Fill in the ‘worked harder’ talk, Rutten’s brave bombers just outsmarted the saints

One of my real pet hates about modern footy is how much time is spent talking about exertion.

That also seemed to be at the heart of much of the commentary during Essendon’s stunning 35-point win over St Kilda. The Bombers’ attacking pressure, guts and daring play were all praised, while the Saints’ apparent lethargy was repeatedly put on edge.

“Still not convinced that they have fully invested in the hard work it takes to make a team perform at the highest level of football,” lamented Brian Taylor midway through the second term, trailing the Saints by 22 points.

The main reason I hate this kind of ‘analysis’ is that it implies that any team can win any game if they just want more of it; that any shape drop can be turned around with a little elbow grease; that West Coast could defeat Geelong on Saturday with guts, mind and bone-crunching tackles. And it offers nothing: how nothing happens at all.

Essendon didn’t win this game because they tried harder – in Nick Riewoldt’s words, the Bombers played ‘effort without system’ against Carlton the week before, and it didn’t help then. This was a game that was won just as well in the coaching profession as it was from the 22 on the field.

So impressive was Ben Rutten’s evening at the office, so evident his influence in setting up the game in the first half, that it was sort of devastating to the awful first half of the season for him and his club. If they can play like that, why aren’t they all the time?

Simply put, the Bombers found a system and the whole game flowed from there. It started from the half back – where they were the Dull Dons for most of this year, spinning comfortably, gaining minimal ground and finally turning it over with disastrous results, here they immediately looked at running and carrying, taking on the man on the mark and knock the ball out of defensive 50 at lightning speed.

It was as if Rutten woke up in a cold sweat halfway through the week, when he realized he might have the fastest guy in the AFL in the rear kicking back and forth. Nick Hind was quite free and played his best game of the year: encouraged to go all out, none of his former teammates would ever get a chance to do it with him.

It is not an effort; everyone knows that Nick Hind is fast. This is a player who is encouraged to play to his own strengths, rather than according to a game plan. With five goals in the quarter, it is clear that it worked spectacularly.

Andrew McGrath put the defense together in a way that was, dare I say, Luke Hodge-esque – it’s amazing how much safer the Dons’ back 50 looked with him over there, having missed their loss to the Blues. A calm goal against Jack Higgins in a tricky one-on-one near the goal square was a testament to both his physical prowess and cool head under pressure.

Mason Redman and Dyson Heppell were just as solid; it was noticeable how many numbers the Bombers had behind the ball, and how little space the Saints had to kick to when they had the ball.

Redman, in particular, started regularly on a wing before drifting back to stay loose behind the ball, denying the Dons the Saints any meaningful options for the ball.

Though not as prolific, debutant Massimo D’Ambrosio immediately looked like he belonged, with precise ball movements and a steady presence more than enough to hold his spot forward.

Now this was a system to match the effort.

Matt Guelfi and Harrison Jones of the Bombers celebrate a goal.

Matt Guelfi and Harrison Jones of the Bombers celebrate a goal. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

It also helped Hind to have a reliable defense structure behind him, and allowed the Bombers to risk a turnover with aggressive play, knowing there was a safety net behind him. But wouldn’t you know, luck favored the brave: With an 81.9 percent removal efficiency at halftime, the Saints could barely glance at getting the ball back.

You can certainly attribute some things to effort: the Bombers worked tirelessly by harassing the Saints ball in hand, most notably leading to their first goal when Jade Gresham, bereft of options, unusually panicked to get the ball over kick the goal dangerously close to Peter Wright. He failed to mark, but the resulting spill caused Harrison Jones to actually snap.

Up and away.

The Bombers were also manic in denying the Saints the same freedom to flee from the half-back Hind was given. Jack Sinclair and Bradley Hill have been great in this regard all year – Hill only recently, as they had taken out a lot of time half-forwards earlier in the season – but the Bombers closed the corridor in spectacular fashion, denying them any run en dash, forcing them to either take risks or cross the border.

Matt Guelfi, too, was constantly hooked on one or the other, preventing the kind of overlapping handball that has been the modus operandi of the saints for most of the year. It cost the bomber a goal, probably unjustly, in the third term, when Sinclair zigzagged one side around Jack Billings from a target, Guelfi saw the other and the referee believed he had invaded the protected area.

