With a potential top eight spot on the line, this was always going to be a bit of a danger game for the Bombers. Facing a North Melbourne side with a new lease on life in recent weeks, the two teams made the trip to the Gold Coast to continue their 2021 campaigns with very different hopes.
For the Bombers, the chance at making the 2021 finals continues to morph into a reality. A win here would see them settle inside the top eight dependent on other results, whilst a loss would see them fall back to the mire.
The Kangaroos were looking at things a little differently. There will be no finals for them as they recover from a disastrous first half of the season, but they have started to see some growth in their list, and combined with the wisdom of their new coach, David Noble and his style of play, they are beginning to gel.
Early, it was North looking like the better team, working the ball through a host of lazy Essendon mids, whilst the Bombers relied on the work in the guts of Jake Stringer to get them moving.
As we turned the corner at halftime, there was a genuine sense that an upset was brewing, with a couple of easy misses from the Bombers infuriating their fans. It took until the last quarter for them to settle, and they once again went back to the well that provided so much sustenance early in the game. It was Jake Stringer again, with three goals in the final term, and one just before the three quarter time siren, that carried the Bombers to the win. But more on him soon enough.
Let’s jump into the Mongrel’s good, bad and ugly.
ON A STRING-ER
After a bullocking start to the game that saw Stringer get his hands on the footy four times in a row from centre bounces, things seemed to go a little quiet for the out-of-contract star for around an hour. North tackled him hard and ensured that he was no afforded the space to fend players off and run away, as has been his form over the past month. They used a team tactic to make sure Stringer got no free run at the ball, and to their credit, they were incredibly effective at keeping him quiet.
And then, all of a sudden, things were not that quiet at all…
With 27 minutes gone in the third quarter, Stringer once again burst to life, but this time it was not in the middle of the ground. This time it was up forward as he hit the scoreboard to give the Bombers an eight point lead going into the last change.
He wasn’t finished there, however.
In a blistering quarter of power football, Stringer slammed on three goals in the final stanza to effectively slam the door in the face of the North Melbourne Football Club and make a couple of statements in the process.
Statement number one – This is Essendon team will go as far as he can take them in 2021.
Statement number two – Whatever you’re thinking of paying him… it might not be enough.
There will be some who raise the hand of the Zach Merrett as Essendon’s most important player in this game. I was kind of gravitating toward Parish, but given the result, the situation and the performance when the game was there to be won, Jake Stringer was the matchwinner in this game.
When you get the engine started, the Bombers are hard to stop. When it falters, or fails to turn over, they look vulnerable.
And so it was that the third quarter saw Ben Rutten light a fire under his prime movers in the middle, prompting a wonderful response from Zach Merrett and Darcy Parish. Both were what you would call serviceable in the first half, picking up possessions but also appearing to be less than enthused about running back to offer cover to their defenders. One particular play was highlighted by David King, showing Zach Merrett quite uninterested in following his man, Jy Simpkin, as he ran forward.
Merrett was in second gear whilst Simpkin had his foot to the floor, darting inside 50 to create an overlap and feed Nick Larkey for the easiest goal of his career. Watching this, it genuinely felt as though the Bombers were not on, and the Roos were well and truly up for the fight.
At halftime, you can imagine both the Essendon starts getting a bit of an earful about their defensive work, and they responded like professionals.
The third quarter belonged to Parish and Merrett, with the two combining for 22 disposals, and six clearances as the Bombers rammed on four goals to one to take control of the contest. Rectifying his poor work earlier in the game, Merrett was often found back on the last line of defence to help his back six, whilst Parish toiled away as the release man for Merrett’s work. It was a combination that hurt the Kangaroos. These two turned the midfield battle from an arm wrestle into a walkover, with the Roos unable to get their hands on the footy at times.
Jy Simpkin, who was quite prolific early in the game, was restricted to just two touches in the third quarter, with nobody else for North able to stand up and carry the load. This is where North really missed the toughness of Ben Cunnington, but more on that later.
With all the talk of “Moneyball” on social media this morning – and a particularly defensive response to it all by cheap suit-wearing Jon Ralph – a bit of a discussion came up about who was the team to best employ the Moneyball theory at AFL level.
