As Essendon prepares for its marquee Sir Doug Nicholls round clash with Richmond at Perth Stadium, dream time has come early for Bombers’ fans around the country.
Saturday night’s 16-point win over West Coast at the same venue was Essendon’s third victory in a row and a performance that said plenty about the power club’s resurgence.
Youth-driven and built around a ferocious intent that Eagles midfielder Dom Sheed described post-match on Grandstand AFL as “finals-type pressure”, the Bombers came from 29 points down to claim a win that confirmed finals as a reasonable target.
In fact, if not for three agonising losses (to Hawthorn, Sydney and GWS) by a combined six points, they would be just outside the top four.
Prior to the season, Essendon coach Ben Rutten was reluctant to crystal ball.
“I seriously don’t know what the season’s going to look like, and that, for me, is really exciting,” he said.
There were no expectations, no ceilings placed on what could be achieved. Fans are rightly delighted with what’s been delivered so far.
“They’re actually really exciting to watch,” 275-game Tiger and Giant Brett Deledio told Grandstand AFL.
“They’ve got some kids that bring some youthful excitement and that pressure.”
Rutten entered 2021 having fully taken the senior coaching reins after the departure of John Worsfold as part of a succession plan. Key players Adam Saad, Joe Daniher and Orazio Fantasia had also left the club after the Dons finished 13th and won only one of their last 10 games in 2020.
It looked a grim position. But the Bombers made wise additions to their list, adding highly talented youngsters and, critically, were prepared to play them.
First-round draft picks Nik Cox and Archie Perkins have already shown great promise, while Harry Jones – a second-round pick in 2019 – has also been given the opportunity to showcase his potential.
Recycled players that came at little cost have complemented the emerging youth. Nick Hind has been a revelation, Peter Wright and Alec Waterman – who kicked the match sealer against his former club on Saturday night – gave the list added depth, physical size and strength.
Rutten has made astute on-field moves as well with Jayden Laverde and captain Dyson Heppell now playing key roles in a defence led by 22-year-old best and fairest Jordan Ridley, while Cale Hooker’s 26 goals validate his position as a permanent key forward.
Midfielders Zach Merrett and Darcy Parish have been immense – the latter is perhaps the competition’s most improved player, averaging 30 possessions a game and almost eight clearances.
Both are out of contract at season’s end and, while free agent Merrett must increasingly see the “stability and alignment” he laid out as keys to him re-signing with the club, Parish appears to need no further convincing.
“I am sure it’ll all happen,” he said post-game on Grandstand AFL.
“I love this club, I love the people here and it’ll all take care of itself I think hopefully.”
Other keys to Essendon’s continued rise will be match-winning X-factor forwards Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti and Jake Stringer, who’s also about to come out of contract.
McDonald-Tipungwuti epitomises the Bombers’ blitz pressure. He’s fast and evasive, a one-touch player with extraordinary goal sense whose mere presence gets hearts pounding – the fans’ with excitement, defenders’ anxiety.
Stringer, nicknamed “The Package”, has proven somewhat of a lucky dip during his nine AFL seasons.
At his best, the 27-year-old shows glimpses of Gary Ablett Sr, with his extraordinary power, balance and finishing. But at his worst, he’s been labelled as selfish and lazy, like that schoolboy playing markers up who does nothing but stand at the back of the pack trying to take speckies.
Grandstand AFL expert and Brisbane Lions premiership player Lauren Arnell believes Stringer is the Bombers’ barometer.
“When he is as dangerous inside 50 as he was [on Saturday night], he just creates something out of nothing and when he’s converting opportunities the Bombers look close to unstoppable,” she said.
As the side attempts to create something out of nothing almost 17 years after Essendon’s last finals victory, Stringer’s capacity to find consistent form could prove a key element – a vital part of the package, so to speak.
This week’s clash with two-time reigning premiers Richmond provides another telling examination for emerging Essendon against a side it has lost to 10 times in a row.
Win that and who knows what’s possible?