Trade and draft review: Bombers are an enigma

AFL, AFL draft, featured

More than the usual number of teams rose and fell in the 2021 season, but nobody predicted that Essendon would make the finals.

They were predicted to finish in the bottom four, in spite of a widely lauded recruitment period, with an ageing group of veterans and a large group of untested youngsters.

Half of the time they were a tipper’s nightmare and a fan’s delight, then the tables would turn and they’d lose games they were expected to lose and burn fans’ faith as they yo-yoed around the middle of the ladder.

As to what was missing is anyone’s guess because they have good players all around the field, with some genuine A-graders emerging, yet the one thing they lack is experience and even that reservoir took a hit with several departures leaving the list young and mercurial.

Who’s gone?
Patrick Ambrose, Irving Mosquito and Cale Hooker retired, while David Zaharakis was delisted and has as good as retired.

Ned Cahill only managed six AFL games across his first two seasons without being impressive, yet Carlton have picked him up in their VFL squad, while Dylan Clarke will train with St Kilda in hopes of getting another chance in the AFL.

Lachlan Johnson, son of triple flag winner Chris, was delisted after only ten VFL games having been through the Bombers’ next generation academy program and being drafted in 2019, although he was immediately snapped up by Richmond’s VFL program.

Martin Gleeson’s delisting after nine seasons with the Bombers was arguably the harshest given his consistent service. However, the writing was on the wall as he was delisted and re-rookied last season.

Supplemental selection period
Essendon went into the 2021 pre-season with a spare list spot, which became two as the extent of Michael Hurley’s injury became known.

Michael Hurley

(Photo by Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images)

So they gave a reward to the hard work of Alec Waterman, son of dual premiership star Chris. Waterman’s delisting from West Coast due to crippling illness came full circle with a return to the AFL.

In February, a double ACL rehabilitation for undrafted free agent Kaine Baldwin was transferred to the sunny Gold Coast where the young man had enrolled to study medicine at Bond University and train with the Suns’ academy. But the Bombers invited him to do the same in Melbourne from the comfort of a list spot.

Mid-season rookie draft
The ladder after Round 10 had Essendon narrowly trailing Richmond, so when the Bombers pinched Richmond VFL player Sam Durham right before the Tigers’ pick, it marked yet another episode in draft sniping between the clubs.

Free agency
Essendon had no hesitation in taking Jake Kelly from Adelaide to boost their defensive stocks. The son of 1990 Collingwood premiership player Craig fitted their identified needs perfectly.

Jake Kelly crestfallen after another loss

(Photo by Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images)

Unusually for the Bombers, trade week came around and they didn’t fire a shot, preferring to take their mid-first-rounder into the draft having already given up their second-rounder for Jye Caldwell previously.

They were still subjected to myriad trade predictions, but nothing came of it, even when GWS pocket rocket Ian ‘Bobby’ Hill requested a trade and nothing could get done, possibly due to Essendon’s persistent courting of Giants players.

In the draft, the Bombers held onto their prized early pick and got Ben Hobbs, one of three first-round picks to come from the Greater Western Victoria Rebels. He is an inside midfielder.

Alastair Lord became the fifth recent South Australian to be recruited to the Hangar, identified as a zippy small defender. After missing a lot of footy through injury, he will take some time to develop, being slight and inexperienced at senior level.


(Photo by Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images)

The Bombers again went to Richmond’s VFL stocks, taking mature ager Garrett McDonagh late in the third round, adding to the shallow age profile of over-25s and providing another option down back.

Rookie draft
The Bombers once again went after another club’s tied player, this time taking Giants academy prospect Patrick Voss, who went unwanted by GWS after spending his year at Wesley College playing for Oakleigh Chargers.

The verdict
Essendon lost some experience and depth to delisting and retirement, although bringing in mature players in the rookie drafts plus taking 110-gamer Kelly in free agency makes for a nice balance as the younger recruits may need considerable time to develop.

Ben Hobbs is a highly rated inside midfielder regarded as one of the most AFL-ready mids in the draft, so if they can find room for him in the best 22 then he will not be a weak link.

Alastair Lord is a speedy, elusive small-bodied defender who will take some time to develop, but could be part of the solution to the Bombers’ back-six issues.

Garrett McDonagh may be a ready-made answer to filling in as a defensive midfielder or as a small defender, or he could just be a solid depth player.

Patrick Voss is a tall who comes into what is probably the biggest group of talls, definitely the youngest, so his versatility to go forward and back is an asset.

Alec Waterman proved the faith shown in him by finally breaking out as an AFL forward, which will be interesting to see if he can back up his season and then hold his place.

Ben Rutten, Senior Assistant Coach and Team Defence of the Bombers addresses his players

(Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Kaine Baldwin redshirted in 2021, but expect him to hit the field this season with something to prove after two ACL reconstructions and being overlooked by every club in the 2020 draft.

Sam Durham made the most of his opportunities after winning a list spot in the mid-season rookie draft, so after a proper pre-season he will look to go to another level.

The outgoing players included some inevitable exits and some harsh list management, with some club stalwarts leaving a large experience hole and the depth players aren’t easily replaced with VFL talent.

The washouts of Cahill and Johnson are interesting because neither had a problem getting picked up by other clubs, albeit on VFL lists, while losing Mosquito to AFL level football is a sad story in itself.

The Bombers have again gone into the off-season with places on their list that remain open. Whether they fill them in the pre-season or the mid-season remains to be seen. However, they do have several players training with them over summer who could earn a rookie spot.

Final word
Essendon are possibly two seasons ahead of schedule, so having almost 20 per cent of their list turned over and no certainty about Michael Hurley’s return to football is either a recipe for disaster or just the fillip coach Ben Rutten needs to return to the promised land.

The Bombers are the competition’s enigma. They make the finals, only to get eliminated. They are aggressive in the trade period, only to this year end up to outward eyes as inactive. They play attacking football while leaking in defence.

Perhaps the best way to encapsulate this team is to acknowledge that they have finally come through their self-inflicted crisis and appear to be arrow up.

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