And so, we head to the Grand Final with the teams that sat in the first two spots on the AFL Ladder for 16 weeks of the season ready to lock horns. Fitting, really.
On Friday night, the Demons dropped the hammer on the Cats and vaulted to premiership favouritism – how could you bet against a team that made Geelong look like rank-amateurs? And then Saturday happened, with the Western Bulldogs blasting out of the gates like they were shot out of a canon to render Port Adelaide to the role of spectators as they dominated the opening quarter.
With a seven-goal first period, the Dogs made Port Adelaide look inept. They beat them in close, and on the spread. They beat them in the air and on the deck – there was not a facet of the game that Port Adelaide could look at and think “yeah, we did okay there” and if they did, they’d be lying to themselves.
The Dogs were dominant, and turned in the type of display that would have had Melbourne coach, Simon Goodwin looking across at his assistant coaches and raising his eyebrows. Watching this game, he would be well aware that he is walking into a game against a team that can match it with his Demons, blow for blow.
The Dogs got excellent performances everywhere – Aaron Naughton clunked marks, Jack Macrae owned the footy, Josh Schache prevented Aliir from being a decisive factor, Mitch Hannan became a troublesome matchup, and Bailey Smith hit the scoreboard again. And importantly, the captain got through and looked as though his knee gave him few issues.
It was as comprehensive a win as we have seen from the Dogs this season, leaving Port Adelaide with their second successive Preliminary Final exit, and with a lot of questions about their list and their heart.
Speaking of questions, let’s jump into The Mongrel’s Big Questions and get into the nitty-gritty of the Prelim.
DOES AARON NAUGHTON HAVE THE BEST HANDS IN THE GAME?
Ask me this week, I say yes. Ask me last week, I say… probably not.
People forget that Naughton is just 21 years old. He plays a kamikaze-type of football, hurling his body into the contest with the dual goal of taking a big mark, and/or taking the pack out in the process, and matched up against Trent McKenzie, it quickly became apparent that the first option was the best option for him in this game.
Naughton took six contested grabs amongst his nine marks for the game as the main focal point for the Dogs inside 50 and though some may point to others who kicked more goals, his work was so influential in the first quarter that the Dogs looked inspired by their young gun’s commitment to the cause.
Naughton had three contested grabs in the first quarter, setting the tone and making Trent McKenzie, who has done some significant jobs this season, look as though he was not the man for the job.
I don’t like to make predictions when it comes to forwards in finals, particularly because they have a habit of not performing on the biggest day of the year, but Naughton, at such a tender age, could be the player to break the Grand Final open in two weeks’ time.
Whoa… settle down there, Mongrel – there are a dozen players on the Dogs team alone that could be the difference, right? Right, but Naughton’s influence if he gets his hands to a couple of early marks, as he did in this game, could not only test the vaunted Demon defence, but draw the type of attention that opens doors for the Mitch Hannans and Josh Schaches of the world.
Earlier this week I published a column comparing Naughton to the bloke that many of the Mongrel writers thought would be with him as he ascended the AFL forwards ladder this season, Oscar Allen at West Coast. Allen has had his issues to deal with, in both his poorly performing team, and injury, but Naughton has gone from strength to strength in 2021 and I genuinely believe we may be seeing the maturation of a player that will be the best forward in the competition for four or five straight seasons eventually.
Yes, Allen will be good. Yes, Harry McKay has a Coleman Medal already, but Aaron Naughton… there is something special about him, and you’d have to be blind, or one-eyed not to see it.
AT WHAT POINT DOES JACK MACRAE GET RECOGNITION AS A TOP-FIVE MID IN THE GAME?
Without any mess and without any fuss, Jack Macrae quietly went about passing the mark set by Tom Mitchell to record the highest ever total of disposals in an AFL season in this clash.
Let’s wind that back a little – the highest number of disposals ever recorded in a season in the history of the game!
