Culture & Coaching - The Age 13/2 Jake Niall

Culture and coaching the Bombers’ big issues

By Jake Niall

February 12, 2020 — 7.58pm

Joe Daniher went to Ireland to treat his troublesome groin. Conor McKenna has just gone to Ireland to alleviate a bout of homesickness.

It is unclear when Daniher and McKenna will next don the sash, though the Bombers are confident that the running Irishman will return, and hopeful that Daniher will be ready to play earlier than the pessimistic scenario of the season’s mid-point.

Michael Hurley and Cale Hooker are recovering from hip and shoulder surgeries. Dyson Heppell is coming back from a sore foot. Tom Bellchambers (knee arthriscope) and Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti (calf) have had small setbacks.

Zach Merrett is nursing, not an injury but disappointment that his peers did not deem him worthy of a position in the leadership group, some 12 months after he was viewed as a prospective successor to Heppell.

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So, as the above litany suggests, Essendon has had a challenging post and pre-season period. There is less optimism about the club externally than there was in 2019. Back then, everyone wanted to buy shares in the Bombers, who had just acquired Dylan Shiel and were hyped - unrealistically - as a possible premiership contender.

Today, Essendon shares are in a slump. Market expectations are modest. The Dons aren’t a boom stock like the Bulldogs.

But before you dump those red and black stocks, bear this in mind: that, while the injury/availability prospectus isn’t blue chip, February’s injury list won’t be the critical factor in Essendon’s 2020 campaign.

Rather, it will be culture, cohesion and the how the club manages the final year of John Worsfold’s tenure and Ben Rutten’s stint as understudy that will shape Essendon’s season.

The most significant surgery at Tullamarine over the post-season wasn’t Hurley or Hooker’s. It was the revamping of the football department, which saw Blake Caracella arrive from Richmond and Sean Murphy, the new head of strength and conditioning, from the Hawks.

There were quite a number of new roles among existing staff, too, the most critical of which, of course, was the coaching handover arrangement.

Worsfold will oversee the team performance, with heavy delegation. Rutten and Caracella will be responsible for the game plan, and for educating the players and coaches in that method.

Caracella, instrumental in Richmond’s less constipated ball movement from 2017, will have the same portfolio at his first club, and a say in the midfield function.

Essendon’s failure to win finals was not due to insufficient talent, though the list has some potholes. The shortfall has been in system and cohesion. Unlike Richmond and (moderately talented) Hawthorn, the Bombers have not been difficult to play against. They have not displayed a consistent, coherent and well-executed brand.

Their team defence improved last year, but is a long way from the best sides. The renovation of the leadership group, meanwhile, pointed to the reality that they erred last year by leaving Hurley out of the group, while electing two players - Daniher and Orazio Fantasia - who subsequently either wanted out (Daniher) or explored that option (Fantasia). Merrett’s omission was the result of a new voting system among the players, who were given different criteria to nominate their preferred leaders.

Internally, the view is that there is a clearer understanding of game plan, roles and an improved morale among the coaches, compared with this time last year.

Last year, Essendon was overhyped. This year, there’s a chance that they’ll be under-sold, on the basis of these pre-season setbacks. We shouldn’t forget that, while Daniher’s groin is a concern, they’ve effectively been without him for the bulk of two years.

Richmond and Collingwood’s rises in 2017 and 2018 showed that coaching and culture can count for more than a missing key forward or burst runner. Don’t sell those Essendon shares just yet.

Jake Niall is a Walkley award-winning sports journalist and chief AFL writer for The Age.


Gee, it mustn’t be difficult to win a Walkley


In fairness, that’s not a bad article.


I agree with him

Happy to be under the radar, so many sky is falling articles about us especially on injuries front.

I’ve said it previously but the coaching changes, S&C changes + fit again/newly recruited players will all see us improve

We made the finals without Daniher & many issues on and off field that have been sorted, if he is fully firing for 2nd half of season look out.

Just keep quietly going about their business and let others, like Port have done, overhype.


It’s pleasing to read that there seems to be a greater understanding of the game plan and that the coaches are all on the same page.


It’s a good article, fairly matter a fact although not a lot of in depth details to make it a meatier read. He, like others, are waiting to see what transpires to see if the changes make a difference and we are indeed better this year.

The business analogy is a good one. A once great company which has struggled over a number of years and has been trading on its name and past glories. Looking to restructure itself to be competitive.


I’m not expecting much this year but hoping to be surprised. Hard to be too disappointed that way.

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For me, a positive would be for our performances during matches and between games to be more even and consistent. If we can achieve this in 2020 then we are putting in place a solid game plan and side.


Love it, circle the wagons.

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That’s a good summary. Getting a game plan in place that stands up to Finals and getting our best players fit and on the park are bigger “recruits” than any high-profile player we could’ve signed in the Trade/Free Agency period. Over 2017-18 we did that and our wins total did not improve despite IMO having a more talented list year upon year from 2017-19. Now it’s about using the talent we have in a better system, and ultimately keeping those players fit and able to stand up to the rigours of an AFL season.


That would be hard reading if your name was John Worsfold.


Jake is a happy clapper

It’s hardly saying much though - unnamed sources say the game plan is better and the coaches are happier. Both could change quickly if the game plan doesn’t stack up against opposition.

Still, not particularly complimentary to the departed coaches Skipworth, Corrigan, Harding.

What I read from that is, Essendon has struggled recently under Woosha and only now that he is handing over the reigns there is reason for optimism.

I think that summarizes how most on blitz feels.


yep, that’s basically the crust of it. I expect us to improve this year as a result

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I’m reserving judgement until I see results but the one sliver of optimism I have left is what Cara and Rutten combined can bring to the table.


It’s actually a pretty good article.

Thought it was more of a “chip” story…


Good article

The walkely line ■■■■■■ me off a little at the end, only because SWMNBN won one off the back of her SAGA stories


It’s good to see a relatively positive article. All the doom and gloom from the media has been a bit too much and slightly manufactured. It’s good to be going in to the season without all the hype of previous seasons, but damn some of the analysis and projections are a bit ridiculous. And the Bulldogs hype is…comedic releif anyway.

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