Classic rivalries withstand the test of time. When the hatred supporter bases feel for each other is built on years of intense clashes, tight finishes, and fiery exchanges, you know you’re going to be in for a passionate first-round affair.

The stage was set early with the classic, fan-favourite duel between two sides of ardent fans in the first round of the season. Neither Hawthorn nor Essendon have been widely tipped to finish much higher than 12th on the ladder in season 2021, however, both teams turned up to play a high-tempo game of footy that provided a tale of two halves. Inevitably, it was Essendon finding a new way to out-Essendon themselves in season 2021.

Here’s the game as I saw it.

FRANTIC FINISH

The clichéd moniker of ‘a tale of two halves’ was ever-present tonight.

A tight opening quarter saw an inaccurate Essendon trail Hawthorn by three points at quarter time. Andrew McGrath slotted his first goal for the night a few minutes into the second to give the Bombers the lead, followed by an onslaught of another six goals in a row to cement a healthy 39 point margin going into the main break.

Enter the twist of fate; Hawthorn came out firing after half time (no doubt fired up by a trademark Clarko spray). Kicking the first seven goals of the third quarter, Hawthorn decimated Essendon’s lead. Goals to Parish and Breust rounded out the quarter with the Bombers barely clinging to a one-point lead.

Unable to rediscover their first half form, Essendon battled their own skill errors, early inaccuracy at goal and a rampant Hawthorn, lead from the centre by Tom Mitchell who decided, after only 13 disposals to half time, would up his work rate and finished with a game-high 39 disposals. Late goals to Smith and Draper weren’t enough as new Hawthorn Skipper, Ben McEvoy and Tim O’Brien kicked truly to see the Hawks up by a solitary point as the final siren sounded.

NUMBER ONE

Andrew McGrath, the Bomber’s first-ever number one draft pick, further staked his claim as a worthy choice for that selection, only reinforcing what Essendon have known all along; let this bloke out in the slightest bit of space at your own peril. McGrath found the ball all over the ground, gathering with composure and time. His disposal was clean and damaging, amassing 33 almost equally by hand and foot, accompanied by a goal and game-high 11 tackles.

Until Mitchell reattached his famous string to the ball in the second half, McGrath was the premier on-baller for the game. If he and Merrett can continue the form they displayed tonight, combining an equal mix of grit and flair to move the ball at all costs, Essendon may finally be able to settle on their midfield. This was also due in part to hard work and fast hands froom Jye Caldwell, but more on those hands later.

JUST ONE OF THOSE GAMES

Have you ever heard the commentators say “he just had one of those games”? It’s a throwaway line that can be a term of endearment as equally as a criticism. Changkuoth Jiath had ‘one of those games’ tonight. In this instance, it’s definitely a term of endearment. Up until 3/4 time I had him as second best on ground behind Andy McGrath. Although his stats may not reflect a game worthy of such accolades, it further demonstrates that a game isn’t always won by the stats on the paper.

He finished the game with 22 disposals, four tackles, seven intercepts, five score involvements and a big fat zero turnovers. His run and dash, his leap and presence in the air, his ability to hit targets by hand and foot and find himself in the right place at the right time to receive or to repel time and time again were an absolute highlight and a pleasure to watch.

‘CJ’ played with the look and dare of someone who had been playing this game for their entire life, or at least more than his career tally of eight senior games thus far. Tonight he was a perfect example of why you can’t always judge a player’s game by their stats.

EYAS/HATCHLING/HAWK

For the sake of this article let me clarify that a newborn baby hawk is known as an eyas. A hatchling is a young hawk not yet old enough to leave its nest.

Hawthorn have made it no secret that they’re at a crossroads. They’ve lost some senior talent to trades and retirement over the past few seasons, they’ve hit the draft running and they’re raising a crop of younger players to hopefully take the mantle as the next great Hawthorn team.

This has been highlighted by a group of young players that are barely old enough to fly the nest, but they are showing that they’re more than capable of holding their own at the top level. Up until half-time, Dylan Moore had a single handball and two tackles to his name. Drastically low numbers, even by an 11th gamer’s standards. Whatever flavour Gatorade they filled his cup with at half time was clearly his favourite, because come the third quarter he had gone from a ‘who the hell is that player?’ to a ‘who the hell is ON that player?’ kind of player

Moore picked up 14 disposals, three marks and three goals in the third quarter alone, owning the Hawthorn forward line. A bit of that intensity from the first minute and he’ll have everyone in a yellow and brown scarf salivating. Another such player was Will Day. In only his 12th game of senior football, Day showed a skill beyond his years. Although not as quiet early as Moore, he too finished the game strongly, buoyed by the confidence of those around him. Impressive above his head and a classy finisher, Hawthorn will have big plans for Will Day, and he solidified his claim as a walk-up start in this defensive lineup this season.

“I’M YOUR HUCKLEBERRY

Essendon were active again in last year’s trade period. *Insert generic Adrian Dodoro joke here.

They raised a few eyebrows at their haste to prise Jye Caldwell from Greater Western Sydney. However, after identifying a problem that’s plagued them since the retirement of Jobe Watson, and realising that they still haven’t found a proper suitor yet, they may just have caught a glimpse of who can handle a contest and clear the ball by hand to their outside runners, with the emergence of Caldwell.

Another player whose stats don’t stack as highly as some, Caldwell may just be the gritty, hard-nosed ball winner that the Bombers have been screaming for. They’ve drafted players to fill that role, they’ve converted existing players roles to try and fill that void, however, none of the vast array of players tried over the past five years have been able to really cement that inside ball-winning position and help their team improve in the department they’ve lacked in for so long.

