As we hit the bye rounds in the AFL season, The Inner Sanctum will be conducting our mid-season reviews of all 18 clubs and assessing the first half of the season and what fortunes may lie ahead.
Up next, Essendon.
The Dons have defied expectations to sit in ninth spot on the ladder at the mid-way point of their 2021 season.
It hasn’t all been good times, but the gloomy atmosphere surrounding the Hangar has lifted. It’s in stark contrast to the narrative surrounding the powerhouse club at the end of 2020 when stars Joe Daniher, Adam Saad and Orazio Fantasia requested trades.
The growth that players, coaches, supporters and pundits alike can see building before their eyes has created a narrative that success is in the Dons’ future, and it’s closer than they thought.
Essendon sits in ninth with a record of 5-7.
With the direction the club was heading after finishing 2020 with one win from its final 10 matches, it’s a great result.
When you factor in that six of their matches have been played outside of Victoria (one due to Covid-19), it’s a remarkable result.
And finally, when you consider their losses – by margins of one, two and three points – then it’s a mystery how they don’t have more wins than losses after 12 games.
Instead, they sit two games outside of the eight, and have a litany of injuries to deal with as they hit the reset button at the bye.
2021 wasn’t necessarily about the wins column.
It was about a clear, identifiable gameplan from Ben Rutten. It was about Adrian Dodoro and his team nailing the draft like they did, and creating a ‘blue collar’ culture towards football that has laid the groundwork for Zach Merrett, Darcy Parish and Jake Stringer to commit to the club at the end of the season.
The identity that the Essendon Football Club has instilled in the first 12 games of season 2021 has turned the direction of the club on its head.
Essendon supporters may be wondering if Ben Rutten is the Messiah. Every on-field move the first-year head coach has made, has produced the desired result.
Emerging from one of the messier coaching transitions in recent memory, Rutten got to work in the off-season reinventing players.
Captain Dyson Heppell, after finally getting his body right was shifted back to where it all began for him. He is the single most important component of the back six, directing and leading his group of youngsters, veterans and first-time defenders on the way to being a competitive backline.
Jayden Laverde was told he would be a key defender after years of injuries and ‘almost’ games up forward. In his first season down back he has been a brilliant shutdown defender who has held the likes of Brody Mihocek and Jack Darling to games well below their best.
After an extended period out with a hamstring injury, James Stewart has also slotted in as a key defender after years up forward. He has offered the Dons a big man who can compete with resting ruckmen, which has allowed the likes of Aaron Francis and Jordan Ridley to play their natural intercepting games.
Throw in the decision to leave Cale Hooker forward and the emergence of Darcy Parish as an All-Australian-level midfielder, and the coaching staff at Bomberland deserve acclaim from the wider AFL community.
Rutten can’t take full credit for the shift of Darcy Parish into a full-time midfielder, but he can take credit for instilling the belief in these guys that they can becomes elite in their new-found positions.
He has also instilled an incredible belief in guys playing career-best football including Mason Redman, Kyle Langford and Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti, but also some 2021 debutants.
The kids have rejuvenated the group and are playing some of the best football you will ever see from a cohort removed from games in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Nik Cox and Archie Perkins are mercurial talents. They are not in the side for developmental reasons – they are playing senior football because, more often than not, they are in the handful of Essendon’s best players on the ground.
Cox, unlike Perkins, has received his nomination for the Rising Star. He has bolted into favouritism to take out the award with his performance on the weekend.
Harrison Jones – drafted in 2019 – is the key forward of the future, and the present. Since round two he has kicked 11 goals and two behinds from set shots. He demonstrates marking prowess in packs and out in front, and leads at the leg of the kicker like a traditional full forward.
Cox, Perkins, Jones and top-ten selection Zach Reid will be the catalysts for success in the near future.
Whilst this season may not have been about wins, the Baby Bombers need to learn how to win at some point.
Losing four games by a total of 22 points leaves a bad taste in a lot of supporter mouths, especially at the hands of rivals such as Hawthorn and Carlton. So when will the Dons learn how to get over the line in the fourth quarter?
In the Dreamtime fixture against the Tigers, they gave up a barrage of goals in the second half of the fourth term, after coming back to lead that fixture. It happened against the Hawks in round one, too. Rutten’s side led by 39 points at half-time but came away empty handed.
However, there is time to become a side with killer instinct in the final quarters of matches, and the good news is that the young guns aren’t shying away from the spotlight.
It hasn’t helped that Rutten’s best side has not been on the park altogether. That’s a constant issue for the Dons; injury has once again dampened the mood at the Hangar.
Young leader Andy McGrath is the latest to join a long-term injury list that has included best-22 players in Dylan Shiel, Jye Caldwell, and Sam Draper for the majority of the season so far. Squad depth has been tested at times, but it has also created opportunity for the likes of Parish and Langford to blossom.
Best and Fairest contenders:
The Crichton Medal night will be full of surges for various players in the opening stanza of the season. Reigning Crichton Medallist Jordan Ridley could very well be leading proceedings in the opening four rounds of the season, but missed Anzac Day through concussion and the count waits for no man.
Since Anzac Day, Darcy Parish may have claim to the maximum 25 votes in every single match. His form has been astounding; not only has he found his role in the engine room, but he has become an All-Australian fancy.
He was coming into the season as a forward flanker that would pinch hit in the middle. Since injuries to Dylan Shiel and Jye Caldwell, he has become the best player in a midfield consisting of two-time Best and Fairest and All-Australian Zach Merrett.
Parish is third in the competition with 377 total disposals, and is rated elite for clearances (eight per game), metres gained (473.9), score involvements (7.8) and inside 50s (5.8). His trophy cabinet is growing with the Anzac Medal and Yiooken Medal, and is astoundingly in the race to add a Brownlow Medal come the end of the year.
The aforementioned Merrett will poll superbly, but expect Parish to be leading all-comers after round 12.
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Who needs to lift?
It’s hard to pinpoint any players that need to lift on the whole, considering the extent to which Essendon has proven critics wrong in the first half of 2021.
On the weekend, there were too many passengers but it hasn’t been the case over the year and there are very few who have needed to lift their performance on the whole.
In a contract year, Jake Stringer would have loved to get a clear run at things, but has instead been set back over pre-season and during the year with soft tissue injuries.
At his best, he is a clear-cut match-winner as he proved against the Eagles. His ability to win centre clearances and provide that big body for the smaller midfielders around him is invaluable for the Bombers.
However, he could be adding aerial elements to his game. He is averaging two marks per game, and was taking nearly four per contest in 2018.
If Stringer can get his body right in the second half of 2021 he will set himself up for a good pay-day at Bomberland. But there is still more that he can offer this Essendon outfit when he is at full strength.
Expectations for second half of the season:
More of the same is expected from the Bomber faithful, who have waited over a decade to see a side fully committed to every contest.
The ‘blue collar’ mentality that Rutten spoke about in the pre-season is well and truly at the fore of what Essendon has been able to achieve in 2021.
Finals is not out of the question, but it is unlikely to become a reality as it sits two games off the pace. Having said that, the draw opens up for them with only one interstate fixture scheduled in the second half of the season, and matches against five bottom-six sides in the league to come.
If Essendon continues to expose its crop of youngsters to the top level, and is able to manage bodies and limit injuries, then the season will be a huge success and the club will finally be able to make its way up the ladder in the near future.
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