The AFL free agency period has officially begun, with Adelaide Crows defender Jake Kelly and Richmond Tigers tall Mabior Chol the first players to find new homes for 2022.
If you had have told me a week ago that I would be nervous about Essendon’s clash with St Kilda, I would have dismissed your comment as gentle ribbing.
Yet a few days removed from the insipid performance against Greater Wetern Sydney, there are legitimate concerns.
Sunday was as bad as the Bombers have played for a long time, with many comparing it to the final games of James Hird’s tenure. The ease with which the Giants picked their way through Essendon’s new ‘team defence’ structure was staggering.
Of particular note was Jeremy Cameron’s goal at halftime, which started from a David Zaharakis turnover inside 50.
Phil Davis intercepted Zaharakis’ kick in the right forward pocket with 35 seconds left on the clock. As a result of the build-up, most players were on his side of the ground, and Essendon were looking to trap the ball in that pocket, making it as difficult as possible to transition.
From there, the Giants switched the ball to the other pocket, while hardly gaining territory. After going long up the boundary, walking the tightrope at the interchange bench and taking advantage of some fortuitous bounces, Stephen Coniglio took possession just beyond halfway to hit a leading Jeremy on the chest at centre-half forward with seven seconds to spare.
Within 28 seconds, GWS went from a tough spot deep in defence to finding their premier forward leading into space, who extended the margin from 27 points to 33.
GWS finished the day plus-three on the inside 50 count, yet managed 37 shots on goal to just 18. Part of this was entries not favouring the forwards (think Andy McGrath kicking to Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti when opposed to Dawson Simpson early in the third quarter) and taking just six marks inside 50.
But credit must also go to Zac Williams, Adam Kennedy and Sam Taylor, who were instrumental in defence, repelling entries with ease and allowing Lachie Whitfield and co. to do damage further up the ground. The final disposals count had the Giants ahead by a whopping 63.
What was also glaring was the lack of creativity. John Worsfold has coached more wins than any other current senior coach and on Sunday his experience proved to contribute to their downfall.
The new rule applying to kick-ins – whereby players are able to play-on quicker after a behind, in theory leading to more transition scoring opportunities (get the ball back in play before the opponent can establish their zone) – wasn’t exploited at all.
Speedsters Adam Saad and Conor McKenna, two players who led the league in running bounces last year and primary candidates to maximise the new playing conditions, were content to take the slow route out of the back half, playing a kick-mark game that led to multiple turnovers.
McKenna kicking to a motionless David Myers that was intercepted by Lachie Keeffe and converted was particularly jarring.
Keeffe, who played one of the best games of his stop-start career, was too tall for an undersized backline comprising Michael Hurley, Jordan Ridley, Patrick Ambrose and Aaron Francis, the tallest of whom stands at 192 centimetres.
Cale Hooker’s absence through injury was always going to prove problematic, but why wasn’t Michael Hartley given an opportunity? At 199 centimetres, his extra height against Keeffe would have allowed Hurley or Francis to play a looser, intercepting role – where they both excel.
Hartley hasn’t been seen in the senior side since Anzac Day last year, and appears to be in Worsfold’s bad books, for whatever reason. But with Hooker sidelined for another few weeks, surely he must come into consideration.
As for the other ‘significant’ rule change, I was really disappointed that there was no experiment there, particularly when the game was as good as finished.
In previous seasons, when Essendon has played at their best, they sent a half-forward to the back of the square at centre bounces, who was instructed to burst through the middle at speed on the way to the forward line. Many clubs, including Richmond – arguably the pioneers – used this tactic to great effect.
Of course, the 6-6-6 starting position rule negates this, as the spare defender will now be penalised. Richmond found a way around this by starting a winger on the as deep in defence on the wing as they could while still adhering to the new rule. This player then took became a member of the back six, and the midfield gained an extra player, who had started at centre-half back.
From what I could tell (I wasn’t in Sydney on Sunday), there was none of this from the Bombers. Despite winning the clearance battle 36-34 it was a bizarre choice to go head-to-head with a weakened, albiet still strong midfield group. If presented a similar game situation next week, let’s hope we see some improvisation.
It was a horrific way to start the season, and one of the worst losses in years for this proud football club.
Here’s hoping they can bounce back the same way they did after falling to Carlton in 2018.