01/03/2024

Zach Merrett did the heavy lifting in an under pressure Essendon midfield. (Photo: Essendon FC/Twitter)

Essendon coach Ben Rutten comes away from Sunday’s win over North Melbourne with a mixed bag of feedback.

Scoring over 100 points for the fourth time in six games, the Bombers’ forward group was functioning perhaps as well as it has all season.

With largely favourable match ups across the attacking 50, an even contribution of goals from Jake Stringer (five), James Stewart (three), Harrison Jones (two), Peter Wright (two) and Kyle Langford (two) gave the coach plenty of optimism.

Stewart in particular didn’t let his return go unnoticed. Returning into the 22 for the first time since Round 3 and up forward again after two years in defence, he was leading and marking at the footy just as well as his compatriots.

“[Stewart] had been doing some work as a key back for us,” Rutten said post-game.

“[Going forward] was almost out of necessity. Him and Peter Wright were sharing the second ruck duties there.”

But the goals couldn’t gloss over a major loss in the middle of the ground in the coach’s eyes.

North Melbourne’s midfield group has taken a big step forward under caretaker coach Leigh Adams, and Sunday’s showing was more of the same.

The Roos dominated clearances 42-22, and won contested ball by 15. Todd Goldstein, Hugh Greenwood, Jy Simpkin and Luke Davies-Uniacke combined for 25 of those clearances.

Without some key midfield contributors, Rutten knew it would be a challenge, but didn’t anticipate the level of loss in the major statistics.

“The way we worked through the game was positive stuff. We knew North going into the game, their clearance stoppage and contested ball work has been pretty good for the majority of the season,” the coach continued.

“We probably let ourselves down a bit there and I was probably a bit disappointed with how we competed.

“Having said that, although we didn’t have Parish and Shiel in there… it was probably a different way for us to win than we have been. There was some positives out of that.”

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The Bombers’ luck in the midfield only grew worse as Jye Caldwell was subbed out of the game on the edge of half time.

Rutten said the prognosis for the rising tagger wasn’t too bad, but still needed to be confirmed.

“[Caldwell] was starting to get tight in the calf and it was getting progressively worse across the game,” the coach explained.

“We’ll have a look at that, get some more information on that in the next day or two. Hopefully it’s nothing too serious there.”

With youngster Jye Menzie entering the game, there was an opportunity for the Bombers to lose the momentum building across the first half as Jy Simpkin started to get off the chain, while Cam Zurhaar continued to find the scoreboard.

But the defenders held steadfast, weathering the repeated centre clearances and 51 inside 50s all night long.

Mason Redman had a close to best on ground effort, racking up 32 disposals, 10 marks, eight intercept possessions, eight score involvements, and seven rebound 50s.

As he loves to do, he even got up the ground for a long range goal of his own.

Playing to the game plan ideally though, the coach shouldn’t have to rely on his defenders as much as in this win.

“It was as a result of losing some territory from clearance,” Rutten said.

“It’s not the ideal way that we want it, but the way that our backs stood up there… huge efforts from Thatchy [Zerk-Thatcher].

“Redman’s 120 minute performance was pretty impressive for us, he’s been doing a lot of that through the course of the season.”

With Darcy Parish still on the comeback trail, and now without Caldwell and Shiel for a yet unknown period of time, the rest of the midfielders have a task ahead of them for the last three weeks of season 2022.

Andrew McGrath will rejoin the team for next week’s clash with GWS after going into health and safety protocols and could easily slot back in and under.

But in the short term, Rutten will need to rely on his leaders.

“Given McGrath, Shiel, Parish out of the team, we needed Langford, Merrett and Stringer, the more mature guys, to show up for us,” he said.

Merrett exploded in the second half, finishing with 38 disposals, 10 tackles, eight clearances and a goal.

While concerns remain, the strength of the defence to rebound with a strong kick-mark game and the forward line cohesion could see the Bombers continue on their upwards trajectory against the Giants, Power and Tigers.

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