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Bombers have a bob each way and end up without much change

The young and the old of it. Essendon pair Andrew McGrath and Jobe Watson leave the field after Saturday night’s loss to Adelaide. Photo: GETTY IMAGES

Bombers have a bob each way and end up without much change


Essendon sits 10th on the AFL ladder but with a string of favourable results in other games could still yet sneak a finals spot. So why aren’t the Bomber army more excited? Perhaps because increasingly, it looks like 2017 might have been an opportunity wasted.

That might sound a harsh call on a team which has turned a wooden spoon and just three wins (in extraordinary circumstances) last year into potentially a dozen victories.

But, really, even if they make the eight, the Bombers need to ask themselves whether the gains from what would be a fleeting finals appearance were worth delaying the development of a team capable of a serious crack at September success. I’m not sure they have.

In trying to have a bob each way, coach John Worsfold and his crew have erred on the side of conservatism for not enough reward, the messages mixed and the planning for the future unclear.

Complicating the picture has been the presence of 10 players returning from year-long bans via the supplements saga, to whom Essendon have rightly felt a sense of moral obligation. But only to a point.

While much-loved former skipper Jobe Watson has been carried despite poor form, and Ben Howlett played seven games, Brent Stanton and Heath Hocking have between them played just eight. None will be part of Essendon’s 2018.

That, then, should have meant plenty of game time for the young types most likely to be part of the Bombers’ best 22 next year and beyond. But it hasn’t.

The three names on top of that list are Kyle Langford, Jayden Laverde and Aaron Francis. All can be a big part of Essendon’s future. But while this season could have been one which moulded them into important parts of the senior side, the club will go into next year still uncertain about where they fit in.

The trio have made fewer than a dozen appearances in the senior side this season. Francis, a bullish big-bodied utility with prodigious talent, played twice early and has spent the rest in the VFL switching between attack and defence.

Langford has played six more AFL games in two spells, the rest spent in the VFL as the Dons try to develop his midfield game. Laverde only returned from a serious ankle injury mid-season and struggled in three senior games, already dropped once in that time, yet returned to the 22 for last Saturday’s game against Adelaide without a VFL game in the interim as Essendon had a bye.

None of the trio did anything much in the AFL games in which they appeared. But with the gap between VFL and AFL standard continuing to widen, how valuable will that reserves education prove anyway?

They’re not the only ones. Draftees from last year Josh Begley and Jordan Ridley still await debuts despite good glimpses in the reserves. Jake Long and Mason Redman are both in their second year on the senior list (Long a rookie) for six games between them, none this season. Alex Morgan, also in his second year, hasn’t had a single opportunity. Does Essendon know a lot more about any of their senior potential now than 12 months ago?

While the top sides on the AFL ladder manage to both aim for the stars and develop for the future simultaneously, Essendon in 2017 has debuted just two players, No.1 draft pick Andrew McGrath and Ben McNeice.

It’s not like the Bombers haven’t already seen the value of biting the bullet and throwing the kids in the deep end of the pool. The game time afforded Orazio Fantasia, Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti and Darcy Parish last year as a result of the supplements saga suspensions certainly fast-tracked their development.

And the handbrake applied to the development philosophy this season could be more easily justified had the focus strictly on senior wins been more productive or consistent.

But Saturday night’s performance against Adelaide proved that Essendon is still a fair way short of the mark. And the inconsistency at selection continues. If wins and experience are No.1 priority, why the continual overlooking of former Sydney premiership player Craig Bird despite consistently good VFL form?

Bird, a proven tagger, would have been valuable in lockdown roles on even a couple of Carlton’s Sam Docherty, Fremantle’s Brad Hill, Richmond pair Dustin Martin and Trent Cotchin, GWS star Josh Kelly, Sydney gun Josh Kennedy, Brisbane’s Dayne Zorko and the Western Bulldogs’ Jason Johannisen, all of whom got away from the Bombers in games which were lost.

Even two more wins from that group of seven games would now have Essendon comfortably ensconced in the top eight. Which would make the selection strategies of 2017 a lot more defendable.
Instead, the Dons will either finish mid-table again, a recurring theme for a long time now, or at best limp into the eight and exit immediately.

Symbolically, a token finals berth might look good for a club which has been through the wringer on and off-field for the past five years. But the more pragmatic view is that it merely reinforces a “near enough is good enough” thinking.

The practical consequences for next year are that by stymieing the future for the here and now, Essendon might have inadvertently delayed an emergence in an on-field sense from the darkest period in the club’s history by another 12 months. And its long-suffering supporter base has already been pretty patient waiting for some light at the end of the tunnel.

This article first appeared on the Sporting News Australia website.

  1. Hey Rohan , for starters Jobe has had games he has struggled but has also had some fine games . Re the guys u have tried to promote . Ess would love to have Francis in the seniors but he is to blame as he hasn’t got himself into the shape he needs to be to be playing in the AFL . You mentioned Laverde and yes you did state he had been injured self explanatory as to why he hasn’t played , Langford well it’s either him or Stewart . Cannot play both . ( while Joe and Hooker are playing ) Redman has not been able to get a kick up fwd all yr in the 2s , in recent wks he has played off a back flank , maybe he can find a niche there but not yet . As for Morgan and Long they only get a game in the VFL side because they are on the list , if they were not on the list they would certainly be behind VFL listed guys A. Heppell , Hind , Graham & Holmes Mcneice has been injured for majority of season Dylan Clarke is a work in progress as is Scott Draper , the guy who has been a tad unlucky is Kobe Mutch . Zaharakis’s form and Colyers pace has kept him out . Begley got his chance with Fantasia out again with the 3 smalls up fwd and 3 talls Begley needed an injury for him to get a chance , personally I would have Begley in front of Green every day of the week . Re Craig Bird yes he can tag , however seldom have I seen him shut down the guy he is supposedly tagging .
    With Watson and Kelly retiring how many do you suggest they delist ? Realistically J.Merrett Mackernan Howlett Hocking Stanton , Morgan ,Dea , Long & Bird are all in jeopardy I simply don’t think you can change 25% of your list .

  2. Rohan Connolly

    Hi Stephen, fair points, but one of the main points I was making is that I’m not sure VFL form is necessarily a great guide to the chance of AFL success anymore. Think Jobe has struggled far more than you do, just an opinion, his decision making has been ordinary. My point on Francis is that his talent (albeit in cameos) outweighs the fitness issues. I’d rather have him bob up with a moment or two of brilliance while building his fitness at AFL level. The other guys you mention might all be short of the mark or not, but one of Essendon’s biggest issues for years has been equivocating over these types of players, giving them little game time while they occupy a spot on the list. So give them a chance, find out if they can play, and if they can’t, cut them loose. And I dispute you that you can’t change 25pc of your list. Clubs now regularly makes 12-13-14 list changes in one hit. That’s about one-third. Anyway, interesting discussion, thanks for the contribution.

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