Talented 'baby Bombers' the silver lining through dreary start to 2022

Six minutes into the third quarter at Marvel Stadium on Saturday, Hawthorn led an embattled Essendon by 25 points, had 19 scoring shots to nine, and had a vice-like grip on the game. When Jack Gunston kicked truly less than a minute into the second half, it felt like Hawthorn by how much.

Consecutive goals to Bombers spearhead Peter Wright and 18-year-old Ben Hobbs kept their side within 15-points, even after a wasteful 2.7 quarter. But no one could have predicted the avalanche of goals that would sink the Hawks and startle all that watched the game. The 8.2 final term came from inspired run of forward ball movement, speed, and youthful instinct - everything that had vanished from the 2021 version of the Bombers. They steam-rolled their rival by 27-points.

The unlikely win over the Hawks -- who have admittedly now lost five of their last six -- released the pressure valve at Windy Hill, for now. AFL360 host Gerard Whateley called the win "spiritually uplifting". Coach Ben Rutten said the win galvanized the group.

"We're really clear as a footy club with where we're at, the journey we're on, and where we want to get to," Rutten told the media. "Today doesn't change any of that. But it's a significant time."

Some called it a coming-of-age win, but more importantly the Bombers started to show signs of life at both ends of the ground. They defended better and kept the Hawks to 81 points - they only managed 3.6 after the main break. Inside their forward 50, which has been at times trainwreck so far, they found goals from nine sources, with their young core in Archie Perkins, Hobbs, Jye Caldwell, Kaine Baldwin, and Nic Martin among the goal kickers. Small parts of the DNA from last year surfaced - and with it fans were treated to a good look at Essendon's future.

So what does this all mean for a team that was struggling after their beat-down by the Bulldogs the week before when they could only muster up 39 inside 50s and became a handball factory littered with fundamental errors? Let's also not forget, the Bulldogs scored 50 points from their forward half intercepts alone.

Football pundits were quick to hose down the Bombers form and write off their one good quarter as a win wrapped in emotion. On one hand the comeback showed character. On the other, it only raised more questions about their game plan, brand of football and what parts were sustainable. Mark Robinson tried to make sense of what was real about the Bombers on AFL360.

"Exciting doesn't win you finals. Exciting is not a sustainable brand of football. You can't win on emotion every week," he said.

It's been a troubling start to the year for the changeable Bombers. Geelong blasted them out of the park by 66 points in the opening round. They've only won 10 quarters in eight matches. Jake Stringer's wobbly hamstrings have kept him to just four games and seven goals so far. Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti, the livewire forward who kicked 34 goals last year, hasn't played an AFL game since August, 2021. And on the weekend, they were missing 13 players who have at one point been part of their best 22 - five of them struck down with illness before the Hawthorn encounter.

Injuries have hit Windy Hill at various times this year which has forced Rutten's hand at the selection table throughout the first two months this season. It resulted in a different looking team at times, not by design, but it has allowed Rutten to give his young core a taste of the big league with mixed results.

However the year has played out so far, the comeback win against Hawthorn proved to be a moment when their core kids infused a new-found energy and belief. They stood tall.

Archie Perkins, 20, kicked the sealer with a classy snap from 45-metres. He's kicked nine goals this year, the third most at Essendon, and is averaging 12.6 touches per game.

Jye Caldwell, 21, played arguably his best game for Essendon, with 20 touches, seven tackles, nine score involvements and 26 pressure acts. He worked hard at both ends of the ground and is starting to look comfortable as the two-way midfielder they brought in.

Nic Martin, 21, has played just seven games and it hasn't taken him long to showcase his playmaking attributes. He finished with 22 touches, nine marks, and kicked 2.2.

Then there's the infant quartet of Nick Bryan (20 years of age), Zach Reid (20), Hobbs (18), and Kaine Baldwin (19) who have just 13 games of experience between them. They've all shown glimpses that their talents hold up AFL level. Hobbs is collecting 13.2 disposals per game and got valuable experience against Tom Mitchell on the weekend. Baldwin, Bryan and Reid just need more reps, more games.

The Bombers aren't going anywhere near finals this year. At 2-6, it's hard to see their current form springboarding into a contender. That's okay. This gives Rutten time to embrace the youth movement and perhaps fast-track his young core. Why not sacrifice wins for progress? Why not test them?

When you consider that there's 10 senior players that will most likely not be part of Essendon's next flag tilt - Michael Hurley (aged 30), Dyson Heppell (29), Dylan Shiel (29), McDonald-Tipungwuti (29), Devon Smith (28), James Stewart (28), Jake Stringer (28), and to some extent Nick Hind, Tom Cutler and Jake Kelly (all 27) - it only makes more sense to keep playing the under 23 talent, keep pumping games into them and embrace the turbulence that would ensue. Other teams have done it.

The Demons have pumped games into players under 23 like Harrison Petty (33 games), Charlie Spargo (67), Tom Sparrow (30), Luke Jackson (37), Kysaiah Pickett (46), James Jordan (30) and Trent Rivers (41). The Lions have Zac Bailey (78), Cam Rayner (71), Brandon Starcevich (55), and Noah Answerth (36). Both clubs average 37 games played from their young core and have unearthed real depth, variety and weapons. Last year Pickett kicked 40 goals for Melbourne and Bailey booted 31 for the Lions. Whereas Essendon's 10 most relevant players under 23 only average 12.4 games played and they're barely starting to scratch the surface on what they can do.

Sam Draper has drawn some early comparisons to Max Gawn for his raw ability - Gawn is taller, but they both attack the ball ferociously like an onballer. Gawn didn't fully break out until his fifth year where he started to dominate the competition with 42 hitouts per game. Draper, 23, in just his third season has played 29 games, needs to complete a full year without injury, but right now he is playing through his best stretch of his career with 27 hitouts a game, clearances, and two-way running. The signs are promising.

The kid that hasn't surfaced in 2022 is 20-year old Harry Jones who's Essendon's key forward of the future. He's played 16 games but hasn't played a game at senior level this season because of injury and setbacks. In his absence, gluing the forward line together is Suns discard Peter Wright who's kicked 23 goals and sits third in the Coleman Medal race. The best thing about Wright's year is that he's doing it with a young forward line - Baldwin, Perkins, Hobbs, Martin - and one that is missing Stringer, McDonald-Tipungwuti and Cale Hooker who retired last year.

It's been impossible to hide Essendon's flaws in 2022 which read like a laundry list of excuses: they overachieved last year, they got hit with a vigorous draw, they're a fledgling team, they've got piles of injured bodies, the skill errors, low on confidence, poor execution when challenged and woefully inconsistent. On paper they're much better than a 2-6 prospect but the path ahead is winding and full of obstacles.

The good news: There's a future for Essendon.

The bad news: it's not now.

This year, Bombers football has been maddening, and at times cringe-worthy to watch. Most weeks they've looked out of their depth when challenged. Skill errors and turnovers continue to haunt them. After that win over the Hawks, Rutten now has a thin platform to work from but they must confront the Swans on their deck this week which means we could be talking about the 2-7 Bombers next week.

The hard part for the Essendon faithful now is waiting for the final version to arrive - just like Demons' fans did, just like Tigerland and at the Bulldogs. There are encouraging signs -- wrapped in small sample sizes -- but they are miles off the best. With the Bombers starting to get meaningful production from Draper, Martin, Hobbs, Baldwin, Caldwell, Perkins, and Cox, the football club could be in the embryonic stages of a renaissance. This is arguably the best and youngest group the Bombers have had in the past decade and their rebirth has just begun.