Footy Fix: How the Bombers brained the Bulldogs – and Bevo – with their most brutal nine minutes in a decade


It’s the seven-minute mark of the final quarter.

Essendon lead the Western Bulldogs by 19 points in a match that has, since halfway through the second quarter, largely been in their keeping on the scoreboard, if for no other reason than their immaculate kicking for goal compared to their opponents’ wastefulness.

Still, it’s not the sort of lead that feels in any way insurmountable; and as Mason Redman’s cross-goal kick on the edge of defensive 50 floats over the head of Jayden Laverde, Bombers fans could be forgiven for feeling a familiar surge of dread as the ball bobbles loose on the ground.

Laverde is the first to arrive, but no sooner has he collected the ball than Rhylee West, the Bulldogs’ resident tyro having himself a classical pressure forward’s evening, is on hand to tackle.

How the Bomber reacts is far from the most memorable play of an evening Essendon supporters will be thinking back to fondly for years; nor is it by any means the catalyst for what is about to happen. But it’s eye-catching all the same.

Laverde, perhaps the Bombers’ most maligned player, in an area of the ground where his club have for years been at their most vulnerable to a game-changing, coach-killing, momentum-sapping turnover, shrugs clear of the tackle, eschews a handball to the nearby Xavier Duursma that would have put his teammate under equal pressure, and wobbles a kick backwards.

It’s a brave play, reflective of the Dons’ desire all evening to switch the play at all costs, opening the ground to deny the Dogs the chance to set up with their army of intercept markers behind the ball wherever possible. But it leaves Mason Redman, with Jack Macrae in hot pursuit, a hell of a task deep in defensive 50, especially when an early fumble gives Macrae hands on the footy.

The pre-Brad Scott Bombers concede a goal here, or at least a shot, or at worst a dangerous stoppage inside their defensive 50. But if the personnel remain shaky at their worst, there is now a structure to how the Dons operate. And it’s that which saves them here, and prevents the major that could easily have flipped this game around.

First to arrive to help Redman is Ben McKay, a high-priced recruit having his second significant performance in red and black within three weeks. Redman does enough to force the ball wide to him, having worked back from the wing to be the loose man.

He gives to the other new recruit, Duursma, himself having a night to signify his arrival as a red and black favourite. Remember when he was bypassed by Laverde a few seconds earlier? Bombers of old might have seen that as their cue to stay wide, or push back to the goalsquare in case a flying shot ensues.

Not Duursma – he goes straight for the source.

I don’t know where the f’ Duursma came from. But he mopped up on the last line. Calmed it down. And suddenly Gresham is kicking a goal.

— Jonathan Walsh (@JonathanJWalsh) April 12, 2024

With his opposite winger, Bailey Williams, some distance behind, Duursma receives from McKay, steadies, and pinpoints Zach Merrett, best on ground up until now, on the half-back flank. Disaster averted, with the ball in the hands of the Bombers’ best user.

The Dons wouldn’t have a miss that near again until the match was well and truly done.

The highlights, and the rest of this article, will tell of the mayhem that happens in the next eight minutes – but it’s worth at least acknowledging the Dons’ response to the last time all night they were seriously tested. It wasn’t perfect, it was far from pretty, but thanks to a pair of new faces putting in the hard yards and a brave one-on-one win by the resident whipping boy, the Bombers pulled through.

The next 30 seconds is Essendon at their best. Merrett executes the most dangerous kick of all – the inboard pass into the centre square from the back flank – well enough for Todd Goldstein, who has spent the night in tandem with Sam Draper handing reigning All-Australian ruckman Tim English a fearful hiding, to mark. His first instinct? To give to a runner, in this case, Nic Martin, who has barreled down the spine with attacking intent.

His kick doesn’t need to be perfect; all night long, the Bombers’ leg speed has given them a killer edge on the slower, more ponderous Bulldogs, particularly when running forward with purpose. Martin’s kick is aimed at Kyle Langford, but with four Bombers to two Dogs at the fall of the ball, all they need to do is bring it to ground.

Gathering the loose ball is young Alwyn Davey, having a night of almost moments where both his rawness and his enthusiasm emanate from every touch of the footy, no matter how fleeting. And spoilt for choices going inside 50, he butchers the kick.

