I’m pretty sure I’m not alone when I say I love Dreamtime at the ‘G.
Not that I give a rat’s posterior about Essendon or Richmond exactly, but having gone to the game a few times, it’s a unique experience. Other marquee games have their good points, but Dreamtime just feels a bit different. It’s less about the confrontation and more about the celebration of indigenous culture and contributions to the national game.
And every indigenous player seems to love it, and lift for the Sir Doug Nichols round, but none more so than the Dreamtime match.
What we got was a brilliant display of footy and the culture that comes with it. While Richmond fell short, they were far from humbled as both teams put on a great contest that everyone in attendance would have walked away from with at least one highlight.
How bloody good are this year’s indigenous guernseys?
I’ll answer that one for you; they’re all bangers. Every club kicked a goal with their designs, most of which seem to have contributions by indigenous players in the team. The blending of indigenous elements with the classic strips just pops right off the screen, and it’s no wonder the yearly designs have become collector’s items.
Richmond’s yellow body with the sash of traditional symbols depicting a Wangka (dance) from Assistant Coach Xavier Clarke’s Marri Ammu Marri Tjevin clan of the Moyle River floodplains. It tells the story of Elders calling out to their ancestors to protect and guide people while on Country.
This design contrasted perfectly with the one designed by Momo Willcox and Jackie Sinclair from Thornbury Primary, with a crow motif, inspired by the Wurundjeri Woiwurrung people of the Eastern Kulin nation.
Both are belters, but the wingspread crow to make the sash just looks amazingly good, so I’m giving this one to Essendon.
As Megan Waters leads the ceremony, we see the flags of Australia, Indigenous Australians, and Torres Strait Island all standing tall as the teams line up.
Both teams had dancers come forward to begin the ceremony that blended traditional elements with a modern flair to really set the standard for pre-game entertainment that we wish could be done every week. They were quickly joined by Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti, Marlion Pickett, Alwyn Davey Jr, Shai Bolton, Rhyan Mansell and Maurice Rioli Jr.
While I understand the silence from the commentary team during the dancers, I wish they’d had a cultural elder on hand to interpret the significance of the dance or something. I think it’d just add to the understanding of what the dance means to the indigenous people in the sport.
It feels amazing to just watch, but like other indigenous dances like the various Hakas, the stories behind it are often just as revealing, and I think that those stories could actually add to the event.
Maybe that’s more a result of growing up in regional Australia for me, and listening to the tales of some local elders who would come to school. It’s hard to keep a bunch of 12-year-olds quiet, but they’d manage to keep us spellbound on occasion with dreamtime tales that spoke of the land and their love of it.
Few build-ups feature the sort of coming togetherness that Dreamtime does, and that’s OK. Footy is all about physical confrontation after all. Well, depending on the tribunal of the minute I suppose, but there was definitely a feeling of the game being more than two teams fighting for four points, and I think most people who watched it will understand what I mean by that.
A tight first half
As epitomised the game, the first ball up resulted in a struggle for space and easy possessions. Mansell opened the account for the Tigers with a free kick in the forward 50, but a marking free gave Weideman a chance to respond, which he did, following it up with another in similar circumstances.
Richmond took some pace off the ball looking for open teammates, but Essendon showed a willingness to work to fill spaces and occupy leading lanes that gave them intercept marks to block the Tigers’ forward momentum but at the cost of having few targets on the transition.
Essendon’s third for the term came from a play set up by a clever kick from Merrett to the top of the 50 arc, where a chaos ball forward that included some deft taps resulted in an Alwyn Davey goal. That play was immediately telling to those watching, as it’s the exact sort of thing that Richmond have made their bread and butter over their successful years. The forward-at-all-costs ball movement that finds a running teammate, and Essendon have duplicated it so well that if someone got an AI tool to swap the guernseys and replace Davey with Bolton, I don’t think many would notice the difference.
Richmond kept their slow play, and got a bit of a gift when Samson Ryan’s attempted mark hit the turf, but was paid anyway. Had it been for a marking infringement, maybe the Dons fans could have understood (though I’m doubtful), but the mark call was wrong. While even Steve Smith may have admitted to a bump ball, Ryan was willing to take the rub of the green when offered. Replays showed it plainly hit the turf before he controlled it, but an ump can only call what they can see, so I understand the assumption.
A late goal to Ryan Mansell and a last-minute snap from Snelling brought the margin at the first break to two points in favour of the Dons.
The second quarter was an equally close affair. Cotchin and Martin kept working together to line up forward movement and eventually succeeded in setting up a play that ended in a Tarranto goal to snatch back the lead by the barest of margins.
