Essendon on trial: An ‘A’ for effort, but a fail on execution and composure

Essendon had spent the past week being excoriated for their poor performance against Fremantle, as a number of former Bombers, led by the ever forthright Matthew Lloyd and Brendon Goddard, led a chorus of condemnation.

This Anzac Day game pitted the Bombers against a team in the same weight division – a relatively lightweight Collingwood. If the Bombers lost, we were told, their season would be over as far as finals go.

The dejected Bombers after a much-improved performance on-field.Credit:Getty Images

In reality, neither Essendon nor the Pies appealed as prospective finalists from the outset of 2022, and nothing we saw on Anzac Day would change that perception; the result did not change that reality, though it will act as a fillip for Magpie fans in a season when they are trying to build for the future.

But the pre-game narrative was that the Bombers, rather than Collingwood, were on trial, since they had under-performed after an improbable (and misleading) finals appearance last year.
The major allegation was that they were defensively inept, and they had failed to work hard when the opposition – most egregiously against Fremantle, who are actually better than Essendon this year – had the footy.

It wasn’t that they’d lost four games from five outings. It was nature of those defeats, which were comprehensive and not the kind of scraps that fans expect, even when their team has the obvious deficiencies of the Anzac Day clubs.

No Essendon player was under more pressure to perform than Darcy Parish, whose remarkable ability to win the ball was evident again, as he set records for possession tallies. At half-time, Parish had 30 disposals and was on track to break the AFL record for possessions in a match.

The Pies didn’t deploy a hard tag on Parish, who had not been criticised for failing to win the ball. The accusation was that the nuggety midfielder – who won the Anzac Medal last year – was guilty of not backing up his prolific ball-getting with two-way running, that he hadn’t defended. In this, Parish was a symbol of the Bombers’ failings over the first five rounds.

Parish went off injured at one point in the final quarter, his output having ebbed in the second half, as he finished with a meagre 44 disposals.

The Bombers had decisively won the centre clearances for three quarters, partly on the back of Parish and an enterprising Sam Draper, whose duel with Brodie Grundy was one of the match’s best man on man contests.

In the critical moments, in the final quarter, however, it was Scott Pendlebury – this game’s most seasoned and decorated player – who made the most telling contributions around the ball, and in one centre bounce in particularly, when he streamed out, found a teammate as he usually does, enabling the unlikely Anzac medallist, Jack Ginnivan, to boot his fifth goal.

Essendon fans will be disappointed with the outcome, given that they regained Zach Merrett and Jake Stringer, their best player and most explosive match-turner, and they had every chance to win the game. But they should be happier with the effort.

Man of the moment Jack Ginnivan lays a tackle on Jayden Laverde.Credit:AFL Photos

While both sides fall into the “developing” category, Collingwood actually fields a team with significant experience. Even in their rebuild, the Pies still have a sizeable group of veterans – headed by Scott Pendlebury, Steele Sidebottom, and Jeremy Howe – and then have a number in their mid-to-late 20s. None of those were more influential in the final quarter than Grundy, the lately maligned ruckman, who made a crucial tackle and then marked one-out (a part of his game that had been only so-so) and slotted what was the match-sealing goal following a 50-metre penalty.

The Dons were far better defensively than they had been over the past five rounds – which, along with other measures for effort, they should be graded on by Ben Rutten.

They were foiled, in part, by Collingwood’s unusual accuracy – 15.3 compared to the Dons’ 12.10. The Bombers had 17 marks in their scoring territory (inside 50 metres) to their opponents’ nine; in most games that would be sufficient to win.

They were beaten on the tackle count, however. One major difference between the teams lay in Collingwood’s superior rebound and ability to take the ball from coast-to-coast – the most spectacular occasion when Jack Crisp sliced through the corridor and booted a long running goal in the second quarter.

The Pies were able to move the ball more easily from defence, as the likes of Isaac Quaynor, John Noble and Brayden Maynard were afforded too much time and space. This edge was underscored by Essendon’s poor tackling in their forward 50 arc, where the Dons laid only three tackles for the match, a return that makes it hard to win a scrap.

Overall, in this trial that faced the Essendon Football Club, they passed the effort bar, but failed on execution and composure with the ball. They should feel better, but given the opposition and the occasion, they won’t.

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