Essendon bring heat in AFL’s Anzac Day clash but still lack polish | AFL:

A:t 3:15 at the MCG on Monday, the only sounds were a bawling baby and the Australian, Aboriginal and New Zealand flags flapping at half-mast. As a fan, it’s the one minute where the: AFL: and its sponsors aren’t trying to flog you something. For the Essendon players, it was a momentary respite from what had been a noisy week. Former players, ex Collingwood coaches, fans, pundits, panellists, professional fault finders – they were climbing out of trees to bag them. The Bombers were too soft. They were too nice. They had no depth. They had no grunt. They had no backline. They had no brand. They had no business playing on Anzac Day.

Some of it was warranted. Some of it was plain ridiculous. One newspaper headline read “AFL’s disgraceful acts exposed”. I was half expecting a story about a glassing in a bar. But no, it was David King lamenting Essendon’s lack of midfield pressure. Kane Cornes took exception (you can set your watch to those four words) to the way they laughed with their opponents last Sunday. Mick Malthouse, fresh from tipping them to win the premiership, said they were “pathetic”. In an emotional and historically questionable speech to his former club, he said there was nowhere to hide on Anzac Day. “It’s either victory, or disgrace,” he said.

While Old Chuckles was reliving first world war cavalry charges, Essendon had eight days to figure out how to defend as a team, how to apply a modicum of pressure and how to work the locks to a talented Collingwood side. As they lined up to pay their respects however, their problems were on full display. They lacked big, mature bodies. Hooker had retired. Hurley was hobbled. McDonald- Tipungwuti, who kicked five goals in this game last year, was in the reserves. Stringer and Merrett were rushed back in. But many of their teammates looked very slight and very raw. Eight were playing their first Anzac Day match.

To their credit, the Bombers responded. They looked like a completely different outfit to the one that barely gave a yelp against the Dockers. They tackled. They harassed. They shed their bruise-free tag. Their ruckman, who looks like something out of Beyond Thunderdome, threw his weight around. Darcy Parish had an astonishing 30 first half possessions, something no footballer has managed this century.

But they lacked polish. They could not convert. In the second term in particular, they squandered some easy chances in front of goal. Collingwood, on the other hand, were kicking goals out of their backsides. They had kicked themselves out of the West Coast and Geelong games, but were dead-eyes yesterday. Jack Ginnivan and Brodie Mihocek booted nine goals straight between them. Ginnivan won the medal, but in many ways Scott Pendlebury was the architect. With the game in the balance in the third term, he shifted into the middle and had an immediate impact. He has now had more than 9,000 possessions as a league footballer, and yesterday moved past Gary Ablett Jnr into fourth spot on the all-time list of accumulators. Of those 9,000 touches, you could count the errors on one hand. For possibly the first time in his career, he was run down from behind. As imperturbable as ever, he then helped set up the next three goals.

Jack Ginnivan was best-on-ground at the MCG.
Jack Ginnivan was best-on-ground at the MCG. Photograph: Quinn Rooney / Getty Images:

But the story in many ways was Essendon. A lot is expected of them. Their supporters certainly demand a lot. Off-field, they talk a big game. They want to be a powerful club again. “We exist to win premierships,” their chief executive said late last year. Don’t we all, fella. You can release a mission statement every week if you want, but it does not mean a bag of beans if you can not get your best players on the park, and if the ones who do play are reluctant to defend and tackle. For too long now, they have been a team that only has one plan, one gear, one mode. They’ve been great to watch, but easy to counter. The coach wants them to be a blue-collar side, but for the first five rounds they were anything but.

Malthouse reckons that whoever loses on Anzac Day knows nothing but disgrace. But the only disgrace was Mick’s martial metaphors. On Monday, the Bombers were finally willing to get their hands dirty. On Monday, they showed enough to suggest that 2022 is not a complete write-off. The coach insists that they’re still a work in progress, that they’re still figuring out what sort of side they are, and that the football world was perhaps too easily seduced by them last year. He urged patience. After last week’s pile on, the football world may actually take him up on that. For a supporter base that has endured a supplements scandal and years of treading water, it’ll be a slightly harder sell.

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