Footy Fix: Brutal tackles, clutch marks and Ross Lyon’s critical blunder by StuffsEarth

Estimated read time 54 min read

You could write 10,000 words about all the things Essendon did wrong on Saturday afternoon at Marvel Stadium – and not a single Bombers fan would care.

You could discuss the painstaking, ultra-safe ball movement that hemmed the Dons into a corner and gifted the Saints a fast start in the first quarter. Or the almost farcical lack of attention paid to the St Kilda forwards, Jack Higgins in particular, to let them do whatever they pleased inside 50. And none of it would matter in the least.

Because sometimes our game isn’t about trends, or sweeping periods of dominance, or grand proclamations made after consulting the stats sheet and microscopically analysing the way things are unfolding.

Sometimes, after 100 minutes of repeat contests, gut-busting runs and brutal collisions, Aussie Rules football boils down to moments. And in the final quarter on Saturday afternoon, in a match which had seen them barely cling to the Saints throughout the first three quarters and pretty much only stay close enough via their opponents’ remarkable inaccuracy, the Bombers won nearly all the ones that mattered.

All up, there were eight decisive moments in those fateful 30 minutes, some obvious, some not so much – every one won by Essendon, every one integral to what might not be the Dons’ finest win under Brad Scott, but what is surely the most unlikely.

The Bombers are becoming a team like that, and the antithesis to their state of being under other coaches for nearly two decades now is stark. This club just hasn’t been capable of winning those clutch plays with anywhere near the frequency required to decide matches – under Scott, it’s remarkable how often they occur.

From their epic comeback in last year’s Dreamtime at the ‘G, to Jake Stringer’s famous ‘Easter Sunday barrel’ nearly 12 months ago, and especially against the Saints, the Bombers are now the kings of the moments that matter.

Let’s go through them, shall we?

Jake Stringer celebrates his winning goal. (Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Moment 1

We begin with the most inconspicuous moment of them all – one in the first few minutes of the final quarter, with the stunning result that was to come unknown to all watching on. It’s a moment more about setting the tone than anything more groundbreaking – and yet it proved beyond all doubt that the Bombers were going to be beaten over their dead bodies.

The Dons are in a pickle – after a strong intercept mark, Ben McKay has fluffed his inboard kick, and the ball is in dispute when Mitch Owens, the Saints’ most precocious young talent, hits the ball at full pace, gathers cleanly, and looks to do what the Saints have attempted virtually all night: to bust his way through Bombers tackles which have failed to stick with regularity, although decreasingly so as the match continued.

In the first quarter, the effort might have succeeded – not so now. Almost as soon as his charge begins, Owens is quite literally swamped. First, Zach Merrett, wrong-footed and a step to the right of the Saint, contorts his body so as to fling a left arm into Owens’ path, and hangs on for grim death.

It’s a tackle Merrett has, by his own admission, missed sticking often in his career, before a conscious decision in the 2022 off-season to improve his core strength and conditioning. He laid six tackles on Saturday afternoon, none more important than this one. Because when Owens attempts to barge through, Merrett, with just one arm against all that momentum, clamps down and refuses to let go.

It’s a superb effort – but he needs help. Enter Nick Hind, the fastest man on the ground made doubly so by having the fresh legs of a substitute. Merrett’s tackle has slowed Owens for a fraction of a second, but it’s enough for Hind to make up the step he trailed the Saint by when he gathered the ball. He adds his weight to Merrett’s, spins around to clamp Owens from the front, and together with his captain, brings him to ground.

It’s the sort of bone-crunching moment that typifies the so-called ‘Essendon Edge’ more than any act of off-the-ball aggression could: this is the Bombers of Scott’s vision, the uncompromising, hard bastards who never give anyone an inch.

And it’s not the only thing new about the 2024 Bombers.

Moment 2

Intercept-marking, or indeed anything aerial in the backline, was not a strength of the Bombers’ in 2023. Their leaders in this stat, the now-departed Brandon Zerk-Thatcher and Mason Redman, each had 48 for the year, enough for equal 24th in the league – only West Coast among the other 17 clubs didn’t have at least one player ahead of them.

Every single Bomber who featured in at least 10 defensive one-on-one contests last year lost at least 20 per cent of them – Zerk-Thatcher, their leader with 77, lost 30 per cent. Little wonder they were regularly monstered by the opposition’s premier tall forwards, Jesse Hogan most famously.

