Are we ready to believe yet?
The Western Bulldogs burst out of the gates in 2021, and despite a record of 7-1 heading into this weekend, there was a cloud of doubt hovering over them.
They’d knocked over the West Coast Eagles in a classic game of footy, stuck it to the Lions, and beat up the Giants, but when it came to one of the true big-boy teams of the league – Richmond, the Dogs fell short.
There were some who snidely nodded at each other in confirmation that the Western Bulldogs were good when the game was on their terms, but when confronted with genuine pressure, they would go away from what got them to the dance and capitulate. Hey, don’t shoot the messenger – I am telling you what the perception was.
I’m not sure it still is the perception after this fantastic road win against Port Adelaide.
Make no mistake, this was a clash between two contenders. Port were a kick out of the Grand Final in 2020, taking the fight right up to the Tigers before falling agonisingly short. They are on a mission this season, and saw themselves as the next team in line to ascend the AFL throne.
But they failed to take into account the others climbing, as well.
The Dogs took the best the Power had to offer and not only matched it, but upped the ante, throwing their bodies in and crashing packs as though their lives depended on it.
Their lives didn’t depend on it – this was not a life or death situation… it was much more important.
After a fast start, the Power reeled the Dogs in, and it took huge character to weather the storm and get back on top in the second half, as the Dogs relied on their established stars, as well as some of their unsung heroes to shut the Power down and claim their eighth win of the year.
Heaps to get through in this one – let’s jump into The Mongrel’s good, bad and ugly.
THE FAST START AND THE BIG RESPONSE
I loved the first half of this game. Unlike the slog that was Friday Night Footy, this is the kind of game that made you happy to be a footy fan.
You had the Dogs storming out of the gates, winning just about every contested situation they were presented with, to establish what could only be called a dominance over the hometown Power. You could almost sense the Power fans feeling stunned at what they were watching, and you knew that it would be how they responded in the second quarter that would matter. If they laid down and rolled over, you’d put a line through them. If they responded… well, things could get interesting.
And they did.
Port cracked in to start the second quarter and their ferocity at the contest saw the pendulum swing back in their favour. They went from being second to the footy to bumping the thumping their way to the front position and as we headed to half time, they had managed to square the ledger and showed the Dogs that as good as the visitors were in the first quarter, they had to do a hell of a lot more to put the home team away.
The remainder of the game was a belter. The Dogs’ big forwards hit the scoreboard hard, with Naughton adding two and Bruce one of his own to give the Dogs the ascendancy again, but with Port slotting three of the first four goals of the last quarter, including two to Charlie Dixon who came to life, the game was suddenly alive again.
Almost ten minutes of back and forth wrestling was broken up when Cody Weightman roved and goaled to give the Dogs some breathing space and moments later, Naughton marked and goaled to ice the game.
The Dogs made their statement, the Power answered and then the Dogs came again in the last quarter to finish them off. This win has the hallmarks of a season-defining win for the Dogs, and it will be interesting to see just how far they can go this year.
As for the Power, they had their chances, but you can’t give a start like that and spend so much energy working back into the game. The question now must be asked of them – can they beat a top four side? They’ve now dropped games to the Lions and Dogs. Their date with the Cats in three weeks now looms as a huge game.
STEPPING OUT OF THE SHADOWS
When you start discussing All-Australian teams and who gets in here or there, the Western Bulldogs provide one hell of a problem, and it is a great problem to have if you’re a Doggies fan.
Who misses out?
Looking at this as an outsider to the club, I simply cannot fathom the team leaving Bont out of the picture. Whilst Macrae is a gun that seemingly never runs out of ammunition, Bont is the weapon of choice if you’re a Dogs fan. He is the one that gets the footy and hurts you with it. His long, raking kicks, his ability to go forward and mark… he is just about the perfect player at the moment.
But you’re not going to leave Macrae out, either, are you?
The first player in AFL history to have 30+ possessions in each of the first nine games of the season, Macrae is setting records – he simply has to get in.
So, what do you do? Leave Libba out? To quote Joe Biden… come on, man!
