In a pulsating last quarter, the Dogs managed to hold off a fast-finishing Swans and put the game on ice thanks to a goal out the back by Marcus Bontempelli.

It was a strange game, this one – the Dogs should have put the Swans away. They had 11 more scoring shots and more than doubled the free kick count of their opponents, but as the clock ticked down, a 50 metre penalty to Errol Gulden, and the subsequent goal, gave the Swans a chance to pinch it.

Enter Tom Liberatore. Huge efforts from the man who over the last weeks has been displaced from his regular role of winning clearances and breaking hearts, saw him win four touches from stoppages in the last quarter alone, once again emphasising that this is where the strength of his game lies. With him in the clinches, the Dogs were able to power the ball forward and setup the win.

There is a huge amount to get through in this, and look… I make no apologies for the fact I am going to be drilling down on the free kicks. It’s an important part of the analysis.

Here are The Big Questions from the Western Bulldogs’ win over the Sydney Swans.

 

IS THIS THE VERSION OF TIM ENGLISH YOU’VE BEEN LOOKING FOR?

Before I start, the injury to Tom Hickey had a profound influence on this game – he was winning clearances with a monotonous regularity up until he was forced to sit out with a knee injury in the third quarter, and whilst Joel Amartey was also strong at stoppages, English was able to dominate around the ground, providing a great marking target and also, finally, flexing some muscle.

I often find myself looking at Tim English and wondering whether the trade-off of losing the ruck contest is worth enduring in exchange for what he is capable of producing around the ground. Hell, there are not many big blokes who take off with the footy and immediately think “I’ll have a bounce”.

Actually, I am sure more than a few think it, but not many have the necessary skills to pull it off.

English does, and in this case the trade off worked for the Dogs. Of the big men in the league, he is arguably the most skilled ball-user and looks the most comfortable when he receives the footy in space. One of his kicks to open the game up on the wing was the catalyst for the Mitch Wallis goal out the back in the last quarter – just a perfect kick to hit a teammate without breaking stride. Not many ruckmen make that kick. Maybe none of them other than English?

He had 24 touches, eight clearances, two contested marks, and 12 huge score involvements to lead all players. That, my friends, is a wonderful day in the ruck.

Oh… and he was the leading hit out man on the ground, too! Can you believe it? That basically never happens!

There will be a lot of chatter about Tim English over the next few months. A WA boy, he is out of contract following this season, and either of the Eagles or Dockers would welcome him back home in a heartbeat. The Dogs have put a ton of time into him and nurtured him as he has battled to become a competitive number one ruckman. They have given him opportunities to both grow and excel. And just as he is getting there, the threat of losing him looms large.

Does he repay the faith?

 

CAN WE PUT SOME RESPECT ON RYAN GARDNER’S NAME?

It’s a funny thing 0 whenever the Bulldogs’ defence is raised, and the name of Ryan Gardner is mentioned, you’re bound to get a sigh or an eye roll as a response. It is far to say that he has had his share of detractors amongst Dogs fans for a couple of years, but has tonight’s performance changed some minds? Maybe just swayed a few?

There were points in this game where Gardner played exceptional defence on one of the greatest forwards of all time. His ability to track back toward goals, anticipate the double-back lead from Buddy and then match it with him, stride-for-stride, was the type of defence you would expect from someone with more than just 23 games under his belt.

Yes, Buddy managed to get out a few times, but I have to ask – how many times was he dangerous within 50 metres of goal? Three times? Including a Joe-The-Goose handball over the top from Heeney early in the game?

Gardner finished with 12 one percenters, and looked absolutely committed to the role allocated him. It is a credit to him that he was able to perform so well and force Franklin to search far and wide for his touches.

For the record, Franklin had seven touches inside 50, with many of them seeing him running away from goal. They’re the type of touches you want Franklin picking up – that’s when he is at his least dangerous. You may look at the stats sheet and see Buddy had 19 touches – don’t be fooled; when there were contests to win in dangerous spots, Gardner had his number.

