Whether you got the result you were after or not, you could not help but be entertained by the classic put on by the Western Bulldogs and West Coast Eagles at Marvel Stadium.
In a see-sawing, fast-paced clash of styles, the power forwards of the Eagles gave the Dogs’ defenders fits, whilst the run-and-gun style of the Dogs had their opponents constantly chasing tail.
With the stars coming out to play – Bontempelli, Macrae, Dunkley, and Naughton for the Dogs, and Naitanui, Kennedy, Kelly and Sheed for the Eagles, the ball pinged around as each team wrested momentum at points and looked likely winners.
In the end, it was the Dogs’ defence standing tall, led by Bailey Williams, who was incredibly cool under pressure, to get them over the line.
There is a heap to cover in this one, with plenty to take out of it for both sides in The Mongrel’s good, bad and ugly.
THE IMPACT MIDFIELDER
Over the years, there’s been a lot of chatter about the 2013 National Draft, and in particular, two of the top talents to emerge from that crop of youngsters.
Cripps or Bont? That has been the decision footy pundits have mulled over for years as they have each risen to the top of their respective teams and indeed, the entire league. Both have had injury concerns and both have fought through them to emerge out the other side as better, and more potent weapons.
But only one keeps improving.
Marcus Bontempelli was like an assassin in footy shorts in this game. He opened up the game with five first-quarter clearances, leaving no doubt as to his intent, and unlike so many others who run around the midfield, collecting disposals and doing little with them, he made his count.
For the second week in a row, he had 10+ score involvements, notching the lazy 14 in this game, and his three goals were accompanied by two direct goal assists. If you’re a forward and you’re on the lead, right now, you want Bont delivering the ball to you.
It is as though he sat back during this last off-season, looked at his peers and those who some may consider above him in the AFL pecking order and thought “this is my time.”
And so far in 2021, it has been.
With thirty touches, seven inside fifties and 582 metres gained, Bont put his stamp on this game and even a tagger couldn’t stop him. Sure, Jackson Nelson slowed him down, but after restricting him to just nine touches in the second half, Bont had some very important touches late in the game as his Dogs made their final surge.
Is he the best player in the comp right now? Hmmm, I reckon there is a fella wearing yellow and black that may have something to say about that, but on performance through the first two weeks of footy, Bont has well and truly thrust his name into the conversation, and you get the feeling it will be there all season…
… and into the finals.
THE IRRESISTABLE FORCE
Last week, the Bulldogs’ two-headed ruck monster got the better of Brodie Grundy. With Stef Martin’s power and Tim English’s agility, they were able to switch often to keep Grundy, and the Collingwood defenders on edge.
The result was a resounding win for both the rucks and the Dogs.
But Nic Naitanui is an entirely different proposition. Harder to move, more difficult to outmuscle, and playing to his strengths, the West Coast man mountain simply overpowered and out-rucked the Bulldog duck combination in one of the more impressive ruck outings you’ll see.
Many will point to his 11 individual clearances as the standout aspect of his game, but for me, the deft ruck taps to his mids through the third quarter were unquestionably the best we’ve seen from any big man in this young season.
Naitanui continually fed the ball to Tim Kelly, Dom Sheed and Jack Redden at stoppages, allowing the Eagles every opportunity to get first possession from a stoppage.
The Nic Nat advantage enabled the Eagles to win the centre clearance numbers 18-13, but the Dogs worked harder around the ground and actually finished with a 28-18 stoppage advantage, which is a huge credit to the diligence of their midfield.
Naitanui often gets criticised for reasons I am bemused by – his role is to win hit outs and create opportunities for his mids. He does that week in and week out, irrespective of how many kicks or marks he collects. If you can’t see his impact in a game, I’d wager you judge games by reading the stats and memorising them. Either that, or you work for Champion Data.
Naitanui is a ruck maestro, and he was such a force in this game that he almost dragged his team over the line.
THE PRODIGAL SON
The off-season saw Josh Dunkley express a wish to move away from the Western Bulldogs.
