It is always difficult to review a game where one side was clearly better. You want to be fair and just in your assessment, but at the same time, you cannot be patronising to the losing team.
The Western Bulldogs were the better team in this Elimination Final clash against the Bombers, and as we’ll cover below, there were several factors that established them as such. The most noticeable of all, however, was the Dogs’ ability to adapt to the wet weather better than their counterparts.
The Dogs played direct footy when the opportunity presented, and whilst they may have overused the footy here or there, their pressure at ground level was always enough to win the footy back. The Bombers, on the other hand, shot themselves in the foot repeatedly – maybe even in both feet, with the extra handball continuously selling teammates into trouble. They refused to do the basics that make the most of slippery conditions, and failed to a) retain their structure and b) continually robbed Peter to pay Paul with their set up. Numbers around the footy gave way to a lack of numbers at the next contest, allowing the Dogs free rein once the initial tough work was done to win the footy.
Essendon would win the footy back and the process would start again until the Dogs broke through and the resistance faltered.
The Dogs, to their credit, were quick to realise the Bombers were not adjusting, and turned the screws on their opponents, attacking the footy harder at ground level, and using their run and forward pressure to create for teammates, with a really good spread from the contest and an awareness to use the ball by foot to gain meterage when necessary.
There is a heap to get through in this one, and not all of it is great, so let’s just jump in with the Mongrel’s Talking Points.
THE GOOD OF CODY WEIGHTMAN
At one stage we had the young Bulldog kicking four of the Dogs’ first seven goals of the game in this one. For a first-year player, he certainly found a way to step up when his team needed him. Elusive at ground level, and with a lightning-quick change of direction, Weightman was often able to beat his man to the punch and arrive at the footy first. What he did with it from then on, we’ll get to, but in a wet weather kicking display, his offensive contribution simply cannot be denied.
Already this evening, I have seen several worrying posts from angry Bomber fans chastising the manner in which Weightman plays the game, but you know what? You cannot argue with success.
Weightman was the spark that lit the fire under the Dogs and took the contest from an arm wrestle to a knock out. If you don’t like the way he plays, I reckon that’s on you. If you do…
… I’d say you’re a Dogs supporter. Winners are grinners.
AND THE BAD DECISIONS THAT HELPED HIM ALONG THE WAY
And now we get to the not-so-pleasant aspect of Weightman’s game – the manner in which he was permitted to kick his goals – all via free kicks.
There were three, in particular, that Essendon fans will be questioning heavily in the wake of this contest, with one coming after he tried to do… something to impact the disposal of Sam Draper, only to see the shorter man end up with his head in Draper’s armpit. You know a bloke is serious about winning free kicks when he goes around sneaking into a ruckman’s armpit!
This would be something most footy fans would see as incidental contact. Alas, the whistle blew, Weightman was awarded the free kick as Draper did his best to look surprised as he asked “against me?”.
Yes, Sam – a shitty free kick against you.
The second came as Marty Gleeson stumbled in a marking contest and appeared to hold Weightman on the way down. Or did he? ON replay, Weightman looked to continue to press back into the fallen Gleeson. The defender really didn’t impede the diminutive forward, but the umpire blew the whistle, anyway.
The third had me screwing my nose up.
As Weightman disposed of the footy, the Bombers closed in and applied the pressure. Weightman was knocked out of bounds by what looked like a genuine piece of good pressure footy from Zach Merrett and all eyes switched to the next contest.
All expect one pair of eyes – those of the umpire. I couldn’t believe my eyes or ears – my eyes are pretty screwed but my ears work well – when the umpire awarded Weightman a free kick for “pushing”.
Not in a marking contest. Not in the back. Just… pushing, like a teacher reprimanding a naughty boy in the playground for annoying another child. I’ve watched it back – I have no idea what the hell made the umpire blow the whistle, and neither did Merrett.
To Weightman’s credit, when these opportunities presented themselves, he made the Bombers pay. His kicking at goal was excellent, and the resultant shot at goal from the Merrett free kick was the best of the bunch.
That said, you cannot discount what that perplexing decision did to the flow of the game. It swung the momentum in the favour of the Dogs, and from that point onward, they caught fire. I don’t know about you as individuals, but what I do know I’d how I felt watching that unfold. With no skin in the game at all, I could not help but feel we were seeing something very wrong transpire, and as I sit here now writing about it, I cannot blame Essendon supporters for feeling as though the Dogs had a little help in gaining the advantage at that stage of the game. That’s not to say they needed it – they ran away with the contest quite convincingly – but every journey begins with a step and every storm starts with a single drop of rain. This couple of decisions in favour of Weightman swung the game and started the ball rolling the Dogs’ way. They most likely would have grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck, anyway, but they didn’t need assistance in doing so.
