could easily have ended up losing if not for Dylan Shiel, Adam Saad, and club debutant Jacob Townsend. It’s also hard to know where the Bombers should end up this season. Realistically they should be expecting to play finals, after their eighth place finish last season, but the desire from supporters will be to win a final after 15 years of starvation. That’s not out of the question, certainly, but it does seem important in this truncated season to bank wins early in order to play in the metaphorical September.

In what loomed as an exciting game, at a ground Essendon hadn’t won at since 2009, here’s what happened:

 

See the Bombers Fly Up, Up, and Then Down, Down, All in the Space of One Day

 

One of the big questions of the Covid-impacted season is how interstate travel would be affected. Before Round Two began, we heard plenty about how North and Essendon didn’t want to fly up to Sydney together and, whether that was a joke or not, the reality both teams faced was same day travel to and from the Harbour City. It didn’t seem to have too much of an impact on North Melbourne earlier in the day, who were perhaps sluggish to start with but ended up coming home with probably the best win under Rhyce Shaw thus far. While Essendon maybe didn’t put their opponents to the sword late in the same manner as the Roos, they led from siren to siren, and ended up with their first win at the SCG since 2009.

 

A Saad State of Affairs

 

The Bombers may have more proficient ball winners than Adam Saad, and they may have better lockdown defenders, but in my opinion, and on the basis of this game, they don’t have a more important player in their side. It’s not in any way unreasonable to suggest the Dons would have lost this game if not for the former Sun. The stats don’t tell the whole story, but they do tell some of it. His 20 touches came at 75% efficiency and gained a team high 508 metres to go with a team high eight intercept possessions and six inside 50’s. While he may occasionally go too fast even for himself, watching him take the game on through the middle of the ground is always a joy.

What the stats don’t show, really, is the impact Saad can have on turning defence into attack. His importance to the Bombers’ backline set up is maybe underrated, given the talent of Hurley and Hooker around him, but against the Swans he seemed to be able to stick in a hand or a foot every time it was needed to stop the opposition from advancing, before turning that into an opportunity to score at the other end. It’s something only the best half back flankers in the league can do; the likes of Stewart, Vlastuin, and Howe spring to mind among others, but Saad is not out of place amongst those names when he performs the way he did in Round Two.

 

Rampe-ing Up

 

Okay, so the above is a big wrap on the importance of Adam Saad to the Bombers’ set up, but a player who seems to continue to fly under the radar a little is Sydney co-captain Dane Rampe. I thought he was clearly his side’s best player on the weekend. He’s in a similar situation to Saad in a way; Sydney’s midfield is stacked with big names and up and comers, and a certain forward commands a lot of attention in red and white, but look at the impact he has on this side and it’s hard to go past Rampe as the Swans’ most important player.

His 20 touches weren’t a team high, but he ran at 100% efficiency on the evening, and his eight marks were an equal game high. It may be a little glib to suggest it’s easy to go at 100% efficiency down back, but for some players it’s a lot more straightforward when they refuse to take the game on. That’s not the case for Rampe, whose 579 metres gained were only beaten by Ollie Florent, who I will get to later. Add in seven intercepts, and his performance in the last quarter when Essendon seemed intent on kicking the ball straight at him, and it’s hard to imagine he won’t be featuring in the votes; if not on Brownlow night, then certainly in the Mongrel votes.

 

No Buddy Worries?

 

There are almost always questions about the Swans’ forward set up in the Buddy era. When he’s in the side they tend to, justifiably, go to him a bit too often, but they can sometimes look better when he’s not there given that they share the load a little bit. Against the Bombers, though, it seemed they failed to adjust. With Franklin, Naismith and Reid out, their only big body up forward was Tom McCartin, who’s shown promise here and there but probably isn’t ready to carry a forward line on his back.

With players like Heeney, Papley, and even the new additions of Sam Gray and Lewis Taylor, it seemed pretty obvious that getting the ball to ground was critical for the Swans’ chances, but too often they tended to bomb it long, and while Hooker, Hurley and Francis fumbled the ball a couple of times, they simply made scoring too difficult for themselves early on. Additionally, while I’m a big fan of Will Hayward, and think he’ll turn into a very solid Mid-Forward, they needed more from him against the Bombers, especially given Heeney’s limited impact.

 

That being said, when the Swans did manage to bring the ball to ground, they looked a lot better. Against the Crows, Lewis Taylor did just about bugger all, but he’s the kind of forward who only needs an inch here or there to change a game. His Rising Star win in 2014 is one of the more head scratching in recent times, but it’s hard to dispute his talent, and his goal from the flank late in the third was a beauty. He and Papley in conjunction as small forwards booted six of the Swans’ 11 goals between them, but it did look like the Swans needed to adjust after the first quarter to ensure they actually had the capacity to score.

 

On Papley, I think it’s pretty obvious the Swans know what they’re getting from him. Robbed of a Best on Ground Medal in the Bushfire State of Origin game (which feels like several years ago), he managed just one goal in Round One, and he didn’t touch the ball in the first quarter. A goal either side of half time showed his value to the side though, with an opportunistic snap before and a long bomb after the half time break keeping the Swans competitive. While he was maybe lucky to win a 50 with two minutes left in the match and put a cat firmly amongst the pigeons, there’s nothing to suggest he wouldn’t have kicked the goal anyway. Behind Charlie Cameron, Papley is firmly shaping up as one of the best small forwards in the league.

