With a 29 point deficit in the second quarter, it looked as though things were going to go to script for the Bombers and the Eagles.
West Coast at home are always a tough ask, and with Nic Naitanui feeding the likes of Tim Kelly and Don Sheed, things started to look a little bleak for the Bombers. However, Essendon dug in deep, and the combination of a renewed attack on the contest, two crucial injuries to the Eagles, and Essendon adapting faster to the wet weather in the last quarter saw them come home with a wet sail to register a huge road win.
The Bombers were up for the fight, and had plenty of players that had momentum-changing moments in the second half as they clawed their way back into the contest. It was a great night to be a Bomber.
Let’s get to the bottom of this contest with The Mongrel’s Good, Bad and Ugly.
THE DOUBLE WHAMMY
Is there a better one-two midfield punch over the last month or so than Darcy Parish and Zach Merrett?
Some may have been as good, but for consistency, I am not really sure you’re going to find two players delivering at this level and having this type of influence as often.
They were at it again in this game, with Merrett doing his outside schtick better than anyone else in the league, and Parish making damn sure that Adrian Dodoro and Ben Rutten are painfully aware that he is more than capable of putting this unit on his back and carrying the clearance work. He had another 11 clearances in this game, making it the fourth game of the season that he has clocked in with double figures in that stat category. It is a mark he achieved just once prior to this season.
He was also prolific around the ground, picking up 36 touches, to make that the sixth time in 2021 he has gone for 30+
Again, for the record, Parish had achieved that mark just twice in his career prior to this season.
With these two providing the perfect Yin to the other’s Yang, the Bombers’ midfield appears to be working harmoniously. They get solid contributions by Andrew McGrath, Kyle Langford, and David Zaharakis to balance out the unit, but the combination of Parish and Merrett is making things hum beautifully.
At a combined 61.5 touches per game, they are the hottest midfield tandem in the game right now, and if we bring their numbers back to the last four games, things look even better. Parish is averaging 36.5 disposals in that period, and Merrett is at 31.7.
You can do your own math on that one, but it is pretty bloody impressive numbers.
HALF BACK HEPPELL
Hands up if you were a little worried about Heppell’s move to half back before the season started?
It’s not that I didn’t think Heppell was a good player – not at all. However, I did worry about his disposal by foot a little, and how he would fare under pressure when the ball came his way.
It turns out I had nothing to worry about – the bloke is a natural. It is almost as though he’s done it before, right Bomber fans? Right? You think I didn’t know he’s spent time at half back and you were getting all ready to jump on socials and tell me all about it, huh? I’ve got your numbers… I was tempted to leave it out, because we all know that the best way to get engagement is to get something wrong.
And haven’t I learnt that the hard way…
Back to Heppell. He was cool, calm and collected under pressure in this one, notching a game-high 12 intercepts. What was more impressive is that five of those intercepts came in the last quarter, where the Bombers captain put himself in the right spot time, and time again to cut off the futile-at-times Eagles attack.
Heppell feasted on the wet weather, “throw it on your boot and hope” style of attack the Eagles employed as fatigue became more of a factor. He had ten last quarter touches as he simply took control of the back half and played like a genuine defensive general.
I never really thought I’d be typing that, but there you go.
There were real concerns for Heppell’s future last year as his foot injury lingered. It seemed like one of those injuries that would never go away – just varying in degrees of pain and restriction. Whether Heppell is still dealing with the remnants of that injury, or if he has learnt to live with it, he is making a great fist of this role at half back, and has definitely made me shut up about any fears I had about his execution when under the pump.
I am old enough to remember the ‘Baby Bombers’ of 1993. What I am seeing at the moment from this incarnation of the Essendon Football Club may not be on the same level, but god damn there is some young talent on display.
Archie Perkins had moments in this game where he looked like a seasoned veteran. Nik Cox’s run to get past Nic Nat was “hair on the back of your neck standing up” kind of thing, and Harry Jones’ attack on the footy in the air is as exciting as hell.
The Bombers are putting together a team for the future, and they’re already delivering! This leads me to my next point…
Could it happen?
With two teams on the same number of points yet to play (Richmond and Freo), the Bombers sit in eighth position and they are there with a shitload of momentum behind them.
No Shiel, no Hurley, no Caldwell, no Smith, no Draper, no Francis…
This Essendon team is starting to gel without lamenting the players they do not have in the side. They are embracing those they do, and they’re starting to learn how to win. Make no mistake – this was a stunning win… absolutely stunning – the kind of win that instills belief in a side housing so many young guns. This is the game they will look back on when the chips are down and remind themselves that they’ve been in tough situations before, and were able to turn things around.
There may be a hiccup or two along the way, and look… maybe they fall in a heap at some stage, but a team growing into itself needs wins like this to bring the boys together and give them something to hold onto.
Some of you are aware I am a Hawthorn supporter, and really… I should hate Essendon. Actually, I kind of do, but I reckon I do a decent job of putting it aside. When I do that, I am able to recognise what an “up and about” Essendon team does for the competition. My team is screwed, but what I do when we’re down is barrack for the game, and seeing Essendon start to build is bloody good for the game! I’d love to see them make finals, and hell… I wouldn’t even mind seeing them win one off the back of some kids becoming men.
