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Essendon 2019 season preview: Best 22 and predicted finish

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Roar Rookie
7th January, 2019
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1828 Reads

Having added three powerful recruits to a squad that returned Essendon to finals football in 2017 – only to be unceremoniously shellacked by over ten goals – many expected the Bombers to finally take the next step and win a final in 2018.

A strong Round 1 win over Adelaide got things off to a great start, but the Bombers faltered horribly from then on, stumbling to a 2-6 record after a shock upset loss to cellar dwellers Carlton in Round 8. But from there Essendon became one of the form teams of the competition, winning ten of their remaining 14 matches to finish with 12 wins, just missing out on the finals.

In his first season wearing the red and black, Devon Smith became a Crichton Medallist, beating captain Dyson Heppell and star midfielder Zach Merrett.

After a glittering 334-game career, Brendon Goddard retired once the Bombers announced that he would not be offered a new contract beyond 2018. Former Lions Matthew Leuenberger and Josh Green both left the club, with Leuenberger retiring after 29 games with the Bombers, while Green, Jackson Merrett and Matt Dea were delisted.

During a bumper trade period Essendon remained more of a silent player, not entering the action until the final day, which saw Travis Colyer sent west to Fremantle in exchange for a future fourth-round pick. With a number of clubs after his services, out-of-contract GWS star Dylan Shiel announced Essendon as his preferred home beyond 2018. A deal was finally struck for Shiel minutes before the deadline, with the Bombers sending their current and future first-round picks to the Giants and receiving a future second selection back.

The Bombers weren’t without controversy in the national draft, swooping on Irving Mosquito, who was part of Hawthorn’s Next Generation Academy, at selection 38. While the Hawks had the right to match Essendon’s bid for the young Indigenous forward, they chose not to.

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The Bombers’ next pick came at selection 60, picking up Noah Gown from Gippsland Power in the TAC Cup, before getting Brayden Ham from the Geelong Falcons at pick 72. In the rookie draft Essendon selected Collingwood VFL player Tom Jok, who had spent the preseason training with St Kilda, and reselected Matt Dea.

Under the new preseason supplemental selection period, Essendon were entitled to add another person to their rookie list so long as they had been previously listed by a club prior to the 2018 season. The Bombers selected former Fremantle tall Zac Clarke, boosting their ruck stocks.

Playing list

New players in bold

1. Andrew McGrath 17. James Stewart 33. Brayden Ham
2. Tom Bellchambers 18. Michael Hurley 34. Jake Long (R)
3. Darcy Parish 19. Kobe Mutch 35. Matt Guelfi
4. Kyle Langford 20. Zac Clarke (R) 36. Michael Hartley
5. Devon Smith 21. Dyson Heppell (C) 37. Dylan Clarke
6. Joe Daniher 22. Irving Mosquito 38. Sam Draper (R)
7. Zach Merrett 23. David Myers 39. Trent Mynott (R)
8. Marty Gleeson 24. Jordan Houlahan 40. Luke Lavender (R)
9. Dylan Shiel 25. Jake Stringer 41. Ben McNiece (R)
10. Aaron Francis 26. Cale Hooker 42. Adam Saad
11. David Zaharakis 27. Mason Redman 43. Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti
12. Mark Baguley 28. Mitch Brown 44. Shaun McKernan
13. Orazio Fantasia 29. Patrick Ambrose 45. Conor McKenna
14. Jordan Ridley 30. Brandon Zerk-Thatcher 46. Tom Jok (R)
15. Jayden Laverde 32. Noah Gown 47. Matt Dea (R)
16. Josh Begley

Best 22

FB: Aaron Francis, Cale Hooker, Marty Gleeson
HB: Conor McKenna, Michael Hurley, Adam Saad
C: Andrew McGrath, Devon Smith, Dyson Heppell
HF: David Zaharakis, Shaun McKernan, Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti
FF: Orazio Fantasia, Joe Daniher, Jake Stringer
R: Tom Bellchambers, Dylan Shiel, Zach Merrett
IC: David Myers, Jayden Laverde, Kyle Langford, Darcy Parish
EMG: Mitch Brown, Matt Guelfi, Mason Redman, Mark Baguley

The star

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While the heavy recruiting drive in last year’s off-season didn’t produce a top-eight finish, the Bombers would be extraordinarily pleased with how well Adam Saad, Jake Stringer and Devon Smith fared in their first season as Essendon players.

