And just like that, the team no one wants to play in the first week of the finals slots into the eight and pulses are racing.

And pulses would have been racing for fans of the Melbourne Football Club until about halfway through the last quarter, when the Dogs put the Dockers away after establishing a small break in the second quarter.

Another in the long line of games played in slippery Queensland conditions, the Dogs’ style of long, fast and direct handballs kept Freo’s pressure at bay, and the hard run of Lachie Hunter, combined with the continued in-and-under work of Tom Liberatore was enough to see them home and into a a fourth finals campaign in the last six seasons.

The Dogs lost Aaron Naughton after a head clash with Sean Darcy in the second quarter and Mitch Wallis appeared to be favouring a shoulder after the siren as well, but the run from the centre and defence from Patrick Lipinski, Jason Johannisen and even a late goal from Caleb Daniel were enough to steady the ship.

For the Dockers, they got plenty from Caleb Serong, who seems to relish going up against established stars in the league. Luke Ryan busied himself in compiling another game that will make ignoring his claim on an AA berth nigh-on impossible, and Nat Fyfe did his best to cover an absent Matt Taberner.

Now, with finals just around the corner, let’s ask the big questions stemming from the Dogs and Dockers.

 

IF LACHIE HUNTER PLAYS ALL YEAR, IS HE AN ALL-AUSTRALIAN WINGMAN?

Since Hunter’s return to this Western Bulldogs side in Round 12, they have recorded a 6-1 with him in the side.

Over the course of this season, I have developed a new appreciation for the work rate of Hunter and the impact he has on this Dogs team. In just about every game I have watched him, he has outworked his opponent to the point he has made them look lazy.

Now, I know that’s not the case – some of these wingmen can run all day and bust a gut for their team, but Hunter’s gut-running is close to the best in the game right now. He thinks nothing of competing for the ball on the boundary at the half back flank and then putting on the jets as the play is transferred, only to bob up on the opposite attacking fifty to take a mark  – he just wants it more than anyone else!

Over the journey there have been those who have whacked him for some poor disposal, but I reckon when that happens it is because the bloke is so stuffed from second and third efforts to remain involved that his legs must feel like jelly.

I was actually surprised to see that Justin Longmuir didn’t throw someone onto Hunter to attempt to stifle him. Even just to put the bumpers up and prevent him from running from contest to contest, but I guess when you’re already playing someone in a run-with role on Caleb Daniel, you can’t go out and tag everyone.

 

CAN TOM LIBERATORE BE A DIFFERENCE-MAKER IN THE FINALS?

About a month ago, just for fun, I went back and watched the 2019 Elimination Final again. You know… that’s the kind of thing I do for fun. Some read, others exercise… I re-watch games of footy that I feel had some significance.

We all know what happened that day – the Dogs were beaten up and they did little to fight back, but would things have been a little different with Libba in the team? Mitch Wallis as well, for that matter?

I reckon Libba adds an edge to this Bulldogs team. His scrappy and unrelenting attack on the footy makes it bloody hard to get a clean kick in congestion. He drags you down, smothers, recovers the ball and hurts you going the other way, and his hustle was at, or near its best in this game.

25 touches, eight tackles, seven clearances and six inside 50 deliveries are all impressive, but the number I liked best was the six one-percenters. If Libba was in the vicinity, nobody was getting an easy kick. His bodywork, his relentless hassling and his willingness to throw himself at the boot of an opponent gave the Dogs something extra in this game.

And they are the kinds of acts that give a team something extra in tight finals.

Look, the expectations on the Dogs are not high this post-season. If we saw them holding the cup aloft in six or so weeks, I’d be pretty surprised, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see them gut-out a win, or even two due to the no-bullshit style of play that Tom Liberatore brings to the table.

Some players are all sizzle. Libba is all steak.

 

WHAT SHOULD FREMANTLE DO WITH RORY LOBB?

I know it wasn’t the best conditions for Lobb out there, and I know he was stuck in the goal square whilst Freo dicked around with the footy at half back for minutes at a time, but looking forward, what should this team be doing with a player of his calibre?

Lobb has a beautiful pair of hands and whilst he has been able to convert that into scoring chances at times, I would not mind seeing him start in the ruck and immediately drift to half back. With Matt Taberner a fantastic marking presence inside 50 (I’m a huge fan) I would love to see Lobb get some confidence back into his game in 2021 by being allowed to run and jump at the footy without being crashed into at every opportunity.

I’ve been picturing him playing the kind of role Max Gawn plays after ruck taps, just dropping a kick behind the play and making sure that any errant hack forward is not going to start a break – I reckon Lobb has the ability to really change some games by forcing teams to work the footy around him. And should the ball clear him, you have a bloke named Luke Ryan back there who is more than a little adept at cutting off attacks at the knees as well.

Freo fans – I am interested in your ideas around the use of Lobb going forward and the potential for something different. He’s kicked three goals since Round Seven this season. Time to start thinking outside the box with him.

 

DID WE SEE JOSH BRUCE TURN A CORNER TODAY?

