After last weekend’s 86-81 win against a revamped Roos outfit, the Bombers are 9-7 and have scraped inside the top eight. It’s appetising to think they are a team that is on course for post-season football.
As it stands, the Bombers have now won three in a row and six of their last eight, which gives them hope. After a horrid 3-5 start to the year, the Bombers have been able to land on the right side of some close wins, but I’m not convinced they can keep producing last-ditch victories. It’s not a blueprint that is consistently feasible.
The Bombers won the key statistics that matter against North Melbourne: +10 in clearances, +9 for inside 50s and +21 for tackles. They beat the Roos at their own hardened approach and were equally aggressive.
When Rhyce Shaw’s Roos came at them they fired back. The backline stood up when Michael Hurley went off with high-grade AC joint injury early in the third term. And Bombers rookie Dylan Clarke claimed yet another high-profile scalp, this time of Ben Cunnington, suffocating him to 15 touches. The win was almost played in finals-like conditions and will give Essendon confidence in the coming weeks against teams like Adelaide and Collingwood.
What we saw the Bombers do against North Melbourne were things they were heavily criticised for earlier in the season. Most football pundits said they couldn’t win ugly, yet they’ve won four ugly games, all by less than seven points, against Giants, Swans, Dockers and now the Roos.
Most said they would struggle in the midfield when things get tough. They have been more competitive in that area. And some said John Worsfold was too rigid and stubborn in his gameday approach and needed to go. He’s now coaching from the bench instead of the coaches box and it’s made him more nimble, if not more effective.
The worrying signs for Worsfold’s Bombers are the mounting injuries. All Australian defender Michael Hurley is the latest casualty, a key cog in rebounding, lock downs and intercepts. When Hurley left the ground against the Roos was when Ben Brown looked dangerous and kicked North Melbourne back in the game. Hurley is pivotal to the Bombers defence. How they fill that gap will be critical to their finals aspirations.
Hurley isn’t the only sidelined star. Essendon are without midfield workhorse Devon Smith, who played only seven games this year; All Australian Joe Daniher, who has played only four games in 2019; No. 1 ruckman Tom Bellchambers, who missed the last two games and is out for the season; and captain Dyson Heppell, who missed the last two games but should be back this week.
Essendon’s depth has been and will be truly tested in the remaining weeks. Rarely does a club have a straight swap when a key player is injured, but having those large gaps puts pressure on the new guys coming in to execute the game plan at an elite level. The Bombers hospital ward of important personnel leaves them shorthanded and will surely ease the pressure on Worsfold if they don’t make finals this year.
The other concern for the Dons are their turnovers. They continue to cough up the ball through skill errors that cost them goals. They are ranked third for turnovers, giving up 76 per game. It’s part of the game they haven’t been able to rectify. Against North Melbourne they surrendered some easy goals when trying to switch play, kicking to opposition players when moving the ball from the backline. They should be easy fixes, but giving opposition teams the opportunity to score freely in that fashion shifts momentum and will lose you games of football. Geelong, Greater Western Sydney and Brisbane have shown us they are among the top four teams in limiting turnovers – good teams create pressure to force turnovers and then capitalise on errors.
On the way to September the Bombers will have to fill some holes to maintain this run they’re on, which has so far produced less predictable football and better consistency. Since Devon Smith went down Essendon have unearthed a real player in 19-year-old Dylan Clarke, a legitimate stopper who has filled the defensive side of Smith’s role. He’ll continue to grow.
The forward line without Joe Daniher has been a work in progress, with a litany of helpers: Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti with 25 goals, Jake Stringer with 23, Orazio Fantasia 16 and then Kyle Langford (11), Mitch Brown (11), Shaun McKernan (10), Darcy Parish (10) and Jayden Laverde (8). Hardly an all-star cast, but they’ve been effective. Stringer has been instrumental in keeping the forward line functioning even during their losses.
It’s been documented that Zac Clarke hasn’t played much football in the last two years, but his work rate against Todd Goldstein prompted praise from Worsfold in the absence of Tom Bellchambers. And without Hurley, Patrick Ambrose looks like he’ll come back into the team with help from Marty Gleeson, Aaron Francis and Mason Redman. The Bombers are still scrappy at times and give up easy turnovers, but a lot of what they’ve been good at is winning the hard ball, something a lot of footy pundits said they weren’t great at.
If the Bombers can take care of a trio of winnable games coming up against the Suns, Power and Bulldogs all at home, that would take them to 12 wins. Another win against one of Adelaide or Fremantle (both away) or Collingwood should give them a ticket entry into the 2019 finals.
Right now they are doing enough to crawl to victory. Can they sustain it? Most likely not. My gut feeling is that Bombers fans are going to have to hold off celebrating their finals hoodoo-breaking win until 2020. But I guess we’ll have to wait and see how the next six weeks plays out.