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.
Six minutes into the second quarter against Fremantle, Zach Merrett fires a handball to a running Dylan Shiel.
Shiel finds Jake Stringer breaking from a stoppage on the edge of the centre square. With only a brief break in stride, he marks, puts a few metres on his opponent, and goals from outside 50.
Under normal circumstances, this would blow the roof off Marvel Stadium, sending Essendon fans into raptures.
Of course, for obvious reasons, Saturday’s game was anything but normal, and this moment largely went unnoticed. But it could prove significant for Stringer and the Essendon playing group at large.
Immediately on Saturday, Stringer’s role stood out. It is not unusual for him to attend centre bounces, particularly at the beginning of quarters. Few players, particularly at Essendon, can match his combination of speed, power and strength that can swing games when needed.
On Saturday he attended the first 13 centre bounces of the game. He missed just one in the entire first half. He missed only five for the match. This was primarily due to the lack of opponent for Nathan Fyfe. At 192 centimetres, Fyfe is comfortably taller than the core of the Essendon engine room.
Fyfe makes Essendon do strange things. In Round 22 last year the job was given to Patrick Ambrose, who outside of relief ruck work has spent little to no time in a midfield rotation.
Despite making his name as a forward and not being known for his accountability, this time it was Stringer’s turn to go head to head with the league’s best.
Was he successful? The data suggests that he was.
On his way to claiming his second Brownlow medal in 2019, Fyfe averaged 29 disposals, 7.5 clearances, and 17.6 contested possessions. In Round 1 he was restricted to 26 disposals, one clearance and ten contested possessions. Tick.
Not only was Fyfe’s effectiveness curtailed, but the absence of Stringer at stoppages was noticeable too. In the first half when he attended all but one restart, Essendon finished the contested possession count ahead by 12, 48-36.
In the second half, with Stringer returning more to his natural habitat closer to goal, Fremantle took the ascendency at the contest, winning the contested ball 49-66. Essendon’s midfield clearly lifted with Stringer at stoppages and slipped away in the second half without him around. Another tick.
He only had nine possessions and two goals for the game but in a low-scoring contest it was a significant contribution.
So with a new coach at the helm in 2021, is this something we should expect to see more of?
The abundance of Fyfe types in the league – including Patrick Cripps, Dustin Martin and Marcus Bontempelli – suggests that there will be ample opportunities for him to hone his craft going forward, and be more than just a spark plug.
Of course, where the midfield has a lift, the unproven forward line became even more suspect. Nine goals from 41 entries is a poor return, and hamstrung by the injuries to Joe Daniher, Shaun McKernan, Cale Hooker and James Stewart, it was a group severely lacking in height. At 191 centimetres, Jayden Laverde was the tallest marking threat.
What it meant was that there was no bailout kick down the line to crash packs and feed the players at ground level. And as the game went on it became clear that not selecting Andrew Phillips was a head-scratcher.
Not only could he or Tom Bellchambers provide that target as a resting ruckman, but it was obvious that Bellchambers was short of a gallop. He didn’t play in either of the preseason games due to injury and faded as the match went on. By contrast, Phillips played both matches and acquitted himself quite well.
What they lacked in height, they made up for in pressure. Five of the nine goals that Essendon kicked were a result of forward-half turnovers. Devon Smith and Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti laid five tackles each, Will Snelling and Stringer made four each, and Jacob Townsend provided three.
Stringer’s second goal, which ultimately put the game out of reach, resulted from a scramble at the top of the goal square after McDonald-Tipungwuti forced a turnover. If the small forward line is the way of the future – and given the Richmond IP all over the football department, it may be – then Stringer would be a welcome addition to the mix.
But think about the earlier goal: Merrett, to Shiel, to Stringer out of a stoppage. That shapes as Essendon’s key line-up in late game situations, with Andrew McGrath or Dyson Heppell potential stand-ins.
Essendon’s coaching group has at least two months to think this through. Let’s see what they decide.