A thriller. A nail biter. The type of game that makes you both love and hate being an AFL fan.

The Western Bulldogs got over the line in a brilliant finish, thanks to a hurried little snap at goal from Laith Vandermeer that gave them the one-point lead. In a pulsating last quarter, goals to Bailey Smith and Zac Bailey had the momentum shifting wildly. The hometown Brisbane crowd was baying for blood at some calls and some non-calls, but as much as I am sure their supporters would like to blame umpires, there were far more decisive factors in this game.

For the Dogs, we saw their midfield star, and one of the most consistent players in the league turn up the heat. Jack Macrae was wonderful out of the guts, and slotted a last quarter goal to further emphasise his importance.

Alex Keath did a number on Joe Daniher… and man, we’ve got a lot to discuss with Joe. Charlie Cameron started like a rocket and looked like he was going to own the game. And just a metre or two on a couple of kicks from the Lions could have seen us go to extra time.

There are so many little stories emerging from this one. So many games within the game. Let’s just into things with The Mongrels “What Did We Learn?”

 

 

REPUTATIONS ARE MADE IN THESE TYPES OF GAMES

Bailey Smith, take a bow.

There have been moments this season where I have wondered what the hell Bailey Smith was doing. Whether he was throwing the ball on his boot without thinking, or opting not to take the physical pressure before releasing to a teammate (thereby relaying the pressure onto them), to say his development had kind of stagnated this season would not be harsh at all.

But in big moments in big games, young players can really make a name for themselves. And that is exactly what Smith did in this one. Whether it was his handball to set up Josh Schache’s last-quarter goal, his wobbly goal on the run that looked like he channelled a Stephen Kernahan set shot, or his left foot shot to give the Dogs the lead late in the game, anyone who has had doubts about Smith as an emerging elite runner of the game would have to be reconsidering their stance.

But he was not the only one putting his hand up when it counted.

On the flip side, the composure, the poise… the levelheadedness of Zac Bailey under extraordinary pressure, to collect, sidestep an opponent and take the time to balance up before kicking the goal to tie the scores was something special.

People have been singing Bailey’s praises for so long that you tend to think he’s been around forever. He is 21 years old. To display that type of demeanour at such a crucial moment in the game speaks volumes about the player he will be, and the player he already is. Compare what he was able to do with what some of his teammates conjured late in the game. He had exactly what they needed, but will never possess.

You cannot teach footy smarts. You either have it, or you don’t. You can get fitter, work on your reflexes, and list weights all you like, but players like Bailey have an intrinsic knowledge of the game, and it was evident in the way he slices through the 50-metre zone to slot the goal late in the game.

 

REPUTATIONS ARE ALSO LOST IN THESE TYPES OF GAMES

Last week, as the Lions fell to the Dees, I was pretty harsh on Joe Daniher. Many Lions fans leapt to his defence, as they should – he is their guy, and I expect nothing less from them.

My point, however, was reinforced this week, when the boom recruit returned six touches for the game.

Now, you can argue that he was playing a lone hand inside 50 for the second week in a row after Jackson Payne went off following a marking contest that saw his head split open in the second quarter, but Joe Daniher was recruited as a match-winner.

Instead, he has channelled Daniel McStay-like finals stats (check McStay’s 2020 finals series) in his two games for the Lions this finals series.

A marking forward, Joe didn’t trouble the stats men in charge of recording contested marks, however, I wonder whether they keep stats for score involvements against, as he allowed his man to run up the ground and receive the footy from the pinpoint kicking of Caleb Daniel twice in this game. Twice, it led to scores for the Lions.

People, I have picked this hill to die on – you cannot trust Joe Daniher. He has not earned it, yet. He is supposed to be the player crashing packs and bringing the ball to ground for the small men. Instead, he was the one taking the cheap way out and obtaining his scoring chances via roving the ball off the pack he is supposed to be a main component in. That’s how he kicked his goal. That’s how he set up Tom Fullarton for his late goal, and that’s what he seems to think he should be doing in the Brisbane forward line.

