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- What the CAS decision means
- Live coverage: Essendon/CAS decision
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Essendon CAS decision: Nightmare for players
Will we ever see team captain Jobe Watson again? The Age's senior football writer Rohan Connolly has the details.
Essendon's nightmare has already lasted three weeks short of three full years. After Tuesday morning's Court of Arbitration for Sport finding of guilty against 34 past and present players, it may continue for several years yet.
On the field, the Bombers have already been thrown out of the 2013 finals for which they qualified, had then-coach James Hird suspended for the 2014 season, and last season watched as the resilience of their playing list finally crumbled under the weight of the controversy.
Now a fourth consecutive season is shot to ribbons before it has even started, the 12 Essendon players in that 34-strong group suspended for the entire football year.
While plenty will cheer that decision, it is a disaster not only for the Bombers, but for four other clubs – Port Adelaide, the Western Bulldogs, St Kilda and Melbourne – who have picked up five players among those 34.
The AFL now has another monumental decision on its hands – whether to strip captain Jobe Watson of his 2012 Brownlow Medal. And for Essendon, a minefield of potential litigation and inestimable financial cost has been exploded.
New coach John Worsfold will spend his first season with the club coaching a second-string team, at least two-thirds of the group walk-up starts in the Bombers' best 22.
There are similar issues for the other clubs, with Paddy Ryder and Angus Monfries at Port Adelaide, Stewart Crameri with the Western Bulldogs and now Jake Carlisle at St Kilda and Jake Melksham at Melbourne all now on the sidelines.
Off the field, the ramifications for Essendon are enormous for a club which has already lost as much as $7 million over the past three years in fines, payouts and legal expenses over the course of the saga, and last year recorded a trading loss of $1.3 million.
The Bombers now face potentially far more in damages should players decide to take legal action against the club for breaching its duty of care. Essendon have already pleaded guilty to charges of breaching the Occupational Health and Safety Act, which could see the club fined another $600,000.
While the club's sponsors have largely remained on board, Tuesday morning's guilty finding increases the pressure on them as well, Essendon now forever tainted with the brush of having a generation of players pursuing a supplements program found to be outside legal guidelines.
Reputational damage to the Essendon Football Club has already been profound, with the bulk of the court of public opinion having found the Bombers guilty long before Tuesday's verdicts were announced. Now it's worse again.
As new Essendon chairman Lindsay Tanner commented to Fairfax Media upon taking over the role from the departed Paul Little in December: "Inevitably an issue of this kind stays with a club for long time as a marker.
"So whether we like it or not, we now have this on our record, so to speak. That's just a fact of historical reality. And that shapes perceptions, it shapes self-perceptions, it influences behaviour."
Essendon can do little else now to alter those perceptions. And any perceptions of how they will fare on the field in 2016 will have altered dramatically in light of Tuesday's finding.
Few pundits would have had the Bombers pencilled in for a top-eight spot even with their best 22 pencilled in. Without those pivotal players, the Dons, despite a handy draw for next season, will be struggling to stay competitive, and for a second year will have to rely on top-up players from state-league level for depth.
The contingent missing for the 2016 season takes in Watson, new vice-captain Dyson Heppell, last year's best-and-fairest winner Cale Hooker, and in total five of last season's best and fairest top 10.
Essendon will be without two All-Australian key defenders in Hooker and Michael Hurley, a back-up in Tayte Pears, and a very handy running backman in Michael Hibberd, besides losing a ruckman in Tom Bellchambers.
But it will be the Bombers' midfield, already popularly viewed as lacking class and sufficient depth, which will be most gutted, losing Watson, Heppell, Brent Stanton, David Myers, Heath Hocking, Travis Colyer and Ben Howlett.
In defence, former Geelong key-position utility Mitch Brown will be a certain starter, alongside James Gwilt, while newly drafted former Collingwood rookie Michael Hartley might end up playing a lot more senior football in his first season with the club than might otherwise have been expected.
Who's left to fill those running roles? Obvious candidates are veteran pair Brendon Goddard and Adam Cooney, who may find themselves spending a far higher percentage of game time on the ball than Worsfold would ideally have liked, along with former Sydney premiership player Craig Bird.
That, however, will leave the Dons more deficient for pace, which ups the ante for the likes of brothers Zach and Jackson Merrett and Orazio Fantasia, all of whom in a best-case scenario would be playing closer to goal.
Essendon will also be even more desperate for the erratic David Zaharakis to recapture something like his best-and-fairest form of 2011 and show considerably more leadership. Of those available for this season, only Goddard and Cooney, Bird and James Gwilt will have more AFL experience under their belts.
At the other end of the experience scale, newcomers such as Darcy Parish and Aaron Francis may debut sooner than later, while the still-raw likes of Martin Gleeson and Jason Ashby, Jayden Laverde, Kyle Langford and Shaun Edwards will have to assume more responsibility.
An Essendon best 22 I have selected without the suspended dozen would have no fewer than 14 players with less than 50 AFL games to their name, and an average games experience (even with Goddard and Cooney's collective 500 games) of just 69.2 games per player. Hawthorn's 2015 premiership side, in comparison, weighed in at 166.8 per player.
That's at least some statistical indicator of the disadvantage Essendon will now be taking out on to the field in 2016 as they attempt to make do without their best players.
A statistical indicator of the continued off-field cost to Essendon over the next few years is almost impossible to estimate. What can now safely be said, however, is that Tuesday's verdict ensures the words Essendon Football Club and the phrase "supplements scandal" will go hand-in-hand perhaps forever.
ESSENDON'S BEST 22 WITHOUT SUSPENDED PLAYERS
B: Mark Baguley, Mitch Brown, James Gwilt
HB: Jason Ashby, Michael Hartley, Courtenay Dempsey
C: Jackson Merrett, Brendon Goddard, David Zaharakis
HF: Zach Merrett, Shaun McKernan, Patrick Ambrose
F: Nick Kommer, Joe Daniher, Jayden Laverde
Followers: Matthew Leuenberger, Adam Cooney, Craig Bird
Interchange: Kyle Langford, Orazio Fantasia, Martin Gleeson, Shaun Edwards
Emergencies: Aaron Francis, Conor McKenna, Darcy Parish