It’s not every day you see a record broken with such little fanfare, but that’s just who Jack Macrae is, isn’t it? He goes about his business, week-in and week-out, continually collecting the footy and making those around him better. Sure, critics will point to the fact he had nine turnovers, but with seven inside 50 deliveries, nine score involvements and six tackles, Macrae rounded out another complete midfielder’s game.
How’s this for a set of numbers.
In the 2021 finals series, Macrae is now averaging 37 disposals, 7.7 clearances and 7.1 inside fifty deliveries. Add in 22 score involvements in those three games and you get the picture that Macrae, despite the reluctance of the media to deviate from the impact of Bont, could be the deciding factor in whether the Dogs stand on the dais and hold the cup aloft again in 2021.
Credit where it’s due – Macrae has had a wonderful year and deserves a lot more credit for the work he has done to elevate both his own game and the games of those around him.
WHO COMES OUT FOR CODY WEIGHTMAN AND ALEX KEATH?
It’s almost a little sad that after such a dominant win, we’re going to be analysing who makes way for two returning players in two weeks’ time.
Cody Weightman should be well and truly cleared and make his return to the team for the Grand Final, adding a potent small forward option to the Dogs forward line. And at the other end, Alex Keath looks as though he will be more than ready to resume as the number one defensive option.
Of course, that leaves players from this incredible win a little vulnerable, doesn’t it?
The most likely scenario should see Anthony Scott make way for Weightman, after missing the chance to make the position his own. Forced to sit on the bench as the sub, Scott was always going to be up against it, and playing the last quarter – effectively the junkiest of junk time – he kicked a goal but that’s about it.
At the other end, Zaine Cordy looks vulnerable, and is the likely omission for Keath, though given the role both he and Ryan Gardner played in this one, restricting the Port forwards’ impact, either missing is a cruel blow.
Laitham Vandermeer suffered some hamstring tightness and was subbed out of the game, which will be something to keep an eye on over the next week or so. Vandermeer, who was good with his pressure in this role, should remain in the team and could easily slot in as the medi-sub for the Grand Final.
IS BAILEY SMITH READY TO STEP INTO THE ROLE OF SUPERSTAR?
Seven goals across his last two games, and with a growing profile in the league… it’s difficult not to take note of what Smith is doing this September, isn’t it?
As I am sure will be noted by many, Smith’s hard run, both with and without the footy, was a highlight for the Dogs, and a huge component of their win. Sure, you can look at his four goals and hand him the three votes if you like, but it was his willingness to run when he wasn’t going to bathe in the glory that was the standout – they were the actions of a team-first player. The four goals… they were like icing on the cake – the real ingredients that mattered were all a little less obvious.
Around 12 months ago, Smith inserted himself into the debate as to who the best kid from his draft class was. Initially, it was Connor Rozee and Sam Walsh dominating headlines, then Zak Butters and Smith staked their claims, and now as we are at the pointy end of the 2021 season, it is Smith once again making sure everyone knows he has ice in his veins as he plays an integral role in the Dogs’ premiership charge.
Two first quarter goals helped set the scene for the Dogs to run all over Port, and his eight disposals gave the Dogs plenty of drive out of the middle, and a couple of early contested football wins (including one directly opposed to Rozee where he just wanted the footy more) left no doubt that he is the real deal.
I smiled during the week as I saw some headlines and tweets from AFL journos comparing him to Dustin Martin. It is high praise, and probably quite premature, but with career-best totals in goals for two straight weeks, he is not exactly shrinking when the game is at its hottest, is he?
WHY WOULD YOU START WILLEM DREW ON THE BENCH?
I think we can all agree – Dogs supporters, Power supporters, and neutrals alike – that this was an idiotic move from Ken Hinkley, right?
Deployed as a stopper on Tom Liberatore for the majority of the game, Willem Drew sat on the bench and watched his tagging assignment pick up two clearances and play a big hand in the first two goals of the game. It was like asking him to have a race against someone and then tying one of his legs to a pole.
