With its decision to ban players for the entire 2016 season, the Court of Arbitration for sport has seriously undermined Essendon’s hopes for recovery, disrupted, even derailed, yet another AFL season and quite possibly ended the careers of several Bomber stars prematurely.
The news that the so-called ‘Essendon 34′ will face a season ban over their involvement in the club’s 2012 supplements scandal not only sent shockwaves through the Bombers’ Tullamarine training base, but down at AFL House in Docklands as well.
• Essendon 34 banned for 2016 season
• Matthew Lloyd: ‘I feel sick in the stomach’
• Essendon’s timeline of turmoil
• ASADA boss blames Essendon players
• Watson could lose Brownlow over decision
• Court of Arbitration releases statement
AFL chief Gillon McLachlan would have felt the verdict as keenly as any of the suspended Essendon players or disbelieving club officials. Still relatively new to the job, McLachlan must now navigate the game through a thicket of challenges, including a suddenly lop-sided season and potential legal challenges from some, if not all, of the 34 directly affected.
Even though the League will allow Essendon to “top-up” its players list, the club clearly won’t be competitive for a sizeable chunk of the season. But that’s only half of it.
The very backbone of the team is suddenly gone. Essendon, which finished in the bottom four last year, must now face a season without players of the calibre of Brownlow Medallist Jobe Watson, vice captain Dyson Heppell and all-Australian defenders Cale Hooker and Michael Hurley.
There will be many past and present Bombers, a couple of Port Adelaide players plus a Bulldog, Saint and Demon who might be placing calls to legal firms over the next few days and weeks. The 34 players have scattered far and wide since the scandal broke three years ago – new Saints’ recruit Jake Carlisle and Melbourne newboy Jake Melksham are yet to play a game for their new clubs. Will their clubs be allowed to top-up as well?
Then there’s Bombers skipper Watson. Already 31, have we seen the last of him? And what of his 2012 Brownlow, does he lose that now? Another Bombers veteran, Brent Stanton, might be lost to the game too.
New Essendon chairman Lindsay Tanner faced some challenges when he was Finance Minister in the Rudd Government, including a global financial crisis in 2008 and this will surely test him again.
His first challenge will be to placate angry Bombers’ fans who will wonder why the club reached an agreement with the AFL in 2013 that cost them draft choices, a place in the finals, their coach James Hird for a season and millions in fines. It was supposed to be the end of the matter, but three years on the saga has taken an even more damaging twist. Did someone say double jeopardy?
McLachlan, the recipient of one of the all-time great hospital handpasses from former AFL head Andrew Demetriou, has been battling this category-five storm for three years. He drove many of the more fraught negotiations of 2013-14 which were designed to get the scandal off AFL books. Despite his best efforts and some occasionally brutal engineering, he never got the outcome he wanted.
Now, with his former boss gone and CAS convinced by WADA’s argument, that resolution seems further away than ever.