For the second game in a row, it has been Tom Liberatore’s work at the coal face that has driven this Western Bulldogs team. Whilst people fawn over the work of Fyfe or Lyons in the contest, Libba has quietly thrown together one of the more impressive inside midfielder seasons to date. He has compiled a CV that would be the envy of other mids in 2021, notching double figures in clearances in four games this season, including the last three straight, and a contested possession rate that leaves no doubt as to who gets this Bulldogs engine up and running.
When you have him playing like this, how can you possibly format a team and not have him involved? He is averaging a mammoth 9.3 clearances per game, feeding the footy out to the assassins on the outside. Remember when people were falling all over themselves to talk up Patrick Cripps’ numbers in 2019? He averaged 8.4. What about Tom Mitchell in 2018? He averaged 7.9.
What Libba is doing is absolutely phenomenal, and if you are sitting back thinking he has had a decent year to date, think again – he is having an outstanding season, and if you’re looking at compiling the list of top mids in the game right now and you don’t have the name of Tom Liberatore right in the mix, something is wrong.
It was Macrae, Bont and Dunkley as the three-headed monster I thought people should fear at the kennel this season, but Libba is a monster all by himself. What a warrior.
Sometimes you get these small forwards coming into teams and they bob up here and there, but their impact could be described as… minimal. Not Cody Weightman. After playing three games in 2020, he had to wait a while before getting his chance this season, and man, did he ever grab it with both hands.
Playing opposed to Hamish Hartlett for long periods of the game, and Miles Bergman at others, Weightman gave both a very stern warning – run off me at your peril.
He was electrifying in the first quarter as the Dogs burst from the gates, kicking two goals as his team opened up a good lead on the Power. He was very close to having a trifecta of goals but hit the post on one shot as well.
As good as his first quarter was, it was his goal in the last quarter, roving the pack in the goal square and snapping over his head to make the lead safe, which will be shown on highlight reels all over the place. Yes, the snap was great, but have a look at how clean his hands were – this is what makes a small forward effective. They get their chance and there is no hesitation. They see the ball, get the ball and do it in one smooth motion. He then got the ball to boot in a split second, and just like that, Port Adelaide’s challenge was over.
Naughton marked and goaled within 30 seconds to make sure of it, but make no mistake – the game was well and truly alive when Weightman swooped in and killed it. That, my friends, is what you get from a small forward with a fair bit of killer instinct in him. Watching him in this one, he looks as though he will become a staple in this Dogs team at the feet of Naughton and Bruce.
LITTLE MAN PLAYING BIG AGAIN
How good was Caleb Daniel in this one?
He did it all. He stood under the high ball and took intercept marks, controlled the ball from half back with the precision of a top line sniper and faked a couple of Power players out of their boots on the near wing to buy himself time early in the game.
He was crunched in marking contests, yet continued to put himself in harm’s way when required en route to amassing 26 touches and travelling at 92% efficiency.
He fought some tremendous battles in this one, almost always fighting out of his weight division, yet displayed the doggedness that has made him a Bulldog favourite.
Daniel has had an up and down season in 2021. His best is still THE best when it comes to distributing off half back, but his impact has been reduced in some games with opposition coaches really putting time into curtailing his influence. There was none of that in this one, however, as Daniel repeatedly disrupted the forward entries of the Power and must have had Port fans yelling themselves hoarse as he calmly collected eight intercepts and hit up targets with the ensuing kicks.
With Bailey Williams back in the side, and Bailey Dale operating at a high level from half back as well, Daniel now finds himself with a little more freedom again. The Dogs have a great mix in the back half and their three-pronged rebounding attack spells trouble if you decide not to take one of them out of the game. Given the choice, I would play a defensive forward on Daniel and make someone else beat me from half back. The guy is an assassin in a helmet.
THE MIDFIELD BATTLE
This was a ripping clash between two of the better ball-winning midfields in the game.
I’ve already covered Libba above – he deserves his own section, so in this section, let’s treat this clash like a good old-fashioned tag team match. In one corner, Ollie Wines and Travis Boak, and in the other corner, Marcus Bontempelli and Jack Macrae.
I should mention that Macrae is the current holder of our Mongrel Punt Midfield Championship Belt. If you don’t know about it… you probably should.
Anyway, both teams have a touch of finesse, with Bont and Macrae ale to cover the ground faster and if we’re being honest, their get-and-go style hurts a hell of a lot. On the other hand, the Wines/Boak combination is more your hard-at-it tandem, willing to crash and bash their way to a win.