Both teams tightened up and Essendon’s relentless forward movement was stopped by some incredible pressure from Richmond’s high defenders, as well as a few wayward shots at goal, while Essendon’s big men stood tall taking repeated intercept contested marks that were goal-saving efforts, denying Richmond value for their play.
It took more than fifteen minutes for another major, coming through Dusty Martin showing some vintage flair. He contested a mark that he brought to ground in front of a teammate, then kept running five metres off the ball to remain an option for a teammate collecting it. Eventually Rioli does and handballs to Martin on the run, which Dusty collects and snaps for goal in the fluid motion that has made him a one-name recognition player in the game.
As the half wore down, Menzie took a strong contested mark to bring the margin back to a point, but a quick surge from Richmond was unsuccessfully stalled by Caldwell, who shanked a clearance kick to find Graham all alone and gave him an easy shot, which he converted.
Being a backman is a bitch sometimes. Caldwell did a lot right with positioning, and a clearance punt was a valid choice, but a little slip of the foot and he’s giving up the lead at a time when they should have been going into the half ahead, but instead grabbed their orange slices five points down.
A half-time show to remember
I’ll admit, I’m a big fan of Michael Long. One of my fondest early footy memories was going to the G to watch the 93 Grand Final with my folks, and watching him sprint down the wing with his four-bounce effort to put in the goal of the year and frustrate Stephen Silvagni who still to this day claims he touched it before the line (have some feel for the spectacle of the moment SOS!).
So it was a great sight to see him in the limelight at half-time, performing with the Archie Roach band and Kevin Sheedy, featuring a song called “Colour of your Jumper” written by Archie before he passed (obviously) retelling Nicky Winmar’s famous moment of pointing to his skin when racially targetted on the field.
An even tighter second half
With both teams playing accountable football and denying their opponent space to move, it’s no surprise that the first ten minutes clicked over with no goals scored. A great sequence of run-down tackles by Tippung-Wutti and Mansell showed just how desperate both sides were.
The game had become something of a stalemate at times, as both teams looked to minimise the opportunities for their opposition to score on a turnover fast break, but Essendon showed some daring by using the corridor a little more cleverly, as Merrett found Langford open in 20 metres out.
The Tigers kept up the pressure and a turnover in their attacking 50 gave Bolton a response that he repeated a few minutes later to give the Tigers a two-goal margin heading into the final break.
As the last quarter started, Essendon looked to get back into the game, even after Martin kicked the third in the trot and put the margin to a game-high 18 points.
Essendon scrapped and fought to get opportunities back, and were rewarded after a lot of effort, with goals to Durham and Stringer in quick succession to bring it back to a one-goal game.
Goals were traded between Judson Clarke and Jye Menzie as the game reached fever pitch and the clock counted down to the final couple of minutes…
That last two minutes.
As a neutral spectator, the sphincter-puckering tight finishes are a delight. A tight contest going down to the wire, as both teams come to the unforgiving minute seeing if they can get just one more sprint to a contest or to put a shepherd on. It’s a test of fitness and preparation, but most of all a test of will.
And we were not disappointed.
With two minutes to go and a five-point lead, Richmond had little left except the will to hold on. A heavily disputed ball caused a repeat stoppage on centre wing as Draper looked to keep pressing his ruck form to the line. Richmond surge forward out of desperation, but couldn’t get a possession, though they’d have felt happy to lock it into their forward line. Vlaustin sat back off the ball to counter a quick kick out of the pack, but in a game-winning move, Dusty Martin broke into space, looking for all money like he’d launch a long bomb at the goal, only to be run down by Merret in the sort of desperation tackle that will earn him kudos from his teammates, and probably a brown paper bag of cash in his locker come Monday.
Reiwoldt toe taps it forward, but Ridley intercepts and launches to an open Redman sitting out on the 50 arc with a paddock in front of him.
If you’ve ever laced up boots, this is the moment you’ve dreamed of. Game on the line, space to run, under a minute remaining and you’re down by five points. Mason burst along the edge of the square for a distance that could have attracted a whistle if an umpire had a flair for imposing themself on the contest, but was thankfully kept at his side.
A chaos ball finds Stringer under enormous pressure, finds Martin by hand who then stabs a low ball into Walla, but he can’t collect and Short clears the ball as the crowd is all on their feet and the clock ticks over just a minute remaining.
Heppell takes the mark and looks to launch inside 50 quickly, but importantly, takes a moment to assess before finding Redmond open 65metres from goal. He then kicked to the pocket to once again find Stringer, Jake then puts the ball on his boot across his shoulder and whether by luck or design, laces-out the ball to young Sam Durham as he floats into the square.
