Bombers spiral out of reckoning
Bombers spiral out of reckoning

Essendon made a flying start to the 2012 season.

Their 8-1 win-loss record defied a horrid run with soft-tissue injuries. A top-two finish looked a distinct possibility.

Three months later, the Bombers are the most vulnerable team in the top eight. Their loss to North Melbourne at Etihad Stadium yesterday was their fourth in a row.

With three games left they face a desperate Carlton, traditional rivals Richmond and top-four prospect Collingwood. The Bombers are charged with the task of winning at least two of those games to stay ahead of Fremantle, St Kilda and Carlton.

And the problem coach James Hird faces as he stares that challenge down is that Essendon's form graph is now the worst of any of the teams still in contention for September, their injury graph as bad as any team in the competition.

In the past six weeks their best team performance has been a loss - the four-point thriller against Adelaide at AAMI Stadium last weekend when they led the Crows well into the final term before coming up a kick short.

They did record one victory - against Port Adelaide by 50 points at AAMI Stadium in round 16 - but in the lead-up to Port coach Matthew Primus being sacked last week, even Greater Western Sydney beat the Power.

In their other four matches they have suffered demoralising defeats to other teams in the finals or at least in the mix.

In round 15, St Kilda crushed them by 71 points. In round 17, Geelong flogged them by 67 points. All losses came at Etihad Stadium.

With North Melbourne toppling them by 24 points yesterday, again at Etihad, it is fair to say the indoor stadium where Hird did some of his finest work as a player in the 2000-2007 era is not going to rate highly on his list of venues.

For all the good that Hird has done since taking the reins from Matthew Knights after the 2010 season, the Bombers are yet to progress much farther up the ladder and are yet to show decisive improvement in the area most coaches will argue you need to be strong to contend for premierships in - defence.

Knights took them to finals in 2009 with 10 wins and a draw. But his team had the worst defensive record of any in the top eight and Adelaide bore that out when they dished them up by 96 points in an elimination final.

From the worst defensive record in the eight, the Bombers slipped to the worst defensive record in the AFL in 2010, proof for the critics that Knights had lost his way and hence he lost his job.

But the Bombers still had the worst defensive record in the top eight when they made the finals under Hird with 11 1/2 wins in 2011. In fact, only five teams in the competition conceded more points.

Now, with three home-and-away matches remaining in 2012, they sit clinging to eighth spot with the problem still there.

The only side to have conceded more points than them in finals contention is North Melbourne and that wasn't an issue for the Kangaroos yesterday after the remarkable evergreen Brent Harvey had put what's left of his afterburners on for a three-goal, five-minute burst in the third quarter of this match. That put a gap between the two teams that the Bombers never bridged.

It may yet prove to be the burst that costs the Bombers ground in the race for the eight they will never make up.

The injuries that haunted them at the start of the season - a legacy of a hard pre- season training campaign to make them bigger and stronger in the long term - continues to haunt them now.

Michael Hurley has returned to spearhead their attack after missing three games with injury but Paddy Ryder, their most versatile big man, has been absent for the past five matches.

Important target in attack Stewart Crameri had missed the last fortnight until yesterday. Their second-best midfielder Brent Stanton has missed the past two matches with a hamstring problem. It was almost inevitable that injury-prone Jason Winderlich would be a casualty. So it proved last week against Adelaide - with a hamstring. The reliable Ben Howlett went down in that game, too.

The talented David Zaharakis hasn't played since going down in round 10 against Melbourne.

The Bombers are not gone yet but trying to cobble fit bodies together to play big games against hungry opponents at the business end of an AFL season is not a recipe for success.

Fremantle found that out last year, crashing to seven losses in a row. Essendon may be about to find that out now.

The West Australian

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