As an outsider, I can’t say I really blame him. Relegated to half-forward and thrown into the ruck to relive Tm English, Dunkley was played out of position all season, and with the type of ability he possesses, you can understand why he would be perturbed.
He is a tackling machine that wins his own footy. He has great vision, quick hands and cracks in at the contest at every opportunity. The Dogs wanted two first-rounders to come to the table and talk to the Bombers, and performances such as this are exactly the reason.
They know what they have in the form of Dunkley. They know how good he can be, and in this round, he stepped up and demonstrated to the world that he can be just as damaging as the other big-name Bulldogs.
Bontempelli and Macrae are elite at their positions. Liberatore is a contested monster. Hunter is a runner, but Dunkley takes the best of each of them and combines them into this elite package. He returned to the Dogs after an uncertain period and is once again establishing himself as one of the dominant two-way midfielders in the game.
Two first-rounders now seems like unders for a player of his calibre.
No Luke Shuey. No Elliot Yeo. Andrew Gaff struggling to get involved.
Who do the West Coast Eagles look to in order to generate their offence? The man with ice in his veins, that’s who.
Dom Sheed has had a brilliant start to the 2021 season, racking up 30 touches in the first week and backing that up with another 26 disposals in this one. But the highlight of Sheed’s game was his combination with Naitanui, which resulted in an equal game-high, and equal career-high 11 clearances.
Sheed was a monster at stoppages, reading the taps of his big man to perfection, and willing to scrap for the footy in dispute. He led the game in contested possessions as he continually extracted the footy and worked to bring his teammates into the game.
Whilst the Eagles would love to have Shuey and Redden in the mix to spread the midfield load, Sheed is working well in concert with Tim Kelly to hold the fort until they return. At 25, he is now reaching the peak of his powers, and though he was a little messy with the footy at times, his relentless pursuit of the footy was a highlight for the visitors.
There are a few things you love to see in footy – they make the hair on the back of your neck stand up as you anticipate what’s coming next, and when the Western Bulldogs drop the hammer and start motoring down the ground, I don’t think there is a Doggies supporter that would not start to lose their shit.
They have such good decision-makers in their defensive 50. Bailey Williams and Caleb Daniel can pinpoint a 40 metre pass to create the spark that ignites the flame, and when the Dogs sense the ball is going their way, they run in a wave that makes the Orange Tsunami of the GWS Giants seem like a ripple.
Bont, Macrae, Bailey Smith, Lachie Hunter… they love tuck the footy under their arms and taking off, and when the kids like Laith Vandermeer (highly rated in Casa del Mongrel) and Adam Treloar get involved, the Dogs are one of the most exciting teams in the league to watch.
They love the give and go, the looping handball over the top and will do anything to create a nice spread (much like Joe Ganino), and if you give this team space to execute, they are going to carve you to bits.
It is going to take a highly-disciplined team to hold the Dogs in the coming week, and given they’ve got the Kangaroos in Round Three, they have set themselves up for a very nice springboard into the season on the back of this scintillating run and carry style.
So, who do you put the clamps on if you have the opportunity against the Dogs? Bont? He has been susceptible in the past. Macrae? Is he even taggable? The bloke runs like a bloody racehorse all game and just cannot be contained. Smith? I believe that a good, accountable player can make him think twice – he strikes me as the kind of player you can hurt going the other way.
It’s Bont, isn’t it? Slow him down, and you slow down the Dogs. We’ve seen it too often to ignore. To dismiss it now, after seeing what he is capable of, would be either arrogant or stupid. Possibly both.
THE CLUNKS AND THE UNSUNG HERO
On the flip side of the stunning red, white and blue wave of runners, the West Coast Eagles possess three (or maybe four) of the best aerial targets in the game for their mids to zero in on.
Oscar Allen, Josh Kennedy and Jack Darling were ominous all game, and on a few occasions were just too bloody good in the air for their opponents. It was as though the Dogs and Eagles were engaged in a clash of styles, and when push came to shove, the old adage of “the small guys get tired but the big blokes don’t get any smaller” seemed like it would ring true for the Eagles.
When Jack Darling led hard and Dom Sheed laced him out to level the scores, you got the feeling that it might end up being one of those games where things were decided by the big man not getting any smaller.
