Growing the next generation of ‘Baby Bombers’ has been a key focus for first year head coach Ben Rutten, but he won’t let it come at the expense of his side’s on-field performance.
The Dons let winnable games against Hawthorn, Sydney and Carlton slip away, leaving them sitting in the bottom four heading into round 8.
However, the optimism surrounding the club has only grown despite its 2-5 start to the season.
In a good indication of fan support, Essendon crowds are healthy in its two matches at the MCG. Over 78,000 fans were recorded on Anzac Day and over 54,000 attended last Sunday’s match against traditional rivals Carlton.
The hard-nosed attitude the Essendon kids are playing with has lended itself to a fast-tempo, high scoring and wonderfully entertaining style of game.
19-year-old ruckman Nick Bryan made it a half-dozen AFL debutants when he ran out against Carlton in round 7.
Every one of Harry Jones, Nik Cox, Alec Waterman, Archie Perkins, Zach Reid, and now Bryan, have earned their spots through performances on the track or at the lower level. Ben Rutten has made it clear he won’t be gifting spots in his best 22 any time soon.
“We want to build our footy club around … being competitive and making sure we’re really strong contributors in every game,” Rutten said.
“There’s improvements in each game, we’re not where we need to be [right now].
“The guys are well aware of where we’re going as a club and what we want to achieve. So it’s all about maximising our time on the training track, in games, what can we learn from different scenarios, and how can we add that to our game.
“I’m really pleased with the way they’re progressing.
“I think every week we’re seeing more and more growth in our guys and that’s what we want to see. We’re seeing growth in our game, we’re seeing growth in our individuals.
“They’re building more chemistry which is what we want to see, so we’re pushing them as hard as we can to fast-track that.”
It’s a ‘blue collar’ approach to football embedded in the Essendon Football Club’s DNA. Ben Rutten has brought this to the forefront of the Baby Bombers’ play this season with Peter Wright, Nick Hind, and Jye Caldwell joining the six AFL debutants in the red and black.
The first year head coach has made sure that, with the influx of new faces, his side is taught a hard-working, competitive brand of football to begin their Essendon journeys.
His approach has paid immediate dividends with the playing group buying in to his system.
Andy McGrath is touted as the next captain of Essendon, and is one of the many youngsters that has invested into the long-term direction that Rutten is leading the club towards.
“We want to win as quickly as possible and as many games as possible,” he said.
“In saying that, our goal is to be a premiership team. At the end of the day our goal is to win football games and we’re not going to play guys who aren’t ready just because they’re young or just because they need experience.
“We’re going to put our best team on the park but our focus is to be a premiership team. Yes, that may not be this year, [but] we’re planning to be a successful team for a long period of time.”
McGrath was brought into the four-man leadership group this season. At 22 years old, he is the youngest Essendon leadership group member since Zach Merrett in 2018.
“Personally, I feel like we’re building something that can be sustainable for a while,” McGrath said.
“Obviously, we’ve got some serious high end young talent, combined with a mixture of experienced and middle aged guys like myself and ‘Darce’ [Darcy Parish].
“I think we’re building a strong connection and strong game plan that will stand up in finals footy, and will stand up against the best in the comp.
“Right now, our game’s a little bit inconsistent and we’re showing it in patches and glimpses. But we haven’t fully put it all together yet.
“We’ve got a lot of room to improve and we’re working on that every week.”
The Bombers are ranked first in the AFL for tackles, highlighting Rutten’s ambition to be the hardest working side in all of their matches. They’ve laid 49 more tackles than the next best side in the league, and sit in sixth for tackles inside 50 after seven rounds.
This brand of football has been driven by its youth – McGrath leads the side with 47 tackles on the year, but all of Perkins, Cox, Jones and Brayden Ham feature highly for the Dons.
It’s a style of game that won’t necessarily earn plaudits league-wide, but Rutten’s side has translated its pressure to turnovers, resulting in a high scoring Essendon outfit. It’s averaging over 13 goals per game ranking the Bombers fourth best in the league.
Under John Worsfold in 2020, Essendon ranked 12th for tackles, and 14th for goals per game.
McGrath has been delighted with that aspect of the young side’s growth, with the knowledge it isn’t always a strength of high touted youngster’s games when they first play at the elite level.
“Bringing in three top ten picks is always exciting. They bring different elements to our footy club and they’re all different individuals,” he said.
“The crowd gets on their feet when Archie or Nik touches the ball and I love playing alongside those guys. I can’t wait to try help them and see their development over the next couple of years.
“I think they’re all going to be great players.”
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In equal measure, McGrath understands that buying into his coach’s philosophy has set Essendon up for the future. With a young side it wasn’t going to be an easy task, but he praised Rutten’s command of the playing group in his first year in charge.
“[Truck] obviously had a learning experience under Woosh and I think that was great for his development.
“He’s still learning his craft as a senior coach; I don’t envy his job. It seems like a very tough gig being the head of the ship.
“He’s been great – he’s very personable. He really understands the players and, I guess, knows us all on a deeper level. It helps when he has to give us feedback.
“I’ve loved working under him and I can’t wait to do it for a long period of time.
“You’ll find it hard to find something that flusters these guys, they just just love playing AFL footy. They’re doing their dream job and they’re loving what they’re doing.”
The club is still without a Rising Star nomination through the first seven rounds of the season, which has surprised Ben Rutten considering the performances of baby Bombers including Cox, Perkins and Jones.
“There’s been a couple of guys [that could have been nominated],” he stated.
“‘Coxy’s’ game maybe against Sydney, we thought he was a good chance. We were really pleased with ‘Perko’s’ game on the weekend as well, and ‘Jonesy’s’.
“If it keeps them hungry, I don’t mind.”
These performances have been particularly impressive considering the lack of football they’ve played in the last 12 months. With Covid disruptions causing junior football to be put on hold, Cox, Perkins and Reid were unable to play or train for the duration of the year.
Jones was expecting to play a season in the VFL. Instead, he was playing practice matches with as little as 12 players per team on rugby fields in Queensland.
With a lack of genuine games under their belts, the workloads of these young guns has been a talking point. Rutten will continue to monitor them, but trusts their instincts if they give him the green light to perform.
“It’s a constant management one for us, we’ve got to constantly look at what their GPS numbers are.
“[We’re] talking to them, making sure they’re preparing the best they can. You’ll find it hard to find something that flusters these guys, they just love playing AFL footy. they’re doing their dream job and they’re loving what they’re doing.
“There may become a time during the year we need to look at that [resting the youngsters], but we’ll wait and see.”
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