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Essendon bombs on and off the field

Essendon's weekend started badly with a big loss to Hawthorn, and went downhill from there. Rohan Connolly and Jon Pierik review the weekend's AFL action.

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ANALYSIS

Essendon faced its biggest on-field test of the season on Friday night against Hawthorn and was found wanting. It's sobering indeed for the Bombers that what happened over the next 24 hours might prove an even bigger challenge.

It's often far too pat to suggest there will on-field consequences from boardroom turbulence. But there haven't been many controversies as big this year. And certainly few administrative figures with as close a link to the playing group as former Bomber chairman David Evans had.

Essendon players leave the field after a belting from Hawthorn.

Essendon players leave the field after a belting from Hawthorn. Photo: Getty Images

As the attention the drugs scandal has focused on Essendon has swirled around Windy Hill relentlessly, Evans has provided a crucial buffer, absorbing most of the blows and helping insulate coach James Hird and players from as much of the fallout as possible.

The result has been a team galvanised, and far from crumbling under the weight of pressure for much of this season it has been able to rise to the challenge.

The Bombers did so memorably in Perth, twice, the first time early in the season against Fremantle after Hird rode out a storm of criticism and calls for his head, the second against West Coast after captain Jobe Watson had conceded he'd taken AOD-9604.

But even those flare-ups might not carry the same ramifications as the departure of the club's most senior office-bearer.

It certainly hasn't been lost on the players that Evans had provided a critical bulwark, and their immediate response to his resignation and news of the stress and health scares he's dealt with was emotional, the hurt clearly greater than in the wake of other departures since this sorry saga began.

Brendon Goddard, Jason Winderlich, Cale Hooker and Ben Howlett vented their feelings on Twitter, the mood not just one of anger about what their leader had been forced to endure, but almost smacking of ''we've had enough of keeping our mouths shut and we're going to fire a few shots of our own''.

Will this be another opportunity to draw the Essendon list even closer together and instil greater determination to make this season a winner? Or is the Evans resignation going to prove the last straw?

Certainly, Sunday's game against Collingwood couldn't be more significant.

The Magpies are hardly travelling that well themselves, but will spot a real opportunity to pounce. Despite having won six games in a row before Friday night, Essendon's form for the past month hasn't been overly convincing.

Central to the equation is the fitness of Watson. Having missed three games with a broken collarbone, the captain, who was originally scheduled to miss a fourth, is now given every chance of playing.

Hird has already said the club won't take unnecessary risks, but the temptation to restore an obvious rallying point to the line-up will be strong indeed. If he plays, will Collingwood make him a target? Will the huge MCG crowd?

Can he and his teammates channel their obvious anger and frustration in the right direction? And how does the coach respond to being close to the last man standing beyond his players in the fallout?

You can back it in that if Essendon turns in another poor one, the popular belief will be that what has already been a remarkable show of resolve on-field has finally been broken.

The upside for a club, and a team now under siege, is that if the Bombers again pull out their best in these circumstances, the booster shot to an improving side’s self-belief will be immeasurable.