Libba was incredibly important at getting the Dogs off to a quick start, and by the time Drew got the go-ahead to start his work, he and his team were not just battling the Dogs, they were also battling momentum, and that, my friends, is a difficult opponent to beat.
Once Drew was able to get onto Libba, his influence waned, but Drew was left trying to close the gate after Hinkley had allowed the horse to bolt. It was a huge error in the context of the first quarter, and set the tone for the Bulldogs to run all over Port and establish a six-goal lead, effectively making everything that occurred after the quarter time break look like glorified junk time.
Drew and Libba continued to fight it out (at one point I found myself wishing the AFL had a rule akin to the NHL’s “drop your gloves” rule for the two to settle their little issue) but the damage was done early, and Ken Hinkley set Drew, and Port Adelaide up to fail.
DO CONNOR ROZEE’S STATS FLATTER HIM?
He finished with 18 touches at over 80% efficiency, but spent more time running away from goal than he did toward them. He failed, on several occasions, actually, to bodyline the footy and either left it behind, or was beaten by an opponent.
I must stress here – I am a Connor Rozee fan and think he is an exceptional talent, but he was spending the footy before he had it in this game and looked anything but the confident young man that has impressed so many over the last few years. It was almost as though he’d played the game out in his head and the reality was different to that which he expected.
I know that many Port fans will rail against this opinion, and that’s okay – we do not have to agree – however, in finals, finesse has a place, but it is always… absolute ALWAYS secondary to putting your head over the footy and winning the ball the hard way.
What we saw in this one was Connor Rozee either unwilling to put his head over the footy, or trying to finesse the footy when there was a hard ball to be won. Spending it before you get it is often the result of the mind working overtime while the body is desperately attempting to catch up. Connor looked like he was playing catch up all game long.
18 touches at 83%… try two score involvements and 95 metres gained. For a wonderfully talented player, this was a poor, poor outing.
WAS ALIIR ALIIR THE ARCHITECT OF HIS OWN FAILURE? OR, WAS HE ALIIR IN THE HEADLIGHTS?
What a title… pretty proud of that one.
Oh, there was a big part of self-sabotage going on from Aliir. His disposal was absolutely atrocious early in the game, resulting in costly turnovers that, at times looked as though he was deliberately kicking it to the opposition.
Aliir has never been an elite kick of the footy. He’s a great intercept mark, and ended up with ten intercept touches for the game, which some will claim as a win, but his four first-half turnovers were all under little to no pressure – he just had four howlers that placed his teammates and the entire team under huge pressure.
Aliir has torn teams to shreds all season with his ability to fly in and disrupt forward fifty entries, but he has not hit targets reliably, and it was as though the Dogs were ready to jump on even the slightest inaccuracy from Aliir.
Port learnt a valuable lesson here, and this one was not taught by the Dogs. Yes, you have an elite interceptor. Yes, he has been a terrific recruit in 2021, but no… he is not to be permitted to be creative with the footy – he is just not good with the footy in hand and should almost be treated like a ruckman when he clunks one of those intercepts. Blokes like Houston, Byrne-Jones and Bonner should immediately be freeing themselves up as options for him to dish to, lest the Power fall into the turnover trap again that is Aliir’s poor disposal.
OR WAS JOSH SCHACHE RESPONSIBLE FOR HIS POOR GAME?
Yes, there was this factor as well. Subtle little blocks, playing defensively until the time was cherry ripe to attack the footy… Josh Schache had the type of game I was not sure I’d ever see from him. He had an impact!
Truth be told, I was good and ready to put a line through Schache. After being offloaded by the Lions, his development at the Whitten Oval has been slow and not all that productive in the grand scheme of things. He has looked devoid of confidence and has not really been string in contests on dozens of occasions.
And then he comes out and uses deft body-positioning and well-times leads to keep Aliir on his toes and all of a sudden he looks like a potential premiership player! It’s crazy how the cookie crumbles sometimes.