In this one, however, it was the interference of players like Adam Treloar (four clearances in Q1) that really swung the momentum the Dogs’ way. They were all over the Power, with Wines and Boak combining for two clearances. The Power had five for the quarter; the Dogs had 16.
That is a belting
As the Power roared back to life in the second, Wines and Boak cracked in, collecting nine clearances between them, whilst in a complete reversal of the first quarter action, Macrae and Bont had one between them and the Dogs could muster just eight to the Power’s 13. Not the same form of domination, but significant in the way they were able to turn the tide.
It became an arms wrestle from there – Bont punished the Power when he had the ball. Wines crashed and bashed his way to 32 touches, whilst Jack Macrae refused to allow Wines to out-do him, also registering 32 touches.
In the end, it was the Dogs emerging victorious, with Bont’s ability to hit the scoreboard and cover enormous ground the decisive factor. Boak and Wines were brave, but whilst both teams threw their bodies in hard, the finesse from the Dogs pairing was just a little too polished on the outside.
THE UNSUNG HEROES
This is going to break the record for longest review if I am not careful, so I’ll be quick on this section… maybe.
The Dogs are littered with players who fly under the radar, and that can be particularly so when looking at their defence. Yes, Charlie Dixon got off the chain for two late goals, but how good was Alex Keath prior to that? He was supreme in the air and his bodywork on Charlie was incredible. Just slight nudges and body spoils saw Dixon forced to contest one-handed at times, with Keath clearly on top.
Then there is Taylor Duryea. The lazy ten intercepts for him as he dropped into the hole and put his body on the line. As he is more of a lockdown player than a rebounder, he never gets the wraps he deserves, but I was watching his efforts in this one, and he was a big part of the Dogs’ win.
Hayden Crozier, Zaine Cordy… the Dogs just had winners everywhere and I haven’t even got to the more prominent disposal gatherers as yet.
When these under-appreciated players are performing at this level, it makes the work of every other Bulldog out there that little bit easier, and I hope that the Dogs fans take a few moments to appreciate just how important these players were in the structure this week. If one link in the chain was fault, the chain breaks and the Power come storming back. All these links were solid, all game.
There is always a little sense of trepidation when I write about a player that I think is underperforming. I mean, there have been times when a relative or a friend reads it and relays to me that the player was pretty annoyed by what was written. I get that, so I want to preface this with a statement.
A couple of years back, I watched Todd Marshall play against the Sydney Swans, and in that game, he stood up, took contested marks, kicked goals, hustled and basically showed all the signs you’d want from a young forward emerging within a playing group. He was the difference in that game – the match-winner. He looked like the real deal.
I’m not sure I believe he is the real deal anymore.
This game was played at the kind of pace that meant if you took a second too long to get rid of the ball, you were toast. The pressure came from everywhere and it came fast. On a few occasions, I found myself wondering how Todd Marshall was permitted to attack a contest in the air at three quarter pace?
He has great hands, can kick well, but when I take notes to populate these reviews, the f-word was used twice in relation to Marshall’s efforts. As a matter of fact, it was only used in relation to his game. His miss early in the third quarter after Connor Rozee got out the back of the pack to spot him inside 50 was poor, but his decision to go inboard and turn the footy over ten minutes later had me throw my hands up in the air.
He was too easily beaten by Alex Keath in the air and on the ground, and despite having a clear run at the footy a couple of times, was unable to drag down marks he should have.
Look, I know the circumstances of the young fella, but when I look at a few others around his age in the league at the moment, I see them progressing at a rapid rate. Aron Naughton, Oscar Allen, the King Brothers… they’ve all gone past him in terms of development, and it won’t be long until Mitch Georgiades does the same.
Todd Marshall has all the talent in the world. He is the player the Power need when he attacks the footy with intent, but in this one, I don’t believe that was the case, and in a game as contested as this one, it stood out.
The ball is well and truly in Marshall’s court, here. Is he the tall forward that we’re going to be talking about in the same way we currently speak about Jeremy Cameron? Or is he going to be the forward we speak about like Tim O’Brien at Hawthorn? I guess we’ll soon see.
