This game was originally scheduled to be played in Ballarat, which got changed last week to the MCG, before being ultimately moved back to Ballarat at the start of the working week – God, the AFL are limping towards the finish aren’t they?

With the Covid outbreak happening and Queensland putting themselves in a snap lockdown, forcing the three games scheduled to happen to move elsewhere at possibly another time, who knows what the final month of the home and away season brings for us, footy-mad lunatics.

But, in the middle of nowhere that is Ballarat’s Mars Stadium, the Bulldogs began their mini-quest to finish the home and away season as the minor premiers for the first time in the club’s history with a trip to their second home out West, where the Adelaide Crows awaited.

The last time these two sides played out in Ballarat, it was the Dogs playing with something to prove, to solidify their place inside the top eight in their last game of the home and away season. They got the job done in the first half and left Adelaide searching for answers for the rest of it.

Whilst the result showed similar signs of two years ago, the Crows got the early jump with the breeze, kicking the opening two goals of the match and looked strong in patches in this match. But the class of the Bulldogs eased themselves into it and by half time, had the game firmly in control, eventually going on to win by 49 points to maintain their place on top of the ladder.

It’s the weekend, which means it is time to break the scalpel out and dissect what happened with this match.

 

The Beauty Of The Beast That Is The Bulldogs Midfield

It was the question asked when they brought in Adam Treloar over the off-season last year: How do you fit in all these midfielders?

Whilst the negative connotation of The Beast has some bearing to it, this game has the proof that it can actually be one of the Bulldogs’ greater strengths towards the business end.

There’s no denying that Marcus Bontempelli is a match-winning midfielder and has popped up for important fourth quarter goals so often throughout the course of his career. In this one, he popped up here and there, but wasn’t as impactful as he has been all year. It didn’t look as if he had a direct tagger on him at any stage. I saw Ben Keays on him at points in the game, but it’s not as severe as the shutdown jobs others have been directed to deliver in the past.

You won’t be able to get away with the Bont going missing in finals, but what the Dogs were able to do is utilise others around him. Jack Macrae was at his usual best, racking up disposals at will, but also lead all players on the ground for clearances with 12 for the match. Surprisingly, the Dogs were well beaten in centre clearances 17-8, but around the stoppages it was all Bulldogs, doubling that count 36-18 and 10 of Macrae’s 12 came out of stoppages.

Tom Liberatore had a very sound game as well, but one player that I do want to give props to is Bailey Smith. I’ve been quite critical of his work at numerous points in the season – not because he has been played out of position, but when he does get his hands on the footy, he shows very little composure and there doesn’t look to be a gear that slows him down.

I will argue that he started to show signs of composure in this one and lowered his eyes for the right options a couple of times. However, one thing that cannot be questioned is his work rate and it stood out a fair bit in this one. He demonstrated plenty of outside run, but when placed in the middle or around stoppages, he showed that he was completely willing to get his hands and that glorious mullet of his dirty: 29 disposals, seven tackles, four clearances and 644 metres gained at 62.1 per cent disposal efficiency.

Also, it’s worth noting that Josh Dunkley is back in the side as well, after an array of injuries and he’ll use this next month to ease himself into the fray again – competition for spots at the Whitten Oval is at its peak for the first time since 2016.

 

The Butts Of It

Going back to round one for a moment, and looking at Jordon Butts against a Geelong forward line that, on paper could carve up the side that finished 2020 in last position. Butts looks a very unassuming lad, as if he is expecting the worst to be dished out to him. Then it doesn’t come his way and he actually puts in a massive defensive effort.

In this contest, he was assigned the job on Aaron Naughton, who absolutely torched the Crows in their meeting last year for six goals. This was quite the duel between the pair. Naughton had a few good moments in this match, but could only finish with 1.2 for his troubles, however, Butts is a player that can hold his head high in this one – I thought he was brilliant.

Naughton took a few strong grabs early in the first half and in football, all it takes is a few good moments to really ignite the troublesome fire that is the man dubbed by many as ‘The AstroNaught.’ But full credit to Butts, because he continued to stick to his guns and continued to run alongside him throughout the match.

