Revealed: One Bomber forced to quarantine
ESSENDON has dodged a bullet with only one player other than Conor McKenna - James Stewart - set to miss Saturday night's clash against Carlton.
In a massive win for the Bombers, it is understood Essendon players have been told Stewart was deemed the only player at risk as a close contact and will therefore be quarantined for 14 days following McKenna's positive COVID-19 test result from Saturday.
There had been initial concerns up to eight teammates could have been sidelined after McKenna trained with the main group on Friday before attending the club briefly on Saturday morning, including the majority of the club's backline.
But health authorities poured over the vision of McKenna's time at the club on Friday and deemed Stewart as the only player required to be stood down for the game against the Blues that will now go ahead.
Stewart was McKenna's wrestling partner in the club's full training session on Friday.
The club conceded that constituted close contact, with Essendon's players set to return to training on Thursday.
The entire Essendon playing list and staff members were tested for coronavirus again on Monday and all tested negative.
The low number means the club's Round 5 clash with Collingwood will go ahead as scheduled.
Victoria's Department of Health and Human Services completed its contact tracing on Monday night.
McKenna, 24, was retested along with every Essendon player for COVID-19 on Monday. Those results were returned late Monday night.
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It was thought earlier on Monday McKenna might have returned a false positive on Saturday however that appears unlikely.
McKenna, who has been in isolation since Saturday, has told those around him he is feeling well and has not suffered any symptoms over the past week.
He has had three COVID-19 tests in the past four days.
The Irishman recorded a low-level irregularity on Friday, a positive test on Saturday and was re-tested Monday.
The AFL is understood to have already ruled out playing Melbourne and Essendon's Round 3 game mid-week to ensure the game was quickly made up.
Melbourne played a Sunday afternoon intra-club game with four quarters and full contact so would be disadvantaged by playing four days later.
That game will be made up after Round 6 in a way where both clubs would play three games in 10 or 11 days.
Essendon and Melbourne could play in separate fixtures on Thursday or Friday night of one round, then play each other the next Wednesday in a mid-week encounter.
Then both teams could play on a Sunday or Monday night in the next round, squeezing in three games over two weekends.
It has also been confirmed that McKenna attended five open-house inspections last Wednesday.
The grey area around AFL players moving house has given McKenna wriggle room to argue that inspecting multiple rental properties was not a clear violation of league rules.
McKenna also spent time with his host family on Friday. Last Monday the AFL eased their restrictions to allow players to visit the homes of "immediate family members".
While McKenna's host family are not blood relatives they are considered an important part of the homesick Irishman's Melbourne life.
McKenna's brother and brother's partner, who live with him, have tested negative.
Mr McKenna said the family was supporting him from Northern Ireland.
FORFEIT WOULD BE UNFAIR ON BOMBERS: GAWN
Max Gawn says Melbourne is prepared to play its postponed match against Essendon "at the drop of a hat", insisting the Bombers deserved the chance to fight for the four premiership points later in the season rather than forfeit last Sunday's match.
And he stressed the AFL's decision to ban contact in full training sessions until at least July 20 was "bizarre" and would become "glorified kicking circuit."
Gawn said he didn't agree with some assessments that the Demons should have claimed the points after the match was called off following Conor McKenna's positive coronavirus test.
But the Melbourne skipper said it was only fair that the match goes ahead at some stage, which would mean a minimal break for the clubs between other games.
"I don't think the points stuff comes into it really," Gawn said on RSN.
"I think that's got to be fair and Essendon have got to play us at some point.
"We all know this AFL season is going to be quite weird and this isn't going to be the only case of this so I'm looking forward to potentially playing a midweek game.
"I don't see it as a disadvantage.
"I see it as an opportunity and something the AFL could do moving forward. I know our Anzac (Eve) night game (against Richmond) last year was on a four-day break and the majority of the boys got up and played to a high level in both games."
Gawn said he and the Melbourne players would "play at the drop of a hat to make sure the season continued."
He said the AFL changes to player protocols announced on Monday - which included non-contact for full training groups and the winding back of player visitation rights leading into games - made it difficult for players preparing for matches.
"All 18 clubs are in the same boat … main training will just be a glorified kicking circuit now," he said.
"When it comes to the actual contact, we've got to make sure we get something out of that (in groups of 8)."