I have to admit, I am a bit lost in terms of how it all applies to Aussie Rules, as there are so many variables to consider in the way our game is played, unlike baseball where you have standout factors like left-handed batters and right-handed pitchers to weigh up chances, etc… things that can really impact a game. Aaaaaaanyway, the consensus seemed to be that the Bombers could be the best at it, at least in recent times.
Look at the way they zeroed in on Nick Hind to fill a role many were really nervous about, and how they recruited Dev Smith to play the 2018 season and play the role of combative on-baller, only to see him walk away with the Crichton Medal. And this season, we’ve seen Peter Wright fill a void for them up forward.
Wright has been quite a maligned figure during his time in the league. A high draft pick with a lot of expectation around him, sitting in the grandstand whilst the lowly Gold Coast Suns staggered their way through the 2020 season did not bode well for the big man, but the Bombers looked at what he could offer, how they could use him to maximise his potential, and pulled the trigger to get him to Tullamarine.
And in his return to Metricon Stadium. Wright had possibly his best outing in red and black, notching three goals to go along with his 19 touches and seven marks. You could just see Adrian Dodoro smiling contentedly as Wright repaid the faith with this performance.
Essendon have been patient with him this season. With just one goal from his first six games as a Bomber, plenty of knives were out. Since then, Wright has kicked multiple goals in six games. Now he just needs to eliminate those games where he does not hit the scoreboard at all and narrow the gap between his best and worst, and this could end up being a recruiting coup for the team.
A few positives out of this one for both sides, with young stars putting their hand up at points and making a real difference in the contest. Whilst the bulk of the plaudits will go to Stringer, Merrett, Parish and possibly Aaron Hall, it was the play of some of the younger brigade that really caught the eye at points.
Tarryn Thomas was the best player on the park in the first quarter, notching 11 disposals as he cantered around the middle of the ground and used his superb skills to set up his teammates. Once he learns to string four quarters together on a regular basis, he will undoubtedly be a star, but until then, North may have to settle for glimpses of the player he could be.
Thomas’ competition at the half came from Jy Simpkin. Thrust into the number one midfield slot with the absence of Ben Cunnington, Simpkin powered through the first half of the game and would have been right into contention with Thomas for best afield honours at that stage. A renewed Essendon defensive effort in the third saw him brought back to earth, and it was at this point that the absence of Cunnington, back in Melbourne with the family, was keenly felt.
Curtis Taylor is a player I have been keeping an eye on this year, as he really made some steps in 2020. I was hoping he would continue to ascend this season, but the going has been slow. His last quarter efforts, however, give a strong indication that North are doing the right thing by getting plenty of games into him. His two goals kept the door ajar for the Kangaroos to barge on through if they were good enough.
But it was to be the case.
Archie Perkins had a couple of standout moments in this one. Though not at the level of his Rising Star Nomination, his attack on the footy, both in the air and at ground level, gave a very strong indication that he reads the ball beautifully and will be a handful in the years to come.
Sam Durham made his debut for the Bombers and did not look out of place. His miss from 12 metres out may be the main memory he made from this game, but the grab he took to set that shot up was a beauty, and so was the smother he put on Cam Zurhaar at the other end of the ground. Plenty to work with there.
Of course, amongst these names, there are others like Ridley, Davie-Uniacke, Redman, Phillips and Cox that all had moments where they demonstrated what they had to offer, and how good they could be. The future looks pretty bright for both these lists.
THE OLD MAN AND THE KID
I left Sam Draper out of the section above for the specific reason that he would feature so prominently in this one.
This, as long time readers will know, was the perfect analogy of the old bull and the young bull. Draper was, obviously, the young bull, eyeing off this game like he would a field full of cows with nice round rumps… only he would be wanting them for a different reason than you and I.
And Todd Goldstein was the old bull, surveying the same field, nodding and knowing what had to be done.
For the first quarter, Draper was all over Goldstein, bounding out of the gates and running down to “service” as many cows as possible in as little time as possible. Goldy, though, had been there and done that. This was not his first crack at a herd of cattle – he took his time.
At the end of the first quarter, the maniacally active Draper had amassed nine hit outs to Goldy’s six, but as the game wore on, Goldy proved why he has been a favourite with the lady bovines for quite a while. He pulled the margin back to a 4-3 advantage in the second quarter, before ripping off a 9-1 hit out run in the third and then another 18-6 run against Draper in the last.