When it comes to whether it was Schache or Aliir being his own worst enemy being responsible for the defender’s poor game, I reckon it is about a 50/50 split. Schache bobbed up, was dangerous and made Aliir pay for his errors (his goal in the last was the direct result of a horrible Aliir kick), but Aliir’s inability to execute basic skills of the game allowed the Dogs to turn the screws early and put score on the board.
WHO WAS THE MOST DISAPPOINTING PLAYER ON THE GROUND?
It’d be really easy to point the finger of blame at one of the Port Adelaide forwards, particularly as I have already given Rozee a whack, above. Motlop, Fantasia… they were poor, but they were also starved for decent opportunity. Throw Robbie Gray and Charlie Dixon into that mix as well – they did not get good service at all. We could whack all the Port forwards…
However, that is not what we’re about, here at The Mongrel. No, we are looking for players who had the chance to impact the game and simply did not. With that in mind, it is difficult to look past the poor display from Darcy Byrne-Jones.
This bloke was All-Australian in 2020 and has fallen off the pace in a big way this season. His rebounding run and carry has dried up and he looks tantative and unsure of himself when the ball comes into his area. What the hell is going on with him?
He has solid tall timber around him, and able backup in the form of Dan Houston, but DBJ has been one of the biggest disappointments not just in this game, but over the course of the season for Port Adelaide.
2020 was a weird season, but he was able to overcome odds and stand up in a year where plenty of players, league-wide, stepped down. And then he has settled into a rut of doing just enough to maintain his place in the side without really excelling in the role. Thoughts of backing up as All-Australian were abandoned halfway through the year when it became apparent he was not playing up to the standards required. He was often beaten in one-on-one contests and really… this is going to sound harsh… looked weak in the contest.
And he was too easily dispatched again in this one. Check out his “effort” to tackle Marcus Bontempelli in the second quarter. The Dogs’ captain shrugged him like he was an annoying child tugging on Superman’s cape and that set up a five-bounce run from Adam Treloar and a goal to Mitch Hannan. Meanwhile, DBJ was busy dusting himself off at half back, ready for the next weak effort.
Not good enough, and there have been too many moments littered throughout the 2021 season that the phrase “not good enough” could have been applied to DBJ’s game.
He was a difference-maker in 2020 and he is still making a difference in 2021. Now, though, it isn’t a positive difference at all.
WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO PHYSICAL CONTACT IN THE GAME?
With 30 seconds remaining in the game, Port Adelaide finally had someone fly the flag. Talk about too little, too late!
Yes, Scott Lycett dropped Josh Dunkley with a solid bump earlier in the game, but for the vast majority of the game, Port lacked meaningful physical aggression, and it cost them greatly.
Instances where they could have put a hard shepherd or bump on a Dogs player cropped up every couple of minutes, and Port players continued to allow the Dogs off the hook. I was of the belief that Port were more than willing to mix it up physically, but they gave the Dogs a free pass way too often, and it permitted their opponents to attack the footy without any second thoughts as to what could have been coming the other way.
They weren’t worried – they knew the Port players were going to stop, prop and reach in for the footy. They were under no physical threat.
Port are usually a hard-at-it team, but once the Dogs were able to extract the footy into the open, they looked as though they were destined to chase tail for the entire game. For every Port player throwing his body into the contest (Wines), there were three Dogs matching him or pouncing on the ensuing loose ball. And just as many Port players unwilling to commit to the contest.
Check out the first quarter – five of the tp six contested possession winners were Bulldogs. Where were the Port tough guys? Are there any Port tough guys?
Now, I should specify here – I am not advocating a team going the knuckle or playing dirty, but in finals footy, there is a place for good, tough footy, and Port flat out refused to play in that style. They tried to finesse with the Dogs and were beaten soundly. Not only that, the Dogs were also harder at the footy! The Power got beat at their own game, and were beaten at the Dogs’ game as well!
