With the Bulldogs looking to challenge for top spot on the ladder and Gold Coast sitting well outside the eight, this match might be one that people who only looked at the score line might think was a bit of a procession. That isn’t exactly how things went though, and Gold Coast were in the match for most of the day, threatening an upset win to top off their recent run of form, and the Bulldogs smarting from last week’s upset loss to the Swans.

The game had an odd rhythm, with the Suns attempting to adapt to the maniacal anarchy that the Bulldogs embrace in their playmaking, but it seemed that they tried to simply address the symptom without looking at the cause of the flexibility that the Bulldogs had in their transition game. Some of this can be laid at the feet of the coach, but as it has been for so long with this Gold Coast team, too much was left to too few.

The beginning

The opening bounce showed that each team was serious about this contest, with Touk Miller lining up on the defensive side of the bounce on Bailey Smith, with an obvious intention to hit any short tap at pace. Unfortunately Tim English was able to live up to the reputation he has rapidly earned and as he did for much of the night, controlled the tap to hit his midfielders perfectly, allowing Smith to run away with it before Miller could close the gap.

From this first possession and the resulting Gold Coast intercept and transition, you could see how both sides were intending to play this contest—the Bulldogs looking to move rapidly through the corridor while Gold Coast tried to work it up the line or send it back to switch to the other wing.

First blood went to Gold Coast as Swallow dished out to Miller whose penetrating kick finds Ainsworth who converted. The replay shows that Swallow likely threw the ball to Miller, but the ump was blindsided, so no luck there.

Now that everyone is giving Touk Miller his hard-earned dues, I was starting to think that Swallow may be the heir-apparent as the most underrated player in the comp. His work in and under seems to go unnoticed and unremarked much of the time, but watching him here, it seems a bit like he’s struggling to find the hand speed that he used to have, and his ability to hit a running target just isn’t what the Gold Coast need from him. Back to the pile with you, David.

The Suns made the most of their early momentum, piling on the next two goals through Holman who is just electric playing high forward from the wing. The Bulldog’s aggressive attack on the ball at every opportunity hurt them, with several marking contests having multiple Bulldogs players fly and spoil each other’s attempts. Alex Sexton in particular was reading these contests well and picking up some sneaky touches that resulted in shots at goal that missed the mark early, but set him up well for later attempts.

The Bulldogs took a while to find the big sticks, but constant pressure through the middle of the ground saw repeated forward 50 entries. McNeil took advantage of a loose ball to collect it and draws a free. He put a little mayo on it to stop and whip his head up to make sure the Umpire saw it, but it was there enough to pay and convert from the square.

While the McNiel goal gave the small number of Bulldogs Supporters reason to applaud, the next surge had them on their feet as Jamaara Ugle-Hagan wrong-footed Sam Collins to take a floating mark in the pocket. Not an easy shot for the second gamer, but he converted with a clean shot that the goal ump didn’t need to move much for. The team got around him and he looked rightly happy to put his fairly quiet debut behind him.

Holman popped up for his third with a nice mark and conversion 20 metres out, mostly due to the continued pressure Gold Coast had at the contest which was almost matched by the pressure the Bulldogs were placing on themselves by continually fighting each other for the ball. That sort of desperation is great to see, but there does need to be some sort of communication or team rule about who flies or collects the ball.

The final play of the quarter was where I think Gold Coast started to put themselves into trouble. They had to have known that the quarter was winding down, but instead of taking the game on they seemed content to work the ball down the left wing, despite repeated spoils and scrambles that congested that wing. They had options inboard, but were determined to ignore them, which cost them forward movement. In the last scramble, the Bulldogs came away with it and immediately moved into the middle of the ground and spotted up Naughton who brought the ball down to Caleb Daniel. He snuck a goal through with less than ten seconds remaining in the quarter.

It’s easy to lose a little bit of confidence when playing against a side as relentless as the Bulldogs—very few sides can match their intense commitment to attack the ball carrier—but the teams that do well against them tend to be those willing to keep taking the game on, even after the Bulldogs make them pay once or twice. It’s like playing blackjack at the casino, you either have to stick through the shoe as all the crap cards fall in hope that you’ll pick up the winners in the next few hands or you take your money and head home (for the record, I recommend heading home. The house always wins. Gamble responsibly).