Yeah, a little, but I hope it is not straight into a dead-end.

After a six-goal bag early in the season, Bruce’s form has incurred the ire of a heap of Dogs fans. And rightly so.

However, I liked his attack on the footy in the air in this one. Whilst in other games I’ve seen him this season he has looked lost at sea, he appeared to have a bit of confidence about him in this one, and when he wasn’t taking a mark, he had no hesitation crashing a pack and bringing the ball to ground.

With three contested grabs for the game to lead all players, Bruce played a vital role for the Dogs and even worked his way up to half back to take a “Get Out Of Jail” mark at one stage. Whilst I don’t think that Bruce will be the saviour of the Dogs team this post-season, coming up against a team like St Kilda, with defenders like Howard and Carlisle, or West Coast with Barrass and Schofield, Bruce will have to at the very least breakeven to keep the Dogs in the hunt.

The Dogs will need Bruce to stand up. Naughton has a fractured cheekbone. Mitch Wallis looked sore as well.

They went out and recruited Bruce for a reason and we’re about to see whether that decision was the right one.

Of course, there is an impending arrival that may see him miss, anyway.

 

IS LACHIE SCHULTZ THE ANSWER TO FREO’S STAY-AT-HOME SMALL FORWARD ISSUE?

Before you jump up and down, yes I am aware that Michael Walters plays for the Dockers, but he is just another question most of the time, as he spends a fair chunk of his time prowling around the midfield.

I’ve been watching Lachie Schultz with interest this season and whilst he often finds the right spots, he does seem to lack a little of that zippiness that the great small forwards have. He has plenty of mongrel, which is important, but he just seems to lack… that special something that great small forwards have – he just gets caught a little toon often.

If you were to take Liam Henry’s change of direction and give it to Schultz, we might have something to work with, but as it stands, I could see him playing the role only until Henry is ready to make the step up to be the number one man in that regard.

I guess Freo had better hope it happens soon, because I reckon Henry is still a fair way off.

 

DO FREO ACTUALLY GET BETTER WITH ALEX PEARCE AND JOEL HAMLING BACK?

This sounds like an idiotic question, I know. Stick with me for a moment, okay?

I’ve liked the Freo defence with Brennan Cox and Luke Ryan anchoring it. I’ve liked Taylin Duman back there, and I haven’t minded Ethan Hughes either. It hasn’t been their defence that has been the issue this season – so what happens if Hamling and Pearce wander back in?

Does the defence get stronger? Or is the defence relatively similar in terms of output?

I’ve seen what Pearce is capable of – he was probably front-runner for AA honours last season before he got hurt. I loved what Hamling brought to the table as well, but if they’re coming back into this team, where does that leave Cox, Duman and Hughes?

And does it make one or two of them superfluous to the Dockers as of next season? I reckon there’d be takers for some of them.

Any chance it may be one, or a couple of those you may not expect that will be dangled out there as potential trades given the form of their replacements?

 

AT WHAT POINT DOES LUKE BEVERIDGE UNLEASH JOSH DUNKLEY?

The form of Tom Liberatore, and his importance to this Western Bulldogs side is vital, and I touched on that above, but with Josh Dunkley playing all sorts of roles for Luke Beveridge this season, is there a time he is thrown into the midfield and allowed to wreak havoc?

His second half of 2019 was unbelievably good – from Round 11-23, he averaged 32.6 touches and 6.6 tackles. This season, his output has been much more modest, running at 18.6 touches and 6.1 tackles. He hasn’t really been in the thick of it and at times has found himself in attack, in defence, on the wing and even in the ruck. He is plugging holes all over the place and playing a role for the team.

But could he be the factor that elevates the Dogs in the finals?

With Lachie Hunter dominating one wing, could Jack Macrae jump onto the other and allow Dunkley off the leash in the middle?

An on-ball trio of Bontempelli, Liberatore and Dunkley would be a nightmare and with the hard run of Macrae and Hunter on the outside, this Dogs team could split a game wide open through the middle.

I know there are only so many spots in the guts, but Josh Dunkley is a little too good to be plonked on a half forward flank. He has had 20+ touches in just three games this season (out of 11) and is the sort of player built for finals footy. Will Bevo unleash the beast in finals?

 

CAN THE DOGS WIN A FINAL IF WALLIS AND NAUGHTON ARE BOTH OUT?

Look, they can, but it becomes a hell of a lot more difficult, and you have to rely on those who have been a little… shall we say “unreliable” to get it done?

If there is one thing Naughton does, it is provide a contest and with him on the sidelines, potentially for a few weeks after surgery, the Dogs will be forced to look elsewhere. Usually you’d just look to Wallis, as he’s been fantastic this year, but he looked pretty sore after the game, favouring a shoulder. Could he be in trouble as well?

If so, it spells danger for the Dogs.

Alex Keath probably isn’t a permanent solution, and I seriously don’t think Josh Schache is up to playing finals footy. If Wallis is ruled out as well, Sam Lloyd and Tory Dickson would be itching at the opportunity to have a shot at finals, perhaps one last time.

