With the 2019 AFL draft in the rearview mirror and club lists finalised for 2020, we decided – despite overwhelming popular opinion – that it’s not at all too early to start speculating about the season ahead.
This should be a fun one. Perhaps not pretty, but these are two decent and evenly matched teams with plenty to play for.
Tonight’s clash isn’t quite your cliched eight-point game, but it’s a chance for these teams to show what they’re made of.
After being shown up in the Showdown, the Crows took their anger out on the Gold Coast, bullying the young Suns to the tune of 95 points.
But now they have to pick on someone their own size.
Essendon’s miserable start to the season is now a distant memory. The Dons have won five of their past six; their only loss in that time a six-goal defeat against the reigning premiers in Perth.
Just how good the Bombers are is tough to say – though that’s true of most teams this year – but they have shown in the past few weeks a grit not usually associated with Essendon of recent seasons.
They can win pretty when the game is on their terms and their outside runners can find space for themselves and their dangerous forwards, but winning ugly – as they have recently – is every bit as important across a long season.
The Crows sit seventh, one place above the Bombers thanks to a healthier percentage, but haven’t really got going this year; their best win a 21-pointer at home against the inconsistent Giants.
A loss wouldn’t crush either of these teams, but victory would mean a tenth win on the season and, with five games left, put them in the box seat to play finals.
Putting a gap on the loser would be a nice added bonus.
Both teams welcome back crucial players.
Adelaide bring in crucial linkman Tom Lynch after a five-game absence, though rugged onballer Cam Ellis-Yolmen will miss his fourth-straight match. Youngster Tyson Stengle is an unlucky omission after ten touches and three goals in his first game for the club.
Essendon skipper Dyson Heppell returns after two weeks out with a foot injury. Unfortunately, they lose gun key defender Michael Hurley – playing as well as he ever has – and goalsneak Orazio Fantasia, who join Joe Daniher, Devon Smith, Tom Bellchambers on the sidelines.
Jayden Laverde has been ‘managed’ and Zac Clarke is out sick, leaving the Bombers extremely thin in the ruck.
Michael Hartley will look to plug the gaping hole left by Hurley in defence. Patrick Ambrose and debutant Will Snelling also come into the side.
It’ll be up to ex-Crow Shaun McKernan to do the heavy lifting in the ruck against rising big man Reilly O’Brien.
O’Brien has grabbed his chance with both hands since Sam Jacobs was injured early in the season, and looks the Crows’ long-term No.1 option in the middle.
The midfield battle looms large. Matt Crouch and brother Brad find the footy in their sleep, and Rory Sloane never met a contest he didn’t like.
On the other side of the ball, Zach Merrett, like the Crouches, racks up disposals for fun and Heppell – assuming his body co-operates – will be more than happy to butt heads with Sloane all night. Dylan Shiel can butcher it, but he’s still one of the most explosive inside-midfielders in the league. Darcy Parish is having a breakout year.
But it’s on the outside where things get most interesting. Former No.1 pick Andrew McGrath has moved from half back to a wing this season and is having a more regular impact, while David Zaharakis, Adam Saad and Conor McKenna provide linebreaking that must be respected.
For the home side, Paul Seedsman, Brodie Smith and the underrated Rory Atkins will try to provide dash and penetrate a weakened Essendon defence.
Neither team will want to allow their opponents to move the ball quickly, which could make things slow and ugly. Here’s hoping the aforementioned runners can take the game on and give the likes of Jake Stringer, Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti, Eddie Betts and Taylor Walker good opportunities.
For raw points against, the Crows are the third-stingiest in the league and the Bombers sixth.
In terms of goals conceded per inside-50, Adelaide are tied for second with West Coast at 19.55 per cent, while Essendon are fourth at 19.88 per cent – Hurley has been a significant reason for that.
This has the potential to be a real arm wrestle, in which goals are tough to come by. I’m tipping the home side by a goal.
That’s my Friday night forecast. What’s yours?