The middle

The Bulldogs used the first break to reset and launched a relentless attack on a Gold Coast side that seemed less than willing to take the chances that made them so dangerous earlier. Gold Coast looked hesitant and their commitment to play long down the line resulted in lots of contested packs that suited the Bulldogs style of play.

The Bulldogs were ever-present and scored four unanswered goals, all from Gold Coast turnovers. The first was a bit unlucky as Fiorini made an intercept, only to get holding the ball from a Bontempelli tackle. Lachie Hunter ran in a little circle, which saw the ump call play on to a flat-footed player about to throw the ball back to Bont, he handballed it instead and Bontempelli put in a monster kick to find Jamarra again who kicks truly from 45 metres to see the Dogs take the lead.

Ben King seemed like he wanted to step up, but was just not quite able to inspire his team. Several marking attempts don’t pay off, and when he managed to get the free anyway, an attempt to step around Alex Keath saw him get monstered and caught holding the ball. Keath then received a gift 50 as Rankine ran into the protected area, though it did look like he was within five metres of his opponent, so may have been a little stiff on that one.

The Bulldogs managed to lock it in and keep up the pressure, which enabled Jack Macrae to find a little bit of space to convert. The pressure continued to build as Bont showed that bigger isn’t always better, but it’s always bigger as he fended off Matty Rowell at the contest, pushed forward to find an open Johannisen who kicked the Bulldog’s fifth goal in a row.

Gold Coast kept trying though, especially Ben King. He just doesn’t have the polish yet to tear the game apart, but his ability to get hands to the ball allows his crumbers to have a shot as scooping it from the deck, as Holman did to set up an Ainsworth goal that broke the run of goals to the Bulldogs.

English and Sexton added goals for their teams before half time, but gold Coast had far more shots at goal that could have had them with a commanding half time lead instead of the eleven point deficit they faced.

After half time, Touk Miller started to play the inside-outside variable role that suits him so well, allowing Swallow and Rowell to switch it up with him for the in and under work with Jeremy Sharp and Holman floating around the pack to move the ball away. So often though, it was up to Miller to do both roles and break his own way out to create something, as he did to find Ainsworth with a long kick inside the forward 50 for the Suns first goal of the half.

Bruce and Sexton traded goals in quick succession, and while the Bulldogs were coming hard at the Gold Coast, the Suns didn’t back down, meeting their physicality stoically, but not quite sure enough of themselves to give too much of it back. Hopefully, as the team matures this will be something that they can bring into their game, as few teams meet with success if they’re unwilling to fight fire with fire sometimes.

The finish

With an almost three-goal lead to rein in, the first goal was vital for the Suns, and Lukosius almost got it for them from a perfect centre break and a long shot at goal that had the crowd up and about, but replays showed that the ball had juuuust grazed the padding.

The cost was doubled when the Bulldogs turnover from the kickout caused the Suns forwards to rush to become an option, only for a Gold Coast turnover to open up an enormous amount of space that allowed five Bulldogs players to run through the middle of the ground, finding Johanissen who kicked his second.

Another break saw Ben King stuck under the ball as Bailey Williams put a knee into his ribs when taking a mark. King struggled to get up (which if you’ve ever copped a hit like that to the ribs is entirely understandable), allowing the Dogs to surge forward and find Naughton for his first.

Gold Coast seemed to accept that this was going to be another loss at this point, but weren’t ready to go quietly, with repeated forward 50 entries that were unfortunately wasted with minor scores, mostly due to the pressure the Bulldogs had in their defence that didn’t allow the Suns forward the time to balance and snap confidently.

They had some joy with goals to King and Sexton to bring the margin back to two goals, but Cody Weightman managed to find some space in an open forward 50 to make it a little more than a three-goal margin with as many minutes on the clock.

A late surge gave King his second, but the Bulldogs had done enough and took the win as the siren sounded.