And he deserves to be held in high regard for his efforts, as a result.

 

GONE HUNTIN’

There was a fair bit to be impressed about with the game of Lachie Hunter, but one aspect stood out to me above all else.

His pressure.

He only finished this game with three tackles, but all three of them were wonderful, and when you add those to a game where he notched 28 touches and seven intercepts, you have a great game from a wingman who drifted back to half-back to relieve the pressure on his defence.

All three of Hunter’s tackles were rewarded with holding the ball free kicks – one on Wicks in the first quarter, one on Josh Kennedy in the second, and another on Luke Parker in the third. Soooo… I guess he really dropped the ball in the last quarter, huh?

Just kidding – three effective tackles like that from your wingman is a great result. They weren’t these little dicky ‘hold the jumper and allow the opponent to handball’ types of tackles. These were tackles to restrict, restrain, and win the footy, and Hunter did all three on all three occasions.

 

CAN WE DISCUSS THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM?

Okay… buckle up.

The free kick count in this one was 31-14. At one point in the third quarter, it was revealed that the Dogs had been on a run of 17-3 free kicks since the start of the second quarter. Any way you slice it, something is up, there.

But I suppose you could argue that any given game can be an anomaly, so rather than just jumping up and down about a team seemingly being shafted, I did what all halfway decent writers do, and did some basic research.

If we go back to the 2016 Grand Final and look at the eight games these clubs have played since, including that final, the Dogs have amassed a total of 192 free kicks. In comparison, the Swans have been awarded 130. (Thanks to Trent Adam Shields for the legwork)

That is almost eight free kicks more per game to the Dogs, on average.

How can this occur?

It seems as though the umpires were trigger happy one way – Jamarra Ugle-Hagan received four free kicks from his seven touches, and I had no idea what a couple of them were for – they just seemed to be in marking contests, and all seemed to be against Paddy McCartin – the umps must hate Paddy McCartin!

There were instances were a Swans player was clearly taken high and… no whistle? Isaac Heeney was cracked in the head by Lachie Hunter in a marking contest, but the umpire was waving his arms around like he was trying to take off, in an effort to call play on.

The dangerous tackle against Chad Warner on Josh Dunkley was hardly dangerous, with Warner actually releasing Dunkley, who was attempting to fight through the tackle, on the way down. In contrast, Jamarra Ugle-Hagan dumped Mills with an action I thought was worse… play on.

I am not stating the Dogs did not deserve to win this – if they kick straight, we are sitting here and talking about how they completely shut down one of the league’s most exciting teams in the first half – but when we look at the big picture, I reckon Swans fans may just have a legitimate beef.

There’s no question that to the letter of the law, the free kicks the Dogs received were there. That said. If we’re going to use the letter of the law as the basis of the argument, how many were missed? And how many were missed that would have favoured the team in red and white?

This big a discrepancy over a period of six years seems to indicate there’s a problem.

Oh, in those eight games pitting the teams against each other, Sydney have won the free kick count just once. It may be time someone representing the red and white issued the AFL a ‘please explain’ before Horse Longmire is prompted to answer a question the wrong way – honestly. I can’t blame him for bristling when asked about the discrepancy. As a neutral watching, it was definitely noticeable to me.

 

WHO WON THE NAUGHTON V MCCARTIN CLASH?

It looked early as though Aaron Naughton was on. The Dogs were working hard to make sure he got room to move and a free run at the footy at every opportunity. His hands looked great, and as he took a couple of marks, and kicked a goal in the first quarter (should have been two), Tom McCartin must have been questioning the way he was going about playing the young Dogs star.

But there was a turnaround following the first break, and as the teams re-emerged, it was McCartin that started imposing his will on the contest. He had ten intercept possessions to go with 13 one-percenters, making life incredibly difficult for Naughton, who took only one grab after quarter-time.

