It’s been 15 years since Essendon won a final in the AFL. That’s a fact no Bombers supporter likes to be reminded of. But it’s a fact that still stands after Thursday night’s mediocre performance against West Coast in the first elimination final at Optus Stadium.
No one really expected the Bombers to come away from a game against the reigning premiers, at West Coast’s home ground, with a win. But there was some stubborn hope in Essendon fans that the boys might just play with fire, and finally end the finals drought. With many players from the Bombers’ long injury list back on the field – namely Heppell, Stringer, Fantasia, Hooker and Hurley – a win was unlikely, but possible.
But for most of the night, West Coast were in a league of their own, and Bombers fans’ hopes were quickly extinguished.
The Eagles were a classier team from the first bounce. Though the first goal of the game came from Essendon’s Andrew McGrath, West Coast replied with a goal of their own less than two minutes later, and at one point in the first quarter kicked four unanswered goals. All night the Eagles took more care of the ball, taking time to make smart decisions and accurate kicks. Essendon, on the other hand, turned the ball over 10 times in the first quarter alone and continued to make silly mistakes throughout the game. Not only were West Coast’s kicks better, their forwards were far slipperier than Essendon’s – it wasn’t uncommon to see an Eagle, with metres of space on his defender, easily take a mark. In their own forward line, the Bombers have struggled with contested marks and possessions all year, and Thursday night was no exception. Stringer, McKernan and Brown – usually reliable goalkickers – didn’t score a single point between them.
The margin stretched from 21 points West Coast’s way at quarter time, to 30 at half time, and 36 at three quarter time. To the Bombers’ credit, there were sparks of life, including the Dons’ hallmark sprint from half back with McKenna and Saad working together to score a goal. But it was a play that was scarcely seen due to West Coast’s strong pressure. The Eagles didn’t allow the Bombers the breathing room that they themselves had been so generously given.
It all seemed to fall apart for Essendon in the final quarter. Fumbles, unforced errors and rushed kicks from the Bombers were eagerly exploited by the Eagles, who proved far better at both scrappy football and kicking to targets. Some portions of the final quarter looked like Auskick, with Eagles players easily evading loose tackles, kicking ahead to whichever of the two or three untagged teammates they wanted. Ryan in particular was in spectacular form, booting three goals and being involved in a number of slick plays with his trademark speed. Kennedy was also a star with four goals of his own. On the Bombers side, Saad and McGrath were stand-outs in an Essendon side that never really gave itself a chance.
When the final siren sounded, the Eagles had emerged victorious by a whopping 55 points. It wasn’t all positive for the Eagles though, with a handful of missed goals that could have stretched the final margin out to 70+ points.
The West Coast Eagles will play the loser of Friday night’s Geelong vs Collingwood match, next week at the MCG.