Miller vs Macrae

I was really looking forward to seeing these two go at it, and I think we got a lot out of both. Miller managed 38 touches, seven tackles and eight clearances to Macrae’s 31 touches, eight clearances and two goals, but I think it was the lone hand that Miller had to play at times that gave him the win here. With Bontempelli stepping in frequently to assert himself and Bailey Smith ever-present at the contest, Macrae didn’t have to rack up the numbers to be effective, while Miller almost single-handedly brought his team back into the game after the Bulldogs got a run on in the second quarter.

No one is sleeping on Miller now, and if not for a bit of careless contact with Nick Coffield that resulted in a suspension, we may well be talking about him as the Brownlow favourite. His teammates need to step up around him though. As good as he is, no team knows better than Gold Coast that a star midfielder playing a lone hand won’t bring them the success they crave.

The difference

For my money, the key difference in this match was confidence.

Confidence that the players could leave their man to impact the player with the ball. The Dogs had this, and the pressure resulted in several skewed kicks and smothers that allowed them to catch the Gold Coast on the transition.

Confidence that their ruckman could tap to them away from the ruck contest, allowing the mids to set up a few metres from the drop of the ball and find space when it came near them.

Confidence that they could continue to play their game, even when it misfired early. The three-goal lead that Gold Coast had didn’t change the Bulldogs’ attack at the ball (if anything they increased it) but when the Bulldogs managed to turn the tide of momentum, it was Gold Coast who blinked first and changed to a much more conservative brand of footy.

Confidence is hard to instil in players, as it often only comes after repeated success, and repeated success needs a certain level of confidence. At the moment, Gold Coast have a brash but brittle sort of confidence. It’s like a bloke having the guts to float the idea of a threesome to the missus. That takes confidence (and likely a certain level of recklessness to go with the foolishness of youth). The Bulldogs are a bit beyond this though, as it’s like they’ve not only floated the idea to their missus, they’ve called her best friend and booked a weekend away to make it happen, too. That’s the sort of confidence that comes with knowing that you can pull off something that others think is impossible, but it’s really just because you know the people around you so much better than anyone else, and the missus probably thought of it first anyway and is just letting you think it’s your idea.

That analogy might have gotten away from me a bit actually, but I think you catch my drift.

The impact of Bontempelli

I thought Bontempelli was a bit hit-and-miss by his standards, with more than his share of wayward kicks, but for all his disposal problems, they often at least resulted with an opposition possession well down the field, meaning it had to come back through him anyway.

When it comes together for him though, few players can create like he can. His nine clearances and five tackles to go with his 36 touches put him in the best players of the match, and likely in the Brownlow votes, despite being a bit wasteful at times.

Ruck Battle

English won. It’s really that simple.

Tim had about three inches on his primary opponent in Burgess, and even if most of that is in his cobra-like neck, he still managed to use his reach to control the taps more often than not. In any side, that advantage is considerable, but with this Bulldog’s midfield—even though it was lacking Liberatore for this match—it is almost insurmountable.

English had more hit outs, more hit outs to advantage, more centre clearances, more disposals and even chipped in for a goal from the ruck contest. At 23, he still had time to grow into his frame and evolve into his final form, so expect a lot from this lad.

King still not quite ascending

Ben King is doing a lot right. His agility is spectacular, and he seems willing to become the leading spearhead that his team is crying out for, but his ability to take the contested mark is inconsistent, and he seems to need a bit more conditioning to take the knocks that come with being a marking forward. It may help to get a few more big bodies around him, but in the interim, he may need to hit the protein and get into the Majak Daw school of biceps.

Jamarra making an impact

Much has been said of Jamarra Ugle-Hagan, even before he was drafted at number 1.

The spotlight on his talent soon turned to questions about his attitude and suitability for AFL. Some media entities questioned if picking him up was the right call for the Bulldogs, and with his debut match being a quiet one, those voices only grew louder.

Very few players have much of an impact in their first game though and finding your way into a quality team during the ongoing challenges of playing footy during the pandemic is sure to increase the difficulty too.

With all that in mind, JUH showed amazing agility and skill with his three goals. He only had eight touches, but his five marks were as clean as you’d dream of for a player in his role.

He had a big impact on the game, and many teams watching will be studying this footage to pre-emptively find a way to curb his influence.