Bulldogs supporters will know that Naughton has got a fairly decent tank on him and can lead up and back, but one strength of Butts’ game is that he can do it too and at ground level, he can cut off the space you’re given in the blink of an eye. With Daniel Talia’s future a bit up in the air at the moment, it’s good for the Crows that they have some key pillars for the next five to seven years down the track.

 

It’s Always Sunny With Garcia

See what I did there? If you did that’s fantastic, if not then my sense of humour and wit just isn’t for you.

But look, I want to talk about Riley Garcia. He’s probably going to be unlucky to feature in the votes in this one, but there is just so much to love about him and the best part is, that he is continuing to find ways to entrench himself inside this Bulldogs’ best 22 heading into September.

It must be remembered that the Bulldogs took the punt on him with their last pick in the 2019 AFL Draft – the same one that gave the Dogs Cody Weightman. God that draft is looking pretty sweet considering what he’s done – and when they did that, they took him knowing that he was on the mend from a season-ending knee injury he had mid-2019.

He got through most, if not all of 2020, unscathed and got some run back in the legs. This year is paying off dividends with Garcia. There’s a two-way dimension to his game that I absolutely admire – on the run he just looks so composed and he takes his time and he is a beautiful hit of the ball by foot. When the ball is there to be won, he’s very strong in his core and he just simply bounces off those who elect to bump him fairly.

The goal he kicked in the last quarter was a thing of poise, but he also worked himself into the right spot to receive the footy. There are quite a few young players that do find themselves driven to get the footy themselves, but Garcia is smart enough to hold the line, maintain some distance and present as an outlet option. he does not get drawn to contests he cannot impact and he’s a player that can run too, so that always helps.

All in all, 18 disposals, four marks, three tackles, two clearances, one goal and six score involvements going at a very nice 72.2 per cent disposal efficiency means a good day out for someone only in his seventh career game. He’d better get the Rising Star nomination this week.

 

His Name Is Bailey Dale – All Australian Half Back

I’m not kidding about this, he better get himself a spot in the All-Australian team at the end of the year. He wasn’t in Matt Oman’s rolling All Australian team either this week and I’ll be very interested to see where he fits in with the grand scheme of themes there. No pressure, Matt.

Last year, Caleb Daniel got his All-Australian blazer on the back of bursting out of half back and creating plays and now with Daniel playing a little further away from defence, that torch has been essentially passed down to Dale, who has taken the role and has run with it as fast and far as he can.

He hasn’t had many poor games this year in terms of either impact or his efficiency by foot and this one was probably one of his better outings. He just makes the running seem so effortless and even barrelling along at full pelt, he just has this knack to pop it out into space for his teammates to run on to it.

One particular play that stands out is watching him recover the ball inside defensive 50 at full pace and then without breaking stride he kicks out to Bailey Williams just outside the defensive 50 – this is what he is so good at doing. He is a natural footballer and has aspects to his game you simply cannot teach.  Another thing that stood out was his positioning as ‘The Goalie’ as the game progressed – dropping himself back into the goal square to pick off any hurried long range shots.

Dale led all players on the ground for metres gained with 682 for the match, but also had 31 disposals, four marks, nine intercepts (which was also a team-high) and five rebound 50s, and he’ll be at the top-end of the votes here.

 

Doedee

Okay, this is a bit of a defensively-oriented review this one, but I thought Tom Doedee was Adelaide’s best player in this one. Without him, the Crows lose by 12 goals and then probably room for extras.

I really like Doedee. One, because he’s actually one of the more interactable blokes on Twitter and doesn’t mind a conversation about TV shows and movies to watch. But also, he’s a very smart player and an important cog in their defence.

When Jake Lever defected to Melbourne at the end of the 2017 season, Doedee came into the Crows team – after playing no games in his first two seasons – and filled the void rather seamlessly. Then 2019 happened, he ruptured an ACL in the first game of the season and he missed the rest of the season. He managed to play nine of a possible 17 games last year and was good in some, but was a non-factor in others as he worked his way back into the form and got over some of the mental demons that accompany a knee injury.

