It’s a long way back from a 1-5 record, and that is what both Essendon and Collingwood were staring down the barrel of as they squared off at the MCG in their annual ANZAC Day clash, this time with fans streaming in to watch, and be part of the spectacle.

After a few lean years in the contest (including a 2019 result where they were royally reamed by the umpires), the Bombers hit back with a four goal win to breathe life into their season, and sink the dwindling hopes of the black and white army in the process…

… what a time to be alive!

The Bombers were led by 23-year-old midfielder, Darcy Parish, who had a career-best afternoon, whilst he received solid support from the reliable Zach Merrett, captain Dyson Heppell and the dangerous Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti.

The Pies looked as though they may be able to steal the game early in the last quarter, with lifts from their established stars. Darcy Moore moved into the familiar role at half back after being starved of opportunity up forward, whilst the old form of Scott Pendlebury and Steele Sidebottom combined for 33 second half touches to drag their team back into the contest, time, and time again.

However, the Bombers were up for the fight. Young gun, Nik Cox impressed, and recruit Peter Wright had his best outing for the club.

There’s a heap to get through with this one – here’s The Mongrel’s good, bad and ugly.

 

 

THE GOOD

 

DARCY AND THE PARISHIONERS

If the Bombers threw a band together, would that be a good name for them? How about Handsome Zach Merrett and Friends? Dev Smith and the Hard Tacklers?

What a game for Darcy Parish – a deserved Anzac Medal and 42 touches were the epicentre of the Essendon eruption. His game started on the right foot, with 14 first-quarter touches and the blonde Bomber never looked back, compiling an excellent four-quarter game, with eight touches in the last the fewest disposal he had in a quarter.

Parish recorded nine clearances to two with two goal assists and two goals off his own boot as the match-winner for the Bombers. They say that it is in the big games that players really make a name for themselves. Everyone wants to be remembered as a great finals player, or great Showdown, or Derby player, and when it comes to Essendon and Collingwood, everyone wants to be remembered as a great player in the Anzac game.

With this monstrous effort, Parish now places his name alongside club legend, James Hird, amongst others, as players who stepped up on the big stage.

The challenge now for Parish is to build on this game. He wasn’t matched up against some scrubs here – the name of Scott Pendlebury matches that of Hird, with three Medals to his name. He went to work in the trenches in this one, and in the process elevated expectations around his game.

After a slow start to 2021, Parish’s last four games have seen him average 31.75 touches per game. That’s obviously bolstered by this 42-touch blast, but these are the kinds of numbers that the elite of the competition put up. This is who the Bombers need him to be.

So, Bomber fans, I ask you – you’re the experts on your team; does Darcy Parish have what it takes to step up into the top echelon of midfielders in the game and hit 25+ touches week in and week out, irrespective of the occasion? He’s shown flashes over the past couple of seasons, but it is consistency that so many young stars struggle with. Is he ready to make the next step and, importantly, ready to do the work to stay there?

 

LAVERDE… SURELY

See what I did there? Showing my age, I know.

I am sure there may have been a few watching Jayden Laverde head into defence earlier this season and wondering what the hell Ben Rutten was up to. Am I right?

Tried as a forward under John Worsfold, the results of his tenure in the role were… average. I think that’s fair to say.

He was sitting right at a goal per game over the last couple of years, but if we’re being honest, you could tell he was never going to set the world on fire in front of the big sticks. A switch of ends, however, and now you have his ability to read the ball in flight, and his string body as an asset in defensive fifty… things are looking up.

With 21 disposals at 91% efficiency, Laverde must be smiling tonight as he slotted into one of the best roles in footy, as the rebounding defender. He took 13 marks for the contest, his hands like a vice as he embraced the freedom to attack the footy without someone hanging all over him.

There was a real concern earlier this season with the Bomber defence. The absence of Michael Hurley and the need for Cale Hooker to play further up the ground left the Bombers looking vulnerable, however, the emergence of Laverde, particularly in the absence of Jordan Ridley (he had Anzac Medallist written all over him in the weeks leading up to his concussion) has everyone re-assessing.

I know it is an early crow, but Laverde looked like everything someone like Brad Sheppard or Nick Haynes are to their teams when they are on. A great decision to throw him back there – a gutsy one by Rutten, and more than justified by the excellent efforts of Laverde.

 

DAICOS BACK INTO THE GUTS

Whilst all eyes have been on the move of Darcy Moore into attack over the recent weeks, one that has flown completely under the radar has been the absence of Josh Daicos from the Collingwood on-ball division.

Well, Buckley finally pulled his finger out (God knows where it’s been!) and threw Daicos back into the middle, generating some good run and carry for his team as his clean hands at ground level demonstrated just what the Pies have been missing in there.

