Essendon have won acclaim at copious stages this year. But against the Giants they found ways to short circuit.
After leading by 16 points at halftime, the Bombers only mustered up 1.7 after the main break and conceded 6.6, to lose by 13 points and gave up their position in the top eight.
Their latest fade out included a 0.4 third quarter and their second half was missing strength and numbers at the contest. Zach Merrett and Darcy Parish, two players that had collected a large number of Brownlow votes, were held to 20 and 15 disposals respectively and were largely irrelevant.
Over the course of the year the talks around Essendon and finals have intensified. But if the Giants loss was a test to see if they could measure up in finals – against other finals teams – they botched it. And it’s time we close the door on the ‘Essendon is playing finals’ narrative for this year.
Essendon coach Ben Rutten said he wasn’t impressed with the first half – when they were winning – which was littered with missed opportunities. And after the main break he said the Giants dominated the contest and the Bombers lacked competitive spirit. He conceded the last fortnight the Bombers had played well below their best in 2021.
“We’re far from the finished product,” Rutten told media post game.
“We’ve still got a lot of improvement and growth to go. The focus is on getting better. We’re not going to go too far in finals if we play like we have in the last couple of weeks.”
What’s become obvious is that Essendon has become a hard team to critique and measure. At the start of the season many predicted a bottom-four finish after losing a host of high quality players in Joe Daniher, Orazio Fantasia, Adam Saad and Conor McKenna.
But now they’re in a situation where they could play finals. That’s come from two things: players have developed quicker under Rutten’s direct and clear approach (the game plan has tightened), and teams around them have produced a mixed bag of results.
Think Tigers, Giants, Dockers, Saints. That combination – rightly or wrongly – has put the Bombers in the mix.
Essendon legend Matthew Lloyd said sometimes teams make finals too early. He put Essendon in this category.
“It’s been a good year, but they’re not ready,” he said.
A few weeks ago former Lions coach Justin Leppitsch said the Bombers’ “ping-pong” wouldn’t hold up in finals footy.
“Their scoring profile is almost the reverse of Melbourne in a lot of ways. Melbourne doesn’t always get the scoreboard ticking over, but their defence is what keeps them in games,” he said on SEN’s Crunch Time.
“So their attack’s fine (and) they will worry people through their attack, but finals footy isn’t about that.”
On Sunday the Bombers conceded three goals in seven minutes against the Giants. Their inability to defend transition and make stops is still very much their Achilles heel. If you look at this part of their game, you’ll find examples littered throughout the year where they continue to leak run-on goals and goals in red time.
One that comes to mind was against Richmond when the Bombers hit the front in the early stages of the final quarter only to have the Tigers kick 7.1 to storm home by 39.
Against the Blues in Round 7 they coughed up 5.2 in across the second and third quarter after leading by 20 points, which shifted momentum of the game.
In Round 16 versus the Cats they couldn’t stop an 8.2 second quarter barrage and lost by 41. Even against North Melbourne they gave up eight scoring shots to three in the first quarter.
It’s clear that their defence needs fixing before they can be confident in a brand that can hold up under finals duress. The proof lies in every game in 2021.
All of this makes Essendon a hard team to trust. Jason Dunstall was asked whether or not they’ll make finals and he said he had no idea who will grab the eighth spot.
Since Round 12 the Bombers are 3-4 with wins against the Hawks (17th), Crows (15th) and Roos (18th). They failed against benchmark, finals-bound and finals-hardened teams: the Tigers, Demons, Cats and Giants. And that tells you all you need to know about whether or not Essendon will play finals in 2021.
For the most part there’s been a lot to like about Essendon this year. They were going nowhere 12 months ago – no brand, no clear path forward, no trajectory. It’s clear they’re starting to put together a blueprint that resembles a blue-collar team, something that Rutten prides himself on.
Playing finals was never a pass mark for the Bombers this year. The Bombers have already succeeded. Rutten has developed players. He’s made their brand of football obvious and although the brand wasn’t on show against the Giants and for large parts against the Roos, you can see what the Bombers are trying to become.
It’s going to take time to fine tune.
If they do happen to make finals it doesn’t mean they should be considered a true finals team because results throughout the year tell us there are parts of their game that fold under pressure against more seasoned footy clubs.
And that’s okay.
Another tough match looms this week against Sydney without the suspended Lance Franklin at the Gabba.
Which Essendon will show up? At this point, does it matter?