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Footy Fix: The Bombers made two mistakes in their finest 11 minutes in years. They might cost them finals

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1st July, 2023
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No self-respecting Essendon supporter will want to be patronised right now with the sort of rhetoric that inevitably comes when an up-and-comer goes down in heartbreaking fashion against an established heavyweight.

But hearing about the Bombers’ incredible last-quarter fightback to hit the lead with 90 seconds to go and be on the verge of a famous, season-defining win to end Port Adelaide’s double-figures victory streak, about the emergence of Ben Hobbs, the ferocity of Zach Merrett, the magic of Jake Stringer and the heroics of Jye Caldwell, is going to be something they’ll have to deal with for the next few days anyway.

Because the truth of the matter is the Bombers, in so many ways, were exceptional on Saturday night. From somehow holding firm under an avalanche of 18 first-quarter inside 50s to concede only two goals, all the way through to their ground-ball dominance deep into the last with the match up for grabs, this was the standout performance of what has already been a quite enchanting start to life under Brad Scott.

From the moment Sam Powell-Pepper put Port Adelaide 17 points in front with a little under seven and a half minutes left, to the moment Dan Houston’s superboot walloped the ball through the big sticks after the siren to secure the Power another last-line, last-gasp victory, the Bombers were brave, brutal, and brilliant.

In that time, they made exactly two mistakes. And it could well end up costing them the finals berth they so richly deserve.

Setting up the first of their three consecutive goals, the Caldwell snap which reignited the fire, couldn’t sum up the Bombers’ best any better.

For starters, Andrew McGrath’s kick-out following Powell-Pepper’s behind was perfectly placed. Often, in a similar situation, teams will heedlessly bang long up the middle, get as much territory as they can, and hope. Essendon are smarter than that, though – McGrath instead goes to the edge of the centre square, still as long as he can muster, but wide enough that the Bombers can get the ‘rope-a-dope’ tactic they love to use of pulling teams wide, then cutting them apart with passes back inboard to a now-vacant corridor.

It’s not needed this time – first with a Nic Martin bomb from the spillage, then a clever Hobbs tap to Jake Stringer about 65 metres from goal, the Bombers get the ball into a dangerous spot. And Stringer’s kick inside 50, while not pinpoint enough to find Kyle Langford without allowing Miles Bergman to spoil, is wide enough to get the ideal result: a boundary throw-in.

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A perfect tap down from Andrew Phillips, rucking against Ollie Wines, gives the Bombers control of the ball; the play ends with Langford storming through traffic and handpassing to Caldwell, who makes a difficult snap in the wet look easy. Goal.

All this is pretty, normal, run-of-the-mill decent play that a good team can execute – against Port Adelaide, the clear second seed this year if not higher, it’s even more impressive.

But it’s not until the next centre bounce that it becomes clear that the Bombers can most certainly do this. Jeremy Finlayson, Port’s stand-in ruck once again with Scott Lycett a last-minute out, doesn’t even jump; Phillips taps perfectly down to Parish, who scrubs a kick forward. Sure, it looks ugly, but it takes out the army of Power intercept-markers that have clunked 17 of them on the night.

Still, the take below his knees from Caldwell is unbelievable; clean as a whistle off to Hobbs, who gives back to Parish. Given how wonky his kicking had been all evening, it’s a bold decision to trust his left boot to go inside 50. But he has eyes for one man.

All year, Langford has been the man for the Bombers inside 50, and with Peter Wright shut down almost entirely by Aliir and Sam Weideman barely sighted either, the Mr Fix-It third tall became even more crucial.

Sam Weideman rues a missed shot on goal.

Sam Weideman rues a missed shot on goal. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

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Langford is the ultimate mismatch player – he’s a tough task to man up on at the best of times, because he’s too strong overhead for most smalls, while also lightning off the lead.