For Smith, it was a career-best year, playing every match and averaging 22 possessions, 3.3 clearances and 8.4 tackles – in fact the former Giant broke the AFL record for the most amount of tackles by any player within a season, highlighting his defensive qualities. He also managed to have an impact up forward, booting 17 majors to make him arguably Essendon’s most well-rounded performer.

With his former teammate Dylan Shiel lining up alongside him in 2019, there’s every chance Smith can improve another notch.

Devon Smith

(Daniel Carson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

Needs a big year

It was a bitterly disappointing season for big man Joe Daniher, who had his year cut short by a debilitating groin complaint. After playing the opening seven games and producing just eight goals, Daniher was sent for surgery, robbing the Bombers of their most potent attacking option. This saw the Bombers’ average score drop from 97 points per game in 2017, a year in which Daniher booted 65 majors, to just 87.8 points last season.

While question marks remain over whether he will be fit for Round 1, having a healthy Daniher back patrolling the forward line will give Essendon’s premiership credentials a huge boost.

Ready to break out

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Having unsuccessfully requested a trade back to his home state of South Australia at the conclusion of the 2017 season, Aaron Francis made a brave decision to step back from football for a small period of time as he dealt with some mental health struggles. Essendon’s patience in the young man was rewarded late last season, with Francis coming into the senior line-up to play the final five games of the year.

Slotting into the backline as a floating defender, the 21-year-old impressed many, averaging 13.2 touches and 6.4 marks. His game against Richmond in Round 22, in which he hauled in eight grabs, saw him nominated for the Rising Star award, while a week later he provided one of the highlights of the season by taking a huge speccy against Port Adelaide.

Now entrenched in Essendon’s best outfit, Francis looks set to deliver the promise he showed as a junior on a consistent basis.

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Last chance

Having played just 11 games between them in 2018, defenders Michael Hartley and Patrick Ambrose will be desperate for strong years given they are both due to come out of contract at the end of 2019. Having been a mainstay in the Bombers defence for a couple of years, Hartley took a backseat last year, with the good form of Michael Hurley and Cale Hooker moving back to defence, making it hard for him to get a look-in.

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For Ambrose, it was a wretched year on the injury front, fracturing his wrist on the eve of Round 1. The 27-year-old managed to return and play seven games, but a hamstring tendon injury suffered against the Magpies in Round 16 ended his year. A valuable member of the side when fit, Ambrose will be hoping for much better luck with his body in order to extend his career.

New colours

The hype train out at Tullamarine will be travelling at full steam as we grow closer to the start of the 2019 season, as Essendon supporters await Dylan Shiel’s first match as a Bomber. Having met with Hawthorn, St Kilda, Carlton and Essendon at the conclusion of last season, the ex-Giant eventually made public his wish to don the sash.

Shiel, a 2017 All Australian, had a rather modest year by his lofty standards, averaging 25.9 disposals, 4.5 clearances and 3.4 tackles in a GWS midfield that was hit hard by injury. Shiel will boost an Essendon midfield that is already stacked with talent, meaning he might even avoid the opposition attention that he received on the regular as a Giant.

Dylan Shiel

(Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images)

The kid

With only three games to show for his first two seasons on the Essendon list, Mason Redman needed to make every post a winner in 2018. The 30th selection at the 2015 national draft, Redman had to bide his time as he watched his teammates struggle through a poor first half of the season. Once his opportunity came, however, the youngster took it with both hands.

In his first senior game in over two years Redman was very impressive, amassing 24 touches and taking seven marks in a polished display against the Brisbane Lions. He backed it up in his next match against eventual premiers West Coast, but in a sad turn of events his season was cut short in the final quarter when he sustained a syndesmosis injury.

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More recently Redman suffered an ankle fracture in November, putting his chances of landing a Round 1 spot in danger. However, the 21-year-old showed more than enough in his two matches last year to suggest he’ll be a long-term player for the Bombers.

Supercoach star

A shining light for the Bombers during the darkest period of the club’s history, Zach Merrett’s year didn’t get off to the greatest start, concussed in the opening quarter of Essendon’s opening match against Adelaide. The young star also struggled to deal with the attention of opposition taggers, but by midseason he had returned to his very best form, averaging 112.8 Supercoach points per game from Round 10 onwards.