The finally tally, after Draper’s hot start, was Goldstein 36 – Draper 19. The young bull went hard and fast early, but had little left in the tank.
I imagine the two of them back on the hill one day, ready to go at it again, eyeing off the field of cows before them. Draper would be all excited again, ready to go… go… GO!
“I’m gonna run down there and have sex with one of those cows!” he’d moo excitedly.
And Goldy would smile back at him. “I’m gonna walk down there… and have sex with them all.”
As good as the young man is, and will be, he needs to work on that stamina a little, huh?
And thus ends, storytime with The Mongrel. Hope you didn’t let the kids read. And for the record, neither men have sex with farm animals… that I am aware of.
As a small forward, Kayne Turner was sorely missed in 2020. As a matter of fact, North had no small forwards at one stage, forced to use the youngest player in the comp in the role, Jack Mahony, in stretched.
After an off-season that saw their players get healthy (to a point), David Noble found himself with a good selection to choose from, and it allowed him to deploy Turner as a defensive player, which was a surprise to most.
I’m guessing Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti wishes that Turner was a little less enthusiastic about the role.
Turner owned Walla in this one, going step-for-step with him at most contests and restricting the Bombers star to just five touches for the afternoon. Walla had a couple of moments where it looked like he may break free of the shackles, but Turner was vigilant in his role, and used his superior fitness to ensure Walla was permitted no space.
Is McDonald-Tipungwuti fit?
I guess you could argue he is fit enough for the role he is designated, but it makes it difficult to throw him into the guts for a run when all it will serve to do is blow him up and render him a huffing, puffing pile of meat when he gets back inside 50, huh?
My initial reaction to the result of this one-on-one clash is that McDonald-Tipungwuti needs a big pre-season, and Turner should score pretty well in our Defensive Player of the Year award this week.
He did a little bit to redeem himself in the second half, but the stat sheet for Devon Smith at half time read as follows – one disposal, and one act of extreme idiocy.
When your team has the footy and is ready to head inside fifty, I cannot find a logical reason to give away a free kick. None. There is none. I don’t care if the opposition had a mosquito on his nose and you were trying to smack it off, or if you had a wad of fifties in your fist and you were trying to forcefully pass them onto a member of the opposite team… just wait until there’s a dead ball and even up, or start something in any way you like – just don’t cost your team.
Smith has been playing his antagonistic role for Essendon for the past two seasons. He is a far cry from the player who walked out with the Crichton Medal in 2018, and is starting to come across more as an angry, frustrated player than he is a valuable contributor to the side.
Looking at his output, he managed to snag a goal, lay three tackles and have six touches, but is this enough for him to hold his place in this team as players return? Is this the level you want from him?
I am sure people could look to the game of Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti and make the case that Walla was just as bad. You’d be right, too… however, Walla had someone on him directly responsible for shutting him down at every opportunity. Nobody was doing that to Dev Smith – he just couldn’t touch it.
Bumping into blokes after the ball has gone out of bounds, giving them a shifty one after they get rid of the ball (and getting caught for it)… call me Shania Twain, but that don’t impress me much. He has to be capable of more than this.
And if he is not, how long do the Bombers carry him?
THE HAND WRINGING
Okay, this is not pro-Tristan Xerri or anything against Dyson Heppell – it’s important to establish this.
What I didn’t like was the reaction of the commentators, basically putting Xerri in as a player that should be reported for an action that was dealt with on the field in the form of a fifty metre penalty and a goal to Essendon.
On a hack kick outside fifty, Heppell made the ground and stood under the footy. He took a gutsy mark knowing anything could have been coming the other way, and something was coming the other way.
It was Xerri.
The North backup ruck dropped a shoulder into Heppell and knocked the wind out of him – no head high contact, nothing too malicious, just a late body hit that rightfully got hit with a 50 metre penalty.
And then it started… Anthony Hudson and David King had a game of one-upmanship in terms of how disgusted and offended they were by this action, as though it was Gary Ablett Sr crashing into Robert Dipierdomenico in the 89 Grand Final. It was eye-rolling stuff as two grown men wailed about a bit of late contact, from which Heppell got up and kicked a well-deserved goal, like two old ladies barracking in the grandstand… only without the swearing and threats of violence.
