If the first half of the year was all about the sharp rise and growth of Bombers midfielder Darcy Parish, then surely the back end of the AFL season has been all about Jake Stringer catching fire.
Since Round 15 Stringer has kicked 17 goals and averaged 19.7 disposals, 3.7 tackles, 6.2 clearances and 19.5 pressure acts. His clearance work puts him in the same company as Christian Petracca, Travis Boak and Brownlow medallist Lachie Neale.
The stat-stuffing numbers are an even spread that reflects a jack-of-all-trades largely because of the various roles he’s been asked to play by Bombers coach Ben Rutten: the dangerous and instinctive goal kicker, the centre bounce clearance bull, the creator and playmaker, the forward pressure player.
Stringer, who’s been nominated for an All Australian gig, has levelled up at the right time as the Bombers embark on an unlikely finals campaign. If he goes missing, it could be curtains for his club. But if he can sustain what he’s been producing, then Essendon are every chance to beat the Bulldogs this week.
Let’s be clear here: there’s more to Essendon than just Jake Stringer. They have more contributors. They’re more cohesive. They have developed their young players quicker than expected. And this in part explains Stringer’s sharp rise to a degree. It’s not that he’s producing things on the field we didn’t know he could do. It’s just that the team is functioning so much better, which takes the stress off Stringer, meaning we’re able to really see his impact in an effective team-first environment rather than being a lone wolf in an unworkable side.
Rutten has unlocked a version of Stringer we haven’t seen before, who doesn’t need to hit the scoreboard to have value.
Case in point: The last time Stringer faced the Bulldogs in Round 21, a game the Bombers won by 13 points, he didn’t kick a score and collected 13 touches, but his blue-collar work ethic returned six tackles, six score involvements, seven clearances (five centre clearances) and 31 pressure acts.
But when Stringer does hit scores, and bags of them, the Bombers usually win, and sometimes they win big. Against the Suns he kicked 5.1 from 19 touches and the Bombers won by 68.
This makes him a destructive threat anywhere forward of centre, a player who is as damaging as Richmond’s Dustin Martin, which isn’t an easy thing to say.
There aren’t many Dustin Martin types in the AFL. Martin became the prototype of the mid-forward role. He owned it. It became his trademark: win clearances, kick goals, shape and change momentum. In 2020 Martin’s role became more evenly split between the middle and the forward line, much like Stringer’s timeshare now, and averaged 20.6 disposals and 3.7 clearances and kicked 22 goals.
Since Round 15 Stringer has more goals than Martin (39), averages more clearances (6.2) and has a similar disposal count (19.7). The impact he’s having on games is helping shape Essendon’s fortunes, much like Martin did with Richmond during their premiership years.
It hasn’t been a smooth path to now for Stringer. I can still recall a game in July last year when Essendon played Collingwood on a Friday night where Bruce McAvaney and Brian Taylor became critical of Stringer’s physique.
“He does look big, doesn’t he,” McAvaney said.
“I personally think he needs to train with the group. He definitely doesn’t have the six-pack going at the moment,” said Taylor.
Towards the end of that game Stringer flew for a contest and landed on his ankle, subsequently missing an extended period of time with syndesmosis. In 2020 he played only ten games. And through the course of his career he’s battled hamstring rips and has even drawn criticism from former Bulldogs teammate Bob Murphy for his work ethic and not buying into the daily grind.
Even entering this year there were question marks over Stringer’s durability. No-one questioned his talent. But if his body couldn’t stand up to the rigours of AFL football, most pundits started to think he’d be a dead weight and might never get to a point where we are now.
For most of this year Stringer’s consistency has improved, and he’s seeing career-best numbers: average disposals have gone from 8.9 to 16.6, score involvements have doubled and he’s on track to kick more than 40 goals. More importantly the Bombers score from 15.4 per cent of centre bounces when Stringer is there.
Unless he gets injured, it’s hard to see Stringer’s form falling away. The Bombers are built differently compared to when he arrived in 2018. He’s added depth to his game that is more than just that of a key forward, which is what he was drafted into the team for. Now there’s more talent, more depth and more even spread of scoring.
Peter Wright dropped seven goals on the Bulldogs in Round 21 as he starts to establish himself as someone who can influence games. Alec Waterman kicked four against the Pies last weekend. Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti has kicked 34 goals, the second-most at Essendon behind Stringer. Harrison Jones (20), Devon Smith (15), and Kyle Langford (13) have added solid value through the year.
Now when you look at Essendon, there’s far more flavour and variety in the forward line that releases a guy like Jake Stringer into other parts of the ground where he can influence and change momentum. And, as flexible as the Bombers are now in the midfield, Stringer has a licence to be a destructive X factor, and he can change the game in the space of eight minutes.
Some are wondering: can Jake Stringer perform when it counts on the big stage? The thing is, he no longer has to carry a team load. Rather, he just needs to be Jake Stringer, because the Bombers have more depth. They’re a different breed now. And if he can just be the best version of Jake Stringer – daring, dangerous, having fun – then Essendon has their best shot at breaking a horrendous finals drought.