ESSENDON captain Dyson Heppell marked his team’s return to the finals as a success in the club’s first season free of controversy since 2011.
The Bombers’ 65-point elimination final loss to Sydney will net the club the pick 11 in the first round of the AFL draft and a friendlier 2018 fixture after finishing in the middle bracket of six.
Coach John Worsfold’s team will play either one or two matches against bottom-six and top-six teams next year, under the AFL’s weighted fixture rule.
The Bombers have been linked to All-Australian and Western Bulldogs premiership star Jake Stringer and Worsfold said he would now turn his attention to list management in a bid to build on this year’s strong showing.
“Ask me next week,” Worsfold said when asked if the Dons were chasing the gamebreaker.
First-year skipper Heppell praised his teammate’s climb up the ladder this year despite a flat final showing.
“It’s quite deflating,” he told the Herald Sun from the SCG rooms. “We just didn’t perform the way we would’ve liked — but I don’t think it’s a true reflection of our year.
“We’ve come a long way as a group and developed in a number of areas and we didn’t really stand up to the challenge.
“I’m super proud of the group, super proud of the entire organisation and how far we’ve come and I looked at it at the start of the year and said if we can make finals it’d be a really successful year.
“We come back to pre-season even hungrier. We know we’ve got a lot more in us, it’s a young group that’s played 23 games together now and we’re building something strong.”
The 65-point hammering was Essendon’s equal biggest loss for the season and continues the finals drought. The Bombers have not saluted in September since their nailbiting elimination final win against Melbourne in 2004.
Since then Essendon has lost five consecutive sudden-death matches — by 10, 96, 62, 12 and 65 points.
Immediately after Saturday’s mauling, Worsfold instructed his players to “take real learnings” from the taste of finals.
“He told us that you don’t get opportunities to learn all that often and we’ve got to dissect that,” Heppell said.
Midfielder David Zaharakis expects the Bombers to challenge for a premiership after re-signing until 2021.
“This list is a mix between a lot of talent and a lot of desire — and that’s the perfect combination,” he said.
“It’s a great (age) dynamic we’ve got and that’s why I’m excited about the next four years.
“This group’s got a lot of talent, and hopefully we can actually do something with that talent.” Zaharakis shunned free agency by signing a four-year contract last week and also ticked off on Essendon’s season.
“When you’ve come from last and finish seventh and play in a final it’s a success,” he said.