THESE ARE NOT THE DEFENDERS YOU’RE LOOKING FOR
I have friends. Believe it or not, I do. And when we sit and talk, we like to talk footy.
This off-season, the subject of Essendon came up and my friend was lamenting the departure of Connor McKenna and Adam Saad from the club, expressing how he felt the defence would lack legspeed and line-breaking in their absence.
I listened – I’m a good friend like that, you see? Then I summarily disregarded what he had to say, because he was just plain wrong.
He counted McKenna as a defender despite him whining about wanting to play forward all last year (remember Heath Shaw running off him to kick two goals against the Giants? Great defensive pressure by McKenna), and thought that no one could replicate what Saad brought to the table.
Not only have the Bombers replaced Saad and McKenna, but they may also have upgraded!
Mason Redman has long been a player that has threatened to be a potent running half back, and as 2021 continues on, we are really starting to see him tuck the footy under his arm and take off more and more. He is gaining confidence and looks right at home both inside defensive fifty and running toward half forward.
And then there’s Nick Hind.
At half the price tag of Saad, Hind is offering better returns on a regular basis. Unlike Saad, he is actually defensively accountable (except on that play he allowed Liam Ryan to sneak out the back – that was sloppy) and uses his run for good, instead of just for evil.
I often thought Saad would run hard away from his defensive 50, but wouldn’t quite hit the same speed running back toward it. Hind is quite the opposite. He has done more than step into the big shoes left behind by Saad – he has picked them up, thrown them in the rubbish and shown Essendon a better, more economical pair.
And wouldn’t you know it – they seem to fit perfectly.
THE LONE HAND IN THE MIDDLE
Dom Sheed tried his guts out in this one. He absolutely attempted to drag his team, kicking and screaming, toward the win, but just didn’t have enough left to get them there.
Soldiering on without Tim Kelly, Sheed became the West Coast midfield. No… he didn’t become part of it, he became IT.
Collecting 43 touches, seven clearances and a goal, Sheed’s contribution to the Eagles was enormous. He battled and scrapped on the inside, and worked hard to run to space on the outside as he worked relentlessly to provide options in the middle.
It was obviously not enough, with the tandem of Parish and Merrett too strong, but Sheed can hold his head high after giving all he had to the cause in this one.
THE TWO BIG FORWARDS
No, not Kennedy and Darling – they were at the wrong end in the last quarter. I am talking about the Package and the Hooker!
Sounds like a poor heist movie title, huh?
When the game was there to be one, I loved what these two produced. Strong in the contests, both guys played vital roles in getting the Bombers over the line. Stringer’s goal from the boundary toward the end of the third quarter surprised the hell out of the commentators, who thought he was setting it up to the top of the square.
Did he not know who he was talking about? Had he not watched Jake Stringer play football? He lives for these moments, and as he went back and slotted a goal from the Jack Newnes pocket, you got the feeling that something was brewing.
Hooker, despite not hitting the scoreboard meaningfully in the last, was a monster. He had seven touches and four marks in the final 25 minutes as he provided a great inside 50 target for his team. And, of course, it was his ruck take away and kick to Stringer that gave the Bombers a bit of breathing room.
Oh… we’ll get to that ruck contest…
ALL THAT RUCK DOMINANCE… AND THIS HAPPENS?
Righto, for the record, I thought Nic Naitanui had a fantastic outing in terms of his ruck work. As per usual, his deft taps, and the clearances he won, himself, were integral to West Coast getting quick inside 50 entries.
But he doesn’t get off the hook here. Not by a long shot.
How he was able to be out-muscled by Cale Hooker late in the game will remain one of the questions West Coast fans ask themselves. Really, rucks, in general, should be asking themselves this question when the inexperienced second of third-string rucks are able to out-body them and take clean possession at a forward fifty stoppage.
That is a discussion for another time – at the moment, we’re narrowing the focus onto Nic Nat.
Whether it was poor positioning, a lapse in concentration, or perhaps the fact that he just flat out got beaten, the clean clearance from Hooker and the hurried hack forward gave Jake Stringer a one-out contest at the edge of the goal square against Josh Rotham.
And Stringer ate that opportunity up.
He took the contested grab, went back and slotted his third goal to take the margin out to nine points.
Naitanui is in the side for his ruck work – he sure as hell isn’t in the team for his marking ability! He was required to take control of that stoppage and ensure, above all else, that Essendon did not get a scoring chance from it.
He blew it. Really, he just flat out blew it.
I’m a big Nic Nat supporter. I like the way he is able to influence games not just with kicks and marks, but with his ruck craft and second efforts once the ball hits the deck, but that one stoppage, and his failure to produce something that even ended up with a 50/50 ball at ground level will be the take away for many in this game.
In short, he did not do what he does best in that moment. He did… not much.
THE MOMENTUM SHIFTER
There were several instances that swung the momentum the Bombers’ way, but I am not sure there was a bigger one than Tim Kelly hobbling off the ground in the second quarter. At that point, West Coast were flying, and the one-two punch provided by Kelly and Dom Sheed looked to be enough to stifle the midfield output from Zach Merrett and Darcy Parish.
