Jordan Ridley

Jordan Ridley in the AAMI Community Series. Photo: Essendon FC

In just 48 games Jordan Ridley has established himself as an elite intercept defender. On a trajectory to stardom, it's time his teammates stood up around him.

In just 48 games Jordan Ridley has established himself as an elite intercept defender. On a trajectory to stardom, it’s time his teammates stood up around him.

Blessed with an abundance of composure to go with his aerial ability and lethal disposal, Ridley won the Dons’ 2020 Crichton Medal in his first full season at the level.

In 2021 he remained a vital cog of the Bomber backline, but was often relied upon to lock down the opposition’s best forward. That was the case in their elimination final loss, with Ridley tasked with quietening Aaron Naughton under a barrage of forward 50 entries.

The smooth-moving defender might be Essendon’s most important player, with the five-year deal he signed at the end of 2021 an indication the club knows it.

Surrounded by a makeshift defence, he stood tall and refused to falter despite being consistently relied upon to shut down the opposition’s best forward, regardless of how undersized he may be.

Dons skipper Dyson Heppell was quick to praise Ridley’s approach when talking to The Inner Sanctum.

“‘Rids is a bit of a freak because he can also run really well, use the ball well and add that elite defensive intercepting and one-on-one stuff,” he said.

“His role will change week to week depending on our best match-ups for Rids and the rest of the guys – he could play higher up the ground as well.”

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The defender lost just 10.5 per cent of all defensive one-on-one contests in the first half of 2021 which was the second-best rate of all defenders in the competition, according to Champion Data.

Now, Jake Kelly is welcomed to the fold as that reliable defensive-minded stopper that can play tall or small. To fully unlock Ridley’s intercepting potential, Ben Rutten needs to put his trust in those around him.

Can Stewart and Laverde step up?

Not every club has the defensive quality to let their interceptors shine. Jake Lever is given freedom with the likes of All-Australian Steven May by his side, while Aliir Aliir has skipper Tom Jonas protecting his back at all times.

Last year, Ridley was playing with two career-forwards in their first taste of backline life. Jayden Laverde and James Stewart both showed great potential at the other end of the ground, but it’s a far cry from the key defensive partnerships at top-four sides the Demons and Power.

Rutten himself was a champion full-back for the Crows, and the Dons brought in Alex Rance over the off-season to build upon craft the tandem learned in 2021.

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Heppell talked up the building chemistry in a defensive unit that has added Jake Kelly.

“We had a lot of new crew playing down there over last season and I thought the growth we showed and the progression of the season was awesome,” he said.

“I think we’ve developed that quite a bit this pre-season – that consistency that you build playing together week in, week out.”

“[Stewart and Laverde] just need to play their roles to the best of their ability and the rest will take care of itself.”

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Against St Kilda in the AAMI Community Series it was Laverde who was given first crack on Max King. The Saints’ spearhead enjoyed a fantastic first quarter taking five marks and kicking a goal. Stewart was then moved onto him in the second term and blanketed him to a single disposal.

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The most important aspect of their job will be to get body on their opponents early. The Dons can’t allow stars Jeremy Cameron and Tom Hawkins to get a run and jump at the ball, or for them to establish position early and protect the drop zone on Saturday.

It makes Ridley’s task nigh on impossible to perform when the likes of Cameron, Hawkins and Esava Ratugolea are flying at the ball unimpeded.

Reliability will be the key for Essendon’s key defensive stocks this season. It’s the reason Ridley won the Crichton Medal in 2020, it’s the reason Kelly was brought to the club, and if Stewart and Laverde can become reliable defenders, they will be the reason Essendon cements its spot in September again.

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