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Australia

4 Points: Fine margin means the world to Essendon

Imagine Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti missed. Missed everything. Didn’t event score a point to draw the match.

Then Essendon loses by one point instead of winning by five. Essendon would be out of the eight not in it. North would be on the cusp of the eight and not sliding from it.

Bomber hero: Essendon’s Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti is the centre of attention after his late goal sealed victory over North Melbourne.

Bomber hero: Essendon’s Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti is the centre of attention after his late goal sealed victory over North Melbourne.Credit:AAP

Seasons and careers turn on slender moments like McDonald-Tipungwuti’s brilliance, such is the fine margin of the competition.

To measure a win or loss sometimes it’s more important to contemplate the alternative.

For these two teams the consequence of the result was profound. North winning and then potentially making the finals – which is still open to them even if less likely now than if ‘Walla’ missed the goal – fundamentally shifts the discussion around Rhyce Shaw’s future.

It is inconceivable North could not hire Shaw if he took them from a muddling nowhere side mid-season to the finals.

For John Worsfold it is equally defining. It is now three successive come back come from behind games. Twice in three weeks his team has pinched the lead back in the last minute. Three weeks ago against GWS Cale Hooker goaled with 30 seconds to go.

These are moments that shape a season and in Worsfold’s case stave off the idea of a coach poised to be removed. The wins change the narrative of the club around players, the team and the coaches.

Key tag: Essendon's Dylan Clarke did a good job keeping North's Ben Cunnington under control.

The results have helped present the argument that Worsfold has also coached well. Against GWS it was the move of Hooker forward and then into the ruck with Shaun McKernan once Tom Bellchambers went off. But if Hooker doesn’t goal that argument is harder to prosecute. Against North it was not match day trickery it was mid-week planning that proved decisive.

As we have chronicled elsewhere North under Shaw has not just been a side playing with the freedom and license of a team under a caretaker, they have altered the way they play. They kick long, they come out of defence to the wings and shun the temptations of the corridor. They are brutal around the ball and pressure with high intensity.

There is not much you can do about the last elements other than match them for physical pressure. It also helps if you have a Dylan Clarke to be able to shut down Ben Cunnington. Clarke has been about the most effective tagger in the game since Matt De Boer was injured.

You can also do something about the first elements about North and the way they want to move the ball. And John Worsfold did that.

Now there is enough exposed form on Shaw’s North that Essendon could go in with a plan to combat them. They covered the corridor and saturated numbers at the contest coming out of defence. Routinely late in the game Robbie Tarrant was forced to lob the ball long only to see it scuttle back towards him from Connor McKenna and Adam Saad through the middle.

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Essendon now has nine wins and needs another three to make finals. With the Suns and Dockers to come they should get at least two wins there. The Freo game is in Perth but the Dockers look shot. A win in Adelaide next week and the Bombers can almost make certain of the finals without having to leave their fortune hanging until they beat one of Port (in Melbourne which they should win), the Bulldogs (who are back in good form so a 50-50 game) or the Pies in the last round.

Overshadowed in the short-term euphoria of winning in the thrilling circumstance with one down on the bench was the fact that they were one down on the bench.

Losing Michael Hurley to a shoulder injury while adding merit to the victory only adds uncertainty to the weeks ahead. At some point Essendon will reach a tipping point for injuries given they are already missing players in their top 10 – Devon Smith, Joe Daniher for the season, Tom Bellchambers for the time being. Their captain is carrying a foot injury, but is likely to return on Friday night to take on the Adelaide Crows.

Their depleted line-up probably means Michael Hartley has to play. Eventually the depth of the list, as Richmond discovered earlier in the year, is stretched beyond its measure.

The suggestion about Essendon from Matthew Lloyd and others is that with their list, a pass mark for Essendon is not only that they make finals but they win one. That may be true with a full list available but with the hand Worsfold has at the moment getting to finals from where they were at 4-6 is meritorious.

For Shaw it is a loss that only harms his immediate coaching prospect in as much as they did not win. If they had won and kept pressing to finals he would have been hard to ignore. A loss and missing the finals permits a more sober idea of patience and process in choosing their next coach.

END IS NIGH FOR SAINTS COACH

There is a grim and uncomfortable sense of inevitability around St Kilda and the coaching change.

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It is a week-by-week, day-by-day proposition at the moment. There was a strong indication it could happen as soon as this week because the fear was that playing the Cats in Geelong on a cold, forbidding Saturday night with a terribly young side could be the moment to end the Richardson years.

But once again Alan Richardson and his players have defied the expectation. Once again Richardson did more than could be expected of him with the players at his disposal. And yet it is still not likely to be enough.

That defiance was admirable but it still led to a loss, and while losses can be explained in terms of injury they will not deflect from the underlying argument that they have now lost four games in a row, nine of their last 11 and the judgment will be about six years of missed finals, not a final year of gallantry.

TAKE CARE OF THE CARETAKER

Chris Judd was right, but might have chosen his words better. A coach with training wheels is an unflattering description, but not inaccurate.

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The problem at Carlton – and for any untried coach – is that the last Carlton coach came in with training wheels on, and those wheels were wobbly and eventually fell off. Ideally the club doesn’t want to repeat that experience.

It’s a nonsense argument, of course, because all coaches are different and just because Brendon Bolton didn’t work out does not mean the next untried will also not work.

David Teague is doing things right. He has had as many wins in his first five games as Bolton had in his last 34.

He has put players like Ed Curnow and Marc Murphy in position and it is working. Is this short-termism? I don’t know, but most Carlton people seem happier with short-term wins than platitudes about long-term learnings.

PUSHING BACK ON RULE TWEAK

The AFL’s relaxation of the idea of being able to put hands in the back of an opponent was worthy.

What has happened since is not worthy.

Allowing a player to hold another out is one thing allowing a player to push an opponent in the back is another.

Taken out: Giant Nick Haynes cops a knock from Tigers' Jason Castagna.

Taken out: Giant Nick Haynes cops a knock from Tigers' Jason Castagna.Credit:AAP

The strict hand-in-the back prohibition was introduced to remove any confusion and make umpiring easier. And it did, but it did not necessarily mean the right and fair decision was made when a player trying to mark merely held his ground and was punished.

Unfortunately the change back of the rules has made pushing someone in the back easier.

The change back in the rule is the right approach but – and this is not an umpire criticism because it is hard to police – but allowing hands to be in the back does not mean you can now push someone out.

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