THERE IS NO mistaking the stand-out Bomber in the No 43 guernsey – he can do it all, writes RON REED
ANTHONY McDONALD-TIPUNGWUTI has been the most recognisable footballer in the AFL from the moment he played his first game with Essendon last year. There are several reasons for that. One is the 25 letter (plus hyphen) name, an unusual combination of Anglo-Saxon and indigenous influences. If he was a racehorse it would have to be shortened to no more than 18 characters and as it is it appears in a different, skinnier font in various parts of the Football Record, which makes it stand out even more.
Another is the obviousness of his aboriginality – he is beyond dark-skinned, almost the non-colour of most of the No 43 jumper he wears. A third is the dreadlocked hair that resembles an exotic head-dress when he is in full flight. And, now, the most important element of all is in place – he’s a star. Not just the most recognisable player but very close to being the most watchable, an accolade I had previously reserved for another indigenous entertainer, Eddie Betts.
His eye-catching best-afield performance against Carlton on Saturday was not the first time he has demonstrated that, of course, but it was probably close to his most complete game. He seemed to be absolutely everywhere, forward, back and in between, rarely with anyone close enough to impede him, and he unveiled a wide range of party tricks.
The best was the inventive goal in the first quarter when he expertly controlled a long kick from Joe Daniher that looked destined to go out of bounds, dismissed a challenge from opponent Sam Docherty before handballing to Ben Howlett. He then ran back towards goal, again intercepting the ball, tunnelled it past Caleb Marchbank and then through the legs of Sam Petrevski-Seton (you don’t often see two hyphens entangled together!) and soccered it through.
He also kicked the final, winning goal – and his third – running as free as a bird down the ground, having earlier smothered a kick-in from the Carlton full-back. He spent time as a loose man in defence, he tackled relentlessly – in short he did everything except contest hit-outs in the ruck. It was a surprise to discover that he had no more than 16 possessions – eight Essendon players had more – but he had only 80 per cent of game time on the ground, less than 15 team-mates. Despite that, in the Herald Sun Champion Data ranked him as clearly the most effective player on either side. Seeing him now, it is remarkable to think that he got his chance mainly because Essendon had so many players suspended. Otherwise, he might have been waiting a lot longer. Sometimes the footy gods work in mysterious ways.
McDonald-Tipungwuti’s performance was the highlight but far from the only reason this was a terrific day at the footy. For old-timers like me, the very shape and atmosphere of the occasion had a feel-good quality to it. Here were two traditional powerhouses – both have won 16 premierships, which is the joint record – playing at the home of the game, the MCG, at 2.10pm on Saturday afternoon, which is when all footy was once played. On an unexpectedly mellow day, with a hint of the approaching spring to it, almost 60,000 turned out for a match between two teams outside the top eight.
What they got for their money was a nail-biter in which the young Blues fought back hard from a dreadful start, hit the front late in the game and almost put paid to the Bombers’ finals aspirations. By no means for the first time, Brendon Bolton’s team – missing a couple of key cogs in Patrick Cripps and Ed Curnow – let the points slip within sight of the finishing line, more evidence, perhaps, that it is becoming a long and tiring year for them. They might yet “win” the wooden spoon but there is enough talent on display for them to be able to sell hope to the fans.
Essendon were able to get the job done without major contributions from former captain and short-lived Brownlow medallist Jobe Watson, who is surely approaching the end of the line, or Joe Daniher, who started well but lost traction through the middle part of the game. Their conversion rate, 11-18, was a worry, too, but if they can hang onto the top-eight position they now occupy they are capable of doing some damage.
One disturbing facet of the day, if you ask me, was in the Record’s survey of the coaches, which revealed, among other things, that 88 per cent of them – that would be 16 of the 18 – want to do away with the bounce. This now seems like a fait accompli, which is beyond disappointing. Yes, the centre bounce occasionally goes astray, leading to it being recalled and thrown up as it is around the ground. It should never be recalled because the game’s element of unpredictability – which is central to the entertainment factor – is based on the use of an oval ball. So what if it bounces in an unexpected direction at the stoppages – that’s what it does all the time in the run of play, and players just have to cope with it. If it means one team gets an easy possession, bad luck. That happens all the time too. The bounce is one of footy’s unique features and should stay that way.
RON REED has spent more than 50 years as a sportswriter or sports editor, mainly at The Herald and Herald Sun. He has covered just about every sport at local, national and international level, including multiple assignments at the Olympic and Commonwealth games, cricket tours, the Tour de France, America’s Cup yachting, tennis and golf majors and world title fights.