Essendon has fought back into AFL finals contention — here’s how

Coming into the 2021 season, few outside the Hangar were predicting success for the Dons.

Most thought the long finals drought would continue and a lengthy rebuilding process would start in earnest. High-profile players such as Adam Saad, Joe Daniher and Orazio Fantasia left the club during the last off-season, with little in the way of experienced talent coming back through the doors.

Instead, the Bombers reloaded through the draft and by selecting fringe players from other clubs. So far the gamble has paid off — and more quickly than anyone could expect.

Entering the last six weeks of the season, the Bombers are in the thick of a chaotic finals race and have already racked up more wins than last season. Their attacking force, moribund a year ago, has sprung into life and provided hope for Bombers fans everywhere.

Under new coach Ben Rutten, the Dons seem like a completely new side. The real question is, will it last?

Dropping bombs

Coming into the year, expectations for Essendon’s forward line were firmly muted.

After years of speculation, Daniher and Fantasia left Windy Hill for Brisbane and Port Adelaide respectively. Instead of planning around their sporadic availability, the club could finally move on without them. That’s probably for the best too, because last year the signs in attack weren’t strong, finishing just 12th for points per inside 50.


Now, instead of struggling to score, goals have come in bunches. The Dons are the third-highest scoring side in the league and are also third for points per inside 50. Where Essendon’s attack was struggling a year ago, now it is keeping them in the finals hunt.

Essendon are also finding the right targets inside 50. The upfield efforts have improved significantly, with scoring entries finding wide-open players as much as any other side so far.

This suits the slightly smaller forward line, led by Jake Stringer, Harrison Jones and Anthony McDonald-Tipangwuti. Those three names were at the club last year, but have all stepped up this season. Peter Wright, whose promising early career at the Gold Coast tailed off, has played a critical role as a foil to drag attention from taller defenders.


The Bombers have also been able to get solid production from their recruits, with Archie Perkins, Nik Cox and last-minute SSP signing Alec Waterman adding to their forward mix.

Much of the scoring potency comes down to midfield delivery, with that group seemingly focusing less on quantity of ball and more on quality of service.

Moving it effectively

It takes more than just the forward line to score goals — players upground have to get the ball to them in the right spots. Connection between the players outside and inside forward 50 is critical for kicking winning scores.

After struggling to find that relationship in previous years, 2021 sees a united Bombers front, with them making the most of the opportunities they’ve had.

A key driver of their rise in the middle is the development of Darcy Parish, who has gone from being an interesting former high draft pick to a budding star in the past twelve months.

Parish has made the most of the opportunity to shine in a seemingly thinner Essendon midfield. The young Don is starting to deliver on the promise that saw him tabbed with the number five pick in the 2015 draft, providing his side with a real weapon in the middle. His clearance work this year has produced more scoring than just about anyone.

Not only is Parish winning the hard ball, but he is turning his disposals into dangerous opportunities for his side. That’s key for a player who is developing into a high-volume ball user, and may hold the key to his evolution to that next tier.


Despite missing the classy former Giant Dylan Shiel for most of the season, the Bombers have largely held tight in the middle, recording a slightly positive centre clearance differential. They’ve focused less on stoppage clearances, instead utilising protection behind the ball more.

That’s paid off to date, with opposing sides not doing as much damage as could be expected despite giving up plenty of stoppage clearances. With the defence bolstered by better spacing and more help, they’ve been able to turn a critical weakness from last year into more of a strength.

Essendon’s ball movement from the back half was expected to take a hit from the departure of Saad, but their ability to score from rebound 50s has held up well. While the higher-profile targets last off-season were Daniher, Jeremy Cameron and Zac Williams, multiple clubs were interested in former Essendon VFL player Nick Hind.


Although on the fringes at St Kilda, teams saw Hind’s potential as an attacking outside runner. His rise has mitigated the loss of Saad, and was perhaps Essendon’s most shrewd move of a largely successful off-season.

This year, with Hind on board, the Bombers are in the top six for the percentage of points they score out of rebound 50s. That’s partially driven by their success in adapting to the new kick-out rule, scoring a higher proportion of points from kick ins than any other side.

A finals win in sight?

Even though the Dons have made good progress, this year’s AFL ladder is tight and every team is in mathematical contention for the finals.(

AAP: Rob Prezioso


The Bombers have gone more than 6,000 days since winning a final — longer than GWS and Gold Coast have even been in the AFL. Essendon fans are not only sick of the drought, they are also sick of rival fans bringing up the drought.

This year’s AFL ladder is tight, with every team in mathematical contention for finals. Realistically, 14 teams could have designs on making the final eight, with the final two or three spots truly in doubt. Fans could have a real treat in watching the battle for those last spots.

Essendon, despite their progress through the year, are probably still more unlikely than likely to play finals. They are fortunate with a softer draw on the way home, but have a decent-sized injury list.

Regardless, the future is brighter than it was 12 months ago. Their turbocharged rebuild, taking as many top-10 draftees last year as they had in the previous five, is already showing the future may involve significant footy in September.

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