Essendon will be looking to take the next step in September after defying the odds to make an unlikely finals appearance last season.
8th, 11 wins, 11 losses, 109.1%
The Bombers weren’t given much of a chance by pundits to play September football, and a horror one-point loss to the Hawks in Round 1 didn’t help their chances.
It was a 75-point drubbing of 2020 finalists St Kilda that offered glimpses of what this team could deliver, and a rare ANZAC Day win had perceptions of the Bombers shifting.
They finished their home-and-away season on a three-game win streak to squeeze into the eight, but were ousted from finals by eventual Grand Finalists the Western Bulldogs through a dominant second half performance.
The ‘Baby Bombers’ were bolstered by youth, with top-10 picks Nik Cox and Archie Perkins impressing, while Harrison Jones showed his sky-high potential before being struck down by a stress fracture in his foot.
They were without prize recruit Jye Caldwell and midfielder Dylan Shiel for most of the season, while Michael Hurley’s hip infection cruelly ruled the veteran out for the entire year.
Jake Kelly (Free Agent – Adelaide), Ben Hobbs (Pick 13 – GWV Rebels), Alastair Lord (Pick 46 – Norwood), Garrett McDonagh (Pick 50 – Richmond VFL), Patrick Voss (Rookie Draft Pick 9 – Oakleigh Chargers).
Cale Hooker (Retired), Davis Zaharakis (Retired), Irving Mosquito (Retired), Patrick Ambrose (Retired), Ned Cahill (Delisted), Martin Gleeson (Delisted), Lachie Johnson (Delisted), Dylan Clarke (Delisted).
The Bombers were the first club to have their full squad back in training prior to the Christmas break.
The best news coming out of Hangar training has been the increasing workload of fan favourite Michael Hurley, who is making steady progress from his hip infection. ‘Bear’ still needs to build his body back up and hasn’t integrated into full training, so an AFL appearance in the early rounds remains unlikely, but it’s brilliant progress for the former All-Australian given how far back he is coming from.
Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti has been granted leave as he deals with an ongoing calf issue and personal issues that saw him miss the tail-end of 2021.
Jones and Zach Reid are at different stages of their pre-season. Reid is being managed carefully with a new foot issue after his back stress fracture in 2021, while Jones is participating in most contact drills and has continued to build up his size.
Jake Stringer trained with the youngsters before he was due back and looks fantastic, and Jordan Ridley worked closely with assistant coach Alex Rance as a spare man in defence while he was at the club.
A host of names have been missing at some stage of the pre-season due to external issues including isolation, but there are no extended absences.
Look for Kaine Baldwin and draftee Garrett McDonagh to push for debuts next season after impressive pre-seasons at the club. Tex Wanganeen, Ronald Fejo Jr., Nic Martin and Dylan Clarke are amongst the names vying for an SSP list spot.
What to look forward to:
The Bombers delivered an all-guns-blazing style of play last year that translated to high scoring, entertaining football. They finished fifth in goals per game, sixth in inside 50s and were the best club in the league using the ball, with a disposal efficiency of 75 per cent on the year.
This enthralling brand is aided by the youthful exuberance of the team, and fans will be eager to see the strides taken by the likes of Cox, Perkins, Jones and draftee Ben Hobbs in 2022. The growth of this club is set to come from within, which means the foundations are in place for this list to grow together.
A full season of a midfield mix composed of All-Australians Darcy Parish and Zach Merrett alongside Andy McGrath, Caldwell, Stringer and cult hero Sam Draper will be must-watch.
If Hurley is able to feature at the top level it will be one of the biggest triumphs in the year; he needs seven games to reach the 200-game milestone.
It’s a big year for:
Taken with Pick 6 in the 2015 draft, Aaron Francis hasn’t quite put it all together at AFL level. His quality is undoubted with innate football nous, explosive athleticism and the ability to play in various roles around the ground, but he’s never been able to get a full run at it due to injuries and mental health self-care.
This pre-season Francis has slimmed down, added a burst of pace to his leading patterns, and has been one of the Dons’ most impressive as a forward. With high confidence comes his contested marking and fluid set shot motion, but the aspect that was deserting him was a ground level presence and forward 50 pressure.
If he can add that element to his game, there’s a place in the forward six with his name on it. Until then, Jones, Peter Wright, and the impressive Baldwin will be competing for select spots in the best 23.
Dylan Shiel will be challenged to evolve his game outside of the centre square and desperately needs to tidy up his disposal, while James Stewart may be relied upon heavily in defence with Reid still developing and Hurley coming off a long-term injury.
More AFL News
Biggest unanswered question:
How will the Dons become better when the ball’s up for grabs?
The Dons finished in the bottom four for contested possessions per game in 2021 which will be a big area of focus this season. In comparison, Grand Finalists the Dogs and Dees were in the top four for contested possessions per game alongside the Power and Lions.
It’s a telling statistic that translates to on-field success.
The Bombers weren’t good in the clinches despite having two All-Australian midfielders in Parish and Merrett. The former had a breakout season and finished in the top-10 competition-wide for total contested possessions and was fourth in clearances. Merrett finished sixth in total disposals and proved to again be one of the best ball users in the game.
Ben Rutten will be hoping a fit and firing Caldwell aids the engine room work with his physicality and lightning hands. Full seasons from McGrath and Shiel will also be vital, while the combination of Parish, Merrett and the dynamic Stringer was a huge success in centre bounces.
The Dons also went to the draft and picked up the best contested player in it – Ben Hobbs. He could feature early and would add immediate grunt.
Rutten has more hard-nut options this year, and will be hoping the contested possession deficiencies have been addressed to help the likes of Parish.
Coaching pressure index:
Ben Rutten hardly put a foot wrong in his first campaign last season and immediately imprinted his ‘blue-collar’ brand on the club. He plays aggressive, free-flowing football.
It sometimes leaves his backline exposed on the counter-attack, but he continues to work on the Richmond style of rolling defence that he brought across from the Tigers. He preaches consistency, and with another year of this group under his tutelage you can expect that four-quarter effort to be there.
Rutten will be given as much time as he needs to mould this young group, and will be backed in by the board and fans alike.
2022 Essendon Season Preview – Predicted Round 1 Lineup:
6th – 9th
There’s little reason for the Dons to regress – their oldest best 23 regular is skipper Dyson Heppell at 29, and the group continues to improve as they learn to play with each other.
Expect a better contested brand from the midfield group, and the mix-match back six should begin to limit scoring runs from the opposition as they learn their craft together.
The nucleus of Cox, Perkins, Jones and Draper will be tipped to lead the natural growth of the playing group as they look to make noise in September from 2022 onwards.
Subscribe to our newsletter!