His teammates come and give him apart on the head, the crowd is cheering and jeering as he runs through his routine, and puts the ball directly through the sticks to give his side the lead by a point with seven seconds left on the clock.
The Bombers crowd absolutely roars as the ball is bounced, Draper and Nankervis contest it without either controlling the tap, and Durham slides in to take possession as Tigers players pile on, but time runs out to a jubilant Essendon side, breaking a streak of eight Dreamtime losses and 13 losses against Richmond in a row.
While Durham will deservedly get plaudits for that mark, Redman’s transition play, Heppell’s intercept, Stringer’s cross and Merrett’s tackle all helped that moment to happen, and they all deserve to have a little claim to helping Durham steal it.
Taranto, Short, Bolton played the bulk of the game in the midfield for the Tigers, supported by Cotchin and Martin, though Cotch spent a lot of time up forward.
Merrett, Hobbs, Caldwell, Stringer and Durham spent a lot of time in the middle for the Dons. Despite Merrett’s BOG performance, most of the stats favour the Tiger’s mids. Much of this is due to the Essendon reliance on their half-back line to be the playmakers, with Ridley, Redman, McGrath and Heppell all setting up repeated scoring opportunities through quick transition play.
Taranto had one of his best games to date in the yellow and black, with 33 touches, nine clearances, eight score involvements and six inside 50s. I don’t think he’s quite ready to lead the midfield in the same way Cotchin and Martin have in the past, but he’s showing himself to be an able apprentice if he can keep his game to this standard, rather than some of the lesser lights we’ve seen this season.
So I think it’s fair to give a slight win to Richmond in the midfield, mostly due to the efforts of Taranto and Bolton, though I could easily say that Merrett’s 39 touches, seven tackles and five clearances made up for a little less impact from his teammates.
Anyone who has read my columns knows I love a good ruck duel. Especially when we have two ruckmen that show just how much variation the position can have.
Nankervis is a bit of the old-school ruck. He’s a big, strong bloke that always looks to hand the ball off to his runners. His mids know they can get value for effort as they run by him.
Draper plays more of the Grundy/Gawn style as an extra midfielder, while Nank acted as the pin that the play pivoted from.
It’s hard to call this one, as both players fulfilled their role well.
As a pure ruck, Draper attended more contests and had more hitouts, but fewer to advantage than Nank. Both had similar impacts in intercepts, clearances and contested possessions, but while Drape pushed the ball forward slightly more often, Nankervis got more of the ball and put on some brutal tackles to stop Essendon’s quick mids from taking the ball out of the stoppages, so I think it’s fair to give him the nod.
The stats that matter
Essendon had a bit more of the ball, but it was the pressure acts that stood them apart. 56 one-percenters to 32 showed how committed they were to helping their teammates, while the 154 to 100 stat for marks tells the tale of how often they found a friendly face in space.
They also won the inside 50 marks, but that’s not unusual for Richmond to lose that one, with their chaos ball entries preferring to use the confusion to their advantage to find an open teammate.
The contested marks favoured Richmond 17-12, but I think that actually shows just how tightly Essendon were marking their opponents to not allow them space to take easy ones.
The biggest stats though all belonged to Merrett. 39 touches, 679 metres gained, seven tackles, nine score involvements and six inside 50s tell the tale of just how impactful he was on the day, not to mention his game-winning tackle on Martin mentioned earlier. He was a consistent contributor who stepped up when the game was on the line as well, and you can’t ask for much more from the bloke.
Essendon head over to WA to play the Eagles at Optus Stadium. While the game they’ve just completed will have taken a toll on the players, the feeling of winning is a great balm to any soreness. They’ll be feeling up and about while the Eagles will have a shorter break after returning from their thoroughly embarrassing game against Hawthorn in Tasmania.
Essendon have been hot and cold all year, but the Eagles have barely approached tepid for 2023, plagued by injuries, an unsettled best 22, and an enormous amount of pressure from fans.
Essendon need to do a little more to convince me they’re finals bound, but part of that won’t be about beating West Coast, but how much percentage they put on. I can’t tip the Eagles here, so I’ve got the Dons.
Essendon by 65+.
Richmond will have an extra day’s break to lick their wounds, but will face a huge test in hosting a jubilant Port Adelaide who have an extra two days to bask in the glow of knocking off a team many have touted as a premiership favourite.
While the Power had a shaky start to 2023, they’ve been the form team of the last two months, playing a smart brand of contested footy mixed with daring direct corridor usage.
Richmond have the firepower to win, but despite a strong victory over Geelong, much of their past couple of months has not met expectations.
Port may hit a plateau at some stage, but I don’t think it’ll be in this game.
Port by 21.