Football is constantly lurching from the sublime to the farcical and the execrable. The Sir Doug Nicholls Round was no exception. Like the man it honoured – a boxer, footballer, professional sprinter, Minister, social worker, Governor and leader of his people – the round contained multitudes. From the riveting (Collingwood), to the rickety (Carlton) and wretched (West Coast), this round had the lot.
You have to suspend disbelief as a football fan sometimes. An hour after a coach who denies an accusation of pressuring an Aboriginal couple to terminate a pregnancy stepped down, the league endorsed a voice to parliament. A few days later, the same coach was given a round of applause at the 23rd minute mark of the first quarter. A few hours later, his team was denied its tenth win in three years because of an interchange infringement.
Later that night, Aboriginal children and elders were dancing with champion footballers. At the same ground, four-time premiership coach Kevin Sheedy was belting out Archie Roach songs to 80,000 people, while a knucklehead allegedly glassed a spectator in the MCG’s Legends Room. And then, right at the death, Essendon ended a losing streak stretching back to 2014.
“I will never understand what Essendon fans have gone through over the last decade,” Essendon coach Brad Scott said following Saturday night’s Dreamtime match. Ever since Stephen Dank waddled into Windy Hill, nothing’s gone right for the Bombers. This year offered a clean slate – a new coach, captain, president, CEO, gameplan and hope. But Scott was upfront right from the beginning. There would be no quick fix. They’d need to learn how to defend. There were years of bad habits to unlearn.
Scott has had some rotten luck. Injuries have hit Essendon hard. Their willing but undersized defenders have been monstered by some of the bigger key forwards. Yet, early in the 2023 season, Essendon put on a brave show against three of the outstanding teams of the competition – Collingwood, Port Adelaide and Brisbane. The system was in place. The effort was undeniable. They just needed a win.
Wins against Richmond had become a distant memory for Essendon. The Tigers have handled the Bombers with contempt for a decade, with 13 wins on the trot, eight of them Dreamtime games with an average winning margin of five goals. To rub it in, the yellow and blacks had returned to form. Those long Richmond possession chains, that Richmond energy, that Richmond swagger – it was all on show a week ago.
Right from the beginning, the Dreamtime match was a contrast of styles. The Tigers poke it, thump it, hoik it, scrub it, scunge it – just get the effin’ thing moving forward seems to be the basic policy. Essendon sought to control the ball. They had 154 marks, the most of any team this year. The chipped. They intercepted. They played slow. It’s a brave approach against Richmond – Brad’s twin brother Chris tried it for years to no avail. And all night, the Bombers seemed destined to come up a goal or two short.
But even when Richmond edged ahead, the Bombers maintained their shape and tempo – and their heads. Zach Merrett was pivotal. Earlier this year, he was the subject of a highly caffeinated piece that implored him to play ‘unhinged’ football. “In Merrett they have a fighter, a prick if you like,” the column wound up. “In Merrett, the Bombers get an open book. A bit of killer Kohli and relentless Kobe.”
But Merrett isn’t Ron Andrews. He isn’t Dean Wallis. He’s a very good footballer who carried a young, emerging midfield and dragged them across the line. There was nothing unhinged about his game. All night, he made neat little incisions. He used the ball well. He absorbed the mayhem of Richmond’s game, and the weight of their midfield talent, and exited the MCG carrying a glass sculptured boomerang as best afield.
Jake Stringer is a very different footballer to Merrett, but he too had a role to play. There are footballers you can set your watch to and footballers you can build a club around. Stringer is not one of those footballers. That’s not a personal attack. He’s a burster, not a grinder. He only had half a dozen touches to three-quarter time, but he exploded into action in the final term. In a team that’s all about control and process, Stringer brought some much-needed unpredictability.
Tigers coach Damian Hardwick was filthy afterwards, and he had every right to be. They had a stack of inside-50s, but so many of them were dump-and-hopes. They made some bad errors in the dying minutes. And they just can’t win close games. Of a dozen matches decided by a goal or less, they haven’t won any of them. “It was a horrible game by us,” Hardwick said. He looked as frustrated as he has all year. Control had trumped chaos, and pandemonium had ensued.