Essendon will tackle the AFL’s “new normal” head-on as they venture to unfamiliar territory in Launceston for Sunday’s battle with traditional rivals Hawthorn.
The Bombers have played in Tasmania only once – a three-point win over Fitzroy at North Hobart in 1992 – and have made five changes to their team as former best-and-fairest Devon Smith, tall forward Peter Wright and ruckman Sam Draper all return against the Hawks.
The fixture was moved from the MCG to UTAS Stadium this week after the Victorian government ruled crowds could not attend matches in Melbourne because of ongoing COVID-19 concerns.
Both Melbourne-based clubs will fly in and out of Launceston on Sunday under strict protocols agreed with the Tasmanian state government.
But Essendon coach Ben Rutten doesn’t see it as an impediment to his side’s chances of playing well enough to ensure a result that would keep their faint finals flame flickering.
“Clubs have been handling it really well and certainly the results suggest that there’s not a huge impact on your ability to travel the day of the game and still perform,” Rutten said, referencing wins by Geelong and Collingwood on their trips to Adelaide this month.
“On the back of last year and also this year as well, it doesn’t hold any fears for us to be able to do that.
“Our group is kind of mature enough and used to that environment at the moment.
“It’s become the new normal for us in the AFL world … to move the game from Melbourne.
“It’s not a big deal these days for clubs and our players will look forward to it.”
Hawthorn boast an enviable record in Launceston, suffering just five defeats in 40 games at the ground last decade, which took in a golden period of success for the club.
But while the Hawks now go about rebuilding their team, their home away from home has lost much of its aura – as evidenced in a narrow three-point win over Adelaide and seven-point defeat to last-placed North Melbourne.
“They’ll certainly have an advantage because it’s much more familiar surroundings for them, but we’re really looking forward to it,” Rutten said.
“It’s been a while since the footy club’s played a game in Tasmania so it will be great to get down there.”
Essendon have also recalled Brandon Zerk-Thatcher and Ned Cahill, with Andrew Phillips and Patrick Ambrose dropped from the side that lost to Richmond last time out.
Andrew McGrath, David Zaharakis and Alec Waterman are out injured while Aaron Francis has been granted the week off for personal reasons.
Lachlan Bramble will become the seventh debutant of the season for Hawthorn, who have recalled midfielder James Cousins, with James Worpel (suspended) and Harry Morrison (hamstring) unavailable.