R3 – Essendon v St Kilda – What Caught My Eye

With the Essendon Edge being a big talking point, Brad Scott’s men look to make amends for last week’s loss. Meanwhile, the speedy Saints have shown that their surge can match it with the best.

Both teams fought it out at Marvel Stadium under the roof, with the Bombers having beaten the Saints three of their last five encounters.

In the end, it was a closely fought battle that saw Essendon taking the lead for the first time in the game with six minutes to go in the last quarter, being four-point victors.

It was everything I had hoped for in a hard-fought battle that lived up to the hype.


Turning Defence Into Attack

It was fascinating to see how both teams went about their transition with and without the ball.

In the first ten minutes of the game, the Saints were quick in setting up the ground and defending Essendon’s ball movement. They didn’t allow the Bombers to move the ball freely, by quickly closing down space and pressuring their opponents. The tackling pressure allowed the Saints to force turnovers, and once they did, it was amazing to see how quickly they turned defence into attack. The Bombers’ defenders seemed to always be running with their backs to the ball. This was due to the St Kilda forwards being able to spread the ground and find space inside 50. This brought their small forwards into the game, with Jack Higgins in particular, being the beneficiary.

At centre bounce, it was interesting to see how efficient the Saints were in winning the ball on the inside and getting it to their outside runners, which put the Essendon backline under significant pressure. Seb Ross was very proficient in this aspect of the game finishing with 17 disposals in the first half. Rowan Marshall had a big say in his team winning clearances. Todd Goldstein and Sam Draper had no choice but to respond.

It looked like it was all St Kilda in the first half but the Bombers adjusted and quickly responded by kicking three goals in succession to end the first term. They managed to work the ball into their forward 50 and dominated territory for the last five minutes of the second quarter. Part of that was the Saints simply turning the ball over in costly positions, and the Bombers lifting their work rate around the contest.

There was nothing revolutionary about the way Essendon found targets inside 50. Once the Bombers got their game going, they absorbed the pressure the Saints put on them and were composed enough to get the ball in there, making the most of their opportunities. What was interesting though was their defensive press. Their defenders would come right up the ground when they went inside 50, squeezing the ground and trying to not give the Saints too much space to work in. This all fell apart when the ball was turned over and the Saints got over the top of the Bombers’ zone but they weren’t able to do it enough.


The Ruck Battle

It was a very intriguing battle between the big men today. It’s fair to say it was a pretty even contest up until the last quarter.

Marshall seemed to be everywhere early on in the piece, helping his defence by filling in the hole, and marking or spoiling when he could. He gave his midfield first service at centre bounce and stoppage. This allowed the Saints to take full control of the game early on.

You have to be impressed with the way Marshall goes about things. He’s been a lone soldier for the Saints, taking the mantle as a number-one ruck for the last two seasons. His work around the ground is really impressive, clunking big marks and using it well by hand and foot.

As the game wore on, Draper and Goldstein became more involved. Goldstein, in particular, showed his experience, with his tap work giving his midfield ascendency and allowing them to get first hands on it.

I liked the work of Draper when he was rucking, showing the aggression that’s made him a threat at centre bounce. Resting up forward, he did well in bringing the ball down to the ground and not allowing the Saints defenders dictate terms too often.

Coming into this season, I was a bit sceptical about how Goldstein and Draper would coexist. This game and the ones previous, show that this could be a formidable duo this season.


The Pseudo-Tall

I’ve been a long-time admirer of Kyle Langford. He’s been an integral part of the Bombers under Scott’s reign.

You just know what you’re going to get from Langford every time he sets foot across that white line. And that’s 110% effort. He stands at 192cm, but plays like he is 210cm at times, with his marking a feature. When the Saints looked like they were going to run away with the game in the first half, it was Langford who stepped up and gave Bombers fans a sigh of relief.

He managed three goals from 12 disposals and six marks. He could’ve ended up with five goals, he was going that well. With Peter Wright missing the next four games due to suspension, it was important that Essendon still had a presence up forward. Langford along with Harrison Jones and Jake Stringer gave the Saints defence plenty to think about.

It’s safe to say that Langford is one of the most consistent performers in the game now. He’ll always bob up for a goal or two every game and it makes you wonder, how tough of a matchup is he? If you’re going to put a tall defender on him, they’ve got to be quick and agile enough for him to not find space with ease, and if the ball is on the ground they’ve got to be able to stick with him. If it’s a more mobile defender you’re going to play on him, they’ve got to have the strength to go with him in 1-on-1s.

His career looked at a crossroads at one stage, but he has resurrected it to become a key cog for the Dons.


