Footy Fix: The best Anzac Day classic since the first one confirms the Pies are back… and the Bombers are for real


For all the pomp and circumstance that surrounds the now-traditional Anzac Day clash at the MCG, there has been one thing conspicuously lacking over the years: Essendon and Collingwood both being properly good.

The Magpies finished the 1990s meekly; the Bombers haven’t made it past week one of the finals since 2004. The quality of the match as a spectacle has seldom suffered, but not since 2002 has one of these games felt as significant as 2024’s edition.

This was a cracking game of football by anyone’s measure; there were rapid momentum swings, statement moments from star players, more than one scintillating comeback, and of course a thrilling, dramatic finish. And bringing it all together was a delightful contrast in styles from the Bombers and Pies, both of whom came to footy’s Mecca with a plan of action and executed it superbly whenever they were given the chance.

What an absolutely unforgettable game!

Relive the Last Two Minutes of the Anzac Day Game thanks to Omo Australia.

— AFL (@AFL) April 25, 2024

The Bombers have taken great strides in 2024 in improving their stoppage work – having ranked dead last for clearances in 2023 and second-last in 2022, change was required both in structure and personnel over the summer, and it has borne fruit.

Jake Stringer, a sporadic attendant at centre bounces, was lethal whenever he went in there, finishing with a whopping eight clearances, three from the centre. Usual suspects Zach Merrett and Darcy Parish (six and five apiece) were their usual prolific selves, but it is Stringer’s devastating burst of speed that is the Bombers’ prime stoppage weapon.

Over the last two years, that attacking trait would have been nullified by their frailty going the other way, but Sam Durham’s transition to full time inside mid alongside Jye Caldwell, plus the move of Merrett and Parish to be far more defensively minded than they used to be, has sorted that out.

Caldwell and Durham are first and third respectively at the Bombers for tackles in 2024, with Merrett second: they have given the Dons a steel without the ball around stoppages they never had before, allowing them the best of both worlds – Stringer’s speed and Merrett’s class moving forward, and constant pressure going the other way.

At no point under Brad Scott has that been more obvious, and more successful, than Anzac Day: a whopping 40-23 advantage in clearances, and 19-8 from the centre, and a 135-113 edge in contested ball are numbers that we haven’t seen from the Bombers since Jobe Watson was in his pomp. They are numbers that don’t often leave a team without four premiership points.

They were dangerous with them, too: 43 of the Bombers’ 85 points were sourced from stoppages, compared to nine for the Magpies, and only inaccurate kicking in the second half after drilling every chance that came their way to quarter time prevented that margin from being wider.

The Bombers have brought their A-game to start!#AFLDonsPies

— AFL (@AFL) April 25, 2024

The Dons did something similar to Adelaide and the Western Bulldogs in two terrific wins in the past fortnight. It’s sustainable, it’s powerful, and best of all, it’s a style that, unlike previous Bombers methods, has been proven to work in the pressure cooker of finals.

The next step for the Bombers is to try and match that stoppage potency with pressure inside 50 to lock the ball in and allow ball-ups and throw-ins near goal: just two tackles inside 50 across the match tells of their ‘score or bust’ approach to venturing forward.

With Jade Gresham used in recent weeks as a link-up interceptor roaming from half-forward to the wings, and Alwyn Davey still young and learning, it’s one of the few things the Bombers now conspicuously lack – and while the overhead marking of Peter Wright, Kyle Langford, Harrison Jones and Stringer makes for menace aplenty and Sam Draper and Todd Goldstein’s team ruckwork has proved a strategic winner of late, there is a discussion to be had about whether the strengths of such a tall forward line outweigh its weaknesses when the ball hits the ground.

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As for the Magpies, this was a game unlike their win over Port Adelaide last week, in that it was built on their strengths of 2023: furious pressure, slingshot ball movement from half-back, and a spread of goalkicking options inside 50 – even if they had to come from a similar disadvantage after being blown apart in the early stages.

The Pies didn’t dominate at the coalface like against the Power, but this looked more definitively like the reigning premiers at their best – once the ball went inside 50, it stayed there for long periods, with frenetic tackling and well-placed interceptors just outside the arc leaving the Bombers penned in.

The Pies had almost as big an advantage in scores from forward half intercepts as the Bombers did from stoppages, kicking 35 points to 15 and having 24 of these intercepts to 16.

It’s where the Magpies play their best footy: freewheeling from half-back with precise kicks to targets on the move, then giving a small forward line the chance to run their opponents ragged with repeat leads, Bobby Hill the quickest of all.

Simply ludicrous stuff from Bobby Hill ????#AFLDonsPies

— 7AFL (@7AFL) April 25, 2024

It’s no coincidence that Nick Daicos had his best and most impactful game of the season to date: with the ball in perpetual motion when the Pies got it, his speed, repeat efforts and smart ball use in heavy traffic was a major asset.

Nick Daicos punishes the Dons on the turnover. #AFLDonsPies

— AFL (@AFL) April 25, 2024

As was Brody Mihocek, the best forward on the ground who may have cost himself a serious chance at an Anzac Medal if not for some wayward kicking in the last term. An unconventional key tall, he’s as dangerous at ground level as any big forward in the game, with his follow-up pressure, forward craft and work in space belying his size.

It was between these two contrasts where this classic match ebbed and flowed: in the first quarter, and especially in the first ten minutes, the Bombers dominated, winning clearances 5-1 and disposals 25-4 by the time they’d rammed on their fourth goal to zip, and the Pies racking up a pressure factor of 213 to 172 in the second term on their way to clawing back to almost parity despite continuing to be belted at the coalface.

All up, the solace for both teams coming out of a draw that either could easily have deservedly won is that they are legitimate contenders both, with strengths that will hold them in good stead in their bid for finals.

And for us neutral supporters, this was the sweetest plum of all: an Anzac Day match more than worthy of its blockbuster billing, staged between two combatants that are every chance of doing something special for the rest of 2024.

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