Not many – Luke Ryan did it last week – have been able to keep him under wraps for a full four quarters, and his latest opponent, Trent McKenzie, can’t do it here. With eyes only for Langford, Parish looks to weight the kick in front of him. Perfect.

The other underrated part of Parish’s kick is where he looks to go with his pass. The Bombers in 2022 were the least accurate team in the game, with a big part of that due to taking low-percentage shots after being forced towards the boundaries when going inside 50.

Scott this year sets the Bombers up in that central corridor – and the proof is where Parish heads with his pass. Right up the spine, in the words of Dwayne Russell, and to the conventional hot-spot.

All Weideman, stationed in front, needs to do is occupy Aliir enough to free the space for Langford to rush in, having gained a crucial half-metre’s separation from McKenzie after starting in the goalsquare for the centre bounce. His mark of a still-slippery Sherrin is vice-like.

From 20 metres out, all but directly in front, Langford makes no mistake. Port Adelaide haven’t had a disposal for 90 seconds of game time: the Bombers have since banged on two goals.

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It would take another six and a half minutes of throwing the kitchen sink at a desperate Power before they, a team on an 11-match run and sitting pretty in second on the ladder, would finally crack.

Six and a half minutes filled with Phillips abandoning all nuance and bashing the ball forward as far as he can from the next centre bounce; of dash and dare down the boundary line, of Andrew McGrath lacing out a teammate while being caught high by Zak Butters, winning an immaterial downfield free kick that was being marked anyway.

Not everything went their own way – their first entry inside 50 was stymied by some defensive nous from Travis Boak, throwing his body in the road of the menacing Stringer to allow McKenzie to save the day with an intercept mark.

But at no stage, even with time ticking down, did the Bombers abandon their structure; even in the final five minutes, with Port taking precious seconds on the clock by chipping around the boundary, they refused to overcommit, to risk letting the Power through out the back and exposing their vulnerable defence in the manner of last week’s loss to Fremantle.

The result was pressure on the Power; a spirited pursuit from Jayden Laverde on the significantly quicker Quinton Narkle impacting a potentially dangerous kick inside 50 to sail out on the full. Along with it there were yet more flashes of brilliance, with Weideman’s strong hands on the wing bailing the Bombers out of a high, hopeful ball down the line.

The second inside 50 would also be intercepted by the Power, Dyson Heppell hacking under pressure but only finding the chest of Dylan Williams, in the perfect spot. It’s not even a proper mistake from Heppell; given the situation of the game, and the immediate pressure, he had no other real option beyond going for the boundary in the pocket and risking conceding a free.

In any case, once again the Power are unable to get clear, with Jordan Ridley rising high to intercept on the wing; not content with shutting down Todd Marshall, he’d read the drop zone superbly, and helped by some body checking from Weideman on Houston – another moment where, despite his lack of stats, the big Bomber’s role was vital in the most subtle way.

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Once again, the Power repel, this time via an Aliir clearing kick; but the dam wall is only just holding up by this point.

Marshall, from a scramble on the wing, is mown down desperately by Heppell. A captain’s moment from the not-a-captain-anymore.

Another inside 50, another Power win, Houston spoiling to the boundary.

The Bombers’ repeat entries – so damaging in the first half with three goals from five similar double opportunities – meant something had to give. And eventually, it would.

It only took one Power mistake to open the door, and it would come off Houston’s boot.

The last three minutes, and four Bomber inside 50s, had been on the members’ side of the MCG, which is where, naturally, all the numbers had gravitated. It meant Port only needed to defend one pocket of the ground, a task they had performed with aplomb so far.

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Had it not been for what would happen after the siren, what Houston did with two minutes and 11 seconds on the clock would have been the act that cost the Power the match. Needing to either lock things up or get it as far away out of danger as he possibly could… he kicks to open space, on the far wing.

It’s fraught with danger given the Power have flooded the 50 with spares: that mean the Bombers have the extra numbers further back, and crucially, have been dominating ground-balls throughout the last 15 minutes.

