Essendon and Melbourne have both been bywords for failure and mediocrity over the last ten to 15 years and in truth haven’t held much relevance on the AFL stage since they played off in the 2000 grand final.
Are they destined for more of the same in 2020 or will this year be different?
The Bombers have lost five elimination finals since their last finals win in 2004, a source of much mirth in the wider AFL community. Last season ended ignominiously with a 55-point September defeat in Perth to West Coast, having lost three of their last four coming into finals, including a 104-point loss to the Dogs in which they had only one goal on the board at the 20-minute mark of the last quarter.
Can the Dons turn such abject failure around and become a finals force at last?
Essendon best 25
B: Conor McKenna, Michael Hurley, Patrick Ambrose
HB: Aaron Francis, Cale Hooker, Adam Saad
Foll: Tom Bellchambers, Dyson Heppell, Zach Merrett
C: Andrew McGrath, Dylan Shiel, David Zaharakis
HF: Devon Smith, Shaun McKernan, Orazio Fantasia
F: Jake Stringer, Joe Daniher, Anthony McDonald-Tipunwuti
Int: Darcy Parish, Kyle Langford, Dylan Clarke, Mason Redman
Em: Matt Guelfi, James Stewart, Jacob Townsend
The Bombers rid themselves of a series of jobbers at the end of 2019 – Mark Baguley, Mitch Brown, Zac Clarke, Matt Dea, Michael Hartley and David Myers aren’t the kind of players to take a club places, even if they provided various levels of admirable service at times.
They have added premiership Tiger Jacob Townsend, Tom Cutler from Brisbane and Andrew Phillips from Carlton to replace some of this depth.
Phillips may ruck from Round 1, with Tom Bellchambers having an injury-interrupted preseason. Like many rucks throughout the league, they are much of a muchness and the difference lies only in opportunity.
Essendon would frequently get smashed around the ball in 2019, even with the addition of Dylan Shiel. The midfield lacks a physically imposing contest beast – Shiel, Zach Merrett, Dylan Heppell, Andrew McGrath, David Zaharakis and Darcy Parish are all small, slight players. All nice enough, sure, but nice guys come last.
Devon Smith has some mongrel about him, and his defensive pressure was missed last year, but he’s a pygmy too.
Boys can only mix it with men for so long before they get found out, and it’s been a problem for the Bombers for a long time. It’s why they struggle to get to finals and fail badly even if they get the chance.
Essendon’s best footy is played with blazing drive from halfback through Adam Saad and Conor McKenna after strong intercept marking from Cale Hooker, Michael Hurley and Aaron Francis. Much has been made of how sustainable this style of footy is across a long season, but Richmond won a premiership with the third-highest percentage of scores launched from the back half.
The Bombers best team has Joe Daniher and Orazio Fantasia as key components up forward, but they’ve played only 39 games between them across the last two seasons and have rarely been fully fit when on the park.
Jake Stringer and Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti have carried the load well in the last two years with fluctuating support from talls like Shaun McKernan and James Stewart when fit.
Much intrigue will surround the coaching handover between John Worsfold and Ben Rutten, as always happens with such agreements. Any failure will be put down to player confusion from mixed messages.
The biggest acquisition from the off-season will be Blake Caracella, who is coming from three years at the Tigers that delivered two premierships. He is renowned as a tactical genius and ball movement specialist.
The Bombers can easily knock on the door of the top four or six with Caracella in the fold, that’s how profound his influence could be. They’re a hard team to trust though.
Predicted finish: 12th.
The Demons had been a laughing stock for so long that they clearly didn’t know how to handle a surprise preliminary final berth in 2018 and returned to their old ways last season. A return to the bottom of the ladder was like a warm blanket of security for players and fans alike – and came with a healthy dose of self-loathing of course.
So will the real Melbourne please stand up? Are they the tough, high-scoring, free-moving side of 2018 or the meek, stodgy outfit of 2019?
Melbourne best 25
B: Neville Jetta, Steven May, Marty Hore
HB: Michael Hibberd, Jake Lever, Christian Salem
Foll: Max Gawn, Angus Brayshaw, Jack Viney
C: Bailey Fritsch, Clayton Oliver, Ed Langdon
HF: Christian Petracca, Mitch Brown, Jake Melksham
F: Jayden Hunt, Tom McDonald, Kysaiah Pickett
Int: Adam Tomlinson, James Harmes, Nathan Jones, Mitch Hannan
Em: Alex Neale-Bullen, Josh Wagner, Sam Weideman
Jordan Lewis has retired, Sam Frost was traded to Hawthorn and small forwards Jeff Garlett and Jay Kennedy-Harris have been delisted. Added to the squad for 2020 are Ed Langdon and Adam Tomlinson, ostensibly to play the wings, as well as journeyman Mitch Brown to give key position support at either end.
How to judge a list of players that can finish top four in one season and second-last the next? The Dees ranked 17th for scoring and points conceded, with only Gold Coast rated worse on both measures. Staggering. This after being the only team to average 100 points per game in 2018.
Much has been expected of Steven May and Jake Lever, but injury has prevented them from shining. They only played four matches together in 2019. May has never played more than 19 games in a season after nine years at the level.
Marty Hore was discovered as an interceptor last year, Michael Hibberd has dropped away from his All Australian best, while Neville Jetta is good at what he does. Christian Salem was one of few Demons who probably emerged with his reputation unscathed in last year’s catastrophe.
The midfield is of course where it all starts, and a criticism of Melbourne has been a sameness of too many inside players. Clayton Oliver leads the way and we can’t forget he’s only 22 years old. Angus Brayshaw is a talented enigma but has a few strings to his bow. James Harmes is more versatile but most at home inside the contest. Nathan Jones is still kicking but has been asked to change roles.
Jack Viney must have a question mark on his future in the modern game. He’s as one-dimensional a player as there is in the AFL, and there are others on the list that perform his main skill of extraction better. He’s been demoted from the captaincy. He’s also treacle-slow and can’t kick. Concerns.
Up forward was a mess in 2019. Getting the ball inside 50 wasn’t a problem, but it wasn’t clean, and the Melbourne forwards were ineffective at preventing opposition rebound. The addition of Kysaiah Pickett should help in that regard, and there is still hope for Tom McDonald, Jake Melksham and Jayden Hunt, with help from the floating likes of Bayley Fritsch and Mitch Hannan.
Maybe it was injuries that cruelled the Dees last year, even though all clubs have them. Maybe it was complacency after having achieved nothing. Maybe those two things won’t be a factor this season. And maybe they overperformed in 2018 and their contending days are done.
Predicted finish: 13th.
9. North Melbourne
10. St Kilda
11. Port Adelaide
18. Gold Coast