Sam Powell-Pepper’s crunching hit on Adam Treloar with 30 seconds remaining gave away a downfield free kick, and in the grand scheme of things, was inconsequential, but it was this type of physicality the Power should have been utilising in the first 30 seconds of the game – not the last 30. Pretty hard for SPP to offer that, given he sat on the pine for three quarters, but for a supposedly physical team, Port really offered sweet bugger all in terms of physicality in a game that screamed out for it.
SO, THIS WAS THE UMPIRES’ FAULT AS WELL, WAS IT?
I heard the crowd booing at quarter time. Did you hear it? What the hell were they booing about? Surely it couldn’t have been the umpires, right? Please tell me it wasn’t.
I mean, the Dogs just gave their side an almighty whack and the Power supporters thought the umps were at fault? No, no, no… if you think that (and I am sure some genuinely do), then you’d be a little misguided. If you were booing the team that came out and played like lost sheep, then it was far more justified. Not great, but justified.
This section is directed more at the supporters who have bleated about the “unfair” way the Dogs are umpired at the moment than at Port fans, however.
Port won the free kick count in this game.
Let me reiterate for the hard of reading – Port won the free kick count by six, 22-16. The Dogs were just better. At everything! Everything except drawing free kicks, apparently.
Scott Lycett had five free kicks, mainly from ruck infringements to lead all players, and even when Port were getting whacked, they had the advantage in free kicks, 6-5 in the first quarter.
So, what about this “FreeKickDogs” thing everyone was yapping about like it was some grand conspiracy for the past couple of weeks? Not Port supporters, but supporters in general. How do you explain it now? Is it still the hill you’re going to die on? Are you going to trot out the tried and true “it’s not the ones they pay, but the ones they don’t” line?
Or perhaps the “It’s not what they pay, but where they pay them” line?
Come on guys – there is no blaming the umpires when a team gets blown off the park like this. You could have had Port getting another five or six free kicks and it would not have mattered at all. They were just beaten by a far better side.
Tim Hunt and Alex Docherty both argued in their columns this week that there are so many factors more important than the whistle of the umpire, and this game proved them to be spot on. Hunting the footy, courage, skill, hard run… all are so much more important than who ends up in front in the free kicks.
FreeKickDogs… my arse. They were just flat out excellent
ANY UNSUNG HEROES?
Lachie Hunter was excellent in this one, and though our very own Alex Docherty bemoans some of his ball use at times, one or two of his passes on that left foot were so good I may have given an audible moan as he laced out his teammates.
Adam Treloar was solid (apart from that 50 metre penalty), and his five bounce run down the wing was the type of thing that shouldn’t be allowed to happen in a final of this magnitude.
Mitch Hannan played a huge role in the first half. His contested marking and ability to get to the right spot at the right time made the Dogs a much more dangerous unit.
And as unsung as he can possibly be, Marcus Bontempelli put his hand up and was very serviceable, despite the injury cloud looming over him entering the game. He looked to gain confidence in his body as the game progressed, and with a week off until the big one, will be chomping at the bit to get out there.
Oh, also… that moment that Bont leapt and touched the attempted goal from Todd Marshall in the third effectively killed any momentum Port were trying to build. The little things matter, kids. Remember that.
For Port, Riley Bonner was solid all game and was one of the few that looked as though he was not daunted by the Dogs’ pressure.
I couldn’t believe the commentators at half time calling for Ollie Wines to lift. He was the only Port midfielder doing his job at that point. He had 16 touches in the first half, but they wanted HIM to lift? At that point, it was the big three kids they have been building around that needed to lift – Rozee, Duursma and Butters. Not Wines!
And so, it is the Dogs and the Dees.
Firstly, how great to have these teams in the final game of the season. Whilst I would not have been disappointed to have Port in the mix, these two teams have the stars to make the Grand Final very special.
The Dees have the fairytale and a drought to put an end to. The Dogs have been the true Road Warriors over the finals series, travelling the entire country to play the game. And now, we have two weeks to wait. Let the hype begin – I cannot wait!
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