JUST ONE THING
Really, there was not a lot of ugly in this one – a very enjoyable game. But there was one thing…
I’m not a Port Adelaide supporter, but I am still smarting from the four weeks Scott Lycett copped for a football act. I hate that we are now punishing tackles because someone has been hurt in the process.
Anyway, the umpires are obviously on a hair-trigger when it comes to paying free kicks for these incidents, but if you could take a moment or two to explain to me the other options Tom Jonas had when he laid a tackle on Aaron Naughton as the Bulldog was lurching forward and even appeared to be in the process of losing his feet, I’d be all ears.
The result was a “dangerous” tackle free kick awarded to Naughton inside 50, and it was a howler of a decision.
I am sure I’ll get people telling me how important protecting the head is and so on – yes, yes, yes… I’m surprised you’re not using the word “sacrosanct” because you have a vague memory of Adrian Anderson making it part of AFL vernacular, but there is a balance when it comes to these decisions, and there has to be common sense applied too.
A stretch, I know.
Tom Jonas had no other option in the tackle on Naughton other than to let him go and not complete the tackle. That was it. Both players were moving forward, there was no sling, no malice, no second action – just a tackle. All he could do to completely avoid Naughton going to ground was let him go, and he would have gone face first into the turf, anyway.
Is that what we want players doing in the heat of battle? Releasing tackles?
Once upon a time they came for the bump, and those involved in the game laughed it off – it’d never happen, right?
Now they’re coming for the tackle, but don’t worry… it’ll never happen.
And then when they come for running with the flight of the ball? What then?
HOW MANY OF US DOUBTED JOSH BRUCE?
I am pretty sure many of you were the same, but he has obviously done the work Dogs fans wanted to see him do last off-season, and has come into 2021 in career-best shape and career-best form. He now sits second on the Coleman table, and a couple of his contested grabs in this one, opposed to Aliir as well, were first class.
He and Naughton currently make up the best one-two punch in the league, with 49 goals between them in nine games. I’m not sure anyone saw that coming.
HOW MUCH DID THE CLUREY INJURY HURT THE POWER?
Not as much as missing Zak Butters did (and a big hello to Matt Oman, who continues his vigil outside the Butters residence, praying for a speedy recovery).
Clurey was coming off what had to be a career-best game, and was taking some big responsibility in the defensive 50. His absence forced Jonas and Aliir to both play more accountable footy, and as a result, limited their ability to impact zone off and kill other contests.
WHERE IS CONNOR ROZEE AT?
I’m waiting, but I am getting a little impatient.
He looks great when he gets the footy in his hands – he is just not getting enough of it. 13 touches and two score involvements is nowhere the output we expected from this bloke at this stage of his career. I know he has struggled with injury this year, but he is looking as though he is going to have a hard time topping his rookie campaign the way he is travelling at the moment.
DID BAILEY SMITH TURN THE CORNER TODAY?
Smith was excellent in the first two weeks of the season before trailing off rather rapidly.
Ranked as our number one wingman through the first fortnight, Smith made the move back into the middle in this one, shifting onto the ball in the second quarter, and he seemed much more at home in the action than on the outside of it. He collected eight clearances as his hard-at-it style was exactly what the Dogs needed once the Power started to take control in the second.
The bad news – zero points this week in the wingman of the year award. He’ll fall out of the top ten…
The Bont free kick that gave the Dogs the lead back… was it there?
Yep, and with Aliir thundering toward the contest as the third man up, I have no idea why Miles Bergman felt the need to push at all. It was a soft free, but a free nonetheless, and I would be more worried about the decision-making of the young fella than whether the umpire blew his whistle or not.
The Dogs get the Saints back at Marvel next week and have the opportunity to kill off St Kilda’s season. A team with ice in their veins would do just that, but I always worry about teams coming home after a big road win… they can be a little flat at times.
Port travel to the MCG and would like to familiarise themselves with winning at this site. They’ve picked a good opponent, as I reckon the cue might be just about in the rack for the Pies in 2021. They may get Dan Houston back, which’d be nice, but I can’t help but look at the names of Butters and Duursma and wonder just what sort of difference they’d make to this unit…
That’ll do me. As always, if you like this, you can jump on the link below and support the site by becoming a member. This takes a heap of work…