Despite slumping to 2-6 earlier this season, Essendon have sprung back into life. And all of a sudden, they’re back in the AFL Finals hunt.

Three weeks ago, it looked like “one of those seasons” for Essendon. Competitive, sure, but when it came down to the crunch, the young outfit just couldn’t get it done. In the opening eight rounds of the 2021 AFL season, Ben Rutten’s side lost three games by just three points or less. At 2-6, they were out to distant $17 hopes with Palmerbet to finish inside the Top 8. But a brilliant last month — culminating in one of their most famous wins of the last decade against the Eagles in Perth in Round 11 — has seen them race back into Finals hopes. The Dons are now $3.40 to feature in September.

An ‘accidental rebuild’

Essendon had their top-end talent raided in the off-season, to a level few clubs have in recent memory. Star forward Joe Daniher went to Brisbane, speedy half-back Adam Saad left for Carlton, and crafty small forward Orazio Fantasia went back home to (Port) Adelaide. In essence, it left the club with a simple decision: play the kids. And so they have, to great effect. It’s been termed the “accidental rebuild”. It has also meant that other players have had to step up. Darcy Parish is one of those. The midfielder started the season as a whopping $501 AFL Brownlow Medal chance. But a stellar year to date has seen that shorten into $18.

Coast-to-coast leaders

St Kilda legend Nick Riewoldt argued this week that Essendon’s ball movement coast-to-coast was AFL-leading. He said that currently, the Bombers “test you relentlessly with the footy”. “Their ability to take the ball from one end of the ground to the other is the best in the competition,” he told Fox Footy’s On The Couch on Monday night. “They’re bold, they pull the trigger on kicks. It’s like they don’t play with any fear when they’ve got the footy. You can see it, you can feel it and I think that in itself is what’s making them such an exciting watch.”

Young gun rising

A host of young players have surprised in 2021, perhaps none more so than first-year player Nik Cox. The versatile tall has played all 11 games this season and excelled throughout. Taken as the number eight pick for Essendon in last year’s AFL draft, Cox started the year as a $51 Rising Star Medal hope. Consistent performances, however, have now seen him into the $5 second-favourite (behind the Giants’ Tom Green at $2.40).

And one club great thinks the medal will be hanging around his neck come season’s end.

To come

The Dons face a tough task this weekend, against reigning premiers Richmond. They start that clash as $2.67 outsiders. After that Rutten’s side have the bye, before a truly mixed bag of games; two games against top-four sides (Melbourne and Geelong) bookended by two games against bottom-four clubs (Hawthorn and Adelaide). Despite their strong recent form, they’ve still lost more games than they’ve won (5-6). As a result, they need to finish this post-bye month at least 2-2 or (depending on this weekend’s results) even 3-1, to remain in the AFL Finals hunt.

(*Prices correct at 12pm Wednesday June 2)