Richmond V Essendon – Round 20 – 7:50 PM August 08, 2014, MCG
Round 20 sees the return of the good old fashioned Friday Night Blockbuster, with traditional rivals Richmond and Essendon meeting in a game that could barely be more important for either side. The Tigers improbably – or not depending on how you view their history in recent seasons – are making a late season surge and remarkably despite earlier this season having a 3-10 record are still a remote chance of making the finals. They’ve won 5 in a row the Tiges, and while they haven’t all been stellar performances winning form is good form – including last week when they shot away from GWS early before having to grind out a 27 point win.
The Bombers come off a hard fought 22 point loss against the then ladder leading Swans in Sydney, but that doesn’t quite tell the story of a performance of some merit.
Still without skipper and best player Jobe Watson, potential All-Australian half back Michael Hibberd and gun young forward Joe Daniher the Bombers also lost lead up forward Patrick Ambrose to a broken jaw early in the second half yet made the Swans work hard for their win after starting slowly coming off the bye the week before.
The Swans were 4 goals up at quarter time as the Bombers took time to readjust to the pace of the game, and that was slightly more than the final margin. Essendon will be disappointed they couldn’t extend their own winning streak to 4 games, but in spite of that their form line is probably a little better than Richmond’s given the quality of their opposition.
And so it comes down to a battle of two teams who traditionally don’t love each other to keep the faint finals dream alive for one, and to cement a place in the top 8 that is far from certain for the other.
The battle will be fought on several fronts but perhaps most tellingly through the midfield. Essendon smashed the Tigers through the middle in a convincing win earlier this season, and despite the continued absence of Watson for at least one more week the likes of Dyson Heppell, David Zaharakis and David Myers have all been getting close to career best form in his absence. Add in Brendan Goddard, the improving and very quick Travis Colyer and Zach Merrett, and Ben Howlett who kicked 5 the last time they met and the Bombers midfield has several potential worries for the yellow and black.
Not that the Tigers can’t hurt teams through the middle, their impressive Captain Trent Cotchin was in the best again last week as was Brett Deledio with 31 touches and 2 goals, while youngster Brandon Ellis had a day out with 34 disposals and a goal. Others such as Dustin Martin and Nathan Foley will be used as burst players through the middle, and when added to the Bombers ability to break lines it promises an exciting brand of football.
The Tigers will have to cope without Reece Conca after he was rubbed out for 2 weeks for an unsavory boundary line elbow to Giant Devon Smith’s head, and following on from Ty Vickery getting 4 weeks for knocking out Dean Cox the week before coach Damien Hardwick will be encouraging his players to worry more about the ball and less about the man – even if he didn’t mind a bit of niggle himself as a player.
Up forward Jack Reiwoldt only managed 1 goal last week against the Giants after mauling them for 11 last time out, he now sits 5th in the race for the Coleman medal with 46 goals for the season. He and the other Tiger forwards will need to be on their game when dealing with an Essendon backline improving by the week, particularly key backs Cale Hooker and Michael Hurley who are both approaching career best form of their own.
The Bombers back 6 have to make do without Dustin Fletcher this week who has pulled out sore, while Tiger Alex Rance will have the job of shutting down one man band Essendon forward Jake Carlisle who’ll be looking to get back to his own recent stellar form.
The Bombers pulled a couple of selection surprises naming (and what a name, a commentators dream if ever we saw one) Orazio Fantasia for his first game in the big time, and bringing back Joe Daniher just two weeks after getting his fractured collarbone plated. Another potential first gamer in Ariel Steinberg was named as an emergency, presumably as cover for Daniher if he doesn’t come up. Ruckman Tom Bellchambers was again dropped after struggling mightily in his first game back from injury last week against the Swans while Jackson Merrett was also omitted, and Ambrose and Fletcher go out injured. They’ve been replaced by Fantasia, Daniher, Jake Melksham and Elliott Kavanagh. Fantasia played last season under now Bomber assistant Nathan Bassett at Norword, winning a premiership in just his 4th senior game in the SANFL before being drafted.
The Tigers lose Conca suspended and have dropped Sam Lloyd, replacing them with the returning Steven Morris and Shaun Grigg. Grigg’s had some big games against the Bombers in the past, the Tigers will be hoping for a repeat dose.
Injury prone Bomber Jason Winderlich announced during the week that this would be his last season of AFL football, the enormous toll on his body over 12 years proving too much for him to go around again. Unfortunately that toll has meant that the AFL world rarely saw the best of Winderlich, but there are few smarter players in the game and few more loved teammates. Despite being good enough to be one of the Bombers’ first picked for most of his career he’s managed just 123 games in 12 seasons, a prolapsed disc in his back, knee reconstruction and countless hamstrings the main but not only culprits. As far as retirements go it’s a bit more low key than Jonathon Brown or even the questions swirling around his own teammate Dustin Fletcher, but Winderlich will be sorely missed by Essendon.
Motivation for both teams could barely be higher in this one meaning we should see a fierce contest early at least. In recent seasons the Bombers have touched up the Tigers early in the year before falling in a heap and losing to them late in the season, so it will be interesting to see if this edition follows the same script. To borrow a well worn phrase, this is a genuine 8 point game.
Our Prediction – Essendon by 15 points
Last Time – R11, 2014, Essendon 15.14 (104) d Richmond 7.12 (54)