Essendon were the easiest side to predict last year, while this time around they are clearly one of the biggest mysteries of the upcoming season.
With 12 players serving drug suspensions, the vast majority of which were part of their best 22, the Dons were a lock to finish in the bottom two or three, and most probably the wooden spoon, which is how it panned out.
Most of the suspended players return, but it remains to be seen how many of them will be part of the Bombers’ best side. It should be at least six, and perhaps up to seven or eight. Michael Hibberd has departed to Melbourne.
Essendon Bombers’ best 22
|B||Mark Baguley||Mitch Brown||Matt Dea|
|HB||Martin Gleeson||Michael Hurley||Brent Stanton|
|C||Brendon Goddard||Jobe Watson||David Zaharakis|
|HF||Ben Howlett||Cale Hooker||Aaron Francis|
|F||Travis Colyer||Joe Daniher||Orazio Fantasia|
|Foll||Matthew Leuenberger||Dyson Heppell||Zach Merrett|
|Int||Darcy Parish||Andrew McGrath||James Kelly||Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti|
Emergencies: James Stewart, Craig Bird, David Myers
Now, Essendon are a mix of the old (Jobe Watson, Brent Stanton, Brendon Goddard, James Kelly) and the new (Andrew McGrath, Darcy Parish, Aaron Francis, Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti). There are stars coming back from suspension (Michael Hurley, Dyson Heppell, Cale Hooker), and those that thrived in their absence (Zach Merrett, Orazio Fantasia, Michael Hartley, Matt Dea).
The backline looks light-on for star quality outside Hurley, particularly with Hooker’s anticipated move to the forward-line, denying the Bombers potentially the most formidable key defensive duo in the league.
But, coach John Worsfold does have plenty of backline options. Outside the players named in the back six above, but still in the best 22, Goddard, Kelly, McDonald-Tipungwuti and McGrath will all likely run through there at various stages. Patrick Ambrose and Hartley may get called upon too.
Essendon’s engine room may look imposing if taking the names on paper at their career peak, but how likely is this to be the case?
Zach Merrett is a star, and will only get better. He’s the one given. Heppell was slightly overrated before his year off, but is still a very good player and will be hungry. Goddard is still effective, but his days as a game-breaker are long gone.
Zaharakis will enjoy having more experienced support around him once more, but it’s been a long time since he looked like he was enjoying his footy. Ben Howlett and Heath Hocking are hardened, but are no more than honest battlers who may be on the fringes anyway.
Jobe Watson will retire a champion player and noble statesman of the game, irrespective of his Brownlow medal being stripped away, but was looking a yard off the pace before he went down injured in 2015. It is entirely possible the mental strain of the entire drugs saga had taken too big a toll, and hopefully he can be fresh and firing again. Question marks must linger though.
It would be folly to expect full 22-game seasons from the returning players. Some will suffer injuries as their bodies once more adapt to the rigours of an AFL season. Others will have niggles they just can’t shake, which will affect performance. Not all will come back chock full of confidence they can do what they once did.
Kicking a regular winning score will be a struggle for the Dons, even if they move the ball forward with more purpose than in Worsfold’s first year.
Joe Daniher has special talents, but will always be erratic. Better and more frequent delivery to him will help, and if he’s not kicking 50-plus goals this season, he will have failed.
Travis Colyer and Orazio Fantasia will add bite at ground level where they can. Josh Green will try and force his way into the side, and knows how to kick multiple goals. He also has experience trying to manufacture scoring opportunities in struggling sides.
Looking at Essendon’s best side, there is a gap in the list profile, which can be traced back to the off-season of 2014.
Adam Cooney, James Gwilt and Jonathon Giles were acquired from other clubs but are no longer at the Bombers. Kyle Langford and Jayden Laverde were both top-20 picks but are currently on Kenny Rogers’ train bound for nowhere. Perhaps ‘The Gambler’ will be backing these players to rise up a few levels, but not many others will.
Even looking back to the end of 2013, the Dons traded for Paul Chapman, Shaun Edwards and Kurt Aylett, all of whom are gone with little to no value added. In fact, they haven’t had a trade ‘hit’ since Adam McPhee back in 2002.
The club has been committing to neither one thing nor the other, and while the drugs saga has made things more difficult, the lack of clarity and purpose may hurt them now.
So while the Bombers have some things in their favour coming into the 2017 season, they also have several things against. The returning players are a double-edged sword.
Every football fan is glad the drugs saga is behind Essendon and the competition, and this is the year the Bombers completely reintegrate into the competition. This season can be used to find out where they sit in the overall pecking order of the competition, and they’ll have to make some hard decisions at the end of it as to what the future looks like.
Predicted ladder spread: 13th-16th
Predicted finish: 15th
Best and fairest: Zach Merrett
Leading goalkicker: Joe Daniher
All-Australian potential: Michael Hurley, Zach Merrett
Rising Star candidates: Aaron Francis, Andrew McGrath