They still collected a lot of ball – much of it in the closing minutes of the second term as the Saints resorted to goalkeepers to limit damage – but where Hind won 323 meters before halftime, Sinclair managed 217 and Hill under the 200. An important offensive weapon of the Saints was destroyed.

Pressure, of course, was key: The Bombers won about as many free kicks with the ball as in the previous three weeks combined. But it wasn’t like they tackled much more than usual — they’d finish with 51, slightly above their season average of 48 (the worst in the league, by the way) — rather that the efficiency of their tackles went through the roof.

When they clung to a saint, it was like being hugged by your greatest aunt at Christmas – you couldn’t let go until the desired result was achieved.

It’s easy to say the Saints just didn’t show up, but it’s also wrong. Keeping them early in the game was an out-of-center dominance that looked to see them weather an early storm with two quick goals in the first term to take the lead. Great in the clinches was Brad Crouch, who has taken charge of the midfield brigade since Jack Steele’s absence. He had three times to clear the field as the Saints battled eleven of them down to just five.

But slowly but surely the Bombers clawed it back, almost equal in the clearance and disputed possession counts at halftime. This is where we need to talk about Dylan Shiel.

It’s unbelievable what the stumbling and now absence of Darcy Parish has done to Shiel’s influence on the ball. I’m still not convinced that both can play on the same side – which is weird considering Shiel is a very different beast from Parish at best – but with the extra responsibility on his shoulders, Shiel shined both inside and out .

Brilliant in tight with a whole range of clearances – he had a team-high seven for the game – but just as damaging on the spread with five bounces and a game-high 338 meters won at halftime, this was even better than his only- man show against the Blues. This is the player he was at GWS; this is the triple-threat midfielder the Bombers were hoping to get at the start of 2019.

Their first half was so brilliant that they could afford a break – such as scoring zero points in the first ten minutes of the third quarter when the Saints scored five goals to tie the score.

As the scent of victory faded in their nostrils, they ramped up the intensity to 11. The pressure from the Saints—which I still don’t quite understand, Fox Footy, by the way—risen to 235 in the first half of the quarter: The Bombers came in the next ten minutes to 274 at a standstill.

And the saints withered. Suddenly forced to bully, as Essendon had done to reverse the momentum, they found they had spent their gas tickets in those first ten damning minutes. If they had started with level pegging instead of five goals down, it might have been enough to break the bombers back.

The goals flowed from there, just like in the first half – Jake Stringer got off to the start with a monster goal from outside 50 as one of two for the period, Peter Wright and Sam Draper marked strong and the Bombers blew the game to smithereens .

By three-quarters the margin was 37, the disputed possession counts 105-89 on their way, and the saints on the canvas. When was the last time a team kicked the first five goals in 15 minutes and finished further behind?

Peter Wright has sometimes failed for the Bombers on offense this year, but it’s funny how many options appear with quick ball moves and lots of chances. Where the Saints kept aiming for Max King with predictable frequency, the Dons got it mixed up: Wright, Stringer and Jones all aimed at least four times in the night.

Jones popped up with another goal, Wright himself benefited from yet another Saints kick inboard turnover; Sam Draper first took a strong mark near goal and put it through himself, then brought in a screamer in the closing seconds of the time limit to allow a final goal for Guelfi right at the siren.

The Saints kept trying, but came back from too far; forced to take risks galore, many broke loose, while the bombers held onto their lead like that auntie mentioned above. Two late goals from Peter Wright gave them a 35-point margin they really deserved to lead the way; and finally a chance for Dons fans to smile: a siren-to-siren performance of red and black for the first time all season.

It’s a crucial loss for St Kilda, but not a fatal one. Steele should be back next week against Sydney in what looms as an eight-point game between the two sides that is almost indivisible as sixth and seventh on the ladder. But now only percentage keeps them within eight – losing next week, and it’s very possible they’ll finish ninth in round 15.

For the Bombers, it’s a sign that beneath all the disdain and despair of their start to the year, there’s a good, promising side of football. In 2022, of course, it’s nothing: but if you’re a Dons fan, you’ve left Marvel Stadium with hopes of a blue sky ahead.

More of that, please.