After what can only be described as a strange Round 21, the heat will be on both Essendon and the GWS Giants this week as both teams attempt to pick up the pieces from the humiliating defeats they suffered over the weekend.
For the second time this season, the Giants had their colours lowered by Hawthorn in the first ever VFL/AFL match to witness snowfall at UNSW Canberra Oval.
Several key Giants players were withdrawn before the match, namely Jeremy Finlayson, Harry Himmelberg and Jacob Hopper, with the trio joining a heavy injury list which also included Josh Kelly, Matt de Boer, Stephen Coniglio and the nearly-forgotten Jonathon Patton, among others.
For the third straight week, the Giants conceded the first three goals of the match, and the warning signs were already there.
After trailing by only 13 points at half-time, Leon Cameron’s side failed to kick a goal for the entire second half, marking the first time they had been held goalless after the main break in a match.
They were exposed as wanting more than willing, while the Hawks simply embraced the conditions more, in particular their coach Alastair Clarkson who was seen wearing only the club polo, a pair of shorts and shoes on Friday night.
Several media identities were scathing of the eighth-year club in the 24 or so hours following the final siren on Friday night, with Essendon great Matthew Lloyd labelling it as “one of the darkest days in the club’s history”.
But what must be remembered was that there had been even worse defeats, none more so than the 162-point thrashing the Giants copped against a then-very strong Hawthorn side at the MCG in mid-2012.
That match saw the Giants record their then-lowest score of 4.7 (31), which was eclipsed when they could only muster 4.5 (29) against the present Hawthorn side – still a chance to sneak into September this year.
Not only that, it was also the Giants’ 100th loss in an AFL premiership match since they entered the competition in 2012, marking the second piece of unwanted history they made out of that match.
It was also their third loss in a Friday night premiership match after losses to St Kilda (Round 7, 2017) and the Geelong Cats (Round 7 last season). Their only two wins in the AFL’s premium time slot both came against the Western Bulldogs in 2017.
This begs the question: do the Giants struggle to embrace Friday night football, or was it just a case of a bad day in the office?
You can bet that they very likely won’t get a match in this time slot next season, such is the magnitude of the defeats they suffered against the Saints in 2017 (23 points) and Cats last year (61 points).
Had Port Adelaide and the Sydney Swans found a way to overhaul the Giants in the dying minutes in Rounds 19 and 20 respectively, Leon Cameron’s side would now be sitting in (at best) eighth place, rather than the sixth place they are currently in.
While their top-four hopes appear all but extinguished, they can still earn a first week home final should they remain where they are, or somehow overhaul Collingwood (fifth), at the end of 23 rounds.
Recent history shows that the club tends to hit back hard from such defeats, none more so than earlier this year when they put Carlton to the sword by 93 points after going down to the Hawks at the MCG in Round 8 (in that match, they could only manage five majors).
What is even scarier in the short term is that they’ll now face a Western Bulldogs side which became the first team to win a match by over 100 points this season when they completely embarrassed Essendon at Marvel Stadium last Saturday night.
This brings us to the Bombers’ Saturday night debacle, in which they could only kick a grand total of four goals, the last three coming in the final five minutes of the game.
After ex-Giant Dylan Shiel kicked the first goal of the match for the Bombers inside the first 20 seconds, it appeared that their fans would be in for an enjoyable night as they seek to return to the finals this season.
However, the Bombers would not kick another major until junk time in the dying minutes, with the Bulldogs kicking all 21 of their goals uninterrupted in the intervention.
As he did when analyzing the Giants’ loss to Hawthorn on Friday night, Essendon great Matthew Lloyd also savaged the club he played 270 games and kicked 926 goals for, describing the loss to the Dogs as among the worst performances in the club’s history.
“They were horrible [on Saturday night], Essendon, one of the worst performances in the history of the club,” he told Channel Nine’s Sunday Footy Show.
“The amount of people leaving at halftime, three quarter-time, angry, the venom towards the players for a lack of effort.”
The loss to the Bulldogs ranks 12th in the list of the club’s heaviest ever defeats, but it was also their sixth defeat by more than 100 points this century, a 138-point loss to the Adelaide Crows in mid-2006 being the worst of them.
Bombers fans, seemingly sick of the club’s underachieving which has been a constant theme since they won their most recent premiership at the turn of this century, unleashed their fury on the players at both half-time and full-time.
It was also reported that some fans had started leaving Marvel Stadium as early as before half-time, with the Bulldogs having all but secured four precious premiership points by this point.
The loss also added to a series of disappointing defeats the Bombers have suffered in recent years, this coming despite the club having rebuilt its playing list and public image following the supplements saga which paralysed the club.
After regaining the likes of then-captain Jobe Watson, Brent Stanton and Dyson Heppell from season-long suspensions in 2017, the club landed the likes of Jake Stringer, Devon Smith, Adam Saad and Dylan Shiel in a bid to improve its recent dismal finals record.
Expectations for the club were high entering the current season, but all the hard work the club put in during the pre-season counted for nothing when they copped a 72-point thrashing from the GWS Giants in Sydney in Round 1.
They have also been beaten by St Kilda and the Sydney Swans, clubs that won’t play finals in 2019, in Rounds 2 and 8 respectively. In retrospect, these defeats could come back to bite the Bombers should they ultimately miss out on a finals berth this year.
At least the Giants could relate after they copped a 56-point hiding from the Adelaide Crows at the Adelaide Oval in Round 1, 2017, only to then rocket up the ladder before reaching the preliminary final where they bowed out against eventual premiers Richmond at the MCG.
While the Bombers have since steadily climbed up the ladder, and won five matches in a row between Rounds 15 and 19, it’s fair to say that the Round 1 defeat effectively put them on the back foot in the race for a finals berth and maybe even a top-four spot.
Despite this being their first loss by over 100 points since mid-2016, the club remains seventh on the ladder, and has the chance to bounce back from their horror show against the Bulldogs when they fly to Perth to face Fremantle at Optus Stadium on Saturday night.
Perhaps getting out of Melbourne might be just what the Bombers need as they attempt to put behind what is expected to be a week of heavy criticism and ridicule.
They then play Collingwood at the MCG in Round 23, and with the possibility being that the Pies will be playing for a top-four spot and the Bombers a place in the eight, the stakes couldn’t be any higher for what’s likely to be the biggest non-Anzac Day clash between the two sides for a long time.
Meanwhile, the Giants will turn out in front of their Sydney fans for the final time this season when they face the Bulldogs, who will be returning to Giants Stadium for the first time since the epic 2016 preliminary final, which they won by six points.
The upside for coach Leon Cameron is that he will be expected to regain several key players for the clash against the Dogs, while the onus will be on the rest of the team to ensure that there is no repeat of the second Hawthorn debacle on Sunday afternoon.
They then travel up to the Gold Coast for a final-round engagement with likely wooden-spooners the Gold Coast Suns, and they surely won’t want to treat it as simply a trip to the holiday strip.
Should the ladder remain as it is after Round 23, then the Giants and Bombers will face off in a sudden-death final at Giants Stadium, and the AFL world will be watching that final with interest and intrigue.
But before that, it will remain to be seen whether both teams can save their seasons before it gets worse.