And hey – I know you may not like the way the goals came about, but attacking the bloke online is not the way to go. I’d like to think readers of this site are a bit better than that. Yes, it is disappointing to lose, and heartbreaking to see opportunities afforded to someone who may not have completely deserved them, but it’s not Weightman’s fault the whistle blew.
Blame the umpires! Haha.
THE MIDFIELD BATTLE
This looked to be a classic battle in the making, with the might of the Bontempelli/Macrae/Liberatore trio matched up against the threesome (bum chika wow wow) of Merrett/Parish and Shiel, with Jake Stringer playing a cameo.
It more than lived up to its billing with the top four disposal winners on the park coming from those named. The crash and bash work of Libba, and the perpetual running of Macrae were on show in the first before Darcy Parish made the footy his own in the second and looked to be shaping to have another of those big games he produced early in the season.
Macrae continued to do a power of work in the third, as Lachie Hunter inserted himself into the action and the last quarter saw Libba and a very frustrated Merrett step to the fore again.
Between the four of them, Merrett, Parish, Libba and Macrae compiled 137 touches of the footy, with the Dogs duo +5 for the game.
Bont was subdued with 23 touches and none of the usual flair, yet still managed to go long and direct inside 50 on eight occasions to put the Essendon defence under pressure.
Jake Stringer was probably the factor that Essendon missed most. His crash and bash midfield work has been one of the highlights of the Bombers’ run to finals, but with just nine touches in this one, he was unable to give his team a lift out of the guts. He still managed a couple of goals in the wet up forward, but the most damaging aspect of Stringer’s game this season has been that burst out of the guts. It just wasn’t there in this one.
TAKING A RISK
Was I the only one thinking it was a huge risk inserting Jye Caldwell into the line up with such minimal preparation. The bloke hadn’t played since Round Two and was coming off a nasty hamstring tear.
Usually, during a game we have a bit of a chat amongst the Mongrel writers. Today was no different and I made comment that Caldwell was going beautifully in the first quarter, but I was concerned about his tank. So often, you see players hit the ground running after a long lay off and then the legs get heavy, particularly in the wet, and things go downhill rapidly.
Caldwell had nine touches in the first half to be ranked amongst Essendon’s best. He finished the gae with 14 disposals, spending 37 minutes on the bench, completely cooked.
This is not a bake on Caldwell – he will be a very handy player for the Bombers for quite a while, but you really roll the dice on moves like this. Caldwell may have done all the work and got through every piece of training necessary to find his way back into the team, however, anyone who has played footy knows that training fitness and match fitness are two very different things. After a good first quarter, Caldwell blew up, and that meant the Bombers had to find a spot to hide him against one of the best and hardest running midfields in the competition.
Sometimes it is better to err on the side of caution.
RIDLEY V NAUGHTON
We rarely get genuine one-on-one clashes in the league anymore. With all the switching and help defence, the old fashioned forward v defender clash is usually more like a forward six versus that entire back half and floating midfielders/wingmen. No wonder scoring is down, huh?
But we got to see a glimpse of what good one-on-one footy was all about in this game, with Jordan Ridley being handed the responsibility of taking on Aaron Naughton.
Aided by the wet conditions, Ridley was excellent opposite Naughton, collecting a game-high, and career-high 18 one-percenters to go with his eight intercepts. It was a hands-down victory for the reigning Crichton Medallist up until the last quarter, where the relentless Naughton managed to break the shackles and snag two of his three goals for the game. That kind of dragged the contest back to level – or it will in the eyes of those who read stats and believe they have an understanding of what went on in the game.
In truth, this game should be assessed on the first three quarters when the game was there to be won. At that point, Naughton had delivered six touches, three marks and a goal, whilst Ridley had picked up 11 touches, 14 one-percenters and six intercepts. I shudder to think where the Bombers would have been without Ridley’s work on Naughton, but I am looking forward to seeing what these two can do opposite each other when they get onto Marvel Stadium next year.
Let’s hope things are under control by then and we can all actually go to watch it, huh? What do you think our chances are?
THE GAME OF CHICKEN
Luke Beveridge held his nerve in this one, but I reckon the first quarter of Tim English may have given him the confidence to stick to his guns when it came to playing his big man out of the forward line.
In many ways, this was a battle of wills between Beveridge and Ben Rutten.
English was providing a good target inside 50, and ranging up the ground to give the Dogs a good “get out of jail” option – I call them GOOJ marks. However, whilst he was doing that, Sam Draper started to take command of the ruck duels, and it was leading to some pretty nice centre clearance work from the Bombers. It was like Rutten was using Draper’s hit out dominance to dare Bevo to move English into the middle, yet the Dogs’ coach stood firm.
Beveridge put a lot of faith in Lewis Young to hold his own against Draper, and as the rain came down, things started to even up quite a bit. The Dogs mids started winning the footy and evening up those clearance numbers, eventually finishing +8 for the game.