In the first quarter, the Bomber duo combined for 21 disposals, however, they were outgunned by the duo of Kelly and Sheed. The West Coast pair combined for 23 first quarter touches, and looked to be on the march to plenty more in the second when Kelly contorted his body in such a way that he not only wrenched his knee, but also could have split his pants!
Look, I am not the most flexible man in the world, so I winced a bit when I saw Kelly’s legs splayed out at right-angles as he hit the deck, but the comedic value of the situation was quickly hosed down when Kelly left the field and failed to return. The official word was that he had wrenched his knee in the incident, which is a terrible result for the Eagles as they had just started to look as though they were going to be able to have a strong midfield unit once again.
From there, Sheed continued to try his guts out, and Jack Redden was inserted into the mix, but the Parish/Merrett combination started to get on top. They had a combined 16 third quarter touches and added a monstrous 25 last quarter total (16 to Merrett) as they powered the Bombers home.
Tim Kelly, has arguably been the Eagles’ best mid in 2021, and if we erase the horrendous outing to Geelong from our collective memories, his output this year has been the backbone of the West Coast on-ball division. His injury was a lightbulb moment for the Bombers. It was as though they realised that “hey… we can get this mob!”
And they did.
Slowly, but surely, Essendon reeled the Eagles in, and with an underdone Elliot Yeo not really able to provide the lift the Eagles were hoping for, the monster game from Sheed just wasn’t enough to stop the bleeding.
And just on the note of injury, whilst I believe that the Kelly injury was the main factor in shifting the momentum, the way Oscar Allen just disappeared after half time was really concerning. That fall in the marking contest was nasty, and I know if I fell like that, I’d be needing a chiropractor pretty quickly – fingers crossed his removal from the game was precautionary. He has such a massive future ahead of him.
HOW UNDERDONE WAS ELLIOT YEO?
He wasn’t the Elliot Yeo we’ve come to know, was he?
The name you know… Elliot Yeo… it’s getting pretty late.
He started in the middle and drifted forward, but was a non-factor in the front half of the ground, hardly seeing the ball anywhere but the centre stoppages. He finished with five clearances and was ferocious at the contest, but after 75 minutes of WAFL footy, he was never going to come back in and smash in for 120 minutes.
I was chatting with the Mongrel writers about this during the week and said it had to go one of two ways – either he struggled a bit and we all lamented how underdone he was, or he came back and played brilliant footy and we acted as though his success was never in doubt.
The injury to Kelly obviously didn’t help, but Yeo looked as though he was a couple of WAFL runs short of being ready. Ain’t hindsight great?
WAS LIAM RYAN ROBBED OF A FREE KICK IN THE LAST QUARTER?
He sure was.
He basically just protected the space in order to run onto the footy and the umpire, obviously devoid of any feel for the game, pinged him for a block.
Crap decision, and the sort of thing that frustrates players to the point where they may react in a way detrimental to their team and individual opponents.
Let’s move on…
WHAT DO WE MAKE OF ANDREW GAFF’S GAME?
Exactly the kind of game I don’t want to see from him.
Played on the inside too much, particularly after Kelly’s injury, and as a result, wound up hacking the ball forward way too often.
Gaff has a habit of being drawn to the contest a little too often, and it robs the Eagles of his run and carry. 31 touches is nice, but at about 11 metres per possession, West Coast missed that run and drive from him that actually hurts teams. Yep, 31 touches… one of the poorer 31 disposal games you’ll see from Gaff.
I’m already lamenting not having Kyle Langford in the good section, but I am so damn tired… He was wonderful in this one, and is putting together a nice season, whether he is playing on the wing or across half forward. He is deceptively good overhead and makes good decisions with the ball in-hand.
Really enjoyed the way Andrew Phillips played Naitanui around the ground. He pushed really hard and made the big Eagle work just as hard to defend. Phillips was beaten on the whole, particularly in the ruck, but his seven marks around the ground were telling.
As much as I wrapped up the Bomber forwards above, I don’t know where West Coast would be without the defensive efforts of Tom Barrass. A couple of the spoils he made in this one were A-Grade material. He finished with 13 spoils and played a very solid game.
Been saying it all year – When Jamie Cripps gets 20 touches, the Eagles are close to unbeatable. Check the records since the start of 2018…
He had 12 in this one.
Not sure whether I liked the Hind v Ryan clashes, or the Ridley v Ryan ones. Gotta give it to Ryan… he creates talking points.
Some real guts displayed by Jayden Laverde in this game. Looked battered and broken, but continued to put his body on the line all game. His move to defence has been excellent.
Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti was damaging when he had the ball. Most will have appreciated his couple of goals that kept the Bombers in it, but the four direct goal assists… that is damn good value!
And that may do me this fine evening. The Bombers have a date with the Tigers in the Dreamtime game… somewhere next week. That should be a ripper. And the Eagles are scheduled to play the Blues at the MCG… which won’t happen. They may end up with another home game the way things are going in my shit city.