I suppose that leads me back – could the Dogs win with a forward line of Lloyd, Bruce and Schache?

If your answer is anything but “GET MITCH WALLIS RIGHT!” I reckon you’re kidding yourself.

The kicker is that Bruce may also miss, with a little one due very soon, which will throw the Dogs’ forward setup further into chaos.

Maybe the Dogs bring Jackson Trengove back in to relieve in the ruck and release Tim English forward in spurts again? Maybe Dunkley moves to the middle and Bont spends time forward? Or maybe they’re scheduled for a dewy Queensland evening final and opt to go small up forward? I actually really like this idea.

Regardless, if they try a traditional forward set up without the troops to pull it off, I don’t think things will go swimmingly.

Fingers crossed Wallis’ shoulder pulls up well.

 

DO FREO MOVE JESSE HOGAN ON?

A couple of weeks ago, someone in the media said the Dockers were “fattening up” Hogan as a potential trade asset. So, let’s say they are – what does he bring you?

He has started to look good in patches, whilst still being a mile off his best in the last couple of weeks. His four-goal game against North Melbourne came from just six touches and he has not really displayed too much of the long leading and doubling back inside 50 work that made him such a good forward with the Dees.

Has that ship sailed? Watching him move, I am pretty sure it has – he moves a bit like me at the moment!

The Dockers paid a high price for Hogan and the return has not been anywhere near acceptable. If he wants to go, anything they get for him is a bonus –in a time where lists are expected to be cut substantially, I reckon there are teams who would be quite content taking a chance on a discarded forward rather than trading for one who was decent two seasons ago.

If he wants out, I’m sorry Freo fans – you’re not getting value back for him.

 

COULD MITCH CROWDEN BECOME THE DEFENSIVE FORWARD THAT RUNNING DEFENDERS HATE?

I thought bailey Banfield might be the bloke to have this role as an ongoing one, but the work of Mitch Crowden recently indicates that Justin Longmuir likes what he is getting from the 21 year old.

With a great nickname, Crowden is as hard as nails and looks as though he would run through a brick wall for this team. He took to his defensive role on Caleb Daniel with the determination of a young man who knows his performance will be integral to his role with this team in an ongoing capacity.

Could Crowden emerge as the stopper the Dockers need, even in the middle of the ground?

The Dockers have had a decent one in the past, and I reckon he would have been sitting back, watching Crowden shut down Daniel with a bit of a smile on his face today.

With a big pre-season and a continued commitment to the greater good, Mitch Crowden has the potential to take some big name players out of the game in 2021. And that won’t make him a very popular bloke at all.

And he should learn how to embrace that.

 

DOES ROARKE SMITH LOOK LIKE THE BUTCHER OF BLAVIKEN?

Yes, he does a bit.

And he didn’t butcher the footy in this one “witcher” didn’t see coming, did ya?

That was a terrible joke, but a few people gave me a whack early this year when I said he could become important to the Dogs, and I reckon he is just about there.

 

WAS THIS A VERY GOOD COACHING PERFORMANCE FROM BEVO?

You know what – I think it was.

He pulled the trigger to get Caleb Daniel away from half back – his six touches in the third were all important. He shuffled the decks to have a target inside 50 after Naughton’s injury and he got his matchups right to start the game and tweaked where necessary.

I loved that he backed Bont to match it with Fyfe at centre stoppages, and you know he would have been monitoring that closely. I reckon Bont’s defensive side has improved greatly and that stemmed from the touch up he received from Patrick Cripps in Round Five last season. It was Carlton’s first win and Bont played unaccountable footy.

You compare that to their second meeting of the season last year, and you see a completely different version of Bont. Whilst Fyfe was in the middle, I liked Bont’s work on him.

 

AND FINALLY, HOW GOOD CAN PAT LIPINSKI BE?

At 22, we should be getting a really good indication as to the ceiling for Lipinski in the coming 12 months. I’ve heard a few people say he is a touch slow for a running half back or wingman, but his ball use is excellent when he has any space.

With the Dogs feeding him the footy, I would love to be leading to his kicks as he seems to take great care and pride in hitting targets – it’s a pretty bloody rare commodity in the AFL, particularly at Cazaly Stadium.

Right now he seems to be playing a heap of footy between the arcs, but in games when the opposition clamp down on Caleb Daniel, I expect him and Bailey Williams to become even more important.

If he develops his tank a little more and gets a little stronger, a Mitch Duncan-like role could be on the cards for him.

 

And that’ll do me – the Dogs are in the eight and with one game to go in the season, places in the eight are not set; you’ve gotta love that.

My preferred first-week matchup would be Saints v Dogs as I reckon that’d be a belter, but I am keen to hear what you guys think. Bring on finals footy!

 

Please consider becoming a member to access early release articles as well as members-only weekly columns.

Plus you help us grow. Come on… click the image below and help an old mongrel out.

Want more of this kind of stuff? Join The Mongrel to get more.