This year, he looks back to his best and this game is all the proof you need. He looked matched up on Josh Bruce at various points in the game, and whilst Bruce ended with three goals for the contest in a modest return, he also allowed Doedee to play off him a lot and that resulted in a lot of intercepts in defence – and the Dogs had over 20 more inside 50 entries mind you.

Doedee led all players on the ground for intercepts possessions in this one with 12, but was also equal-second for all players for rebound 50s with seven for the match – only Brodie Smith had more of them.

 

Other Observations

Jamarra Ugle-Hagan was very good to watch in this one. It was quite obvious that he was more confident in the air – only had the 2.1 to show for it on the scoreboard, but he was very lively and there was a lot to like about how he leads towards the ball and attacks the ball in flight. Two of his five marks were contested.

It was interesting to watch the ruck duel unfold in this one. Reilly O’Brien got the better of Tim English in the hitouts 44-27, but both had their moments around the ground. O’Brien positioned himself as the kick behind the play ruck beautifully in the second half, but English had a lot of good moments himself up forward.

Another man that will feature highly in the votes in this one is Caleb Daniel – he just missed out on the five mongrel votes last week, but will be a good chance here: 32 disposals, five clearances, five marks, five score involvements and five rebound 50s at a very clean 84.4 percent disposal efficiency.

I mentioned earlier about the Crows’ centre clearance dominance – credit both to Rory Sloane and Ben Keays who combined for nine centre clearances – which basically is the difference in the count in the end.

He had a big game last week, and it was another good shift out on the park from Rory Laird – he’s one of my favourite Crows, he just works tirelessly and he has a real hard-edge to his game – 25 disposals, 10 tackles and four clearances.

Josh Schache was good in large parts – started well early cutting off a lot of kicks from Adelaide players, but his one-on-one work will need some improvement – got out-bodied a few times by both Taylor Walker and Darcy Fogarty.

Whilst on the Crows forwards, it was a dirty afternoon for the big Texan, the two junk time goals really saved him here, but Elliott Himmelberg should be a lock in this 22 going into 2022 – he took four contested marks in this one – the most of any player on the ground – but also kicked 2.1 for his efforts.

I would also like to see more games out of the likes of Ned McHenry and Sam Berry – they are two players that I know that bring plenty of grunt and pressure at ground level and I think the experience will do both of them good going forward.

He’s another Bulldog I have criticised in recent years, but that was the most comfortable game I’ve seen out of Jason Johannisen this year – looks as if he knows his position a bit more now as a forward than where they were six weeks ago: kicked two goals from 15 disposals and four marks.

For some stupid reason I’m sure, but it felt like watching a reincarnation of Dale Morris out there in Bailey Williams. He’s a man that’s not afraid to back himself against the flight of the ball, but he also manages to win a lot of important one-on-one footy and he did plenty of that in this one.

I quite enjoyed watching the replay of the cars piling outside of Mars Stadium around the fencing and the locals getting down to watch it anyway, not that Ballarat has had a Covid case in god knows how long – seriously, nothing happens there – unless it’s a Bulldog win.

And on that feel-good moment for the fans, that’ll do me with this one.

For the Bulldogs, they’ve got win number 15 and they can actually equal their record for most wins in a season next Friday night when they take on an Essendon side that hasn’t beaten the Bulldogs in over seven years. But, I’ve got a gut feeling that this will be one of the more potent Essendon sides the Dogs have come across in recent years.

For the Crows, the end of the season may not come fast enough, but I think they’ve put in a hell of a lot more effort this year than they did in season 2020. Next weekend, they’ve got the Showdown with Port Adelaide for the second time this year. For the Crows fans, it would be nice if they could get one in against their old rivals before the year is done.

But who knows what will happen between now and then – we may just get more fixture swapping, much to the chagrin of everybody else.

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