Imitating the play but not the attitude (yet)

With all the momentum in the first half, Gold Coast looked confident and willing to play the free-flowing football that they’re quickly getting a bit of a name for. Some clever tap ons and knocks to advantage were reminiscent of the successful Richmond and Hawthorn sides of recent memory. The key difference between this side and those premiership teams, however, is that they had the confidence and belief to stick with their aggressive forward movement and hard-to-execute skills, even if they backfired once or twice.

After quarter time, when the Bulldogs started to put a bit of scoreboard pressure on them, Gold Coast tried to slow the tempo of the game by playing possession football around the wings and open up the fat side for a switch. There’s only so many players on the ground though, and this left plenty of open corridor for the dogs to counter from.

I hope we get to see Gold Coast play with the courage to embrace the riskier style of footy that worked so well early on, and not drop it as soon as they have a couple of faltering moments.

Injuries

Losing Brandon Ellis to a hamstring in the first quarter hurt a lot. His work at half back was always going to be important, especially without Markov’s pace to push the ball into attack. Losing him seemed to hurt their structure a bit, and while his replacement Atkins is no stranger to AFL football, he isn’t really delivering on his promise at the Gold Coast so far.

Matty Rowell still not on all cylinders?

Put simply, there is no emerging player as exciting as Rowell when he’s on. None. He had a decent enough match, especially with his in and under work netting him seven clearances, but he didn’t display that dash and step that we saw in his rookie year. Perhaps he’s just tailoring his craft to complement Miller and Swallow or perhaps he’s decided that since this season is likely a wash, he’s put ankle weights on. Either way, hope we can get Matt Rowell at his best as much as possible in the future, because he’s an absolute delight to watch.

Other bits

Holman has struggled with consistency and injury, but this was possibly his best game I’ve seen of his. His three goals in the first quarter put Gold Coast into a nice position for quarter time, and his 16 disposals and four tackles for the match were a great return for his effort. He also chased and hassled well, hopefully this will be a turning point for him and he can set himself up for a great future in this emerging Gold Coast line up.

Josh Bruce makes as good a backup ruckman as he does a Victoria’s Secret model. The Bulldogs are putting a lot of faith in English to handle primary ruck duties (and fair enough too, the lad is turning into something special) but Bruce at the ruck just did not seem to click. He did manage to get his hands on the ball a few times, but often it was due to a tap that brought players towards him and stifled space rather than to moving mids who could run away with it. I’d rather see him pinch hit on the wing. Maybe I’m being unfair to Bruce though, as his return wasn’t awful, just that English was so much better.

Sam Flanders is a player I personally rate fairly highly, but he struggled to make an impact in this match. I don’t follow the Suns media much, but if his nickname isn’t “Ned” then they need to dump the whole GC team. I know that shave for a cause is a noble event, but I’d be willing to chip in a few dollarinos to see Sam grow a bit of an old pushbroom on his top lip. If he gets married, his wife should stay away from sporting events that have T-shirt cannons though.

Next up

In theory, the Bulldogs will head to Ballarat to host Adelaide and Gold Coast are slated to head to Darwin to play Melbourne. I’d be surprised if both of those games went ahead as scheduled, but assuming they do, here are my thoughts:

Ballarat’s chilly breeze and swirling conditions will probably suit Adelaide better than the Western Bulldogs, and while the Crows have shown a bit more recently, they’re still struggling a little to put away team that can move the ball with pace like the Bulldogs can.

If Tex is fit, he could be all the difference in this game, but I think that with his neck injury still likely to hamper him even if he does play, the Bulldogs will have too much grunt in the middle and will take it with a consistent four quarter effort.

Gold Coast versus Melbourne is a bit of a wildcard game, with Melbourne showing themselves to be a little inconsistent against the teams that they should really see off easily if they’re aiming to contest for the flag. Either Melbourne show up and put a further-depleted Gold Coast to the sword or they can kiss goodbye a top two finish. I would expect them to put a bit of a hurting on the Suns though, as percentage will be important later on in the year, and possibly the difference between a home final or an away game… assuming there will be crowds or even home grounds that will be holding footy games.

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