Playing in the guts through the first half before switching back to his familiar wing role after half time, Daicos played a valuable link role for the Pies as well as chipping in to collect a career-high seven clearances.

The Pies now seem to be experimenting. Like two teenagers in love, they’re exploring what is possible with what they have to play with, and whilst I understand the reasoning behind throwing Daicos into the forward line to get dangerous in the previous month of footy, the fact is, he simply wasn’t making it work.

Back into the middle, he immediately looked more dangerous than he had at any stage this season. Let’s hope Bucks keeps him there and allows him to continue to grow as a player.

 

PHILLIPS (AND WRIGHT) V GRUNDY (AND CAMERON)

Big shout out to Andrew Phillips in this one.

Playing your first game of the season, it is easy to be a little off the boil and make mistakes. Thrown into the mix as part of the biggest Victorian home and away fixture of the year, the stakes were high for Phillips, particularly when you consider he was up against Brodie Grundy.

Whether you’re a stats-person or not, sometimes you have to rely on the eye-test to assess how a duel played out. The contest between Phillips and Grundy ebbed and flowed like the tides. The stats will tell you that Grundy had his way – 40 hit outs, 19 touches, seven tackles… they’re numbers that are hard to ignore. However, Phillips battled hard and earned six clearances to Grundy’s four, whilst hitting the scoreboard early to keep his opponent accountable.

Phillips was ably supported by Peter Wright, who had what was easily his best game of his short Essendon career, kicking two goals, whilst taking ten grabs (four contested) and laying six tackles of his own.

Wright has been blasted by ex-players and commentators (and a couple of Mongrels) for his lack of endeavour.

They would have been quiet today. He worked hard up and back, to assist both his defence and to provide a threat in the forward half.

If people are going to whack him when he has a bad one (and he will have some bad ones), then it is only fair that you pat him on the back when he has a good one, and he was good in this one. Officially now, Peter… welcome to Essendon.

And finally, hats off to Darcy Cameron, who presented brilliantly all day for the Pies and displayed some excellent hands in the contests. If you could take his marking ability and give it to Brodie Grundy, you’d have one hell of a ruckman.

 

 

AMT PLAYING FOOTY

There were a couple of occasions where Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti kicked goals, and you just have to wonder how he got the space to do it?

I mean, here is one of the most dangerous small forwards in the game, the ball comes off the pack, and suddenly AMT is there with the footy in his hands with enough time to settle and slot the major. How does that bloody well happen?!?!

Maybe I’ll ask Isaac Quaynor? He may know. And if he doesn’t, perhaps Jack Madgen would have an idea?

For the record, Quaynor had some great moments as an attacking defender, but when the primary role of the defender is to close down the space on your opponent, that is where your focus should be.

As for Madgen… he had no business being anywhere neat AMT at any point. The differences between the two are startling, with one moving like a glacier, and the other moving like a goal sneak wearing red and black who kicks goals for fun.

Walla is a polarising figure. He is noticeable when things don’t go his way and he has a bad day, and then there are days like this… I prefer to concentrate on him on days like this. This is what he brings to this Essendon team, and if they can create the right mismatch, he will eat a slow, or inattentive defender for breakfast, or late lunch, as was the case in this game.

 

CENTRE BOUNCE STRINGER

It’s been an ongoing issue for the Bombers at centre bounces – the lack of a genuine hard nut in there to absorb contact, stand in a tackle, and deliver the footy to one of the outside runners. But in Jake Stringer, the Bombers found that early in the piece, and his efforts helped Essendon get the game back on level terms after the Pies jumped them.

Stringer has always been a bull, but his tank often lets him down. He is one of those blokes who is always kind of in shape, but never in shape enough to run out a full game and remain a threat. I am sure you know what I mean – whether it is a limited pre-season, or form dropping away after an injury, Jake seems to struggle when he has had some time out of the game.

But when used properly, and in short doses in the middle of the ground, he can be a very potent weapon.

You see… and I’ll put this bluntly, Stringer is a complete Mongrel. He is the sort of player you throw in there and you know he is going to crack in regardless of who he is up against. He was hard at it in this one, picking up three first quarter clearances to help steady the Essendon ship and get them back on track.

As expected, he was quieter in the second half, with five of his 16 touches coming after the main break, but when he was needed in the early going, he was incredibly strong in the contest and was pivotal in allowing the Bombers to launch out of the middle.

 

THAT’S WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT – THE GRUNT!

Dev Smith – thank you.

Over the past little while, I have been critical of the way Devon Smith has attacked the contest and, yes, the body of his opponents. Whilst the days of him leading the league in tackles may be a thing of the past, there are occasions where he can open up a can of whoop ass on some unsuspecting opponents and raise some hell.