English continued to play his game, albeit to much less success than earlier in the game, and Young battled on in the ruck against the man-child. Rutten continued to drive straight at Bevo, but the Dogs coach refused to swerve. Amazingly, there was no collision, yet it will be the Dogs behind the wheel next week as the Bombers spend the rest of the finals sitting parked in their driveway.
THE REINFORCED WALL
The story a few weeks back was the emergence of “Two Metre” Peter Wright as the man who dismantled the Western Bulldogs. Taking nothing away from that performance, things can change pretty quickly in the AFL, and with plenty of rain about, you could see what was coming for the Essendon big man in this game.
With Zaine Cordy a late out, the Dogs looked to the combination of Ryan Gardner and Alex Keath to make life difficult for the Bombers recruit, and did they ever stick to the task at hand. Using a combination of aerial and body spoils, the Dogs defence rendered Wright useless up forward, with the big man managing just seven handballs for the game. Suffice to say, he was at no stage a threat to kick a goal… which is pretty hard to do when you don’t have a kick all day long.
Wright was a non-factor in the air as well, playing as though competing in the wet was a completely foreign concept to him. The marking target of the Bombers was the only player in red and black that failed to take one mark.
Alex Keath was strong in the contest, and he was ably supported by Gardner and Easton Wood, who looked to relish the physical nature of the game.
Add to the work of these blokes the excellent efforts of Taylor Duryea at ground level (I had him close to votes in this one) and you have the makings of a very tidy, very accountable back six that made life hell for the Bomber forwards. Almost as much as the midfield delivery did!
I haven’t even mentioned Bailey Dale or Bailey Williams…
The Dogs’ defence has been one of their question marks this season, for me at least. They didn’t look like a powerful unit at times, but with Keath playing the anchoring role, they have really come together at the right time, and once the ball is on the deck, they can whip it away like lightning.
THE BOTTOM SIX
This was another real difference in the teams – depth.
The Dogs had contributors all over the field, with even players who turn in reasonably consistent poor performances more than doing their part in this win. Josh Schache returned to the role of forward and kicked two important goals. Lewis Young may have been beaten in the ruck, but his willingness to get over and make the spoil in aerial contests was noted several times, and Ryan Gardner was solid.
All in all, the Dogs were well represented by their lesser lights.
But can you say the same for the Bombers?
Archie Perkins was a ghost in his first final. He looked tentative and timid. Given his inexperience, you give him a Mulligan, but this was a performance he will not want to repeat. Aaron Francis started well but quickly faded, Jye Caldwell disappeared almost completely after half time, and Dylan Shiel hacked at the footy like an angry under 12 player trying to gain distance – seriously, it is THE chink in his armour – he cannot consistently kick the footy well.
If we were looking at the overall bottom six players on the park, I reckon the Bombers would have at least five. And there lies the big difference between the teams – it does not matter how your midfield is matching it with the opposition if you’re an 18-man team carrying five passengers. You’re always going to lose in that scenario, and that is where the Bombers found themselves in this one.
IS THIS THE TURNING POINT FOR THE DOGS?
They get the Lions next week, and should give Brisbane a real challenge. They were inches away from that top-four berth, themselves, with the Lions sneaking in by mere percentage points in the last round, and given the Dogs were in a form slump in the run to finals, a win like this is important.
Look, any win in the finals is important, obviously, but for the Dogs to win the contested footy and dial up the pressure inside 50, laying +8 tackles in that area, you’re looking at the signs you definitely want to see.
The hunger was there. The attack on the footy returned, and the Dogs showed a bit of mongrel. It’s not so much that they turned the corner – more that this game straightened them up after they started veering into the gutter over the final stages of the home and away season.
DO THE BOMBERS DESERVE MOCKING ABOUT THE “… DAYS SINCE…” STUFF?
No, not at all.
Not many people expected big things from the Bombers this season and I view them making the eight as a win for this group. Following a coaching change and an influx of young talent, they started to look like a team that could really develop over the next couple of seasons. Whilst a win would have been nice, I am not sure even the most optimistic Essendon fan genuinely thought they’d be making a run at the flag this season.
They were projected by many as a bottom-four club and finished in the eight. Yes, they didn’t win a final, but unlike many teams whose fans would happily throw shade at them… at least they made the finals. Must be easy to throw insults from ninth down.
CAN THE DOGS WIN THE FLAG FROM HERE?
It is going to take something special, but it is not like they haven’t done this before. I like their chances against the Lions – I feel they have the talent to match it with them and overrun them – and once you hit the Prelims… it’s a whole new ball game.
Over the past month, people seemed to forget that the Dogs were a top two team for the majority of the year. Yes, they hit a wall over the last section of the home and away season, but they scaled that wall today and will be looking to leave it behind them. The Gabba will be tough, particularly on a day less recovery and travel thrown into the equation, but if you want to be remembered as a great team, you have to overcome adversity. This is the challenge before the Dogs in six days.