Over the next few days, all discussion of Essendon’s three-point win over Adelaide will likely centre on the decision, in the final seconds of an epic match, to not award the Crows a free kick for holding the ball against Sam Draper.

It’s inevitable that discourse will trend this way, but it also does the Bombers a disservice after what was not only their finest, gutsiest win in many a year, but also one of their most deserved. Having dominated proceedings at the Adelaide over for all but a trio of brief, spectacular bursts of stunning Crows football, there can be no arguing, even from the myriad of supporters who believe their team was again robbed (‘roight in front of me’?) that Essendon were the better side on Friday night.

This was the sort of win that good teams make a habit of – so the sort of win that the Bombers haven’t enjoyed too many of for the last decade. They headed across the border and hit the Crows with wave after wave of suffocating, all-encompassing pressure, dominated territory all night, locked the ball inside 50 for long stretches, and defended with a structure and precision that has Brad Scott’s fingerprints all over it.

To add further lustre to the performance, they twice got up off the canvas – in the third and final quarters – when the Crows’ electric brand seemed to have finally overcome weary legs; first by responding to Adelaide’s irrepressible seven-goal stretch on either side of half time with three of their own to retake control of a game that was surely lost for good, then again to stop and reverse the wave of momentum two further Crows goals early in the last quarter had provided, silencing a crowd that all too often wills their team home in such matches.

28 scoring shots to 20 tells a better story of this game than the eventual margin; it’s not how footy works, to be sure, but it is of tremendous credit to the Crows to mention it. While not playing at their best, they made the most of whatever scraps the Bombers left for them in the first half, then showed in bursts that they remain among the AFL’s more unstoppable teams when it clicks for them.

It was as if the first quarter and 15 minutes of the second were an extension of how the Bombers finished their statement-making win over the Western Bulldogs seven days ago.

Dominant in close, with Sam Durham and Jye Caldwell restricting Izak Rankine to a shadow of the matchwinner he was last week against Carlton and Zach Merrett running riot in the space provided, it was only some diligent Crows defending, and the conspicuous lack of a strong, contested-marking key forward to make the most of Adelaide’s lack of a monster-stopper of their own, that prevented the match being all over at quarter time.

16 inside 50s to six is indisputably a thrashing on paper, as is the 2-7 count for tackles inside 50. Targets weren’t found with quite as much regularity as against the Bulldogs, mostly because the Crows applied far more pressure to their stoppage exits to prevent clean breakaways, but that final kick into attack was about the only thing not going as well as it could be.

That the Crows got four shots from their six inside 50s is a reflection mostly of how frequently the ball was locked into the Bombers’ half; when they at last were able to break through, vacant space further up, plus their own newfound desire to move the ball as quickly as possible, led to opportunities. And it’s not the worst plan to get Taylor Walker the ball 60 metres out with nobody ahead of him.

With a quarter time pressure rating of 198, plus eight intercepts in the forward half, the Bombers simply wouldn’t be able to lose if they kept that up, no matter how efficient the Crows were nor how many chances they spurned.

When Ben Hobbs goalled to extend their lead to 15 points early in the second term, he did it via the Bombers’ fifth holding the ball free kick for the night – an astounding number that perfectly reflects just how all-consuming their pressure was. Time after time a Crow would receive the ball, look to scoot into space or even take a mere second to weigh up his options, and be enveloped, mostly not just by one, but two or even three Dons.

To tackle so superbly – they had 80 for the night and 51 to half time – after being heavily criticised for not sticking enough a fortnight ago against Port Adelaide on this very ground is a sign both of significant moral fibre, a trait we haven’t applied to the Bombers in many a year, and also brilliant planning and execution from Scott and his team to identify a weakness and make sure it’s addressed.

It took Jordan Dawson to finally remember he’s an elite player, and make up for a rough start to season 2024 with a performance from the stratosphere, to turn the tide – well, that and a litany of silly, unnecessary errors, from Sam Draper failing to return the ball to Dawson in time for a 50m penalty and gift goal, to Sam Durham falling asleep on the mark and being waltzed around by the Crows skipper for his second in quick succession.

It’s impossible to coach around players having brain fades, and they’re an inevitable part of the game; but all the same, it meant that at half time the worm had noticeably turned. And Dawson wasn’t done yet.