Enter Bailey Williams.
In a game of moments, Bailey Williams had a few in the last few minutes. They say the cream rises to the top, and with Williams playing both tall when he had to, and using his agility to outwork the big blokes at ground level, the Dogs were able to repel the Eagles.
In one of the final contests of the game, Williams found himself isolated against Liam Ryan. If you were a Bulldogs fan, alarm bells must have been going off everywhere. Ryan had been well held by Taylor Duryea for most of the game, but now it was time for Williams to take the responsibility.
Dogs fans must have been thanking whichever god they pray to as Williams won the contest (and thanking that same god it was not Ryan Gardner isolated on Ryan again), farmed the ball out and the Dogs went the length of the ground, with Bont kicking the sealer.
I don’t know if Williams gets votes, if he gets attention, or if he flies under the radar because of who he plays with, but he was huge in this game when it matters, and he deserves the praise.
THE PULSATING LAST QUARTER
This game deserved a full house. It was a living, breathing, animal of a game, sticking its chest out and daring to raise a level or two every few minutes. It was an entity in and of itself heaving this way and that, with the fortunes of both teams hinging on the bounce of an oval ball.
In a round where controversy has been king, the Eagles and Dogs engaged in a belting contest that you would pay money to watch again in September.
We tiptoe through this season with the recent knowledge that we should not take our game for granted. Last season, we had the heart of the sports damaged – it was not a cardiac arrest, but we definitely needed a defibrilator to shock it back into action – games like this shock the sport back into its normal rhythm.
What we witnessed in this game was two accomplished teams that should play a large role in September. The Eagles are a player or two away from dominance. The Dogs are a team finding that they can stride past almost anyone. If this is the norm for 2021 footy, I am in, hook, line and sinker.
I know… I know, it’s not fair.
Yet, it kind of is.
When you are awarded a free-kick right in front of goal at the start of a very tight last quarter and you cock it up, I’m sorry, but you deserve to be called out on it.
Jamie Cripps is one of the players I see as a barometer in this Eagles team. When he is up and about, it makes West Coast all the more difficult to deal with, and when Ryan Gardner decided to dive on the footy 12 metres out from his own defensive goal at the beginning of the last quarter, it was Cripps that was awarded the free-kick.
Those who still use the footy record like people did thirty years ago would have been tempted to mark down the goal before he kicked. If you did, I hope you brought some liquid paper with you.
Cripps botched his run up, got too close to the man on the mark and kicked it too low, Gardner leaping and getting a hand on the footy and saving a goal. Of course, if he kicks that goal, the entire game changes in ways we do not know, but how many opportunities do you get like that in your entire career? Five? If you’re lucky, maybe ten?
It was a huge mistake in the context of the game and allowed the Dogs to clear the area with minimal scoreboard damage. I’ll remind you that the difference in this game before Bont snagged the sealer was just a point. So yes, it might be unfair to pluck out one dumb mistake like that, but let’s be honest… it was a pretty BIG dumb mistake.
PAY IT, RAY
Oh geez… on the heels of a game on Friday night where we saw one of the most gutless umpiring decisions in recent history, cost the Brisbane Lions a chance to win the game, we had Razor Ray Chamberlain – a man who is notorious for being quick on the whistle, allowed Jeremy McGovern a get out of jail free opportunity after he dragged the footy in after spilling a mark.
Now, normally you’d give Ray the benefit of the doubt – umpires make mistakes and all we want is a bit of consistency, right? I’m all for that… assuming there wasn’t a holding the ball paid at the other end earlier in the quarter.
Every man and his dog… especially the Dogs, actually, knew that this was a clear holding the ball decision, but Ray apparently thought different, opining that McGovern didn’t dive on it or drag it in. Instead, Ray offered that Gov simply was trying to mark it…
… with the ball on the ground.
What was this? Backyard cricket with one-hand, one-bounce in place?
In the washup, this will be washed away, as the Dogs did the work to get up, anyway, but as a neutral watching the game, this was another cause for a bit of frustration. Throw this in with the clear too high against Liam Ryan earlier in the game that was let go because… look, I don’t know why, and you can see why footy fans get frustrated.