Today was one of those days.

Recording ten tackles for the first time since Round Eight of the 2019 season, he went from playing the role of annoying mosquito to that of a stinging wasp. He set the tone early, with a great round-the-corner goal to set the Bombers alight and his four second-quarter goals were vital in Essendon gaining the ascendancy.

Those who gave me a whack for giving Dev Smith a whack… this is the version of him I wanted to see. This is the tackling machine that can have a huge influence on the game without the footy. This is the player that won your best and fairest in his debut season in the red and black, and this is the player he needs to be forward of centre for the Bombers to apply manic pressure and cause turnovers.

Contrary to popular belief, I am happy to see him do it again.

 

COX GOES HARD

Let’s see how many double entendres I can fit in here…

Was there anyone else that thought Nik Cox was in contention for the best player on the park at half time? With six marks and ten touches through the first two quarters, the big man would have been stiff not to be in the running (1).

Watching him play the role of the wingman to perfection, he often seemed like he was able to find the space to get the ball out wide. It was as though he was playing with himself out there (2). He marked all sorts of balls (3), whether they were dirty balls (4) coming out of the back half (5), or intercept marks as he cut off the avenues out of the Pies’ defence.

Cox’s flexibility and ability to play big or small (6) kept his opponent, usually Nathan Murphy, on his toes the entire first half. Whilst their stats would end up relatively similar, Cox gobbled up balls (7) with his arms stretching up like two big testicles (8)… I mean “tentacles” in contests all over the park.

When cornered, he would jerk left and right (9) to get himself out of trouble and avoid getting rid of the pill prematurely (10).

Seriously though, Cox was a fantastic contributor to the Bombers in the first half and left no doubt that he has something special to offer Essendon for many years. The way he showed clean hands, and a clean pair of heels on a number of occasions indicates that when the time comes for him to move into a key position, or even a pinch-hitting ruck role, he will have all the tools required at his disposal.

And I didn’t even mention anyone ducking around with the footy, cocking something up, or stroking the footy beautifully. Maybe next week.

 

THE OLD FIRM

There is a continuation of this in the next section, but Steele Sidebottom and Scott Pendlebury can only do what they can do right now, and what they do is play great footy.

The Bombers threatened to take the game over at a couple of points and it was only the stubbornness of the evergreen Pendlebury and his fellow 30+ mate, Sidebottom that halted their march to victory.

Both players were fantastic through the third quarter as they continuously propelled the Pies forward and gave their forwards a chance to hit the scoreboard. The ball use of Pendlebury, in particular, was of the highest standard, as the 33-year-old happily ran the footy through the middle of the ground to set up both Darcy Cameron and Brody Mihoeck for shots at goal. He led the game in score involvements in yet another Anzac Day masterpiece from a man that has made this day his own over the past dozen or so years.

The resolve of Sidebottom was also heartening for the Pies, as he notched 17 contested touches and nine clearances, playing a much more inside role than we’ve been used to seeing over the past few years.

But the question we’ll explore in a minute is – who takes their place once they’re gone???

 

THE BAD

 

WHO’S NEXT?

Ah yes, it was relatively cool when Bill Goldberg started spouting that line back in around 1998, but in regard to the up and coming players in the Collingwood midfield, it probably wouldn’t elicit quite the same raucous response that the bald WCW champion received in his prime.

When the Pies needed a list, they looked to their old stagers. When the Bombers needed a lift, it was some of their kids stepping up to the plate – it makes you wonder where this Collingwood midfield is heading as both Pendlebury and Sidebottom head into the deep twilight of their careers?

Taylor Adams is the man going forward, obviously, but outside him, where are the Pies going to look for that drive, that composure, and that experience? Brayden Sier? He plays games where he looks as though he couldn’t get a kick in a stampede, let alone inspire the troops. Josh Daicos? A real possibility, but his game is much better suited to that of an outside runner. Jordan de Goey? Is he a forward? Is he a midfielder? He’s probably not the permanent answer, either.

The Pies have some good kids coming through – the way Fin Macrae finished the game against the Eagles was promising – not so much in this one.I guess the hope is one of the Brown Brothers makes the step up to being a midfielder at some stage, but there is not a lot in that 24-27 year old bracket that makes me think the Pies will be just fine.

A midfield of Adams, Daicos and Crisp is a middling threesome. Throw in de Goey and they become a little more dangerous, yet without the old heads to guide them, I fear for the direction of the Pies midfield.

Fingers crossed both Pendles and Sidebottom stay healthy and can buy this team another 12 months to develop their on-ball division. I  reckon they need it.

 

THE UGLY

 

NO MAN’S LAND

At 1-5, the Pies are in free-fall.

