It’s hard to believe how little hype there is for a Friday night game between two great rivals that involves the likes of Joe Daniher, Chad Wingard, Devon Smith, Tom Mitchell and… oh.
The injury gods haven’t been kind to either of these sides this season.
Mitchell didn’t even make it to Round 1 before snapping his leg, and Daniher hardly got going before losing another season of his prime to to a groin injury that he seems to be the last AFL player to suffer from.
But thanks to the mediocrity that seems to run through about three-quarters of the league, both of these sides are well in the finals mix at the midway point of their respective seasons.
Statistically, neither of these sides are particularly strong in any one area – as you’d expect from the teams sitting tenth and 11th on the ladder.
The Bombers have proven themselves a strong clearance team, ranked second in the league for clearance differential, though that’s not necessarily translating to territory – they’re 13th for inside-50 differential.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Hawks are the No.1 contested mark team in the league.
Both sides are middle of the road in terms of converting inside-50s into goals. The Hawks get a goal on 22.2 per cent of entries, which is eighth, and the Dons 21 per cent, ranked tenth.
Defensively, both are a bit stronger. Essendon conceding a goal from 19.7 per cent of opponent inside-50s (fourth) and Hawthorn 20.9 per cent (seventh).
The excellent Michael Hurley and Cale Hooker have once again anchored that solid Bombers defence.
Hooker’s nine intercept possessions a game are bettered only by Fremantle’s Luke Ryan (9.4), and the veteran Bomber is also in the top-ten for intercept marks at three a game.
Hurley is pushing his case for a third All Australian selection. He reads the play beautifully and is rarely afraid to leave his man and back himself to be the first player to the ball. But he can still be a bit shaky one-on-one.
The Hawks would love to isolate him in space against Jack Gunston or even the smaller Luke Breust – both of whom are having down seasons by their lofty standards.
At the other end of the ground James Sicily is the jewel in Hawthorn’s defence. The 24-year-old was just about pencilled in for his first All Australian selection last year before injury struck.
His team might have fallen off since then, but Sicily hasn’t. He reads the play as well as anyone, is solid one-on-one, and a skilful – and, as importantly, bold – ball user. It’s hard to believe he’s played only 71 games.
Both sides have made three changes. The Hawks bring in Dylan Moore, Kaiden Brand and, most significantly, Ben McEvoy at the expense of the injured Wingard, and Mitchell Lewis and Marc Pittonet, who have been dropped.
The Bombers have axed Mark Baguley, Ben McNeice and, surprisingly, Aaron Francis. Into the side come three of their best players – Dylan Shiel, Jake Stringer and Orazio Fantasia.
Shiel, joins Zach Merrett and Dyson Heppell in a midfield that should have the edge over the Hawks on the inside.
On the outside, the Hawks will fancy their chances with Ricky Henderson in the form of his life, and Isaac Smith and Tom Scully, who have made their livings breaking lines.
Last time these sides met was in Round 20 last season, when the Hawks won a thriller by four points thanks largely to Gunston’s 24-disposal, five-goal effort, which earned him the three Brownlow votes.
Mitchell got two votes for his 11th 40-disposal game of the season and Merrett got the last vote thanks to 41 touches and eight clearances.
The final score of 107-103 made it one of only seven games in 2018 in which both sides managed triple-figures – It’s happened just once this season (Essendon vs Melbourne).
While that kind of scoring would be nice tonight, it would take a pretty dramatic change.
The Bombers haven’t scored 75 points in a game since Round 5, and the Hawks have managed to crack that mark just once since Round 6 – in Round 10 when they put up a whopping 80 points on the Power in Launceston.
On paper, the Bombers look the slightly stronger side, but games aren’t played on paper, and the coaching match-up is a lopsided one.
Tossing a coin is as good a way as any to pick a winner tonight … tails it is. Essendon by a goal.
That’s my Friday night forecast. What’s yours?