Carrying a corked calf into the game, it appeared at one point as though McCartin may have landed on Naughton, perhaps exacerbating the injury, but what I noticed is the little blocks that were so effective in freeing Naughton up in the first quarter, were suddenly not happening. If you watch games closely, once players start to fatigue, you’ll notice that these little things are one of the first things to fall away.

Anyway, Tom and his brother combined for 18 intercepts of the game, once again making the Swans’ recruitment of the older McCartin look like a wise investment. I actually think Paddy could have taken two or three more marks, but became a bit fumbly as the game wore on.

 

ARE WE HAPPY WITH WHAT WE SAW FROM JAMARRA?

Seven touches and a goal are not going to blow anyone away… or blow anyone at all, for that matter, but if we are looking for a way to gauge how Ugle-Hagan played, it would have to be with his second efforts, and the way he attacked the contest. I am not sure you could fault either of those areas in this game.

JUH was patched up on Paddy McCartin, who wanted to zone off him and impact other contests (namely, his brother’s contests against Aaron Naughton), but by targeting JUH in the first quarter, the Dogs made sure that Paddy had to think twice before heading over to help.

With McCartin caught in two minds as to whether to help or stick at it against Ugle-Hagan, Jamarra was able to get good position and draw free kicks in the first half. Six of his seven touches came before the main break and, had he converted his chances, we would probably be singing his praises long and loud.

Maybe we should, anyway?

JUH finished with four tackles and three one-percenters, throwing himself into the contest at ground level and indicating that he will become more than just a mark-kick player in years to come.

Stats sheets can lie – Jamarra more than earned his keep in this game.

 

AM I WRONG TO BE BITTERLY DISAPPOINTED IN OLLIE FLORENT?

Putting this out there – Ollie Florent has the capacity to be the best wingman in the game. We got that?

Good… because if he turns in more performances like the one we witnessed in this game, he is flushing what could be a brilliant career as a wingman down the crapper.

Gone are the days where Florent can pissfart around on the outside, pick up between 12 and 15 touches and be happy with his contribution. He needs to work harder, become the gut runner that no one else can go with, and he needs to do it every single week. No days off!

This was a day off.

He had himself 13 touches in this one and before I whack him, I have to give him credit for putting his body on the line in a one-on-one contest with Jamarra Ugle-Hagan in the second quarter, which was probably a good thing he did, as up until then he’d touched the footy three times.

There was a moment in the last quarter where he just gave the ball up too easily at half-back – a handball to nowhere with pressure closing in on him. Normally, if a player saw someone in the open and attempted to hit them to get the team running, that would be fine, but this… this just seemed like a way to avoid being tackled, when taking the tackle and forcing a stoppage may have been the better option.

Thanks, Captain Hindsight, right?

Yes, well… look, I know I am not out there, and it is easy to sit back and watch a bloke make a poor decision and criticise, but we’ve been seeing Florent go into his shadow now for a couple of seasons. I’ll leave it up to you guys to look at how the Swans perform when he gets the footy 20+ times per game (particularly since I cocked the maths up last time), but if you use him as a barometer on this team, when he fails to fire, so does the team. Correlation or causation – I am not sure, but if Ollie Florent is picking up 13 touches, the Swans’ chances of winning take a pretty significant dive.

 

DUAL WELCOME BACKS

Having a talent the likes of Bailey Smith come back into a team is obviously going to make the midfield walk a little taller, but when he goes about his business by being the best gut-runner on the park, it sets a standard for the rest of the team. They’re compelled to work harder and match the intensity of this young bloke who is doing the work.

Smith ended up with a game-high 31 touches and gained over 700 metres for the Dogs as he played the first release role from stoppages. Usually, I love Bont in this role, but he still looks a little banged up, so the return of Smith gave Luke Beveridge the option to use Bont in other ways – namely inside 50.