This just may be their answer. The man with hands as fast as Doc Holiday swinging his Colt 44 in a western folktale, Jye Caldwell just may be the man that Essendon have been yearning for. When the Bombers were on top tonight he was at the coalface, getting his hands dirty and flicking out rocket-like handballs in all directions and almost always finding a teammate, or finding a place to advantage them. If he can maintain that level of intensity and commitment to win the ball, Essendon could find a winning formula to their midfield.

Finally! Time, however… will tell.

THOSE IN GREEN KEEP US KEEN

With the amount of pressure on the umpires this season, it would be easy to launch into them and note how the Bombers had their rub tonight. I’m not about to do that. There were a couple of contentious calls to both teams, but one thing that I loved was the accuracy in the holding the ball ruling.

Yes, there were a few not paid that could’ve been paid. Just as there were a few paid that could’ve been called play on. However, as a whole, the interpretation of the holding the ball/incorrect disposal rule was at a great level tonight. There was very little great area – if you elected to take a player on and didn’t get a kick or a handball away sufficiently, you were pinged. If you dived on a ball or pulled it back in and it didn’t come out, most of the time you were pinged.

Too many seasons have come and gone where a coach’s reaction or a media outcry leads to a tweaking of the way the umpires interpret the rules. If they come out this season from the get-go and continually hold this level of consistency, they may come under less fire. That is doubtful, however, given they have rule changes implemented every single offseason. But that’s not my point of contention tonight.

Now, a few lesser notes that I jotted down throughout the course of the game.

– Will Shaun Burgoyne ever show signs of slowing down? Whether he was attacking the game headfirst or blanketing the mercurial McDonald-Tippungwuti, the man with the same amount of career wins as the Fremantle Football Club (256) did a bit of everything tonight. Love watching him play.

– Where is Jarman Impey at? At his best his damaging run is a vital part of Hawthorn’s formula. But when he’s not, he can be a liability. He found the ball 20 times tonight and was damaging early, but lacked penetration and run as the game wore on. Good to see him in the customary defensive role, however.

– In the first half, Dyson Heppell’s move to the halfback sweeper position looked like a masterstroke. He just kept appearing and appearing and appearing. His presence was becoming a real thorn in the side of the Hawks forwards. He just kept bobbing up and marking the ball or finding space and setting up his team’s rebound. However, he tapered off as the form of the Bombers diminished.

– Hawthorn’s intercept work was on point. At the end of the first quarter they had taken ten intercept marks to Essendon’s one. Managing to repel the frequent long bombing into the forward line that hasn’t worked for Essendon in season’s past, and doesn’t look like it’s going to work again this season. Perhaps in the third and fourth quarters the Bombers could’ve tried aiming for Hawthorn’s defenders with their forward entries? They managed to find them whenever they aimed long for their own teammates.

– Whilst on that topic, if Essendon could get it into their forward 50 as quickly as Hawthorn got it out of there, they may have just been able to facilitate more contested forward 50 marks.

– How deep do Essendon’s defensive stocks run this season? Can the aging Hooker still provide that swingman role in the absence of Michael Hurley? Reigning Best & Fairest, Jordan Ridley looked off the pace at times tonight. Nowhere near his form of last season. Maybe it’s the change in structure that has seen them play their equivalent of Geoff Mack (I’ve been everywhere) in Jayden Laverde as a lockdown defender now, maybe it’s the four-game forward in Ned Cahill being trialled in defence. Perhaps it’s Aaron Francis still struggling to hit that higher level that saw him taken as a top-ten draft pick, or maybe it’s Mason Redman still looking nervous like he’s just been caught pinching a pencil off the teacher’s desk?

Every year the media tells you how resolute the Bombers defensive six are – this season I just can’t see how they’ll stop any decent team from scoring.

– Seeing Luke Breust rubbing a young players nose into the ground, whilst laying facedown after having a goal kicked on him was a poor look from a senior player that should know better.

– Speaking of poor looks, did anyone else notice Dyson Heppell commit the cardinal sin that Kyle Langford was crucified for a few seasons ago? After his opponent was awarded the ball near the interchange bench, rather than man the mark Dyson decided to trot off the ground and leave his opponent open with a paddock in front of him. Luckily for him, his opponent didn’t take off and run into an open 50.

– I liked the look of Tyler Brockman. He seems to have a natural feel for the goals and knowing where he is at all times. With the Hawks in need of a lively small forward, he showed enough glimpses in this game. He’s someone I’ll be keeping an eye on this season.

– Another I’ll be looking out for is Sam Draper. I absolutely love the way the big fella goes about his game. It’s easy to see why St. Kilda were so open to throwing big bucks at him as an untried VFL player.

– Nick Hind may not have the class and evasiveness of Adam Saad, but he’s a handy replacement considering what he cost them. How high is his ceiling? A few angry pills for Hind in this one, as well.

– Seeing McEvoy sneak forward for a goal late in the game, only for the opposing ruckman Sam Draper to do the same minutes later was the footy deities writing an entertaining twist to the end of a ripper game.

– Young Harry Jones collecting the ball, sidestepping his opponent with a blind turn hard on the boundary just inside the 50 to send the ball deep into the Bombers’ attacking zone, in just his first game of AFL is a promising sign of what’s to come.

Plenty to like from both teams in this one, mixed in with huge fades that will cost them against better teams, but if the clubs are going to play this type of footy, we’re going to see some entertaining contests from them in 2021. Maybe not finals, but entertaining contests, nonetheless.