Rejoice Bomber fans!
It’s fair to say the season hasn’t gone to plan for either of these sides.
While the Bombers have been in decent form for the best part of three months, their 2-6 start to the season will almost certainly keep them from returning to finals action.
For the Saints, it’s been much more bleak. A first-round win against the Lions flattered them, and since then it’s been a pretty steady stream of miserable footy – last week’s capitulation against the Dogs, in which they conceded 10 straight goals, just the latest kick in the guts for St Kilda fans.
Tom Hickey’s season-ending hamstring injury proved extremely costly, with the Dogs outscoring the Saints from clearances 53-9 for the game. You can take hitout totals with a grain of salt but last week was the first time since Round 1 the Bulldogs have won the count in that stat.
The clearances shape as a problem for the Saints tonight, too. St Kilda are dead last when it comes to scoring from stoppages this season and are 16th for points against.
The Bombers aren’t exactly world beaters in that area, but at eighth for points for and fifth for points against, they’re a darn sight better than the Saints.
You probably wouldn’t guess that after a quick look at the line-ups. A starting midfield of Dyson Heppell, Zach Merrett and David Myers – who is quietly leading the Dons for centre clearances a game at 2.4 – doesn’t look to have an obvious advantage over Jack Steele, Jack Steven and Seb Ross.
However, the Bombers should have a significant edge with Tom Bellchambers against second gamer Lewis Pierce. Bellchambers is enjoying the best season of his decade-long career, though what ruck dominance ultimately translates to is something I’m yet to get my head around.
For the Saints to make a game of this they’ll need the usual suspects – Steven, Ross, Jade Gresham, Jack Billings and David Armitage – to play well, but they’ll also need more from Blake Acres, who is one of the most frustrating players in footy.
Acres is a mountain of a midfielder, though I’m not sure he – or perhaps Alan Richardson – realise that. He spent some time in the ruck last week, perhaps because at 190cm and 92kg he was the man most suited after Hickey went down, or perhaps to put a bit of fire in his belly.
Acres is averaging a career-high nine contested possessions and 2.4 clearances this season. I’m convinced he’s better than that; I just hope he’s convinced too. Tonight is as good an opportunity as any for him to flex his muscles and stamp himself on a contest.
Both of these sides like to launch their attacks from defensive-half turnovers. In fact, along with the Cats they are the only sides to get more points from takeaways behind centre than those in the forward-half.
Fingers crossed that means we’ll get two teams boldly whipping the ball forward on what is arguably the fastest track in footy.
Moving the ball quickly is a must for the Saints, who have had a hard time scoring for much of the season, failing to crack 70 points in 11 of their 19 games, including their past three.
Scoring hasn’t been such an issue for Essendon. Even without star forward Joe Daniher the Bombers have been able to put a decent score on the board most weeks, averaging a respectable 88 points a game since Daniher last played in round seven and cracking 90 in each of their past four matches.
Jake Stringer has resembled the player Essendon hoped they were recruiting during that same stretch, booting exactly three goals in five of his past eight games.
It’s been more than 12 months since these sides last met. On a Friday night in July 2017 the Bombers smacked the Saints at Docklands by 61 points. They dominated in most areas, having 63 more kicks, 48 more marks and 17 more inside-50s, and just to rub salt into the wounds they also had 18 more tackles. David Zaharakis received three Brownlow voted for a 32 disposal, two-goal performance.
The Saints could be stung into action after last week’s disappointment, but it’s just as likely that the season has gotten too long for them and they’ve had just about enough of it.
Essendon’s finals chances might be slim, but they’re not dead yet. I’m expecting them to win pretty comfortably – let’s say six goals.
That’s my Friday night forecast. What’s yours?