Ready for action: Essendon's Dustin Fletcher at training yesterday after missing the clash with GWS due to a groin strain. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
AN UNLIKELY threat to Essendon continuing its best start to the season since 2001 is the next page in the calendar.
In the past two years, the Bombers have endured miserable periods in the middle of the season, particularly in June.
In 2010, they lost six in a row to cruel their finals ambitions — and condemn Matthew Knights' tenure as coach — while last year they were third after round eight but plummeted to 10th six weeks later on the back of five consecutive defeats.
Essendon's next opponent, Melbourne, will be a rank head-to-head outsider on Saturday night, although just a year ago the Demons defeated the Bombers at the MCG by 33 points.
While there is no obvious explanation for the Bombers' record of no wins from seven June matches in the past two years, midfielder David Zaharakis yesterday speculated that it may have been due to the players' comparative lack of elite fitness until this season.
Solving that, he said, could be the difference in the club this year holding on to its top-four placing.
"I don't want to put a mark on where we're going to finish, but I think over the past couple of years in that June-July period we've lost five or six games, even in a row," Zaharakis said.
"Hopefully this year, with the work of [high performance manager] Dean Robinson in the weights room and with the [general] fitness can allow us to not have that lull in the middle of the season. Hopefully, we can win these next two games and really freshen up over the bye."
The obvious mismatch between Essendon and Melbourne could become even more pronounced once the teams are released later this week.
The Bombers will be able to call on small forward Leroy Jetta after suspension, while the groin soreness that forced key defender Dustin Fletcher to miss last weekend's win over Greater Western Sydney did not stop the veteran training yesterday. Midfielder Dyson Heppell (knee) also attended training, but did not take part in the early part of the session that was open to the media.
Long-term knee-injury victims Jason Winderlich (who also suffered a hamstring injury in pre-season) and Brent Prismall trained lightly and, according to Zaharakis, are on track to return some time after the club's round-12 bye.
With those two players set to increase the already tough level of competition for midfield berths, Zaharakis reckoned Essendon's goal of boasting peerless depth was progressing well.
"At the start of the year we spoke about the depth. All the great sides over the past few years have had great depth, whereas us we've really had probably only Jobe [Watson] and Brent Stanton," he said.
"It's great that guys like Jake Melksham, Ben Howlett, Trav Colyer have all come into the midfield. We spoke about how we want to have the biggest depth in the AFL. We've got a long way to go, but we're getting a lot of improvement out of those guys, which has been good for us."
If the Bombers win on Saturday night, as is clearly expected, it will take them to nine wins from their first 10 matches, which would be their best start since 2000, their last premiership year.