Man of Steele

It’s good to see Jack Steele back in full flight after a rather disappointing season in 2023. Steele was a shell of himself, being hampered by knee and shoulder injuries that saw him struggle last year. You can notice what a difference a clean bill of health and a full preseason makes.

Steele was quite good in this one, running on top of the ground till the final siren. Along with Ross, he was significant in the way his team got on top of the midfield battle. He just looked bigger and stronger than the Bombers midfield, breaking tackles and giving some back as payback.

In this one, he had 28 disposals, seven tackles and eight score involvements. Steele’s work around the ground was also a feature, finishing with nine marks. If he continues this form, it’ll go a long way in helping St Kilda make a dent in September.


The Quarterback Role

It would be a disservice if I didn’t mention Nic Martin, who had the ball on a string.

He collected 44 disposals and had 781 metres gained. Those numbers were helped by how much the ball was living in the Essendon backline, but Martin didn’t need any encouragement as he got on the end of some handball receives and cleared the ball out of defence.

The quarterback or the dangerous half-back is a role coaches around the league are investing a lot of time into. There was a lot said about Martin relishing this role before the season, especially with the arrival of Duursma. It looks to be paying off so far.

Martin’s run and dash, and precision kicking allow him and the Bombers to be quite imposing in this area. He got some help from Andrew McGrath who was at his best providing that trademark run and carry. The Saints half-forwards simply couldn’t go with them.

At the other end, the Saints have some weapons of their own that can cause the opposition some headaches.

Recruit Riley Bonner has been an impressive acquisition providing speed off half-back, and helping the Saints transition the ball with fluidity. While he wasn’t as clean as he’d like to be, he’ll be encouraged by the coaching staff to keep taking the game on and trying to hit those targets in the corridor.

Bonner’s arrival along with Jack Sinclair and Nasiah Wangeneen-Milera makes the Saints quite a damaging team coming out of half-back. Sinclair was good at cutting off forward entries and taking some big intercepts. He also provided a lot of rebound. Meanwhile, Wangeneen-Milera wasn’t as prolific, with some clear attention being put to him early on in the piece.

When the game was in the balance halfway through the last quarter, it was interesting that Wangeneen-Milera had spent eight minutes on the bench. His ball use coming out of defence would have certainly helped at this stage as St Kilda continued to turn the ball over coming out of their defensive half.


Leading By Example

Zach Merrett is starting to make a name for himself by becoming one of the best leaders in the league.

It has been much of a talking point about how he went from being kicked out of the leadership group, and redeeming himself in becoming the captain of this club.

Every time I watch him, I’m in awe of some of the things he does, especially things that he wouldn’t register a stat for. He continues to lead by example in every way possible. It’s not even about the disposal count anymore with Merrett, because we know he can get a truckload. And every time he gets a truckload, his team is better for it because of how damaging he can be with the ball in hand. His actions speak louder than they ever have.

With his team under the pump early on, it was a constant seeing him helping out his backline deep in the defensive half. He offered a lot of drive and counterattack, all while laying some big tackles and providing some toughness around the ball.

He’s the type of player that teammates would do anything for and love running out with.


Other Tidbits…

Jake Stringer has had somewhat of an impressive start to this season. It must be a contract year, or is that just a coincidence?

In all seriousness though, he looks fitter and stronger and has been performing consistently throughout games. He’s good to watch when he’s in full flight, as he wins games off his boot. He did exactly that in this one. He kicked the winning goal 50m out from the boundary and helped his team gain the lead in the final minutes of the game.

Speaking of winning games of their boot, Jack Higgins looked like he’d be the one to break the game apart.

He’s electric when he gets going and provides his team with a spark. It’s amazing to see his work rate across the ground. I love the way his brain works, especially when he gets a sniff. It looked like no one was playing on him at some stages, finishing with three goals and 15 disposals.

The recruits for the Dons have seemed to settle in well.

Duursma brought out his trademark bow and arrow celebration when he kicked Essendon’s second goal. He looked like he had finally found his feet, working up and down that wing line, getting involved in some key chains. I thought Ben McKay was solid down back, especially with his backline under siege. A couple of his kicks off one step would’ve made Scott pull his hair out of his head thou but apart from that he was solid. Jade Gresham would’ve hoped for a better showing against his former side but bobbed up when it mattered the most. There’s no love lost there for Saints fans.

On to the next one now for both teams as they travel to Adelaide next week to take part in the Gather Round.

Essendon take on Port Adelaide at home in what should be a mouth-watering encounter. The Saints play in a must-win game against Richmond.

It’ll be interesting to see how the season pans out for both teams from here on.