But it’s not what he should be doing.

No Hipwood, no McStay, and after the first quarter, no Payne to relieve the pressure, it was up to Joe to take some big marks and provide the target for the Lions mids. Instead, he became a 201-centimetre crumber. And simply put, that is not good enough.

I know he has returned from an injury that may have been debilitating… or it may not have been, and has probably achieved more than most expected this season, but when the Lions have needed him to be the man, he has not shown up.

 

EASTON WOOD DOES NOT GIVE UP – TAYLOR DURYEA DOESN’T EITHER

Charlie Cameron gave Easton Wood a bit of a hiding in the first quarter, snagging three goals and looking as though he was going to turn the semi-final into his personal showcase.

But the Dogs’ premiership captain is not a man to drop his head, and over the next 45 minutes of footy, Wood worked his way back into the game. The opportunistic Cameron was held to just one touch in the second quarter as the Dogs and Wood found their groove and started making Charlie earn his touches.

He was ably supported by a bloke who gets little to no love in the press, but is one of the best small to medium defenders in the game, Taylor Duryea. His pace in racing Cameron back toward goal was telling on a couple of occasions and once again, I have to give Luke Beveridge credit for manipulating his defence in order to cover Cameron both in the air (Wood) and on the deck (Duryea).

 

TIM ENGLISH STOOD UP IN THE SECOND HALF

In the first half, I was watching the Dogs’ beanpole meandering about the field, doing a whole lot of nothing and I started to ponder whether we’d ever really see him develop into the ruckman Bulldogs fans believe he can be. I mean, he is now 24 years old and he was still being monstered in the ruck by Oscar McInerney, and worse, was ducking off (yes, I said “ducking”) down forward to contest marks and take none of them.

But seeing this, Luke Beveridge obviously thought that it was his young star’s time to shine, and he threw him into the mix.

It must be acknowledged that the Big O has matched it with some of the game’s best big men in 2021 – he hasn’t been beaten often, and when he has been, it hasn’t been by much. He has been durable, consistent, and has really improved his clearance work. That was on display again in this one as he collected six for the game here, but when matched up against English after halftime, the Big O lost the edge he had.

Was this is a bit of a masterstroke from Beveridge? Was allowing English to save his tank in order to match McInerney in the air a well-planned tactic, or was it just dumb luck? Either way, it worked. McInerney was backed up by Tom Fullarton, who looked lost at times, whilst Lewis Young did the bulk of the work early for the Dogs. Whilst nobody is going to hitch their wagon to Young’s star, he ran around with the Big O and prevented him from clunking marks, and at the same time, took a bit of wind from his sails.

In the second half, English compiled 16 hitouts, which matched the output from the Big O, whilst adding three clearances and six tackles. English actually started looking like the mobile ruck the Dogs have wanted him to be. The Big O looked gassed and English started to jump over him. McInerney then tried to use his body to protect the space, and that worked well… right up until it didn’t.

It was a ruck free kick against the Big O for a block that allowed the Dogs to go forward in the play that led to Vandermeer’s game-winning behind. In one action, the emerging Dogs ruck made everything seem worthwhile. All the soft contests over the last couple of years, all the games where he was dominated by Brodie Grundy and the like… they were all worth it to see him stand up and play a part in this win.

Now, he just has to do it again against the ruck bully, Scott Lycett.

 

JACK MACRAE IS NOT A MERE UNDERSTUDY

I have heard people say he is little more than an accumulator – have heard it a few times over the season as a matter of fact. He doesn’t hurt like Bont hurts, they say. I am sure you’ve heard it at points as well, and the players obviously heard it, voting Bont in as their MVP by such a margin that it would have to make other elite players in the league wonder what the hell they’re doing wrong.

