The AFL free agency period has officially begun, with Adelaide Crows defender Jake Kelly and Richmond Tigers tall Mabior Chol the first players to find new homes for 2022.
A poorly kept secret was confirmed on Tuesday when the Bombers announced that assistant coach Ben Rutten would succeed John Worsfold as senior coach, getting behind the wheel in 2021.
Worsfold’s position has been under scrutiny for the best part of the last two seasons. After falling to 2-6 midway through 2018 and consequently missing the finals, a disastrous start to 2019 looked as though it would peter-out the same way.
However a return to form in the middle of this year resulted in scraping into eighth spot.
Worsfold took the job under unprecedented circumstances as a result of the supplements scandal and was the perfect calming, steady-head that was required at the time. With that task completed, a broader look at his coaching performance is required.
Three consecutive years of the exact same win-loss record (12-10) is okay; not wonderful, not calamitous, but given the talent at their disposal, it is an underachievement. A new voice might be just the shot in the arm that the Bombers require.
Rutten is a highly credentialled assistant coach, having been recognised by Richmond as playing a critical role in their premiership breakthrough in 2017. His impact on Essendon was immediate, reducing scores conceded per game to 82 points, the lowest figure since Mark Thompson’s year in charge of 78.7 points per game.
More learned people than I believe that he has the necessary credentials to be the head coach of an AFL club, and as an Essendon fan, I’m glad that we have a quality football brain on the books. However, I’m not totally sold on the succession plan just yet.
By the time he takes over, Rutten will have spent six years as an assistant coach. He has experienced success at Richmond, but he is yet to coach his own side outright at any level, and is yet to complete the level four coaching accreditation, according to The Age.
Yes, it’s not hard-and-fast criteria – Chris Fagan has done his best to put that assumption on the back burner – but for a team whose aggressive list management strategy suggests that it is well and truly in premiership contention, appointing someone who will very much be still learning on the job doesn’t really align with projections and expectations.
Previous iterations of contingency planning – Simon Goodwin at Melbourne and Nathan Buckley at Collingwood – have shown that success is not instantaneous, let alone guaranteed, with Goodwin’s side suffering a major fall from grace after a barnstorming finish to 2018.
And while Buckley has Collingwood humming and on the brink of a second consecutive grand final, it hasn’t come without him barely keeping his job during four consecutive seasons without a finals appearance from 2014-17.
Will Rutten be afforded the same amount of time that Buckley was before he got the Magpies on the right path? By the time he takes over, Michael Hurley will be 30 years old entering his 12th season, and Cale Hooker will be 31 and entering his 13th.
That’s the two key pillars of the defence that Rutten has been instrumental in reshaping since he took over as defensive coach, with time running out on their body clocks.
Both have been recognised with All Australian honours in previous years and will be crucial in steering a young group in years to come, with the departures of senior figures such as David Myers, Mark Baguley and Brendan Goddard in the last 18 months. The duo is a resource too valuable to let slip into retirement.
What also needs clarification is the extent to which the coaching vacancies at Adelaide and, to a much lesser degree, Fremantle, forced Essendon’s hand.
Rutten confirmed during Tuesday’s media conference that he had been sounded-out by his former club, an opportunity that he declined to entertain.
Did the Essendon hierarchy see this as a threat? It was a surprise that a strategy like this would be undertaken with Rutten, a man still finding his feet in the coaching ranks, ahead of Blake Caracella, a favourite son and decorated assistant coach who will return to Essendon in 2020.
Caracella has been involved in two premierships as an assistant, first with Geelong in 2011 and then Richmond with Rutten in 2017.
Of course, Essendon know better than almost anyone the risks associated with bringing past players back to the club and expecting success, and they should be commended for resisting the temptation to fall into line with this appointment as they have previously.
Whether it be sticking with Sheedy for an extraordinary 27 years, dumping Matthew Knights after just three years, putting all their faith in James Hird, who had never experienced life as an AFL coach in any professional capacity, or offering every suspended out-of-contract player in 2016 the chance to continue their career with the club after their suspension had finished, Essendon has been loyal to a fault on many occasions.
Ratifying their luring of Caracella, however, would have made more sense than most of the decisions listed above.
By locking-in Rutten for the long term, the threat posed by his former club has been extinguished and senior management can rest assured that they will be keeping someone that they clearly hold in such high regard.
Only time will tell as to whether this was indeed the correct decision. But a passionate supporter base so starved of success will almost certainly not be as patient as the men in charge at the Hangar.
Beginning a senior coaching career with the expectation of immediate success will be something that very few in this industry have experienced before. Let’s hope for the man known as ‘the truck’s sake that he doesn’t stall.