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Why the Bomber’s season looks so unpredictable

The sporting world is in panic at the moment—and rightfully so. In the United States, the NBA, the NHL, MLS and MLB have all suspended their seasons. The NCAA has cancelled its championships, including the Men’s March Madness Tournament. Even the PGA Masters has now been cancelled. Numerous leagues in Asia and Europe, including the Premier League, have cancelled or suspended their seasons. Over the weekend the UFC hosted an almost surreal Fight Night in Brasilia with no fans in attendance. We’re still awaiting news as to a variety of other events, none bigger than the Summer Olympics, still planned to begin as scheduled in Tokyo in late July, even as qualifying events were being cancelled around the world.

The AFL season, however, is proceeding as scheduled despite having been reduced to 17 rounds. How long the season will continue in this manner is indeterminate. With what feels like hourly updates from the AFL on the status of the season, we could yet see a suspension of play.

With that being said, there is one team that may benefit from a delayed, suspended or reduced season.

Bad News at Bomberland

The Essendon Bombers haven’t won a final since 2004. Indeed, it’s been a tumultuous time to be an Essendon supporter since the dissolution of the Bomber’s dominant early-naughties outfit, highlighted by the all too commonly referenced supplements saga. The Bombers have, however, been making incremental improvements since their haunting 2016 season. The wooden spoon they claimed that season landed them that year’s consensus #1 draft pick, Andrew McGrath—a consistent contributor and potentially a burgeoning star.  They’ve also been aggressive players in trade periods, moving draft picks for the like of Adam Saad, Devon Smith and Jake Stringer in 2017 and then Dylan Shiel in 2018. And yet even with those inclusions, the Bomber’s have cemented themselves as a picture of mediocrity over the past three seasons.

For the benefit of those who may have forgotten, the last time we saw the Bombers they were embarrassed by the Eagles in the 2019 first elimination final. The result was a fitting end to what had been an up and down season for Essendon. At some points of the 2019 season, they had looked very promising. At their best, they were dynamic. They treated fans to some fantastic viewing experiences. Worsfold’s game plan had them playing fast and aggressively and if you caught them on the right night, you could be forgiven for believing you were watching a premiership contender. But in truth, the Bombers were again a middling, inconsistent outfit. They won 12 games—good enough to get them into eighth in 2019 but no improvement on their 2018 campaign. They had some strong wins including back-to-back thrashings of Brisbane in week 4 and North in round 5. Essendon supporters and believers are quick to remind us all that the bombers lost several close games last year—including a controversial ANZAC Day thriller—and were unfortunate not to have finished with as many as 15 wins. What is mentioned less often is that of their 12 wins, 5 came by margins of 10 points or fewer.

Opinions are split on the Bombers 2020 season hopes. Early projections had the Bombers set to improve and firmly in the eight. Some experts projected they’d finish in the eight and likely break their finals hoodoo. More conservative projections would place them once again in the seven-to-twelve range. Champion data recently ranked their squad as the ninth-best in the competition for the 2020 season; down from fourth the season before. Granted, how much stock you put in those statistics, which also see the Bulldogs bolt from fifteenth in 2019 to second in 2020, is your prerogative. But it is consistent with more recent forecasts from sources close to the Bombers who suggest that Essendon are set to fall down the ladder in 2020. Perhaps not as drastically as the Demons in 2019—a tall order in all fairness—but still a noteworthy downturn.

Essendon’s Off-season Woes

The shift in opinion on the Bombers 2020 prospects are interwoven with their discouraging off-season. At the forefront of Essendon’s issues, much like Melbourne in 2020, is the disastrous run of injuries the Bombers have had over the off-season. Reports stated that Essendon had fewer than twenty-five fit players on the track at their pre-season sessions before Christmas.

Arguably the biggest name on the Bomber’s persisting injury list is Joe Daniher. A large proportion of the Football community believed Joe Daniher would don the red-and-white of the Swans in season 2020 but the key forward has, of course, returned to the ‘Dons. At least for now. Daniher himself cited persistent injuries and the corresponding media scrutiny from the Melbourne ‘AFL bubble’ as a key reason behind instigating a move north. Daniher has managed only 11 games since his breakout All-Australian and Crichton Medal winning 2017 season and despite remaining at the Bombers, he is set to miss time in 2020 with a groin complaint. Essendon will be forced to begin their season without their number one forward, potentially not returning until mid-season.

Daniher’s injury, however, is only the tip of the iceberg for the Bombers’ ravaged forward line. James Stewart too will miss the start of the season with an injury. Having de-listed Mitch Brown at last seasons end and opting not to select Shaun McKernan, the Bombers will enter round one with a strikingly small front six. Richmond castoff Jacob Townsend is listed to line up at full-forward. Not a bad player by any means but perhaps not a name instilling a whole host of confidence in the Essendon faithful ahead of their opening game either.