 

Though Ollie Florent doesn’t necessarily mesh with the forward theme of this particular sub-section, it would be remiss of me not to mention his performance. When you think of the youth at the Swans, Florent may not be the first name to spring to mind, but he looks pretty capable of carrying the Sydney midfield for years to come. Luke Parker started brilliantly in the first quarter and a half then had his influence limited after half time, Josh Kennedy was strong as ever in the contest but wasn’t at his brilliant best, but the young Number 13 ran all day, keeping his side in the game from the middle of the ground. Only the accumulator Jake Lloyd had more touches for the Swans than his 27, while he matched Kennedy with seven clearances and had a game high nine inside 50s and 635 metres gained. With Heeney deployed almost permanently inside forward 50, and Callum Mills seemingly not ready to take the step up into the middle of the ground, for the moment it’s just Florent as the youth in the middle for his side.

 

Off A Wing

 

There was one conspicuous absence in the Bombers’ midfield against the Swans. While Zach Merrett, Dylan Shiel and Andy McGrath ran hard throughout the game, and guys like Kyle Langford rotated through the wings, all of which I will get to later in this section, David Zaharakis went just about unsighted for the entirety of the game. It’s quite clear that John Worsfold wants young legs in midfield, and is obliged to throw Jake Stringer in for a few centre bounces, the 2011 Crichton Medalist seems to be the odd one out for the Bombers. Zaharakis ended the game with six touches at 33% efficiency, with four of those coming in the last quarter. A number of Dons lifted their game after three quarter time, but Essendon either need more from one of their most experienced players or they need him out of the side. That may be harsh, but two touches in three quarters from a 200 game player just isn’t enough. It’s clear that the Bombers have a number of low-touch, high-impact players, like the trio of McKernan, Stringer and McDonald-Tipungwuti, who had just 21 touches between them but kicked eight goals, but if Zaharakis isn’t going to play on a wing it’s hard to see where he fits in.

 

On the other hand, the rest of the Bombers’ senior players in the middle were hard to fault. Of the lot of them, I thought McGrath was close to the most impressive. 22 of his 23 touches came before three quarter time, and as mentioned above, enough players stepped up in the last to excuse his absence, but there was nothing to suggest he won’t be a regular fixture in the middle of the ground for his side for a long time to come. You always know what you’re going to get from guys like Merrett and Shiel, but the former took his game to another level when the result was on the line. 13 of his game high 29 touches came in the last quarter, as he continually drove the team forward out of the middle. Deployed at times on a wing, only Saad had more than his 410 metres gained for Essendon, while he was also involved in five scores. Dylan Shiel may not have played his best game in red and black, but his 13 contested possessions were an equal game high, and his eight clearances were outright the most in the game, providing a strong presence on the inside to feed the outside run.

 

All of this so far has not even mentioned Darcy Parish. Arguably no player lifted more after three quarter time than the Number 3, who had struggled for time and space and had just four possessions to his name at the last break. Deployed in a forward role which just didn’t seem to suit him, in the last he pushed further up onto the ball, and in conjunction with Merrett got his side over the line. His clearance and pass to Kyle Langford, who was also handy, should have really iced the game, but instead it fell to him to thread the needle from the boundary with a drop punt reminiscent of Dom Sheed, though in appearance only; to compare the pressure each player was under is to compare apples with a small yacht—more clearly, there is no comparison.

 

Concluding Thoughts

 

  • I haven’t mentioned Shaun McKernan at all, really. His first half was quiet, and the Bombers really need him to clunk some of the marks he dropped. His three goals after half time were all important in the context of the match, though, and from just seven touches and three hit outs he managed an equal game high six score involvements.
  • The Swans needed more from their B+ players to win this one. You always know what their three co-captains are going to give you, and Florent as mentioned above was outstanding. However, Heeney was well held, and George Hewett didn’t have much of an impact either in a more outside role than he is perhaps suited to. Overall, too much was left to too few, with more than half of the side having 13 touches or fewer.
  • Haven’t mentioned Devon Smith at all. He seems to be another player pushed out of the Bombers’ midfield into more of a forward role, but his snap from the pocket was quite literally centimetre perfect, and he was involved in an equal game high six scores.
  • And finally, while I don’t like to mention umpiring in these reports, I thought the rationale presented to Aaron Francis as to why Tom Papley was given the 50 late in the last was flimsy at best. This isn’t to say the penalty wasn’t there, necessarily, though worse ones than that don’t get paid. Instead, the criticism here is with the reasoning that Papley ‘wouldn’t have gone to ground’ if Francis didn’t bump him. My concern is that, having heard this, forwards are going to start selling incidental contact from defenders in order to gain an extra advantage. That being said, it wasn’t the first clumsy moment from Francis, who also gifted Isaac Heeney a set shot just before half time, and if I’m being honest it wasn’t the best game from the young Bomber. He’ll be better for the run

 

And that just about wraps it up. The Bombers were probably the better side on the day, but the Swans showed a level of tenacity which holds them in good stead for the future. Next week, Sydney take on the undefeated Roos at Marvel Stadium in what should be an intriguing clash, while the undefeated Bombers return to the MCG to take on Melbourne in a game they should probably win, though the Dees looked good for a half against Carlton.