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.
It nearly happened again.
Those Swans were just a beak away from snatching another victory against Essendon at the SCG on Sunday.
For someone still having nightmares about Gary Rohan rag-dolling Marty Gleeson in the goal square three years ago, it was uncomfortable, to say the least.
Thankfully, it was not to be. A final-quarter resistance led by Zach Merrett and Darcy Parish was enough to take the Bombers to a 2-0 start to this once-in-a-lifetime season.
Merrett (29 possessions and a goal) and Parish (13 and a goal in the fourth quarter) received the majority of the accolades in the aftermath. Merrett was given top marks by both coaches in the AFLCA voting, while Parish reveled in the glory of kicking the sealing goal.
But to single out those two is to wholeheartedly disregard the collective team effort of the engine room.
If you were to consider who the prime movers are in the Essendon midfield, a general consensus would suggest Merrett, Dylan Shiel and Dyson Heppell.
Not gifted with leg speed, Heppell is an out-and-out workhorse. Having served an apprenticeship under Jobe Watson, a master in stoppage craft, Heppell is the man Essendon fans want in the trenches, getting his hands dirty and coming up with grass stains on his knees.
And he proved that time and time again at stoppages throughout Sunday’s game, winning free kicks and crucial ground balls for the likes of Merrett and Shiel to distribute. Without him winning the clearance at the boundary throw-in with just over a minute on the clock, Parish isn’t threading the eye of the needle to ice the game.
Despite this, do you know how many centre bounces he attended?
And what about Merrett?
So who did the heavy lifting?
Shiel attended every restart in the first half, and 17 of the first 18 in the match, finishing with 22 touches. There was just one centre bounce in the first three quarters that he did not attend.
Alongside him for the majority (11 times) of those were Andy McGrath and Jake Stringer. McGrath (23 touches, seven tackles, seven clearances) continues to blossom, and Stringer, as noted after Round 1, is spending more and more time in the midfield as more than simply a burst, impact player that we have come to expect.
Shiel, McGrath and Stringer were the only three players to attend more than ten restarts. The next highest attendees were Parish and Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti with six each, and Devon Smith with five.
As the game wore on, the depth and class of the Essendon midfield shone through. They won the inside 50 count in the second half, 30-18, and were able to dictate terms by holding onto the ball in the final quarter, finishing 21 uncontested possessions ahead of their red-and-white counterparts.
This represents significant growth. It’s hard to imagine that in years gone by, this squad would win many games of footy with an underdone captain and their reigning best and fairest winner reduced to a role on the outside.
But they now have substantial depth in midfield talent, through a combination of trading (Smith, Stringer, Shiel) and astute draft selections (Heppell, Merrett, Parish, McGrath, Kyle Langford) that will have them believing that they can match it with the premier midfields in the game.
Forward of centre was once again a concern. He came to life after halftime, but Shaun McKernan was barely sighted early in the game, while Jacob Townsend could only manage five touches and did not hit the scoreboard. The Bombers are being forced to improvise with what’s at their disposal but it is yet to bring significant rewards.
Time and time again, Essendon lacked someone who could provide a meaningful target down the line when exiting their defensive 50, allowing Dane Rampe and company to intercept and repel. The Swans dominated the territory game in the second quarter, winning 14 inside 50s to Essendon’s lowly four.
If only there was a six-foot-six, mobile, dynamic goal-kicker that we could slot straight into the side…
With Joe Daniher’s future uncertain, Cale Hooker’s magnet has to be considered moveable on the whiteboard. Despite the scrutiny he received in 2017 when he was a permanent forward, he finished the year with 41 majors, and was a fantastic foil for Daniher, who earned All Australian honours. Not only can he hit the scoreboard, but he comfortably has the best pair of hands in the side.
It would be a difficult decision to break-up the Michael Hurley-Hooker duo, but impressive games from Jordan Ridley and Mason Redman, and the availability of Brandon Zerk-Thatcher, who was solid in Round 1, gives the co-coaches length in the back line and flexibility with positioning.
Despite the daunting prospect of facing Max Gawn this week, McKernan’s ability to take a turn in the ruck loses significance in 2020, given the shorter quarters. With so much Richmond intellectual property in the coaches box, Essendon may look to adopt the Shaun Grigg method, sacrificing the role of the second ruck for the sake of team balance.
It would be a hard sell to drop a player after kicking three of the team’s 12 goals. Maybe it’s the type of thinking that break the 16-year finals drought.
Two rounds in, and the Bombers have notched two shaky yet important wins where they led from start to finish, and withstood late fight backs in games that they were expected to win.
Their next opponent, Melbourne, proved to be the opposite of fast finishers, hanging on by the skin of their teeth to down Carlton after bursting out of the blocks with the first seven goals.
A win would take Essendon to 3-0 to start the year for the first time since 2012 – a year that, as we now know, was extraordinary for all the wrong reasons, similar to what we are experiencing now.
An omen? Perhaps. At least a loss to the Dees won’t start quite as much of a collapse as it did that year…