It may seem like I am clutching for something to chuck in this section, and the truth is, I kind of am – it was a pretty solid hit out from both sides, and if the Bombers had not have made the running in the second half, perhaps their lack of defensive run may have made the ugly section. As it stands, those who were responsible atoned for their lack of application, so there is no use harping on about it. I could have opted for the poor kicking at goal, but far out, if I did that, the ugly section of 70% of games would have that listed as an easy out – kicking at goal as been atrocious this season.
So, in this one, I opted for the one thing that really made me screw my nose up – commentators cheering for players to be dealt with. The penalty of 50m for a hit to the body within a split second of the ball arriving was already enough to punish the action. We don’t need commentators cheerleading for suspensions. At least Gerard Healy had the sense to say it was “marginally late”, which it was. And that should be the end of it.
But we all know it won’t be, right?
DID AARON HALL BREAK A RECORD TODAY?
He sure did – 28 kicks without one contested possession. Maybe that’s because the two opportunities he had to get a contested possession – both in marking contests with pressure coming – he spilled?
Give the man a medal or something.
ZIEBELL OR HEPPELL – WHICH MOVE TO HALF BACK HAS BEEN BEST?
Oh, this is a column in and of itself. Let’s just talk about this game – it was Heppell.
Now, let me explain. Heppell played the intercept role well in this game, whilst it appeared that Ziebell has now finally deferred to his teammates. It means that the North captain doesn’t have to do as much, but it means he is also less prolific.
Heppell, on the other hand, was like a labrador when you leave the shed open – he was into everything, and was one of the Bombers’ best. Over the course of the season… well, I guess that depends on how you define success, and maybe I’ll explore that for members this coming week.
WAS IT A QUIET DAY FOR JAYDEN LAVERDE?
Not really. Maybe only if you use stats as a guide.
Manning up on Nick Larkey, Laverde was excellent except for a one minute period in the third quarter, where he turned the footy over under no pressure, then gave away a free kick to Larkey on the re-entry.
Other than that, his job on Larkey was a good one. You have to consider that Larkey managed to draw five free kicks – count ‘em, FIVE FREE KICKS for largely innocuous incidents to snare his three goals. Actually, one of them came in a ‘Joe the Goose’ handball, so I’m not really sold Larkey had a good day in the traditional sense.
I’d like to actually see him clunk a few marks rather than be reliant on umpire bail outs.
DOES NORTH WIN THIS WITH BEN CUNNINGTON?
Youch… this is the question I have known I wanted to ask myself, but I was trying to be tricky enough to weasel my way out of it. Caught you, you dumb… self!
This might be a bit of a lengthy answer.
North needed someone to stand up in the midfield in the third quarter. They were young, and got pushed around a bit through the quarter, with the Bombers helping themselves to a 10-6 clearance win. Does that happen with Cunnington parking his backside in the middle of the ground? Or does it even up alongside the rest of the stats?
Cunnington is a warrior, and as specified above, Jy Simpkin was effectively taken out of the game in the third quarter. Could Cunnington have been controlled as simply as Simpkin? I doubt it.
I am sure we could ask questions of the Bomber list and what if “so-and-so” was playing, but the circumstances are a bit different. Cunnington elected to stay at home. Not that there is anything wrong with that, Jerry. However, with him in the team, North mids walk taller, and he might be THE most important player to any team in the league in terms of influence. I am not sure the Bombers get away from the Roos with their main bull on the loose at Metricon.
But who knows? Maybe they get on a run, regardless.
That was Luke McDonald’s best game since returning from injury. Playing on the wing, he was able to get the better of Nik Cox, basically running without an opponent for most of the day.
No goals for Will Snelling, but a half forward who continually picks up in the vicinity of 20 touches is great value.
19 touches for Shaun Atley in this one and, wait for it… he actually did a couple of really nice things early in the game. A nice spoil at half back to set the Roos off and running, and a good contested mark at one stage as well. Surely that’s enough for the season for him, now?
So, do the Bombers make the finals from here? I’d love to see it, and yes, I’d love to see them win one, too. A competition with Essendon up and about is great viewing. And if we can get crowds back at a ‘G… I reckon they’ll pack the place out!
And I was kind of pulling for North to win this arvo just so my Hawks could get a bit closer to securing the number one pick in the draft. Ah well, after academy bids, etc… we’ll have to settle for about… pick four? Does that sound about right? Daicos, Darcy, then North, then the Hawks. The draft is screwed.