Adding to the injury concerns is club stalwart and important utility, Cale Hooker. Hooke will also miss the beginning of the season with hip complaints after undergoing post-season surgery.

The bombers have named Orazio Fantasia and David Zaharakis for round one but both have struggled with injury over pre-season and won’t be at full fitness. Dyson Heppel will also be sidelined with a foot injury to begin the season.

And it’s not as if Essendon have an otherwise dominant midfield to compensate for their captain’s absence.

The Bombers will enter round one with a midfield trio of Zach Merrett, Dylan Shiel and Andrew McGrath. Some talented names, no doubt but lacking the firepower of the top midfield groups in the competition. As Essendon great Matthew Lloyd recently said, the Bombers lack a number one midfielder. Dylan Shiel was recruited to be that player but in reality, he lacks the interior presence to match it with the likes of Fyfe, Dangerfield and the other top midfielders of the league. There’s been a lot of praise levied toward new recruit Tom Cutler from within the Essendon organisation over the off-season. Admittedly, Cutler has a high ceiling, particularly as an outside ball-winner, but his consistency over the past few seasons leaves a little to be desired. He managed just three senior games last year at Brisbane and if the Bombers need him to deliver to be competitive this season, they might be left high and dry.

They also have some of the weaker Ruck depth in the league. Tom Bellchambers—coming off a below league average season— is available and will assume the number 1 Ruck position for round one having recently returned from a knee injury. Second fiddle is career number two ruckman, Andrew Phillips, one of the Bombers few off-season acquisitions. But past this point, the only other specialist ruckman on the Essendon list is the talented but injured and virtually unproven Sam Draper and the 38th pick in the draft, eighteen-year-old Nick Bryan.

The Slippery Slope Ahead

Essendon’s off-season raises questions beyond their extensive injury list.

An underrated or at least overlooked factor in year-to-year improvements in professional sport is the improvements made by your contemporaries. It’s hard to get better when everyone else got better too. Indeed, a key component to Essendon’s potential downturn this season will be the improvements made by the teams in their talent bracket last season.

Last season’s seventh-placed Western Bulldogs and ninth-placed Hawks are both expected to improve this season after making moves for key forwards, Jon Patton and Josh Bruce respectively. The prospects of both Adeliade teams may still be up in the air but the teams finishing twelfth to sixteenth: North, Fremantle, St. Kilda, Sydney and Carlton all look poised to improve. St. Kilda especially present as a potential ladder climber after acquiring the likes of Dougal Howard (Port Adelaide), Paddy Ryder (Port Adelaide), Zak Jones (Sydney Swans), Dan Butler (Richmond) and most importantly, Bradley Hill of Fremantle.

The latest episode of the Real Footy Podcast (The Age) discussed the change to Essendon’s leadership group—only Dyson Heppell remains from the 2019 outfit. Admittedly, the 2020 group includes some sensical choices: Michael Hurley returns to the group and is joined by Zaharakis, Shiel and Devon Smith. Notable exits, however, are reigning Crichton Medalist Zach Merrett and the mentioned Joe Daniher. The differences may be merely abstract; just names on a page with no impact on the players but it could also be evidence of some internal dysfunction and it will be interesting to monitor nonetheless.

Beyond the onfield changes, the Bombers will also enter the season having implemented a coaching succession plan. Ben Rutten has been nominated as John Worsfold’s successor as senior coach. The plan is for Rutten to take the reigns from at the season’s conclusion but the plan also includes Rutten and new Assistant Coach, Blake Caracella taking over the team game plan this season.

It’s too early to say how the new look Bombers will play—we’ll get our first glimpse Saturday afternoon against the Dockers at Marvel Stadium. But if the recent history of succession plans in coaching is any guide, Bomber fans will be hopeful that Rutten implements subtler adjustments than Simon Goodwin made in the post-Roos era at Melbourne.

Melbourne’s fall from grace last season was startling and dramatic. It would be hard to envision any team this season falling down the ladder in the same manner. But Essendon enters the season in a hauntingly similar position. The expectations for the Bombers are admittedly far lower than they were for last season’s Demons but make no mistake—this is a make or break season for the Bombers’ core group. The same nucleus that clawed the club back from the depth of the 2016 season is now at a tipping point. Unless the ‘Dons can make a marked improvement on their 2019 season, they may be poised to slide back to the tail-end of the ladder in the shortened 2020 season and beyond. Given their lengthy injury list, the improvements of competing clubs relative to their own and their odd off-season reshuffles, don’t be surprised if the latter becomes reality.

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