The irony after eight rounds of the 2021 season is that coaches of two of the four lowest achieving teams are relatively safe from the axe unless the unthinkable happens.
But has time expired after 27 years for the favourite son of Collingwood’s AFL era and could Hawthorn end the 17-year tenure of their most successful coach?
David Noble played in two AFL games in his career for Fitzroy, losing both, which means he has gone ten games and 30 years without success as a player and coach. It is such a depressing stat for a highly respected assistant coach and footy manager, but can he win a game with this list?
Nathan Buckley’s stat line runs over 500 games, but he’ll never achieve an overall .500 win/loss record unless he coaches at another club. But does anyone really think he will coach again?
Alastair Clarkson stands alone in the AFL era as the most successful coach, with no fewer than eight current coaches having served under him as assistants, yet even he can’t get these Hawks in any sort of contention. And yet, despite a garbage percentage of 73.5 per cent, the Hawks aren’t flushed entirely, with the Kangas in Tassie, the Blues at the G, then the Suns in Darwin for Sir Doug Nicholls Round before the bye.
Ben Rutten’s playing career began under Gary Ayres and ended under Brenton Sanderson, but he spent most of it playing under the Crows’ longest serving coach, Neil Craig.
He’s been afforded an excellent coaching apprenticeship under premiership coaches Damien Hardwick and John Worsfold, but starting his head coaching career sans training wheels at two and six must be galling since the Bombers could be six and two.
The Roos are roadkill with a fork stuck in their side and a spoon headed for their letterbox as soon as they update their address (North Melbourne or Hobart?), while the Pies have a slight pulse that is almost certain to flatline after matches against the Swans, Power and Cats still to come in May.
But what about those bloody Bombers?! You can’t tip them, but you dare not tip against them either because they have already torn apart two finals sides from 2020 and four of their losses have come very late in the fourth quarter.
With games to come against the Dockers and North at Docklands, then the Eagles in Perth before Dreamtime at the G, Nostradamus couldn’t predict what might happen.
What is wrong with the Bombers?
It can’t be teething issues with the new head coach since he’s been given the longest probation as coach in waiting since the Mick Malthouse transition to Nathan Buckley, although perhaps there is a lesson in that, which Essendon failed to heed.
It isn’t the Stuart Dew diagnosis of needing to ‘learn to win’ either because the Bombers played finals 20 months ago and started 2020 with a five-and-three record, then won just one of their last nine games to give them a record of three wins, one draw and 13 losses since Round 8 last year.
Actually, it sounds like Rutten might be the problem after all, since the wheels have fallen off the more he has taken over the team.
However, for all the Rutten game plan’s faults, vis-a-vis their record of second highest scorers and second worst defence, they have twice now kicked more than 100 points in a match and still lost, a feat Carlton achieved in 2019 on their way to a 16th-place finish.
With the rarity of Leigh Matthews being wrong, the Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti rule where the Bombers win if he kicks a goal has also been broken as he has kicked 20.6 and is running tenth on the Coleman leaderboard. How can so much go right and so much go wrong simultaneously?
Regardless of fan morale, the players at Essendon don’t appear as disconsolate as the three teams below them on the ladder. The way they started the game on the weekend and the way they finished does not speak of a club in disarray nor does the body language suggest anything is awry.
The kids are hyped by the freewheeling brand of footy and they have the belief that they can win in a shootout, even if that has meant going down in the close ones.
The injury factor
The news on Jye Caldwell is not good, as he may require surgery, while Jake Stringer is out for a month. Sam Draper will be a welcome return sometime in June but may remain in the VFL if the current side continues to gel in the middle.
Unfortunately, Michael Hurley might have played his last game in red and black after suffering complications from a hip injury, although the player and club are hopeful he will return this season and he is contracted until 2022. Dylan Shiel will be back in mid-July at best, while Irving Mosquito has no return date yet.
Where is the cavalry?
Matt Guelfi was a one-man cavalry on the weekend, racking up six tackles, four inside 50s and a goal from eight touches as super sub in 28 per cent of game time. Andrew Phillips came back into the team to bolster the ruck division, taking about three quarters of the ruck contests and making the Bombers very competitive at stoppages.
Essendon have one pick in the mid-season rookie draft, currently number four, but may activate another pick if they put Hurley on the long-term injury list.
VFL Bombers recruit and undrafted teenager Sam Conforti had an outstanding game in the Metro versus Country invitational on Saturday and is playing well in the reserves. If they want a mature-age player, local boy Nick O’Kearney got leather poisoning for the VFL Bombers last week in his first game at that level since 2017. If nothing else, replacement players will boost the reserves and assist in the development of the kids.
Play the kids?
Nick Bryan shows great promise and has shown he is well on the path to developing into a terrific ruckman, but there was no way Rutten was going to send him in against Shane Mumford. The Bombers have already handed debuts to five players in 2021, with only eight players from the Giants game over 25. Half the team have played fewer than 50 games.
Nik Cox is lights out the best kid so far out of last year’s draft and Archie Perkins must currently have several clubs who picked ahead of the Bombers wondering if they whiffed on the dark horse. There are still several recruits yet to be unveiled, with 18-year-old next generation academy pair Josh Eyre and Cody Brand adjusting to senior footy in the VFL alongside 2021 teenage debutants Zach Reid and Ned Cahill.
So the Bombers are already playing their kids, but in light of the results, the balancing act is in how many they can unleash at once. Lachie Johnson, son of Lions legend Chris (how they gnashed their teeth at the father-son prospect being pinched as Essendon’s next generation academy talent pathway redshirt), is taking to the VFL with gusto and fellow son of a legend, Tom Hird, is also very consistent.
You won’t see him on any injury lists, but undrafted rookie Kaine Baldwin, who the Bombers pinched after the 194-centimetre teenager had commenced studies on the Gold Coast and joined the Suns Academy, is rehabilitating an ACL and will debut in the VFL later this year.
Essendon are the fifth club to be laid on the slab to be poked by the fork, yet in the same fashion that the Suns staved off the sword of Damocles with a brace of wins, the Bombers are masters of their own destiny when it comes to giving CPR to their season.
Winning is the only way to climb the ladder and they certainly have the weapons to do that, but they are running out of games to turn things around.