However, in this game, it was Macrae playing as the elite mid. He was the standout for the Dogs, and worked hard deep into the last quarter to provide the Dogs with both contested work and an avenue to goal. This is not a shot at Bont – he was hurt in the last quarter (albeit at the 30-minute mark) and looked quite dejected on the pine as he was forced to watch his team scrape in, but Macrae was doing the things in that quarter you’d expect Bont to do for the team.

Macrae converted on the scoreboard – his goal to open proceedings in the fourth quarter gave the Dogs precisely the start they were after. He won clearances, booted the Dogs inside fifty and gave them the grunt they required from the middle to get them powering toward the win. His captain… he had two touches for the quarter (and remember, that was in 30 minutes), so in this one at least, it was the understudy that took the spotlight

 

IF YOU ALLOW CALEB DANIEL TO GATHER THE FOOTY UNCONTESTED, YOU’RE IN BIG TROUBLE

If I were coaching against the Western Bulldogs, I would like to be beaten by something I could not control. Of course, I would like to win, but if I was going to be defeated, at least make them work for it.

So, what are the things you know about the Dogs? Their midfield is incredible, and win a heap of clearances despite not usually having a ruck that gives them silver service. Is there much you can do about that other than tag?

You know that Aaron Naughton is going to make the effort to contest every high ball that comes his way, so you need to play back shoulder on him and make sure you body spoil as well.

And you know that the Dogs possess one of the best ball users in the competition off half back. So, you instruct someone to play close to him and you set up your zone, or web, or structure, or whatever you want to call it as a 17-man defensive set as opposed to 18-man. In doing this, you flat out refuse to allow Caleb Daniel to be the man making decisions with time on his hands at half backs. Failure to do this will see the diminutive man cut you to ribbons.

And he cut the Lions to ribbons in this one.

Daniel had 31 touches and a game-high 11 rebound fifties, as his vision, skill and dare to take the game on saw his 45-degree kicks open up the game for the Dogs through the middle and lead to avenues to goal. Chris Fagan is a highly-paid coach with years of experience – how did he fail to address what was a pretty straightforward issue?

Daniel found Bontempelli up the guts in the second quarter. This led to an Aaron Naughton mark and goal. He was at it again in the third, hitting Easton Wood as he simply ran away from Lazy Joe on a switch and darted through the middle.

The Lions were beaten by something they knew was coming in this one, and if those Lions fans are still looking to blame the umpires, I suggest they have a look at the way their team failed miserably when it came to manning-up on one of the best decision-makers in the competition. A bit of blame goes there.

 

THE LIONS HAD A FEW TOO MANY PASSENGERS

They took a bit of a gamble on Nakia Cockatoo. He showed a bit a few weeks back, but in this one he was found wanting.

Tom Fullarton tried hard, but he is a lumbering sort, and was often either caught behind or had his defenders easily close the gap to make a spoil on him. I understand he is young and will take time, but this is the AFL Finals – we don’t make excuses here.

Dev Robertson looked a little overwhelmed by the occasion, whilst Grant Birchall looked older each quarter. By the end of the last quarter, he looked like he was ready for a beer and an evening to celebrate a great career.

Sadly, in a game where two players went off injured and were unable to return (Berry and Payne), carrying others is a burden a team cannot handle, and that is where the Lions found themselves in this one.

 

BRISBANE HAD A CHANCE TO ICE THIS CONTEST

The Dogs were teetering on the edge in the third quarter, and Hugh McCluggage was playing inspired footy in the front half. He kicked a lovely goal around the corner, and in the next few minutes, had two further shots that would have really put some distance between his Lions and the Dogs.

And he failed to convert.

This has been the big knock on the smooth-moving McCluggage, and his back to back misses from set shots could have pushed the lead out past three goals. When you consider the way the Lions were playing at the time, with goals coming from Zac Bailey and Ryan Lester before Jason Johannisen pulled one back to finish the quarter, even if Clug had slotted one, it would have given the Lions a three-goal lead heading into the last.