There was a point – well, two points, but more on the second later – during the third term when it seemed like all that effort to control the game for the first half had taken its toll on Essendon. Ever so slightly, the pressure began to recede, the Crows started to have spare seconds to weigh up options, and with it, the slick, stunning ball movement that rent Carlton asunder last week re-emerged.

The results were manifest in the stats – from Dawson’s first goal to Ned McHenry soccering through their sixth in a row to extend the lead to a game-high 19 points, the Crows kicked at 63 per cent efficiency in their forward half, with the weary-looking Bombers far from ferocious enough to curb them.

The pressure rating was down at 178; Adelaide’s rising into the stratosphere at 215. And the Crows’ trademark – slick ball movement from end to end towards a vacant 50 with speedy forwards running towards goal – made the Bombers look fatally slow.

Having seen just 12 per cent of their defensive 50 disposal chains end in an inside 50 in the first half, the Crows bagged two goals directly from that source within 10 minutes; it was the Blues game all over again, and every bit as exhilarating the second time around.

Against Port Adelaide, a burst like this was the end of it. For most of the Bombers’ recent history, that would have been the end of it – a gutsy fight across the first two quarters, eventually overpowered, and the result a loss of somewhere between 30 and 60 points depending on how ruthless the Crows were feeling.

But more than any stat line, or pressure metric, or really any logical reason whatsoever can explain how the Bombers, on their knees and down for the count, stood up, pushed away the trainer and started throwing left and right hooks again.

There were no major tactical changes from Scott up in the box, nor an outstanding five or ten minutes from a star player, nor even a single moment of magic that flipped things again. It was simply a well-drilled team calming things down, attacking the ball with a renewed vigour, maintaining their structure behind the ball and ahead of it, not panicking, and calmly re-asserting control.

That is the mark of a team going places.

By three-quarter time, the Bombers had the lead again, and the stat lines that had been trending towards the Crows were normalising – remarkably, for all the Crows’ dominance early in the term, the Bombers ended it with four more inside 50s to lead the count by 21 at the last break.

To do that once shows serious mettle; to do it twice is the sort of professional, ruthless, remarkable thing Geelong have done regularly for 15 years now. Because when the Crows yet again tore the game apart with two goals within three minutes to retake control, and with Rankine finally bursting into the spotlight after a quiet first three terms, the Bombers did not yield.

There were heroes everywhere in those famous 15 minutes. Merrett expertly roving a pack inside 50, legs that had been pumping at full throttle all night somehow finding the energy to hit the loose ball at full speed and roll home a captain’s goal.

Harrison Jones, Zach Merrett and Kyle Langford celebrate a goal.

Harrison Jones, Zach Merrett and Kyle Langford celebrate a goal. (Photo by James Elsby/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Draper, having a dirty night, continuing to battle manfully against Reilly O’Brien, entrusted with much of the grunt work while partner Todd Goldstein saved himself for the final minutes. Mason Redman’s composure in defence, Ben McKay’s countless day-saving spoils.

Nic Martin drilling a long goal from outside 50 to retake the lead for the Bombers, the surety with which he made a difficult, high-pressure kick look so effortless yet again reminding the footy world what a travesty his path to the AFL as a pre-season supplementary pick anyone could have jumped on for free is.

Then, in the last minute with the ball locked all but permanently in Adelaide’s forward 50, some more heroes presented themselves: Draper again, doing to Walker what Walker has done to so many others inside 50, bullying him out of a ruck contest and banging the ball on his boot out to safety. First Redman and then McKay doing brilliantly to hold up first Chayce Jones and then Walker with both players doing all in their power to be taken high. Harrison Jones nearly pulling down the intercept mark that would have won the day, but fighting on after it spilled out to wrap up Darcy Fogarty and ensure another stoppage.

Then, in those final five seconds that will live long in infamy, Draper again, laying flat on the ball in what must surely ran as one of the great brain explosions, trusting and praying that an umpire will give him the slightest sliver of benefit of the doubt, and hoping he, like so many umpires before, will choose to keep the whistle away.

In many ways, this was Essendon to a tee on Friday night. Whatever the cost, they were going to fight for that footy, and hang on for grim death. When it was wrenched from their grasp not once but twice, they redoubled their efforts, cracked in and wrenched it right back again.

They did all of that on the road, against a ferocious, deadly opposition in one of footy’s most hostile atmospheres.

To focus on one free kick amid all those remarkable stories, all that remarkable passion, such a remarkable win, would do the Bombers a disservice. It’s time to give them the respect they deserve.





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