Both those deficiencies are why the Bombers moved heaven and earth to bring in Ben McKay, equal-ninth in the league last year for intercept marks and equal-top with Noah Balta for average per game. And when the moment arrived, the big former Roo delivered.

With the Saints leading by 12 points midway through the last quarter, the prolific Nic Martin having been run down just outside defensive 50, the Bombers were probably one more goal away from being cooked. And based on last season, Cooper Sharman’s decision to bomb long to the hot spot, despite the absence of Max King, made sense against the Bombers.

This time, though, McKay expertly reads the drop zone, arriving a fraction of a second earlier than the smaller, quicker Mitch Owens, his opponent. His spoil clips the ball out of Owens’ grasp, going directly up in the air; then, with excellent presence of mind, he grabs the rebound for an intercept mark.

It’s one of three the Bombers’ big-name recruit took in the final quarter against the mistakes. It’s why they got him. And he wasn’t the only new face to have his moment to shine when it mattered most.

Moment 3

The Bombers are coming home strongly – thanks to a Jake Stringer goal via a somewhat controversial shepherding free kick, the deficit is down to four points with a little over ten minutes left.

Still, troubling is brewing as the Dons, not for the first time for the day, mess around with the footy a little too much in the backline: a McKay handball is behind the running Ben Hobbs, and his fumble is what the Saints have been looking for.

In a trice, they swoop: suddenly, it’s a three on two, and when Jack Higgins snares the loose ball and dishes to the nearby Rowan Marshall, with an open 50 ahead of him, a goal looks certain.

But the Dons have one last trick up their sleeve: Xavier Duursma, who has spent the afternoon tirelessly running from wing to wing, providing outlet options but also getting his hands dirty when required, has watched the turnover unfold from the wing. And as if in slow motion, he forces his tired legs into another sprint as Higgins dishes to Marshall.

You could tell what was going to happen from the moment he takes possession: Marshall gathers, steadies, weighs up his kick to a goal side Tim Membrey… and in the split second he takes to line up the kick, Duursma has enveloped him.

A goal-saving tackle if ever there was one, from a man who with one motion entrenched himself as a Bomber through and through.

Moments four and five

Much as we like to think otherwise, sometimes football – indeed, sometimes sport – rests on luck. A little goes a long way, and it only takes one dose of it to have an impact. And sometimes it’s enough to swing a game.

When Jayden Laverde, with six and a half minutes on the clock and the Bombers trailing by three, misses a 15-metre pass that sails over Martin’s head, with Riley Bonner set to run on it, a turnover looked inevitable – and with it a chance for the Saints to reassert control.

Past Bombers might even have given up on the contest, dropped their head, and voiced their frustration with the poor kick. But that’s not Martin’s style. That’s not Essendon’s style anymore.

Helping the cause is Bonner, who may have set a record for the sloppiest 29-kick game in history, fumbles at the crucial moment: it’s a difficult pick-up, to be sure, but a clean gather and the Saints are away. It gives Martin, in a two-on-one with Bonner and the onrushing Dan Butler, a chance.

Then another slice of luck: Bonner taps the ball on, and Martin’s only course of action is to, for just a moment, cling to his shirt and hamper his movement forward. If the free kick is paid, it’s one of those professional ones all coaches tolerate, because it gives the rest of the team precious seconds to set up behind the play.

Except… it’s not paid.

The missed free – yes, they do happen, and yes, that’s part of the game we just have to live with – gives Martin his opportunity: with Bonner’s momentum all but stopped, the Bomber is the quicker man onto the now loose ball, forcing it into dispute: Butler hacks a desperate kick forward, but the Dons have had time to set up now, and sliding in is Andrew McGrath, a titan in defence all day. And suddenly, it’s the Bombers’ chance for a quick counterattack.

Wasting no time, McGrath handballs to Dyson Heppell, running past; he kicks wide to Jye Caldwell, who – in a show of skill the Bombers have so often found wanting at the crucial stage in years and games past, laces out Stringer on the lead.

It’s a terribly difficult shot, just outside 50 on the toughest angle for a right-footer. But if there’s one thing Jake Stringer was born for, it was for moments like this.

Moment six

Not many teams employ two pure ruckmen the way the Bombers do, but there was a plan for Todd Goldstein and Sam Draper at Marvel Stadium: wear down solo big man Marshall, one of the game’s most athletic rucks.