Like with Laverde and Redman at the other end, for old Essendon this would have been all she wrote. Davey’s kick sits up perfectly for James O’Donnell, surrounded by Bombers, to take the repelling mark and save the day for the Dogs.

Except he doesn’t mark. Because at the eleventh hour, having closed the gap with a suddenness that surprises everyone, Harrison Jones arrives to – almost certainly illegally – knock the ball clear.

The Bombers are ROLLING!#AFLDogsDons

— AFL (@AFL) April 12, 2024

But it’s not so much the fact his spoil on O’Donnell made some quite clear high contact and should have been penalised; it’s that he made the ground in the first place. A Bomber of yesteryear in the same situation doesn’t fight to the last to impact that contest by any means necessary. You make your luck in this game, and Jones has certainly done so here.

The spill of the ball means the Bombers can take advantage of their extra numbers once again; it’s another new recruit, this time Jade Gresham – in the midst of his own night of almosts in the hardest role to play in the game – pounces.

Bombers fans can probably recall countless examples where players of all skill levels snatch up the ball near goal and shirk their responsibilities, giving the ball to a teammate in a worse position out of either unselfishness or fear of messing it up.

There was never any such doubt in Gresham’s mind that he was going for goal; he takes a step to balance, snaps the footy across his body, and curls through a team-lifter.

It’s a 12-point play, and the most important part of it isn’t scintillating skill, nor a perfect set play, nor an act of individual brilliance. The Bombers messed up, tried again, and kept messing up and trying again until the goal was scored.

Xavier Duursma is congratulated by teammates after kicking a goal. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

It was pure, undistilled desperation at every turn. It’s been a while since the Bombers have shown quite this much steel.

Two minutes later, having once again defused a pressure situation inside 50, it’s Jye Caldwell, an understated but key member of an Essendon midfield that has slowly but surely worked over the far more famous names alongside them in red white and blue, who drives the Bombers inside 50.

This time, the centre of attention is Jake Stringer, a man often criticised for his lack of defensive pressure and questioned for his work rate throughout his career.

Caldwell’s kick seems perfectly set up for Stringer to fly and try to clutch a spectacular mark; that’s not usually his go, but it hasn’t stopped him from trying over the years. This time, though, he sits back, content to wait at ground level and see what unfolds as Sam Draper and Nik Cox fly.

It’s here where Stringer imposes himself: about four milliseconds after Buku Khamis grabs the loose ball, he executes a perfect tackle, pinning the arms to prevent a clean handball or kick and forcing the footy loose. It’s not just a tackle to force a stoppage – it’s one with the specific aim of causing a turnover.

Once again, just as it was a few minutes earlier, the Bombers have an extra number at the spillage; a testament to their midfielders’ hard work and consistent running, an indictment on the Dogs’ lack of same.

It’s Sam Durham who benefits; with no opponent, having run clear of whichever one of Tom Liberatore or Marcus Bontempelli he was nullifying on a night where his toughness and powerful tackling added a new and noteworthy edge to the Bombers’ on-ball brigade, he charges through, picks up the loose ball, and snaps the sealer.

So far, it has been compelling Essendon football – but it’s about to get even more brutal.

At the next centre bounce, where the Bombers, after being mercilessly thrashed in that regard by Port Adelaide last week, have soundly beaten Bontempelli, Liberatore and co., it’s Durham again who has the key hand.

After Draper’s tap hovers momentarily in the air, the one-time rookie finds himself sandwiched between Bontempelli and Jack Macrae, two of the game’s most decorated midfielders, with 454 combined games of near-consistent high quality football.

He’s no chance of winning a disposal, so instead he executes a tap Max Gawn would have been proud of, over the oncoming Bontempelli and into the clutches of Darcy Parish. It’s been the story of the night – consistently, the Bombers have held a midfielder or two out of the scrimmage for the ball where the Dogs have gone all in, backed their own man to win it, and capitalised with fast breakaways as a reward.

Parish’s kick bounces just beyond 50, and here Nik Cox, once again harder and more determinedly attacking the ball than Bulldogs counterpart Oskar Baker, thumps it forward and past the arc. The Bombers swarm; Baker gathers, but amid a sea of red and black can only give to an under-pressure Ed Richards, who with Gresham bearing down has his handball intercepted by Caldwell.

