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Okay. So we’ve left the stragglers for dead in this AFL 2018 preview series, and now we’re getting into the serious stuff.
The bottom ten are behind us. The top eight are in front. Any one of the teams left could finish top four this season, and quite easily at that.
Essendon were the biggest mystery heading into 2017, for obvious reasons. Their 2016 season had been skewered by ASADA, and we didn’t know how the returning players would go, or how long it would take for the old and the new to gel together.
The Bombers proved to be a high octane side – high risk, high reward, arguably the most watchable team when on song. They ranked third in points for, but 12th in points against, a combination that told us everything we need to know about their attacking bent.
Can they find more balance this season, to rise up the ladder?
B: Martin Gleeson Michael Hartley Mark Baguley
HB: Connor McKenna Michael Hurley Adam Saad
C: David Zaharakis Zach Merrett Brendon Goddard
HF: Jake Stringer Joe Daniher Devon Smith
F: Orazio Fantasia Cale Hooker Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti
Foll: Tom Bellchambers Dyson Heppell Andrew McGrath
Int: James Stewart Darcy Parish Travis Colyer Josh Green
Em: David Myers Patrick Ambrose Matthew Leuenberger
Essendon were renowned for their sizzling ball movement last year, something which is hardly going to slow down with the addition of Adam Saad to go with Connor McKenna out of the back half, Orazio Fantasia and Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti up forward, and Travis Colyer floating around too.
The backline has a potent mix of lock-down and attack.
Michael Hartley takes the big jobs, and Martin Gleeson the small. McKenna and Saad will cause headaches breaking the lines. Yes, they’ll run themselves into trouble from time to time, but it will be exciting to watch. Michael Hurley is the gun that holds it all together, equally comfortable defending or setting up the counter.
They could perhaps become even more attacking though, if they want to double down on their strengths. Does someone like Mark Baguley come under pressure from an extra runner like David Myers or an interceptor like Matt Dea?
The midfield itself looks to lack a little dynamism, but the mooted move of Andrew McGrath through there should add a spark. The arguments over whether the Bombers really deserved the number one pick in the 2016 draft will no doubt continue.
David Zaharakis is a nice player but nothing more. Dyson Heppell is a solid player, but does not belong in the upper echelon as some would have you believe. Neither of these two are match-winners, but not everyone can be.
Zach Merrett is well on the way to becoming one of the best players in the AFL, and in truth is already there as an All-Australian last year. He’ll shoulder a big load again, and could do with taking more risks. Brendon Goddard will continue to provide good service.
Devon Smith is sure to add to the midfield mix, and has been crying out for more opportunity through the guts. He does everything well, and knows where the goals are too. We can expect 25 touches and a goal a game from him, as well as being a physical presence inside the contest. His pressure should also be a key factor in helping out the Bombers defence. Durability is his weakness.
The Dons forward-line caused big problems for opposition sides last year, and will again. What a beautiful blend they have up there.
Joe Daniher is a top ten player in the AFL and climbing (literally, when it comes to the shoulders of backmen). Watch him go to another level (again, quite literally when he takes his hangers).
Cale Hooker has been a remarkable forward given what a gun defender he was, and he gives the Bombers great flexibility as one of the top two swingmen in the competition. James Stewart was a handy surprise packet in the second half of last year, and should be better for the experience.
With Fantasia, McDonald-Tipungwuti, Colyer and Josh Green nipping around the heels, it doesn’t matter whether the ball comes in high or low to the forward-line – Essendon are set.
And then we get to Jake Stringer. Is he the missing link that can take the Dons to the next level, if he can get back to his 2015 form? For him, it’s all attitudinal. The talk is of him playing midfield-forward as opposed to a forward pinch-hitting in the middle, and this will hopefully bring out his aggressive best.
There’s nothing worse than a physical bull that plays like a squib, and too often Stringer does. When he chooses to attack the ball with gusto and accelerate through it, opponents bounce off him like ten pins. Instead, we see him flirting around the edges, letting others make the play.
Outside of their best 22, Essendon probably has more jobbers than any other team in the league. Think of Myers, Dea, Patrick Ambrose, Matthew Leuenberger, Kyle Langford, Mitch Brown and Jackson Merrett. This is no bad thing, because any one of them can come in and fill a hole. They don’t want too many of them in the same side though.
Essendon have been handed a fixture that gives them a chance. If they can get to Round 11 with a 6-5 record, which is eminently achievable, they then face Brisbane, West Coast, North, Collingwood, Gold Coast, Fremantle – this is a run of games just begging to be swept through at least 5-1, and their top four assault can take place from there.
Can we trust the Bombers to take care of business though? This is a team that lost to Carlton, Fremantle and Brisbane last year, and unforgivably threw away a game to Sydney after leading by 12 points with 1:25 left on the clock. They also led by six points with 35 seconds to go, and didn’t just draw, but lost the match. They must learn to put those sort of games to bed.
Whatever happens with the Dons this year, it’s sure to be entertaining. I’d watch.
Prediction – eighth
Cam Rose’s AFL ladder prediction
Eighth: Essendon Bombers
Ninth: Hawthorn Hawks
10th: Collingwood Magpies
11th: Western Bulldogs
12th: St Kilda Saints
13th: West Coast Eagles
14th: North Melbourne Kangaroos
15th: Fremantle Dockers
16th: Brisbane Lions
17th: Carlton Blues
18th: Gold Coast Suns