Under lights at the SCG on Thursday night, an exhausted and depleted Sydney Swans outlasted a desperate but ultimately unlucky young Essendon Bomber team in another Thursday night classic.
Lance Franklin returned to the side to haunt Essendon once more, his final goal of the match sealing the win for the plucky Swans, extending their lead to 10 points with minutes left on the clock, setting up a crucial Swans win, and extending their stunning start of the season to 4-0.
It was the fifth time in their past seven contests that the result was decided by 10-points or less - twice by 3-points or less, with Sydney winning 11.17 (83) to 12.8 (80).
Both teams laid everything on the line in a pulsating last quarter, where the ball lived in the Swans' forward half, but the hosts were unable to land the killer blow, with Luke Parker, Tom Papley, Sam Wicks and Tom Hickey missing opportunities to stretch the lead.
It took champions at both ends of the ground to seal the deal for the Swans - Lance Franklin calmly slotting a set shot, his third of the match and 950th of his career, and Dane Rampe getting a desperate fingertip on the goal line to prevent a certain goal.
The Swans were wasteful, booting two goals six for the quarter, and another out on the full, while Essendon made the most of their limited chances inside 50, defender-turned-forward Cale Hooker snapped truly for his third goal to drag the Bombers back within 2 points, with a minute thirty left on the clock.
Even with the Swans dominating clearances and post-clearance disposals in the last quarter, Essendon's off-the-scale pressure gave them every chance of snatching a win both teams thoroughly deserved to win.
“They had 36 tackles in that last quarter. Their pressure rating was through the roof. To their credit, they were pretty good,” Swans coach John Longmire said.
“When a team comes in and has 36 tackles in the last quarter you’ve got to do a lot right to win. To withstand that and do the things we needed to be able to do, and find a way, was a really good sign. I think that’s the most pleasing thing out of it. You get behind, you’re scrapping along, you’re coming from behind, you’re finding a different way to win. All of those things add up to just getting the overalls on and getting to work.”
The Bombers to their credit fought to end, a late goal by Cale Hooker kept the Swans sweating until the final siren - when it came, sending the 28,039 strong crowd into wild celebrations.
It wasn't a pretty win for the Swans by any measure, facing a counter-punching Bombers sided that brought a defensive game style designed to curb Sydney's run and short-kicking game, often parking the bus.
At times, the Swans were their own worst enemies, and could have set up a much more comfortable victory, had they kicked straight.
It took until midway through the second quarter for the Swans to be able to break the Essendon's lines, but after half-time, the discipline returned for the Bombers and the scoring dried up, and the struggle resumed.
Essendon's manic pressure, work rate and defensive discipline kept them in the hunt the entire game and forced the Swans to cough the ball up constantly in the first quarter, recording an astonishing 9 smothers.
Both teams struggled to score from defensive half-chains, while neither team scored strongly from turnovers, finishing the match 59-to-58 in Sydney's favour, while the Swans dominated the clearances, recording 23 more - 9 of them centre clearances.
Trailing by 25-points early in the second quarter after six consecutive Essendon goals, a stunning contest win by Rising Star nominee Errol Gulden in the middle of the ground, stunned the Swans to life, booting the next five before half-time.
Darcy Parish kicked arguably the goal of the round to cap off Essendon's stunning 6-goal run, attempting to pass the ball to the top of the goal square, only to miskick it and watch it sail through the goals - it was the sort of goal that you conceded when nothing goes your way.
Essendon's plan to clog the midfield and force the Swans wide was paying dividends, and the young Swans were struggling with the manic, unrelenting pressure, which has been a hallmark in Essendon's excellent performances this season.
Sydney persevered, doubled down and turned the match around on their terms and piled on six goals in response - Franklin's second of the night an excellent finish from a stunning inside 50 from Errol Gulden.
The arm wrestle returned in the second half, the Bombers were adamant to choke things up and slow the game down, while their versatile and promising kids - like 200cm wingman Nik Cox and Archie Perkins, contributed strongly and gained admirers, especially Cox with his stunning goal on the run in the second quarter.
“We’re certainly disappointed and the players are shattered about the result,” coach Ben Rutten said.
“But the character, the grit, the determination the guys showed right to the last second, on a short break, travel, all those things - it’s character-building for our group.
“Another game in a really hostile environment up here in Sydney, a little bit dewey, small ground, good contested team, it’s fantastic experience and exposure for them to get a look at the level that we need to keep striving for.”
Much was lost during the week in the Round 3 match between Essendon and St Kilda - the Saints derided as lazy, soft and lacking effort, but Essendon's work rate and pressure went without mention.
Heading into the match, the Swans had captivated the AFL community with their high-scoring and free-flowing style, while the Bombers were transforming into a blue-collar team, ranked second in the AFL for tackles and centre clearances.
Formidable forward-midfielder hybrid Jake Stringer had the better of the contests with Dane Rampe earlier, booting two goals, while promising midfielder Darcy Parish was prominent in Essendon's bright start.
Former Eagle Alec Waterman was a thorn in Sydney's side throughout the match, proving too strong in a contest for Hewett, and leading Rampe to the ball, but failed to make the most of his opportunities, while Sam Reid cleaned up in the air, recording six contested marks.
The Swans dominated the clearances throughout the match, finishing with 23 more - 9 of them centre clearances, and 31 more contested possessions.
Sydney suffered their first in-game injury of the year early in the second quarter when Isaac Heeney was forced from the ground with a broken hand, who had looked in ominous form, grabbing six marks - two of them inside 50.
The Swans take on the Giants at the SCG next Saturday afternoon and will have 9 days to recover after coming off a 5-day break, while the Bombers stay on the road and take on the Lions at the Gabba next Saturday night.
SYDNEY 2.5 7.9 9.11 11.17 (83)
ESSENDON 4.1 7.4 10.6 12.8 (80)
SYDNEY: Heeney (hand)
SYDNEY: Bell (replaced Heeney)
ESSENDON: Zaharakis (unused)
SYDNEY: Franklin 3, Reid 2, McInerney 2, Parker, Florent, Mills, Papley
ESSENDON: Stringer 3, Hooker 3, Waterman 2, Cox, Smith, Parish, Jones
SYDNEY: Parker, Reid, Hickey, Lloyd, Dawson, Kennedy, Mills
ESSENDON: Merrett, Ridley, Stringer, Parish, Cox
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