The other welcome back was more a welcome back to the way we’re used to seeing him play – and that goes to Josh Dunkley.

Combative and with an utter refusal to concede a contest, Dunkley matched his offensive output with a defensive intensity that was reflected in his game-high 11 tackles. This is the Josh Dunkley Dogs supporters got used to seeing back in 2019, as this team rampaged toward the finals. Every week, it seemed as though he, Bont, and Macrae were putting up these staggering stats, and Dunkley was doing his part by tackling.

He finished with 31 touches and six clearances in the type of game that would have Dogs supporters breathing a sigh of relief.

You see, this team played like millionaires in the first couple of weeks. At least in the midfield. There were those doing the spectacular things, but too few were prepared to do the dirty work. This week, it was as though Josh Dunkley rolled up his sleeves, nodded to Bevo and said “I’ve got this one, mate.”

He sure did. His tackling pressure ensured the Swans were unable to clear the ball effectively, allowing the Dogs to go +9 for the game. Great performance from him.

 

OTHER BITS

 

I had someone message me during the game, asking whether I thought Tim English should be rubbed out for dropping Nick Blakey…

All I can say to that is… hahaahaha, no. Blakey had control pf the footy and ran straight at English, wanting to draw him before giving the footy off. He did so, and English braced and stood his ground. What the hell do you want him to do – get out of the way? Geez… stick to bloody netball, mate.

Only one word leaps to mind when I rewatched the Sam Wicks late hit on Alex Keath, which coughed up a 50 metre penalty and a goal. That word is – idiocy. If you’re going to canon into someone’s back, at least make it worthwhile.

Speaking of Keath, he was huge today for the Dogs – resolute in defence, taking big intercept grabs, and seemingly always in the right spot. He and Gardner worked really well together, actually.

After watching Cody Weightman draw two free kicks in the first quarter, I though ‘Oh, here we go… would be nice if he earned a touch now and again.’

And then, he did! Loved his second efforts and his tackling pressure was excellent late in the game – just enough to force a rushed kick or a poor decision. Credit where it’s due – he stood up, and when he snagged those couple of goals in the third quarter, it gave the Dogs the stability they required.

Geez, I love watching Nick Blakey take the game on. I know it would have been nice to have a player like Jordan Dawson out there in this game… hell, even Justin McInerney would have added a fair bit across half-back and on the wing, but seeing Blakey off half-back… when he gets and goes, anything could happen.

Pretty handy game from Laith Vandermeer across half-forward. Constantly on the move, and dangerous with the ball on the deck, his pace could worry a few defenders over the journey. Personally, I’d love to see him get a little more freedom playing on the wing opposite Hunter, but the Dogs just have so many mids they rotate through that spot, it is unlikely.

Caleb Daniel was almost unsighted in the second half, but the way he ran away from Buddy a couple of times in the first half made me smile. The big fella was bearing down on him, and Daniel would just shift his angle a little, causing Buddy’s chase to stall. Was fun to see.

A few nice moments from Anthony Scott in this one, as well. Not enough to get his own section, above, but his touches were meaningful and not just some of those quick kicks to nowhere. Great to see a VFL product getting games and making a fist of them.

Another quieter game from JPK, playing on the wing for the second straight week. He was good last week. This week… not so much. Do they persist? With the Dogs winning the clearances, and Libba coming to the fore late, Kennedy in the middle for the last ten minutes would have been nice. However, it seems the Swans are committed to him playing a different role. I wish they’d reconsider…

And finally… Libba. He needs to play in the middle, Bevo. He is a first-hands player, and whilst it is good to have him as a “break glass in case of emergency” player, as was the case in this one, he is the second-highest clearance player in the game despite not playing on-ball.

 

And on that note, I’m done. This makes the Dogs’ next date, with the Tigers, a delicious encounter. Meanwhile, the Swans would be eyeing off four points against the Kangaroos to right the ship. I’d back them in easily in that game.

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