Thus far, it hasn’t worked – Marshall has been influential, while neither Bomber has managed to impact much on the contest, aside from a strong Goldstein contested mark on the wing midway through the final quarter to help the Bombers rebound.

Worse still, Sam Durham’s concussion means Scott can’t sub one of them off, as he did against Sydney in Round 2: and when Zach Merrett’s kick goes long down the line with a little over four minutes to go, just clearing the tall frame of Goldstein, it looks set to be exposed.

Against the lumbering big men – because Draper has pushed up from the forward line to try and impact the contest – is smaller, swifter pair Callum Wilkie and Zaine Cordy. A Wilkie fumble of the loose ball gives the Bombers a chance, but what could the big blokes do?

Answer: a lot.

Showing remarkable dexterity for a player his size – though that’s been his career in a nutshell – Goldstein bends low to gather to loose ball, and while his handball clear is swift, it’s also to Draper’s feet, and by the time he gathers Cordy is upon him, and then Wilkie.

Holding the ball looks imminent, but somehow – and I’m not sure entirely legally – Draper bobbles it clear, where Jack Steele pounces on the loose ball. He looks up, and in the split second it takes for him to react, Goldstein is on him, with a bruising tackle putting all 110-plus kilograms into the Saints captain’s far slimmer frame.

Goldstein’s work isn’t done yet: having dragged Steele to ground and forced the ball loose, it’s another Saint, Bonner, who gathers: yet his handball, trying to find Cordy, finds the former Kangaroo’s hand.

It’s a hitout, from ground level, in essence: and it’s brilliant. Goldstein manouevres the ball right into the path of Jake Stringer, running into space. He steadies, fires on the run… and misses.

It doesn’t matter. With two rucks, the Bombers had not just forced a draw in a ground-ball contest, but won it hands down.

Moment seven

Duursma has already had one stellar defensive moment in the final quarter – his second was even more heroic.

A little more than three and a half minutes remain on the clock when Bradley Hill, the Saints’ quickest man, sprints onto a loose ball on the wing, and passes to a free Owens, just outside 50.

Owens, with Hill running on and Zak Jones also in space at close range, makes the wrong decision: he thumps it long to a one-on-one contest in the goalsquare, where Saints winger Ryan Byrnes is competing with Duursma.

Duursma is in the position all defenders fear: he’s under the drop zone, in the position where crafty forwards always nudge their opponents forward to take easy uncontested marks. If Byrnes plays this right, he’ll have a mark 10 metres out.

Byrnes does use his body, but it’s a fraction early: Duursma is shunted forward, but in the extra second he gets before the ball arrives, he quick steps back, leaps as high as he can… and knocks the ball just out of Byrnes’ reach, dislocating a finger in the process.

But the job isn’t done – following up at ground level as Byrnes desperately tries to butter up, Duursma, busted finger and all, dives on the ball and knocks it through for a rushed behind. To safety.

As he gets up in agony, the Bomber faithful behind the goals give him a round of applause. Richly deserved.

Moment eight

It’s at this point where Ross Lyon makes the mistake that might have decided the match: after a heavy contest inside defensive 50 that left him looking sore and sorry, Marshall is taken from the field.

Unless he was literally physically incapable of continuing, he needed to remain out there at all costs – had he done so, this game plays out slightly, but tellingly, differently at the final decisive flashpoint.

It creates the comical sight of Owens needing to attend a critical ruck contest on the wing against the much bigger Draper, but the real problem was this: the most likely Saint to take a strong contested mark was off the ground.

And how crucial did it prove.

With exactly a minute left and the Saints officially in the last-chance saloon, Bonner receives a free for deliberate out of bounds, and drives it as long as he can, to around 45 metres out.

The problem, though, is it’s a kick set up for Marshall to fly, and either mark or create a contest. Here, no one goes up, giving Draper, back where all ruckmen should be, to take the intercept mark that killed the Saints’ last hope.

He drives the ball long in response, Jones gives away a holding free kick from the resultant boundary throw-in, and that’s that.

Sometimes a single moment can decide a football game. Sometimes, it takes more.

These eight moments weren’t the only ones to decide the Bombers’ triumph at Marvel Stadium – but collectively, they sum up Scott’s Bombers to a tee.

This is a club that, for the first time in a long time, refuses to yield. For all their faults, it’s impossible to not admire it.

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Alienx https://www.stuffsearth.com

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