September is always a bittersweet time of the year.
The year’s best month of footy kicks off tonight – the best teams playing in games with the highest stakes.
Unfortunately, it also means there are only nine games left in 2019 – the equivalent of one round of footy.
Let’s keep the glass half full, shall we?
The reigning premiers seemed to have a top-four finish in the bag for most of the year, only to drop their final two games and put themselves in do-or-die final – and they last time they hosted an elimination final, things didn’t go so well.
Both teams have made significant changes since Round 23.
For West Coast, grand final hero Will Schofield, Mark Hutchings and superstar (does that label still apply?) Nic Naitanui come into the side for the injured Oscar Allen, and Liam Duggan and Jack Pertruccelle, who have both been dropped.
Essendon have brought in Cale Hooker, Jake Stringer, Orazio Fantasia, Will Snelling and skipper Dyson Heppell for Dylan Clarke, Michael Hartley, Josh Begley, Martin Gleeson and Tom Jok, all but one of whom has been dropped – the injured Gleeson.
We know by now how the Eagles want to play: with precision of movement, both ball and player.
Often that movement launches after an intercept mark from Jeremy McGovern, Tom Barrass, Brad Sheppard or skipper Shannon Hurn.
The Bombers know that, and that any slow, high balls will likely come back, with interest. The good news in that area is that what is a weakness for the Dons could well work in their favour.
Essendon are 17th for marks inside-50 at 9.5 a game, ahead of only the Suns. That might not be a bad thing. Chaos could be their friend. Stringer, Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti and Fantasia are dangerous players when the ball hits the deck, and that’s where they could gain an advantage.
At the other end, the Bombers match up surprisingly well. Cale Hooker and Michael Hurley are strong options for Josh Kennedy and Jack Darling, though it might be a wiser move to give Patrick Ambrose the job on one of them – Darling – to free up Hurley to do what he does best and hunt the ball.
John Worsfold hung Hurley out to dry last time these sides met, leaving him isolated on Kennedy as the ball came in repeatedly. Only shoddy kicking stopped the West Coast star from finishing with a bag.
That was pretty much the story of the game back in Round 14, West Coast dominated but wasted loads of opportunities. The 35-point margin was probably half what the Bombers deserved.
The other match-ups in the Eagles’ attack will be just as interesting and important as the big men. Adam Saad and Conor McKenna will have their hands full with the likes of Jamie Cripps, Willie Rioli and Liam Ryan. On the other hand, the Eagles will need to show the Dons’ dashing pair plenty of respect or risk being punished themselves.
There’s no shortage of big names in the middle either. Nic Nat versus Tom Bellchambers; Elliot Yeo, Luke Shuey, Andrew Gaff and Dom Sheed against Dylan Shiel, Zach Merrett and Dyson Heppell. Do the Eagles send Hutchings to Merrett?
The Bombers look stronger than they have in weeks, and they’ve had two weeks to plan for this. They aren’t without a chance.
The Eagles just look stronger in each zone, and they too have had two weeks to prepare – and stew on that loss to Hawthorn and the high price they paid for it.
West Coast by four goals. That’s my Thursday night forecast. What’s yours?