Suddenly, with a wobbling, bouncing ball, the Bombers have their chance: win the ball, and there is a whole side of space to kick to inside 50.

As luck would have it, the ball would take a wicked turn, clear Jase Burgoyne and Darcy Byrne-Jones, and fall in Mason Redman’s hands; he fumbles, regathers, wheels, and on his left boot, scraps a kick to the outstretched Caldwell, alone in space.

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The Power’s other mistake in the play belonged to Williams: for reasons known only to himself, he sits back, his inexperience telling as he sets up as if expecting a long bomb, failing to see Caldwell free until it’s far too late. It’s the sort of defensive lapse Port have avoided making for months.

35 out, on a slight but definite angle, with a wet ball, it’s far from a simple kick when you add in two and a half hours of fatigue and the pressure of the scoreboard. The goal umpire doesn’t even move.

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At this point, having dominated the last ten minutes, having reduced the juggernaut that is Port Adelaide into defending for their lives, hardly able to control the ball let alone the match, Essendon look home and hosed.

Key word: look.

They look even more secure when Phillips again murders the ball from the centre bounce and Caldwell again gathers, shakes a Houston tackle, and drives it in.

The ball burbles around, and coming up to meet it from the goalsquare, unsighted all night, is Wright; with Aliir bearing down, he gathers after a fumble, and gives to Parish – surrounded by white shirts, but with enough time and space to get a snap away and guide it where he wants.

It’s Essendon’s first mistake in ages.

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Parish, notwithstanding his pass to Langford, had spent the night butchering the ball going forward as if it was a Mafia rival he wanted to erase from existence; an elite AFL footballer, at the clutch, should be burying a shot this good through for a goal from that spot more often than not.

It comes close, but there’s no kind bounce, and it’s a behind. Worse still, it gives Port Adelaide back the ball, and leaves the Bombers vulnerable.

The second mistake comes a minute later. With the Power having their turn to surge forward and the Bombers this time the ones desperately holding them at bay, Martin makes the telling blunder.

Look at how Collingwood play close games when they’re in front. They’ve become the masters at the tight finish partly due to some incredible luck, but even more so because they know innately how to preserve a lead.

Their first instinct is to keep it in tight, to force repeat stoppages, stack numbers around the ball and then repeat: look at Oleg Markov here in the dying stages against Adelaide.

After gathering the ball, he has no intention of regaining his feet, instead allowing himself to fall forward, letting himself be consumed, and enabling a ball up around which the Pies can stack numbers.

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For one stoppage after a boundary throw-in, the Bombers do this well, wrapping up Byrne-Jones. From the second, though, after a scrambling period, Martin does the opposite of what you should.

Gathering the ball, he has the chance to allow himself to be wrapped up by Connor Rozee, force another ball-up, and take some extra seconds off the clock. Instead, he does the instinctive thing, and throws the ball on the boot.

It’s a wobbling, poor kick, barely passing 50, and it’s also where Houston has set up for exactly that eventuality.

You don’t need me to tell you what happened next.

The Bombers did so much right in those frantic final minutes; kicking three goals straight to drag themselves into the lead, and to the cusp of a famous victory, was their finest passage of play in many a year.

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Having spent most of my lifetime being among the most untrustworthy teams in the league, we can now, definitively, trust Essendon. They’re a team well structured behind the ball, committed to the cause in midfield, and with confidence in themselves to hit targets by foot – all lacking so considerably in 2022.

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Only last year, the Power inflicted the most humiliating loss of Ben Rutten’s tenure, a lifeless 84-point massacre in Round 22 that stamped the coach’s cards. To have improved to the point that a significantly improved Port outfit were lucky to escape with a win is the surest sign yet the Bombers’ future is bright.

But in the here and now, those two, crucial mistakes loom fresh in the memory. It would be heartbreaking to see the Bombers miss out on September action because of them.

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