Essendon head coach Ben Rutten isn’t underestimating what a hot Collingwood side can throw at his players on Sunday.
Meeting for the second time in 2022, the two sides were just 11 points apart when they met on ANZAC Day. While the Pies looked more comfortable than the margin suggested in the final minutes, both teams are in a very different position to three months ago.
The Bombers were slumped at a 1-5 record, while the Pies were promising yet inconsistent at 3-3.
Essendon’s struggles continued until the last month, where it was won four of its last five matches, while Collingwood is on an outlandish eight-win streak.
Two of the competition’s form teams going head-to-head could see anything happen.
Rutten has identified Collingwood’s strong set-up behind the ball, and one player in particular, as the key things to nullify.
“They’ve got a pretty good even spread amongst their personnel,” Rutten told media on Friday.
“They make you pay off turnover. They’ve got some pretty strong ball movement, good players behind the ball. [Nick] Daicos is playing some pretty strong footy for them.”
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Daicos’ position in the backline has already gone a long way to making him a more complete player. He looked to be an offensive prodigy at NAB League level already, but sitting behind the ball has given him an eye for reading the play.
Last week’s win against Adelaide was his best game yet. In just game 17, he had a massive 40 disposals and three goals, becoming the youngest player to do so at AFL level.
He looms as a match up Rutten must get right when he’s both ahead of and behind the footy.
When in the backline, a player like Matt Guelfi could get a run on him. A strong tackler and mark known for his second efforts, he would be the key pick for a defensive forward role.
In the middle, Jye Caldwell has found a new string to his bow as a lockdown midfielder. He did the job on Brisbane superstar Lachie Neale for large parts of their match-up, and stuck close to Gold Coast’s Touk Miller last week.
He would be likely tasked with either Daicos or Jack Crisp in the stoppages this weekend.
With the last month firmly in his player’s minds, Rutten is confident that they’re up to any task for the remainder of the season.
“In our last six or seven weeks, we’ve been building some momentum,” the coach said.
“The last five weeks really, some of our form is starting to transfer onto the field. We’re building a bit of confidence in the group.”
What’s changed from last time?
Essendon will have five players changed from the last time these two teams matched up. All have a big opportunity to make an impact.
Jake Waterman, Darcy Parish, Archie Perkins, Kaine Baldwin and Nik Cox are all missing from the ANZAC Day side. In their place are Harrison Jones, Brandon Zerk-Thatcher, Andrew Phillips, Will Snelling, and Nick Hind, who was the medical sub.
Jones hasn’t yet hit his stride fully since returning from an ankle injury, but has kicked 10 goals in his seven games so far. What he adds to the forward structure has been crucially important for his partner in crime, Peter Wright.
Wright hasn’t gone scoreless in the past five games, kicking 17 majors and propelling up to equal fourth in the Coleman Medal.
He’s no longer the only marking option inside 50, and when he is required to chop out in the ruck or as an extra number long down the line, it doesn’t leave the Bombers aerially vulnerable.
This will be important especially against a Collingwood backline boasting Darcy Moore and Jeremy Howe, some of the strongest interceptors in the league.Embed from Getty Images
Phillips similarly does the same for in-form ruckman Sam Draper, who Rutten laughs he’s been trying to bring back down to Earth after a goal of the year contender against the Suns.
Providing physicality against opposing rucks, Phillips allows Draper to do more of that exciting burst play, adding another layer to Essendon’s midfield.
With Collingwood star ruck Brodie Grundy set to play at least one VFL game before returning, the duo can benefit from his absence with a more favourable match-up against Darcy Cameron and Mason Cox.
Cameron will be no easy-beat though, and gives another tall target to think about. A brilliant mark and coming off a career-high 31 hit-outs, he’ll be dangerous in either position.
Brody Mihocek was a worry for Essendon last time, kicking four goals and getting off the chain after Jayden Laverde was subbed off. Zerk-Thatcher is a key candidate to take the match-up.
The 23-year-old key defender has come into his own in recent weeks. No key forward has kicked more than two goals on Essendon in the past three weeks, coinciding with Zerk-Thatcher’s rise.
Opting away from the zone defence in the past month, these match-ups will be a key indicator in who wins this weekend.
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