WHAT WOULD HAVE MADE THE DIFFERENCE FOR THE EAGLES IN THIS ONE?
How far is Elliot Yeo away? That was the one ingredient the Eagles were missing in this one.
Genuine two-way mids are worth their weight in gold in this league, and Yeo not only wins the footy, but stops his opponent in the process. The perfect matchup on Bont early in the game, I am pretty sure the Dogs captain doesn’t dominate the first quarter the way he did with Yeo standing next to him.
IS BAILEY SMITH THE BEST WINGMAN IN THE GAME?
I’ve got a bit of a feeling that he will be the number one ranked player in our wingman rankings (released every Monday for members) this week.
He started like a bullet, with 16 touches and a goal in the first half as he simply had his way outside, before the Eagles started tightening up on him after the main break.
Smith can play as an inside mid when required, but given the plethora of talent in the Dogs’ midfield, his move to the wing could be one of the best decisions of the season.
HOW LONG CAN SHANNON HURN PLAY FOR?
West Coast would want to hope it’s at least for another season. He put himself in harm’s way early in this game and rallied to have another belting Hurn outing, with 24 touches at the lazy 100% efficiency.
Yep, people lauded Jack Bowes for his 100%’er last week and this time it’s Hurn. The Eagles could have probably used that booming boot a little more potently with the Dogs giving him enormous room from full-back, but that may be something the Eagles address in the next week.
WHAT’S GOING ON WITH ANDREW GAFF?
The first two weeks of Gaff’s 2021 have been underwhelming to say the least.
In a style of game that should see him racking up plenty of the footy, he has had a pair of 16-disposal outings. In truth, that is about -10 on what any AFL fan would have been expecting at this point. He is not getting a hard tag – he is just being beaten, easily and often.
If you’ve got an answer, Eagles fans, I’d love to hear it, but he would be one of the most disappointing players of the first fortnight.
HOW GOOD COULD LAITH VANDERMEER BE?
He is the perfect half-forward at the moment, although I am not sure he is getting the respect he deserves from opponents… yet.
Vandermeer made significant gains last season before blowing out his hamstring, and I have to admit, as he burst from half-forward in the last quarter, I had my fingers crossed we weren’t going to see it happen again.
He has great pace, knows when to ‘go’ and is happy to crack in when it is his time to go. The Dogs have another one, here – Vander is class.
Amazing, a bloke has 41 touches and makes it into the “other bits” section. Jack Macrae has another game in the long list of excellent games next to his name. He just runs and runs all day and hurts by g=foot as well. Aaron Naughton would love leading to him. 25 uncontested touches indicate he just worked harder than everyone else to find space, but eight clearances tells us he was happy to mix it up when required. He is a star, but it is a blessing and a curse that he plays alongside a megastar.
Just an observation, but do you think Susan Alberti and Tim English go to the same hairdresser?
I still don’t understand the hate.. or at least the dislike people have for Tom Barrass – just a fantastic defender, whether one-on-one or on the help. Sometimes I wonder whether people remember a couple of mistakes in the 2019 finals series and have just never forgiven him. Very close to a defensive double-double in this one with 11 spoils and nine intercepts.
Good to see Josh Bruce making the most of limited opportunities. His lovely shot from the angle was an important one to the Dogs in the second quarter.
I love the “get out of jail” mark, and think it is one of the more important possessions in a tight game. The “GOOJ” mark is when a defence has no option but to kick to a long contest and if someone can clunk a mark around half-back/wing, it opens up the game and relives the pressure.
In this one, Naughton did it twice, as did Nic Nat, with Darling, and Allen having one each.
Three goals to Jamaine Jones was a great little return, whilst Liam Ryan must have been close to hitting the roof of Marvel Stadium a couple of times – how unlucky was he not to be paid the first of his attempted hangers!?!? Where is your sense of occasion, umpire?
Finally, a nice outing for Libba in game 150. Cracked in hard all game and his nine clearances put into numbers just how tough he was in the contest.
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