With Dylan Shiel’s arrival, Merrett can expect to get off the chain even more often 2019, giving greater scope for much bigger scores.

Fixture

Round 1 GWS Giants Sydney Showground Stadium
Round 2 St Kilda Marvel Stadium
Round 3 Melbourne MCG
Round 4 Brisbane Lions MCG
Round 5 North Melbourne Marvel Stadium
Round 6 Collingwood MCG
Round 7 Geelong MCG
Round 8 Sydney SCG
Round 9 Fremantle Marvel Stadium
Round 10 Richmond MCG
Round 11 Carlton MCG
Round 12 Bye
Round 13 Hawthorn Marvel Stadium
Round 14 West Coast Optus Stadium
Round 15 GWS Giants Marvel Stadium
Round 16 Sydney MCG
Round 17 North Melbourne Marvel Stadium
Round 18 Adelaide Adelaide Oval
Round 19 Gold Coast Metricon Stadium
Round 20 Port Adelaide Marvel Stadium
Round 21 Western Bulldogs Marvel Stadium
Round 22 Fremantle Optus Stadium
Round 23 Collingwood MCG

View the full 2019 AFL fixture here.

The biggest winners of the 2019 fixture from a commerical point of view, you can expect to see a lot of Essendon on free-to-air television this year. With a combination of eight primetime Thursday or Friday matches, it is clear that the AFL are banking on the Bombers to bring their fast, exciting game style next season – in fact Essendon’s number of marquee matches has grown by one, as they have been handed the Good Friday fixture, setting up a mouthwatering clash against North Melbourne at Marvel Stadium.

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They will start the year with plenty of spotlight when the Bombers take on Dylan Shiel’s old club GWS on enemy territory. It will be one of two matches n which Essendon face the Giants, with Collingwood, Sydney, Fremantle and the Kangaroos the other sides the Bombers meet twice.

In terms of travel, Essendon won’t be hitting the skies too often, but they have received two trips to Perth and two to Sydney, while they will play the Crows in Adelaide and the Suns up at Metricon Stadium. Their remaining 16 games are split evenly between the MCG and Marvel Stadium.

The quirks

Some interesting things to spot in Essendon’s 2019 fixture. In Round 4 the Bombers will host the Brisbane Lions at the MCG. It will be their first meeting at the home of football since they drew in Round 19, 2009. Then, in Round 16, Essendon take on the Sydney Swans, also at the MCG. You have to go back even further, to Round 6, 2004, to find the last time that happened. Round 3’s encounter with Melbourne will also be the first time the Bombers will be the away side to the Demons in eight years.

Hooker Hogan

(Adam Trafford/AFL Media)

Don’t miss it

Where do I start? From the Good Friday clash with the Roos, Dreamtime at the G against Richmond and several primetime blockbusters, Essendon fans will be spoilt for choice when it comes to big games to look forward to in 2019.

However, you can’t go past Anzac Day, with the Bombers to host Collingwood in the 25th meeting between the two sides on the sacred day. John Worsfold’s men will be keen to atone for last year’s shocker, which saw the Magpies embarrass Essendon to the tune of 49 points. With Collingwood coming off a grand final loss and Essendon expected to be one of this year’s contenders, it is sure to be a heavyweight battle not to be missed.

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Make other plans

The Bombers will be hoping to break a six-game losing streak to Sydney in games played at the SCG when they face on a Friday night in Round 8. The closest they have come in that time was their devastating one-point loss in 2017 when Gary Rohan booted a goal after the siren. Their last encounter there, the elimination final in the same year, won’t stir any good memories either – Sydney won easily by 65 points.

Final word

The Bombers are as well-placed as any side in the league to make a significant splash in the 2019 season.

While they possess a very potent side, especially with the addition of Dylan Shiel, a lot of it hinges on the fitness of star forward Joe Daniher and his underling Orazio Fantasia. The pair combined for 43 games and 104 goals in 2017, while last year those figures fell dramatically to just 28 majors from 20 matches.

If those two can have an uninterrupted year, the midfield can fire on all cylinders, and the backline, led by All Australians Michael Hurley and Cale Hooker, stands up under pressure, the sky really is the limit for the Dons.

However, the fact remains that Essendon haven’t won a final since 2004. Will that monkey continue to weigh the club down?

Predicted finish: Fifth to eighth.

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