But in the crunch moments, the Bombers were better than the Swans, who closed to within one point in the final quarter only for Darcy Parish to extinguish their hopes at the death.
“It was tight, but we were really confident the players knew how to execute what we wanted them to in the last few minutes,” Essendon coach John Worsfold said.
“We’re obviously really pleased … it was just such an unknown. How did we handle the eight-week downtime? Did we handle that well enough? Were all the things we put in place going to deliver a good preparation?”
For the Bombers, it was a good way to finish a long day. They had to be at Melbourne airport at 6am to catch a flight alongside North Melbourne, who played earlier on Sunday on the other side of Sydney against the Giants.
The timing meant Essendon had to hang out at their hotel for most of the day. “It went pretty quick,” said Parish, who had 13 touches, two clearances, four inside-50s and the match-winning goal in a busy final quarter.
“We had a room booked at the hotel and the boys were going on 45 minute walks in groups of fours and stuff like that. We had a couple of massages, we had the pool, and a bit of lunch. The time flowed through pretty quick.
“I saw North had a win so it’ll be a pleasing plane ride home, that’s for sure.”
The opening 11 minutes of the final quarter were a tense, goalless arm wrestle, and it felt like it would take either a moment of brilliance or a blunder to break the tension.
It was the latter. As the Swans endeavoured to clear their lines in defence, Lewis Taylor inadvertently speared a pass straight down Shaun McKernan’s throat. McKernan wheeled around and blasted it home from 50 metres out, and the Bombers had 14 points of breathing space.
Taylor pegged one back for Sydney to redeem himself, before an Essendon error opened the door even wider for them. As Tom Papley hauled in a hopeful kick into space in Sydney’s forward pocket, he was met by a gentle bump from Aaron Francis.
It wasn’t malicious, but it was unnecessary, and it was a clear 50-metre penalty. Papley converted from point-blank range, and at that point coach John Longmire felt they were in with a “genuine chance”, but the Swans couldn’t find another to back it up.
That summed up the night for Sydney, who were right in the contest all afternoon – save for an average opening term – and matched the Bombers in most key metrics but ultimately lacked polish and direction without their usual attacking focal points, Lance Franklin and Sam Reid.
“You can’t afford to leave it up to luck in this game, you’ve got to make sure you take the initiative a bit earlier than leaving it to the last couple of minutes and hoping that things go right,” coach John Longmire said.
“We were inconsistent [with our effort]. We took a bit of time to get going, and then we were OK at times, and then we’d just drop off in times. It was there in patches.”
McKernan and Jake Stringer finished with three goals apiece for Essendon, while Taylor and Papley contributed the same for Sydney.
The Bombers were well served by Zach Merrett (29 disposals), Andrew McGrath (23 disposals, six clearances) and Dylan Shiel (22 disposals, eight clearances), with their midfield just edging the Swans, who were led by Jake Lloyd (29 possessions) and Ollie Florent (27 possessions, seven clearances).
Isaac Heeney, touted by some as a player with the potential to challenge Dustin Martin as the greatest in the AFL, had his moments but too often was isolated in the forward line, where coach John Longmire used him for most of the match in the absence of Franklin and Reid.
Heeney finished with only 10 touches and a goal, his best flashes coming when he was closer to the action. Unfortunately for Longmire and the Swans, he can’t be in two places at once.
Vince is a sports reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.