There were two ways this club was going to go in 2021. Either they would band together in the face of the media throng that bombarded the club for their handling of the Do Better… report, and for their trade week efforts in offloading Adam Treloar and Jaidyn Stephenson, galvanising the group under an “us versus them” mantra.

Or they were going to fall in a hole in a season that would be the end of not only Eddie McGuire and his reign at the club, but also the tenure of Nathan Buckley.

The path now seems well and truly set for them.

Buckley is already doing the right thing by whoever else occupies the chair for him, and at some stage down the track, I am sure he will be lauded fro playing Fin Macrae, Will Kelly, Beau McCreery and Jay Rantall, even when it is apparent that they are not yet up to AFL standard… most of them, anyway. He is taking the lumps in order for the next coach to hit the ground running.

When you take a step back, it is quite admirable.

He has experimented with the team, in switching Darcy Moore from defence to forward and back again… sounds like a bad Hobbit movie. And he has toyed with the role of Josh Daicos to give him a different look.

But we are now at a point where he is just playing out time.

1-5 is a mountain even the best teams would lose their footing and fall from. Buckley came into the season with a list that was not the worst, but no longer anywhere near the best, and with de Goey, Howe, Elliot and Adams out, the depth was tested.

And it is failing.

With the Suns and North Melbourne in the coming two weeks, the Pies have a chance to right some wrongs, and it will be a true test of whether this group still listen to the message Bucks preaches, or whether they are just playing out time until a new coach takes his place at the pulpit.

 

 

SOME QUESTIONS

 

WAS IT OUT OF BOUNDS?

It was very close. Very, very close. Very, very, ver… you get the picture.

Look, there is the possibility that a centimetre or two of the ball may have been over the line, allowing Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti to run in and kick a goal… but there was also the possibility that the umpire cocked it up.

Just like they cocked up all those free kicks in 2019. A lot of people told Essendon fans to get over it at the time. Have a guess what they’re telling you right now?

If anything, I’d be more pissed with the ridiculous deliberate decision against Steele Sidebottom not long after. That was a howler!

 

WHAT HAS BECOME OF JOSH THOMAS?

I don’t know, but I am not liking it.

Playing like a bloke with his shoes on the wrong feet at times, Thomas has now been thrown into the middle to have an impact. At 29, and standing 177cm and weighing 77 kegs, Josh Thomas is now in the middle of the ground for the Pies.

Far out… talk about experimenting. He finished with 18 touches, but from a player of his ilk, one score involvements tells me he didn’t do much of note when he had the footy.

 

COULD NICK HIND BE THE RECRUIT OF THE SEASON?

He’ll be up there.

I’ll tell you what Hind does do – plays accountable defensive footy, AS WELL AS running off his man to launch the offence. I know there are lingering Adam Saad fans here, but he does what Saad didn’t do, and that is get back to help before running off to make position to receive. I like that about him. His 23 touches and seven intercepts were important in this one.

 

IS HAVING HEPPELL BEHIND THE FOOTY A SUCCESS?

Oh man, I waver on this one. It was today – let’s put it that way.

He had 29 touches, six intercepts and seven tackles in possibly his best game across half back, and looked like a general at times. I do still worry about his disposal under pressure, but if the Bombers can continue to manufacture situations where he can run onto the loose footy, it’s a pretty good move to date.

 

HOW IMPORTANT IS IT THAT THE BOMBERS RE-SIGN ZACH MERRETT?

Sell your children, your grandchildren and your pets if you have to, but get that signature.

Seriously, with the right supports around him, Merrett will win a Brownlow. Though he is forced to play an inside/outside role, he is at his best when he is the release player and has time to assess and deliver. He hits targets, makes good decisions and always looks composed.

I’d give up a heap at Hawthorn to have him on the books, and the Bombers should be willing to give up a heap to keep him. What they need to do is string a few wins together and display a pathway for him going forward. Give him some belief, and the signature will come.

 

OTHER BITS

 

I’m a bit of a Mason Redman believer, so it was nice to see him stream forward and kick a goal.

A solid outing from Jack Crisp, but he looked a little tentative at times in this game. Still, 30 touches at 87% is nothing to sneeze at, and his run from half back was important as the Bombers went quick inside 50.

Damn shame to see Aaron Francis go down with an injured ankle. He looked to have the measure of Darcy Moore early in the piece and was hitting the contests hard… which is how he got injured, I guess, so…

I’d love to see him recover quickly – with their defence so depleted this season (Ambrose is another that could really help), Francis is very important to their success.

As above, the Pies have the Suns and North in the next two weeks, whilst the Bombers get the Blues and the Giants in two winnable games. Who knows – maybe we look back at Anzac Day as the moment the Bombers launched their real assault on the 2021 season. They have two weeks to prove they’re for real.

 

 

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