Combine those misses with the sprayed shots in the last (Zorko, Neale and McCluggage again) and that is why the Lions lost – not umpires, not inconsistency… they just missed their chances.

 

AARON NAUGHTON DOES EXACTLY WHAT EVERY TEAM NEEDS THEIR KEY FORWARD TO DO

There was a point in the last quarter where the Dogs desperately needed a successful exit from defensive fifty. They’d been hemmed in for a while and the Lions were pressing – the forward pressure was very good, and the Brisbane team were hungry to capitalise.

Enter Aaron Naughton.

In a matter of minutes, Naughton showed Joe Daniher what a true key forward is supposed to do. With Mitch Robinson running back into his space (as courageous as they come, is Mitch), Naughton launched at the footy without hesitation, and completely wiped Robbo out.

Tell me this – how often do you see Robinson stay down? That’s how hard Naughton his hit him – all legal, all fair… just a great, hard hit.

On the next exit, it was Naughton again, working high up the ground from full forward to launch into the pack and take a big pack mark. I call these marks the “get out of jail” or the GOOJ marks in a game, and when we’re looking at the context of the clash, there was no more important mark in this entirety of the game than this mark by Naughton.

Many will look at the stat sheet and wonder what I am on about – he had one goal and three marks for the game, but in a game that continually punishes the physical aspect, Aaron Naughton was able to have a big impact when it matters just by attacking the footy like the life of his team depended on it. And in many ways, it did.

 

ACCIDENTS HAPPEN

I have not been a fan of the way the dangerous tackle rule has been assessed this season. Too often, umpires are quick to punish players for legitimate tackling efforts based on guess work, but I truly believe players need the benefit of the doubt unless it is patently obvious that someone is tackling with the intent to hurt.

Accidents occur in our game, and never has there been a better example than the tackle that forced Jarrod Berry from the ground. Normally, in a tackle where a player’s head hits the ground, there is a free kick and possibly a report… but in this case, it was the tackler, not the tacklee, that whacked his head on the turf and saw stars for a second or two.

To me, it was an indication that there will always be a risk of head knocks, or heads hitting the turf in our game. It is a contact sport, and at times, players executing the tackle do not have complete control over where or how their opponent lands. Hell, sometimes they don’t even have control over themselves, and this was Exhibit-A in that theory.

Personally, if Michael Christian doesn’t give Berry a week for slinging his own head into the ground, the whole damn system is broken!

 

THE UMPS HAVE IT TOUGH

So, we’d have one side thinking the umpiring was okay, and the other side ready to hunt the umps down and exact revenge for some decisions, right?

I felt for the umps in this one, even though at times it did appear as though they were attempting to control the play rather than umpire what was there. Some little holds, and a couple of too-high calls could have been let go, whilst a couple of non-calls (Bailey Dale diving on it was a terrible miss) should have been whistled for consistency’s sake. And don’t get me started on the deliberate/lack of intent out of bounds free kicks (Daniel and McInerney)… they were both horrible.

As I mentioned above, one of the decisions that will sting the Lions most – the ruck free kick to English – was consistent with the way the rule has been umpired all season. I hate ruck free kicks – at times I think they should let the big men wrestle or hold as much as they want as long as they don’t go high, but in terms of consistency, it was there.

So, they got one right…

 

The Dogs now head to South Australia to face Port Adelaide in what will be a belter. I don’t know about you, but knowing that either the Dogs or Power will be in the Grand Final is absolutely fine with me. I have enjoyed covering both all season.

As for the Lions… I really think this team is going to lament the missed opportunity of 2020 for a long time. They have made the top four in the last three seasons and have one finals win to their name. Ouch.

 

Massive thanks to our members, as always. Huge week coming up as we preview the Prelims, and then in the week off before the Grand Final, we’re starting our members season recaps and free agent/trade pieces. It never stops with the Mongrel – stick with us – HB.

 

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