When the WADA suspension pruned the Essendon list of experience and talent, a brave troupe of ten volunteered. These ten senior bodies, when few others were willing to take a chance, allowed Essendon to participate in a season that would always see them at the bottom of the ladder.
The first instinct is to wonder how they could possibly cover the loss of talent. Of the suspended twelve, seven are in the prime 26 to 28 age bracket. The average number of games played by these players? 119. They are not only hardened but they are also the most talented.
Essendon’s recruiting team largely recovered the experience gap with more seasoned players (Stokes, Crowley, Kelly and Jamar), naturally at the expense of age. Of these, Kelly has been outstanding - aided by the volume of ball coming his way but also his incredible sensibility in defense.
A similar gamble was played in that middle age group. Dea, Grimley, Polkinghorne and Michael are all under 30 (average age of 26). They all have some form of AFL experience but cut by their teams for various reasons.
But in reality, was this season really ever about winning?
The value that these Ten brought to the Club can’t be measured by wins, at least none that can be counted in 2016. They created the kind of opportunity for younger players to flourish. Fantasia, Parish, McDonald-Tipungwuti, and even Hartley have grown as players, given the added responsibility and the unknown but likely significant support behind closed doors.
Perhaps the greatest beneficiary of such a testing year is Zach Merrett. He has relished being The Man.
Is there any player more willing to enforce his will on a game? You would think that had he been born in a Nat Fyfe-sized body, he wouldn’t have slipped down to pick 26 in the 2013 draft.
Merrett’s future command of the Essendon midfield was born from the sacrifice of ten willing bodies who gave up equal parts of retirement, cushy AFL jobs, nascent stages of coaching and desperate second chances at lower tiers.
While they have lost more than they’ve won, these ten have brought a certain dignity to the Club and might have even contributed to keeping all but one of The Twelve at Essendon.Never has a supposed barren year felt more fruitful.