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Doubts won’t go away until Dons deal with life on the road

Another road trip, another loss. Essendon captain Dyson Heppell leads his team from Optus Stadium after losing to Fremantle. Photo: AFL MEDIA

Doubts won’t go away until Dons deal with life on the road

Rohan Connolly    

Victorian AFL clubs will never get much sympathy from their interstate rivals when they start moaning about the travel factor, and rightly so.

Excluding Hawthorn and North Melbourne’s “second homes” in Tasmania, and the odd home fixture sold interstate by others, no Victorian team ever has to make any more than six road trips per season.

The non-Victorian clubs jump, meanwhile, jump on a plane roughly every second week. Their home state advantage might count for a bit extra, but none stand much chance of even making finals, let alone anything more, if they can’t at least break even beyond their own backyard.

And while winning a grand final in foreign territory has proved an issue for the last five AFL runners-up, getting to that final game of the season hasn’t.

Adelaide last year, and both Western Australian teams in years they reached grand finals, batted above 50 per cent on the road. Sydney, in 2014 and 2016, won nine out of 10 and nine out of 11 outside their home state.

They are records some Victorian clubs would kill for. And one in particular, which for all the hype attached to its big-name recruits picked up over summer, still deals with an army of sceptics, whose cynicism is reinforced with each limp interstate performance.

In scoreboard terms, Essendon was far from disgraced against Fremantle at Optus Stadium last Saturday night, in the finish losing by just 16 points. The reality, however, was a game that the Bombers at no stage in the second half looked likely to win, three “junk time” goals lending a superficial air of respectability to the result they probably didn’t deserve.

Unusually, given their record on the road, the Bombers had started the game favourite. But another defeat leaves Essendon’s road tally since the start of 2015 a lamentable 2-17. And the issue has gone on a lot longer than just that, save for a brief period in James Hird’s coaching tenure.

The Bombers certainly won’t have been sorry to see the back of old Subiaco, having won there just nine times in 36 attempts over a 26-year period. Then again, a change of venue in South Australia hasn’t helped much. Essendon won just nine times in 30 attempts at Football Park. And already, they’re 1-3 at Adelaide Oval. They’ve fared little better at the SCG, either.

The aftermath of Essendon’s loss to Fremantle saw coach John Worsfold speaking about his side’s propensity to play too fast at times, not allowing key forwards like Joe Daniher and Cale Hooker enough time to work back into position to capitalise on forward opportunities.

There’s also been a focus on the poor early form of Daniher, livewire little man Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti and the failure of recruit Jake Stringer to make much of a difference to a deficient midfield. But you can’t help but wonder if all of that is putting the cart before the horse.

Essendon’s interstate woes were going on when that trio were still in nappies. They’ve transcended several generations of Essendon players, and were an issue even when the Dons were regularly a lot higher on the ladder than they have been in recent times.

There’s been a disturbing similarity about most of the defeats, too, the Bombers, as on Saturday night, routinely jumped by their opponents, slowly working their way back into contention with a short burst of effort, before being put away for good.

Taking the noise of the home crowd out of the equation with a strong start has for visiting teams always been a non-negotiable in the business of winning on the road. Essendon far more often than not has had its work cut out before their away games have gone even a quarter, ceding the home sides both momentum and too many goals on the scoreboard.

Victorian teams may look at the results of the last five grand finals and thank their geographical advantage on the day that matters most. But they still have to get their first.

And in recent times, that has meant not just dealing with, but winning interstate finals, something the Western Bulldogs managed in 2016 and Hawthorn the year before. Significantly, both went in with positive home and away season records on the road before tackling the even greater degree of difficulty of a cut-throat interstate final.

From a finals perspective, Essendon might have picked a particularly bad season not to perform after getting off plane, given both Sydney-based sides and both South Australian teams already look more likely than not to be part of this season’s finals, and to date both Western Australian sides having exceeded expectations.

The Bombers still have another five road trips this season, a second to Perth’s Optus Stadium along with visits to Spotless Stadium in Sydney, the Gabba, Metricon Stadium and a final-round clash with Port Adelaide at Adelaide Oval.

That last one is looming as difficult assignment indeed leading into what will be a draining finals series. Then again, unless Essendon can start finding a lot sterner stuff when it has to head to the airport, finals may well be a moot point anyway.

*This article first appeared at SPORTING NEWS

  1. Amen.
    Woe betide the Bombers supporter who follows the team interstate, they are gluttons for punishment.

    Bizarre too: that the issue could transcend players and coaches and afflict a club in such a way over such a long time.

    As soon as Fremantle kicked that first goal in the opening 20 seconds of the game I knew the Bombers were in strife.

  2. Rohan, Essendon supporters have had this stigma hanging over their heads for a while. Short of going out there and kicking the ball for them, how can this cycle be corrected?

    It’s frustrating because it feels like my $2k investment is down the drain before the season has really begun.

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