He said the Demons were shattered not to play on the weekend, but made the most of a rare training session on the MCG on Sunday afternoon.
HOW HEALTH AUTHORITIES TRACKED AT-RISK BOMBERS
Conor McKenna was joined by seven backline group members in a short meeting on Saturday morning and in a weights session on Friday after full contact training.
Essendon has handed its video footage of training to the Department of Health and Human Services as well as a log of all meetings and sessions in the 72 hours before McKenna's positive test.
But its is understood in that submission it made clear the group of defenders practised strict social distancing in meetings as well as the weights session.
Under COVID protocols Essendon's defenders were spaced out in that weights session in a 700 square metre facility, did not spot for each other and wiped down equipment after use.
Essendon has stated to DHHS authorities that social distancing was carried out rigorously by its defensive group, including in the Saturday morning meeting when he was most contagious.
It means there remains a chance that players including Cale Hooker, Adam Saad, Michael Hurley and Mason Redman could be available.
The club has more concerns with the full contract training session on Friday and whether the DHHS will rule players were in close contact with McKenna.
He made contact with players both in tackling and in passing a ball to them, but it remains to be seen how the DHHS tallies up the time they spent together and how it classifies that "close contact".
Players including Zach Merrett and Jake Stringer were in close proximity to McKenna but it is impossible to say which players would be judged to be in close contact.
The results from Monday afternoon's COVID-19 tests will be returned on Tuesday and give DHHS officials more information about whether to quarantine players.
But the hope is that even if players are forced to quarantine it will not affect an entire line group like the backline.
HOW IT PLAYED OUT FOR CONOR MCKENNA
The Bombers have rallied around McKenna as he faces potential sanctions for breaking the AFL's return to play restrictions by attending an open house inspection.
"Conor's (result) said 'pending'. It didn't say it was negative, it didn't say it was positive," Campbell said on Triple M.
"He was en route to the footy cub (on Saturday morning) at the time, and he advised that he had (undergone the test the day before).
"The club doctor then made contact with Dorevitch (Pathology), who advised that they would need to explore that (result) and come back to the club.
"In the meantime Conor arrived at the footy club and he was told he would not be able to train with the group until such time we got confirmation of a negative test.
"He would have to obviously practice strict social distancing, he was temperature tested for symptoms and all that sort of thing, as per the protocol.
"And about 15 minutes later the result came back there was a low-level irregularity, so it still wasn't conclusive.
"Then he got sent straight away to Dorevitch for further testing, got asked to isolate and it wasn't until early afternoon (on Saturday) that we were advised the test was in fact positive."
CAN A STEPHEN SILVAGNI CLONE SAVE THE BOMBERS?
Essendon is set to turn to a Stephen Silvagni-like defender fresh from serving his own COVID-19-related suspension to help stop Carlton - if Saturday night's match goes ahead.
Brandon Zerk-Thatcher was banned from Round 2 after self-reporting a minor protocol breach but is in line for the assignment on Blues spearhead Harry McKay at the MCG.
"Geez he moves a lot like SOS (Silvagni)," Bombers list manager Adrian Dodoro said recently.
"His mannerisms with the reach, the spoil, the body shape - long torso - and the courage."
The 195cm West Australian was a standout in pre-season and was on the edge of selection before Conor McKenna's positive COVID-19 test sparked fears Essendon's entire backline could be quarantined.
The Herald Sun understands Zerk-Thatcher was not in McKenna's training group, which included Adam Saad, Cale Hooker, Michael Hurley, Mason Redman, Marty Gleeson, Matt Guelfi and Jordan Ridley.
Should Zerk-Thatcher, 21, be cleared to play by health authorities he would be the first in line to bolster the back half.
The Bombers delisted defender Michael Hartley last year partly to help provide opportunities for Zerk-Thatcher to blossom in 2020.
The No.66 draft pick from 2017 ranked No.1 in the VFL for intercept possessions from 2018-19 and No.4 for intercept marks last year as he tidied up his kicking.
Zerk-Thatcher's two AFL games so far have both come against Fremantle.
The Bombers could also recast midfielder Andrew McGrath into a defensive role on Eddie Betts.
McGrath won the 2017 Rising Star playing in the backline and kept Betts (six disposals) goalless in Round 21 that season.