It took less than two minutes for Joe Daniher to impose himself on the annual Anzac Day classic against Collingwood on Tuesday. The six-foot-five, 95-kilogram frame snapped a right-footed goal from a set shot thanks to an Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti pass in greasy conditions. For the next 100 minutes or so the jovial forward picked up 16 disposals, eight marks, six inside 50s, booted 3.4 and handed out three goal assists. He claimed best on ground honours and lead the Bombers to an 18-point win, their first Anzac Day triumph since 2013.
"It's always a good feeling playing on the MCG and doing what I wanted to do as a kid," Daniher told The Age. "I always dreamt of playing for the Essendon Football Club. To get the opportunity every week is something I'm not taking for granted."
On Tuesday his goals were telling, coming at crucial times. One of them in the third quarter came just after the Pies hit the lead by a point for the first time. It looked as if the Bombers were teetering on the brink of a collapse, but when Daniher received a handball from Heppell just after the centre ball up, he composed himself, and sent the ball deep into the goal square where it bounced once and skidded through for a what could be argued as goal of the year. In the final quarter, when the game was still hanging in the balance, Daniher barged through heavy traffic and let fly with a 50-metre hoik, which ultimately sealed the win.
At 23, the one they call "Mo", has already lived through the highs and lows of being an AFL player, the scrutiny on his form and his errant kicking and the unprecedented ASADA supplements investigation. On Tuesday afternoon, he hit one his greatest highs for his significant role in the three-goal win. Of all the things he was on Anzac Day – influential, match winning, composed, reliable – those are things he's worked hard to be, but could not quite execute. His Anzac Day medal now begs the question: has Joe Daniher finally arrived?
Five years ago when Daniher was nabbed at pick no.10, scouts likened the lanky tall to a Dean Cox type. The kind of player that could roam outside the 50-metre arc, play deep in the pockets or take ruck duties; a player with an unfathomable future. He came to Essendon as a work in progress, someone who needed to bulk up, someone that needed to fix his kicking accuracy and someone raw and unpolished. It seemed his impending career at Essendon had question marks even before he pulled on a jumper, but the thinking was, if he overcame the initial bumps and corrected his immediate flaws, his ceiling was uncapped.
Daniher only played five games in his first season in 2013 booting 3.9 under the Hird regime. In season no.2 he kicked 28 goals from 48 shots at the big sticks among a lackluster forward setup that included outside runner Brent Stanton and giant leaper (but mot much else) Kyle Hardingham. In 2014, across the league, Daniher's youthful presence was blanketed by breakout guns such as Jaegar O'Meara (AFL Coaches Association 'Best Young Player'), Lewis Taylor (AFL's Rising Star) and Marcus Bontempelli (AFL Players Association 'Best First Year Player). Hird was under no illusion that Daniher would take time to develop - forwards generally do - and so it was a case of baby steps, where the club took a cautious approach in Daniher's early development.
In 2016 Daniher booted his best return yet as a key Essendon forward-ruck with 43.32 and even though this year looks to be his more authentic breakout year with 12.10 to his name so far. It's also worth considering that it's his all-round game of contested marks outside 50, his multi-faceted bag of tricks where he can take ruck taps, launch long goals and create goal assists that has a lot of pundits talking about how he could be the next Nick Riewoldt. He has a long way to go before he slots himself alongside the likes of the St,Kilda great but the Anzac Day game and the good parts of his 2016 season has given us all an inside look into what he's capable of if he continues in this upward arc.
Even when he hasn't troubled the scoreboard as much as he would have liked, his pack marking and efficiency has been impressive. Against the undefeated and lit up Crows, Daniher still managed to accrue 19 disposals at 78 per cent efficiency, 10 marks and booted 2.2. And now he seems confident enough to push up the field and roam to parts of the ground needing a contest. Teammate Brendon Goddard said he has the potential to become the next Buddy Franklin who has expanded his game to a high forward that not only kicks goals but almost plays a tall wing role. Daniher, displayed those exact traits against the Pies on Tuesday.
And one observation is that he no longer looks like a frail kid with tooth pick arms lacking poise; he's starting to show signs of freakish athleticism and a belief in himself where he can explode through a pack and kick goals from outside 50-metres. On Tuesday, Daniher even borrowed from Franklin's playbook when he took two bounces on centre wing and set up a crucial goal. These are all signs that he's shedding his rookie skin and evolving into a superior figure.
You can tell by his goal celebrations – two-hands-up and twirling of the fingers- and his cheeky banter with rivals that Daniher has a love for football and Essendon that is unrivalled. He loves being out on the ground. This is his dream come true. He's proud of his family history and that he's the sixth Daniher to pull on the boots. After Tuesday's game, Essendon coach John Worsfold said Daniher's best is yet to come. "He's achieved a lot already for his age, but he's still developing and learning the game and growing," he told reporters.
His height and mobility makes him a difficult match up and as his decision-making improves he'll become one of those formidable entities. Daniher has largely been that player that battled with consistency or mental lapses with kicking for goal, things that haunted Travis Cloke and stalled other promising careers. But his days of mediocrity and dropping sitters may be very well behind him, well into the distance of the rear view mirror. Five years ago he was a kid living his dream but now he's a man and the football world is his oyster.