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RoCo’s Wrap: Decisive win to Dogs in the hunger game

The hunger games: Western Bulldog Luke Dahlhaus has the fire in his eyes as he races away from Essendon’s Dyson Heppell. Photo: AFL MEDIA

RoCo’s Wrap: Decisive win to Dogs in the hunger game

Rohan Connolly    

Hunger is a craving which in the context of AFL football isn’t always easily maintained, certainly once an appetite has been sated.

Just 24 games after digesting the ultimate premiership banquet, the Western Bulldogs had in early thrashings at the hands of GWS and West Coast looked for all the world like a dinner guest which could no longer even pretend to eat another mouthful.

Suddenly, on Sunday, perhaps sensing the real possibility of returning to the slim pickings with which they’d made do most of their existence, the Dogs again got the taste for a full four-course football meal.

While not ticking over with quite the precision of that memorable September campaign of two years ago, against Essendon Luke Beveridge’s side went hunting for food again, old habits born of primal football urges gradually returning, and the quarry captured impressive.

Well, superficially anyway. Because the beast with which the Bulldogs returned from their four-quarter expedition is after just three rounds starting to look a lot less intimidating than the considerable reputation which preceded it.

This season was supposed to bring a more fearsome and less flighty version of the Essendon which swanned in and out of a finals campaign, its best hard to match but still delivered sporadically, its lesser moments occasionally the stuff of embarrassment.

But not for the first time in recent years, the Bombers are so far failing to walk the talk. Like the Bulldogs of recent times, they don’t look like a team with much of an appetite. But unlike the Dogs, there’s no recently-devoured platters to offer up as an excuse.

Indeed, as the Dons enter their 18th season without a premiership to show for their efforts, just one short of the most barren period in the club’s history, a restless supporter base is becoming a lot less tolerant for performances as abject as what was delivered at Etihad Stadium.

Particularly after the off-season fanfare accorded the recruitment of three senior-experienced additions to the list in Jake Stringer, Devon Smith and Adam Saad.

They were supposed to be the finishing touches on a line-up considered by some more optimistic pundits (not this one, he hastened to add) to be of premiership quality. But whether the 2018 version is even simply finals quality is after just three games a valid question.

If Essendon’s 16-point losing margin to Fremantle in round two was flattering, its 21-point loss to the previously hapless Western Bulldogs on Sunday was completely unreflective of what transpired at Etihad Stadium.

This was a pasting in every sense bar the scoreboard, which even early on at 1.7 to 1.0 should have had the Bulldogs at least five goals up.

That Essendon was still somehow within 16 points when Joe Daniher marked on the edge of the goal square with more than five minutes of game time left was outrageous. That Daniher then inexplicably handballed off to Josh Green, immediately set upon and the chance blown, was far more appropriate.

Of course, the Bulldogs pounced for the sealing goal. Which was absolutely no less than they deserved on a day when with main man Marcus Bontempelli doing a lot more near goal, other Bulldog on-ballers like Lachie Hunter, Luke Dahlhaus, Caleb Daniel and Toby McLean were thrown the challenge and this time responded.

They were numbers too numerous for an Essendon contingent which, for all the talk, doesn’t appear any more of a force than it was six months ago.

The Bombers’ achilles heel for some time has been their inability to defend. Against the Bulldogs, far more damningly, it seemed like unwillingness.

But for a spirited final-term comeback against Adelaide in round one, Essendon would now be 0-3. The Bombers have won just one of their last eight quarters. But other numbers tell an even more effective tale.

The Dons are conceding 99 points per game, eight points more than last season. And while last year’s flaws generally tied in with poor returns for both clearances and contested ball, at the moment it’s about defensive running. Or lack thereof.

By early in the third term on Sunday, the Western Bulldogs had already racked up around 100 more disposals, and as many more uncontested possessions, time and again spotting up short targets with complete freedom.

By game’s end, they’d enjoyed 101 more uncontested possessions and 72 more uncontested marks. Ridiculous numbers against a team aspiring not just to play finals, but go far beyond.

Essendon still has major structural weaknesses in defence, where it seems everyone bar the coaching panel is begging for the return of current key forward Cale Hooker. And despite the pick-ups of Smith and Stringer (who hasn’t shown much sign of becoming the on-ball beast the Bombers were after), its midfield remains short on depth, grunt, pace and class. That’s a comprehensive list of deficiencies.

Perhaps, though, its biggest single deficiency is something far more basic. Yes, hunger.

It barely got the job done against an injury-depleted Adelaide. It never looked remotely like breaking its travel bogey last week. And, not for the first time, the signs this was going to be a long afternoon were there within 10 minutes of the start against the Dogs.

Unless there is a radical shift in attitude, it might indeed be a long couple of months. Next week Essendon faces the AFL’s only undefeated team, Port Adelaide. Then there’s the Anzac Day clash with an improving Collingwood, Melbourne, Hawthorn, Carlton, Geelong, GWS and Richmond.

That’s eight games of which Essendon (in current form) will start a clear favourite in just one.

It’s a challenge which will require a team full of, metaphorically at least, grumbling stomachs. And players who, once they get the taste for it, want to keep going back for seconds.

Essendon these days is like a teenager who forgets to eat then binges on fast food. It’s an unsustainable short-term fix. And cleaning up those dietary habits is the only way the Bombers are going to get to sit at the dinner table with the adults.

  1. Only one quibble in an otherwise excellent summary, RoCo. It’s not just defensive workrate that’s missing for the Dons, but workrate full stop! And, BTW, a few more commas would help the readability.

  2. Succinct and accurate analysis. The lack of hunger and apparent inability to withstand pressure or expectations has become an enduring trait at Essendon. I don’t understand how, year after year, that situation never seems to change. But with the competition seeming to get more and more even, the Dons’ deficiency is going to cost it more and more games that they have the talent, but not the hardness, to win.

  3. Spot on RoCo with your summary of Essendon’s last Sunday’s disgraceful performance against the Bulldogs. I’ve been a loyal Essendon supporter for 73 years but are concerned I’ll never see the 17th. premiership flag fluttering from the mast at Tullamarine. The culture that was Essendon vanished following their defeat at the 2001 Grand Final. Successive coaches following the coaching days of Sheedy have been unable to re-kindle that aggressive culture so prominent in 2000. Woosha was a good coach of a champion team full of champions when the West Coast Eagles won their last flag. The task before him now after signing a new two year contract is immense. I hope he succeeds, but I have my doubts.

  4. Well-said – and it’s something that needs to be said far more frequently and with more venom. The Bombers have had a free ride for the last few years – but close observers would have noticed this exact kind of performance before, during and since the drugs scandal.

    Losing to (or struggling to beat) teams they should have beaten is a Bomber standard.

    When they expect to win they often don’t come to play.

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