ESSENDON went from wooden spoon winner in 2016 to finalist this year.
After a bumper trade period, the club is confident it can make further strides forward next year.
Here are eight reasons the Bombers can challenge for the premiership in 2018.
There was no bigger winner than Essendon over the trade period. Out: None. In: Jake Stringer, Devon Smith, Adam Saad. Smith, 24, is tough, quick and finished second in Greater Western Sydney’s best-and-fairest in 2014. Saad, 23, was the No. 1 run-and-bounce player in the competition off halfback for Gold Coast this year and his arrival is set to free up last year’s No. 1 draft pick Andy McGrath for a midfield move. Then there is Jake Stringer. Two years ago many thought the former Bulldog was going to be the next big thing in the game. Off-field issues have contributed to a substandard two seasons since but at 23 he is already an All-Australian and premiership player and is more than capable of kicking 40-plus goals at Essendon next year. Bombers list boss Adrian Dodoro believes all three recruits have the ability to be All-Australian players in coming years.
Pace was not something the Bombers lacked this year, but they did have a couple of older players bringing down the average, namely Jobe Watson and James Kelly who have now sailed into retirement. Their replacements? The quick-footed Saad comes in and the likes of Kyle Langford and Jayden Laverde should get more opportunity, instantly making Essendon look even faster. Add to that players like Connor McKenna, Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti, Orazio Fantasia, David Zaharakis, Travis Colyer and James Stewart and the Bombers have the ability to run a lot of sides off their feet.
A key to Richmond’s premiership this year was the combination of key defenders Alex Rance and David Astbury. In Michael Hurley and Cale Hooker, Essendon has a similarly rock-solid pair. Hooker spent significant time forward this year but looks likely to return to defence next season to join 2017 All-Australian Hurley. The other end of the ground is most interesting though. Joe Daniher returned a career-best goal tally of 65 from 23 games this year and, at 23 years old, is seemingly only getting better. With Stringer — who kicked 56 goals in his All-Australian year of 2015 — set to join him next year, the Bombers have some serious key-position talent at either end.
Knocked out of the flag race at the elimination final stage this year, Essendon finished in the sweet-spot as far as fixturing for 2018 goes. The Bombers will only meet two fellow 2017 finalists twice next year in Richmond and Port Adelaide, with their other double-up matches against Hawthorn, Collingwood and Fremantle. Overall their fixture is ranked the 10th hardest by Champion Data which those at Tullamarine wouldn’t be complaining about.
This year’s elimination final against Sydney was not pretty for the Bombers, bringing a 65-point loss at the SCG. But the fact is their young side had just 60 games of finals experience — 39 of which were shared by James Kelly and Brendon Goddard — as opposed to Sydney’s 224. Nine Essendon players who took to the field for that game had not played in a final before. Clearly they are going to be much better off for the experience next time around.
Talking of finals experience, Essendon coach John Worsfold has plenty of that. You have to give him a lot of credit for lifting the Bombers out of their darkest era to play finals this year, just his second in charge. In his 14 seasons of coaching, Worsfold has led teams to finals on nine occasions and was a premiership coach of West Coast in 2006. Essendon clearly believes he can deliver the goods again.
Have a look at this year’s premier, Richmond. The Tigers seemed to have a point to prove after winning just two of their final nine games and falling in a deep, dark hole the previous year. Similarly, Essendon is hungry having endured years of pain over the supplements saga. After winning just three games in 2016, the Bombers were never going to be able to get their revenge this year, even with 10 players returning from suspension. But the recent history — and the added pain of a finals loss this year — will be in the back of their minds as they head into 2018.
There is a good mix of youth and experience among the Essendon list and a lot of the talent that has been blooded over the past two years should further flourish. The Bombers fielded 14 players with under 100 games of experience in their elimination final against Sydney, eight of whom had less than 50 games under their belts. Another pre-season for the likes of McGrath, Fantasia, Stewart, McKenna and Darcy Parish — who are all 22 and under — will do a world of good.