His flying shot heads towards the teeth of goal, where Stringer, in effectively a one on three surrounded by oncoming Bulldogs, does well to force a boundary throw-in.

And just like that, the Dons have done what the Bulldogs at the other end could not, through relentless, heaving pressure and pressure alone.

Sam Darcy just about edges out Draper for the tap from the throw-in, directing it down to Liberatore; a master of tight situations, with the sharpest mind in the game and a penchant for always making the right decisions, the ball seems in good hands.

Enter Stringer: with speed bordering on kamikaze, he sprints into the fray, lines his premiership teammate up, and just as Libba kicks, hits him with such force as to turn a clearing kick into a direct turnover. It lands in the lap of Duursma, who is perfectly situated for a kick that can only come there if the expectation is for the sort of ferocious aggression Stringer has just pulled off.

It’s here where another point needs to be made: all night, the Bombers, continuing on from their first four games, have kicked for goal beautifully.

From flawless Kyle Langford set shots, to a bullseye Duursma kick from long range on a tight angle in the second term that sparked the Dons to life, to a myriad of snaps from in close, the Bombers have made the most of nearly every chance that has come their way.

Is that the bow and arrow into the John Cena? #AFLDogsDons

— AFL (@AFL) April 12, 2024

Ranking third heading into the night for scoreboard accuracy – and it’s worth noting the Dogs, who started the evening ranked first, reverted to type with some horror squandered opportunities – there’s an assuredness about Essendon when kicking for goal that hasn’t always been there in years gone by.

Faced with a kick he should be expected to nail at least eight times out of ten, there’s never any doubt that Duursma will finish the set shot by notching his bow.

In six minutes, the Bombers have put the result beyond doubt with three goals. All of them have been scored differently, and each reflects a different aspect of this new-look, hard-nosed, infinitely admirable team.

Xavier Duursma whips out the bow and arrow once more and Essendon are in complete control here! ????????

???? Watch #AFLDogsDons LIVE on ch. 504 or stream on Kayo:

— Fox Footy (@FOXFOOTY) April 12, 2024

The first was borne of pure desperation, the second gut-running, the third ferocious and unrelenting pressure. All are core traits of the Essendon Edge, all went missing against the Power, and all were back with a vengeance on Friday night.

And there’s about to be a fourth aspect, too.

Of the Dons’ three goals scored from centre bounces against the Bulldogs, the third is the most emphatic. After Goldstein wins the tap and directs it into open space, it’s Durham, matched up on Bontempelli, who has far from his first but certainly his most compelling win in that one-on-one duel.

In a stroke, he exposes the Dogs’ gaping defensive frailties from centre bounces, which have been apparent since the 2021 grand final and are still, more than two and a half years on, yet to be solved. Durham surges away from a flat-footed – and quite probably wounded – Bontempelli, past a half-hearted tackle attempt from the morose-looking Macrae, and keeps running as Liberatore, stuck as the last obstacle, is torn between attacking the ball-carrier or stopping the more dangerous Merrett from getting an easy handball over the top.

Merrett, as it turns out, isn’t required, because Durham, having completed his run, executes the pass of the night, and probably for the weekend: a spearing ball wide that practically draws Stringer like a magnet into it.

It’s low and flat enough to deny the Dogs, who have led the league in intercept marks this season, any chance of getting hands to it. And it’s placed perfectly enough to allow Stringer, never a one-on-one beast nor a pack-crashing mark, a chance to use his one key advantage over Liam Jones: speed off the mark.

As every other Bomber has done in this sizzling nine-minute passage, Stringer converts.

It would be wrong to give all the credit for the Bombers’ win to this spectacular period of the last quarter; but if you want a ‘Greatest Hits’ compilation of how and why they got the job done against an opponent they’ve beaten once since 2014, with a spate of injuries to key players across all areas of the ground, then look no further.

The critics will come for the Dogs, and rightly so; they were incapable of withstanding the onslaught that came their way, made to look utterly powerless both physically and tactically in the face of a team coming off a shellacking of their own seven days ago, and as a result dealt the sort of pantsing that often proves a doombringer for an under pressure coach.

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But having been gallant but limited across the first month of the season, this was the night when Essendon showed just how dazzling Brad Scott’s new, brutal Bombers can be.

The start of something special? We’ll have to wait and see. But if nothing else, it’s a damn good statement of intent.

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