OPINION

Soaring Hawks set to strike arch-rival Essendon

ARCH RIVALS: The rivalry between Hawthorn and Essendon kicked off in 1983 when Robert DiPierdomenico laid out the Bombers' Alan Stoneham. Picture: Allsport Australia/ALLSPORT
ARCH RIVALS: The rivalry between Hawthorn and Essendon kicked off in 1983 when Robert DiPierdomenico laid out the Bombers' Alan Stoneham. Picture: Allsport Australia/ALLSPORT

You can't think of any clash between Essendon and Hawthorn without immediately thinking of one of the game's great rivalries. Such will be the case again when they clash on Saturday night.

The Bombers and Hawks have been going hammer and tongs at each other for just on 40 years now, since the day at Princes Park in 1983 when Robert DiPierdomenico laid out the Bombers' Alan Stoneham.

Retribution was dealt by Essendon's Cameron Clayton in the return bout later the same season, and it was "on".

There would be three consecutive grand final meetings (the score 2-1 Essendon's way), There was Dermott Brereton's KO of Paul Vander Haar in the 1989 second semi-final, some controversial umpiring in the 2001 preliminary final, the "line in the sand" game of 2004, etc., etc.

Each club has had its big triumphs over the other. But in a big picture sense, when it comes to sustained success in a national football competition, it's been a bit of a no contest.

Since 1983, Hawthorn has won nine premierships to Essendon's four.

Since Alastair Clarkson took over as coach in 2005, the Hawks have fostered some of the best handful of players the AFL era has seen, the likes of Lance Franklin, Sam Mitchell and Luke Hodge.

In contrast, Essendon's failure to develop a single acclaimed champion of the game outside Jobe Watson (and even he was a father-son pick) since its last premiership in 2000 is a source of ongoing angst to Bomber fans.

But there's been a stark contrast even in the manner in which either club has dealt with trouble, and that gap is on display again right now.

Mitchell is already having a sizeable impact as coach, the Hawks playing with some enterprise and attacking dare.

Hawthorn's handling of Clarkson's departure as coach wasn't one of the club's finer moments; Jeff Kennett, not for the first time, managing to tip-toe through a delicate political situation with all the finesse of a bull in a china shop.

There have been some dire predictions made about the Hawks' on-field stocks, too. Yet right now, once again, Hawthorn is flying. Mitchell is already having a sizeable impact as coach, the Hawks playing with some enterprise and attacking dare.

A group of emerging young players is starting to make Hawthorn look like a potential future force on the field again, the likes of Changkuoth Jiath, Dylan Moore, Will Day, Jai Newcombe, Mitch Lewis and Jacob Koschitzke the cause of genuine excitement among the faithful.

Seemingly, any bumps in Hawthorn's road are overcome. And that says a lot about the stability of a club, the vision of its long-term strategies, confidence in that direction and the innate strength of its culture.

They are qualities Essendon would kill for right now, as the Bombers again court a sticky situation on the field.

A relatively promising 2021, which culminated in a finals appearance, has somehow morphed into a disastrous 2022, the Dons 1-6, with finals hopes already shot.

Injuries to a few key players have knocked Essendon for six, exposing a lack of depth. Highly-paid so-called senior players have failed to lead the way, the likes of Dylan Shiel and Devon Smith having already been dropped at stages, and captain Dyson Heppell's own struggles with form and fitness making it harder for him to inspire others.

It says plenty about Essendon's plight that arguably the biggest plus out of this season thus far has been forward recruit Nic Martin, a late arrival in February via the Supplemental Selection Period after having been overlooked in several drafts.

Of last year's exciting bunch of emerging young stars, Archie Perkins may have advanced a little, but Nik Cox has patently struggled, and Harry Jones seems perpetually injured. Essendon's game style looks confused. The Bombers have also looked lazy; too many players' unpreparedness to work hard enough defensively revealed in the number of points opponents have scored on turnover and easy transitions out of the Dons' forward 50.

Most disturbing of all has been the reaction of the fan base to recent events. Far from angered, a worrying number of Essendon fans appear to have become disengaged.

They're still (for now) buying memberships and turning up to games. But there's a real lack of emotional investment, a lack of faith in the club's direction and particularly its seemingly invisible executive.

Sometimes club office bearers need to be silent and get some scores on the board. For Essendon, though, this hasn't been one of those times. The Bombers have been big on blasting their fan base with meaningless corporate drivel, which often seems to prioritise commercial concerns ahead of what happens on the field.

Fans are sick of it. They want results. But most of all, after the supplements saga, which almost destroyed the club, and the effects of which are in some ways still being felt, they want honesty, and at least some sort of confidence the future can be bright.

Twelve or so months ago, on that score, you would have had Essendon ahead of Hawthorn. The fact the positions of both clubs have switched so dramatically in such a comparatively short time says a lot about how comprehensively one of them has "won" this particular rivalry.