By Matt Watson
As a season of promise degenerates into legal argument, James Hird continues to prove he is smarter and possesses bigger crystal balls than anyone in football.
At the weekend, North Melbourne handed Essendon its fourth consecutive loss. That the Kangaroos would win never seemed in doubt.
Suspension and form ensured the outs for Essendon, including Dustin Fletcher and Paddy Ryder, would cruel their chances, but the outs wouldn’t matter. Had the outs been in, Essendon still would’ve lost.
More concerning during the pre-game build up was the withdrawal of Jack Zeibel and Scott Thompson from North Melbourne’s line up.
But North play exceptionally well at Docklands. Had they been able to win a few games interstate, which is an indicator of a good side, the match at the weekend might’ve taken on a higher meaning.
Instead, it was a predicator to Essendon’s eventual demise in the finals and a reminder how North’s unfortunate ability to choke destroyed their season.
Aside from a cool goal to Daniel Wells, the opening term was clumsy and forgettable. Players from both sides were slipping over, missing targets and taking the wrong option.
When Jake Melksham kicked his second goal early in the second term, he put the Bombers in front. The lead would be brief.
North, with consecutive goals, opened a break late in the term. The 16-point margin at half time flattered Essendon, but North hadn’t dominated. Instead, they were lucky that Essendon couldn’t kick straight.
The third term was 20 seconds old when Wells kicked the opening goal. His captain, Drew Petrie, followed soon after and the match, as a contest, was over.
As the margin blew out, the Bombers offered a hint of the form that had them second after 14 rounds. From a kick-in, they moved the ball end to end, three kicks for a goal to Alwyn Davey.
It was a rare highlight, but Davey’s goal failed to inspire his teammates.
At three quarter time, with the margin 40 points, few were concerned about North’s ineptitude at holding a lead. Those calamitous fadeouts that ruined the Kangaroos season seemed irrelevant.
North might’ve been four points up and Essendon still would’ve lost. It’s not that they weren’t trying, they just seemed impotent.
When Nathan Grima kicked his first AFL goal in his 72nd game, it was clear Essendon were giving goals away.
The final margin, 45-points, could’ve been worse.
A month ago, Essendon was second with a percentage of 131.4. Following four consecutive losses, they have slumped to seventh, with a percentage of 109.8.
They have been belted in the past month by 233 points, an average losing margin of 58-points. Two of those losses were to teams that won’t play finals.
In the post-game press conference, Hird seemed in denial and unwittingly provided a few laughs.
The players, he insisted, had their confidence back because they’d been cleared of doping by ASADA’s interim report.
‘You can see the spark in their eyes has come back,’ Hird said. ‘You could see they were looking forward to playing today when maybe they hadn’t over the last few weeks.’
No one aside from Hird saw the spark or enthusiasm for the contest. The Bombers, to use an old cliché, didn’t turn up to play. But that didn’t matter, according to Hird, and the slump is no such thing.
Besides, there were other reasons Hird was confident the Bombers would fire in September. In the past month, the players had been hammered on the track to ensure peak fitness for the finals. Only in the past week had Hird eased the workload.
‘So the last month, September, we’re nice and fresh and fit.’
Under that logic, four consecutive losses might’ve been expected, and finishing in the top four is less important than making the finals.
Hird said the training load would be reduced over the coming weeks, to freshen the players up, physically and mentally.
At Windy Hill, the best way to freshen up mentally is by getting belted, 233 points across four games.
‘It’s not the ideal preparation,’ Hird admitted. ‘I think we’re still training them the right way. The last four weeks haven’t been great from a football point of view, but we’re still 13 wins, we’re still going to play finals this year.’
There is that logic again; getting there is good enough.
‘We believe we can build towards the finals and have a good finals series,’ Hird said. ‘I think the way we train our players is certainly making them better.’
Sure, and they had a spark in their eyes and played confident football against the Kangaroos.
‘I thought today our work rate and work ethic was much better than it has been,’ Hird said.
It matters not that Essendon lost every quarter, and went inside fifty 44 times to 54. The pleasing thing for Hird was the work rate, which no one else witnessed.
‘The energy was there,’ he said, ‘but our skill level certainly hasn’t come back to what it was three or four weeks ago.’
Hird was always going to spin the defeats into a nothing to worry about statement. He’s been doing it all year to questions about doping.
The truth is different. Essendon is under pressure like no club in the history of the game. It has affected the psyche of all involved.
Putting the players through a large block of rigorous training right now, to cope with the finals, might be a fundamental of sport science, but nothing will overcome their mental fatigue.
North Melbourne 2.3 7.6 13.10 17.13 (115)
Essendon 1.3 4.8 6.12 9.16(70)
North Melbourne: Wells 4, Petrie, Tarrant 3, Wright, Cunnington, Bastinac, Thomas, McMillan, Grima, Gibson 1
Essendon: Melksham 3, Bellchambers, Davey 2, Hardingham, Kommer 1
North Melbourne: Greenwood, Petrie, Hansen, Wright, Cunnington, Wells
Essendon: James Hird, Watson, Goddard, Hibberd, Melksham
Umpires: Farmer, Hosking, Jeffery
Official crowd: 34,102
Our Votes: 3 (Greenwood) 2 (Hansen) 1 (Wells)