Poor Dermott Brereton seemed to handle it well!
There’s a concept in marketing called the Cat String Theory, which is based on the idea that if you dangle a ball of string above a cat it will claw at it furiously, but the moment you give the cat the ball it loses interest.
Denial fosters longing. Striving towards a goal is energising and full of purpose – actually achieving the goal can be a little numbing and almost dull.
It’s not so different with football players. The players we obsess about the most are the ones whose potential dangles above us. Players like Bryce Gibbs, Brendon Goddard, Trent Cotchin and Jack Watts inevitably generate more debate than Patrick Dangerfield and Nat Fyfe.
True greatness is self-evident; potential is tantalising.
Sometimes the potential is realised, if only for fleeting periods of time. Goddard captured it in 2010, but the rest of his career has been perfectly respectable, highly effective, and ultimately underwhelming.
Cotchin looked like the next face of the league in 2012 before injuries and the supernatural curse that afflicts his football club sapped him of the explosiveness that made him special.
Only this year have Gibbs and Watts started to show what made them so coveted when they were drafted.
Sometimes, though, greatness is held onto and never let go. The transformation is sudden, but sustained. What was once promise becomes a reality. 2006 Gary Ablett Jr becomes 2007 Gary Ablett Jr.
The Western Bulldogs have a problem with scoring. They’re tenth in the league for points scored, over 100 points behind the team in ninth. Every other team in the eight is above them.
Their defence is superb, second only to Sydney for fewest points conceded. But where the Swans have the firepower to launch 15 goals in Geelong, the Bulldogs are lacking. They’ve had to become experts in ‘grind’, whether it’s playing poorly but hanging around long enough to pinch a win against an undermanned Collingwood, or gallantly toppling those Swans a fortnight ago despite having six fewer scoring shots.
That’s fine, and it’s admirable. But history, or at least close to a decade of heartache for Ross Lyon, suggests that you need to be able to score freely to win a premiership.
The Bulldogs have a prime Cat String Theory candidate who could theoretically solve their attacking woes. But counting on Tom Boyd to magically transform overnight into the last piece of a premiership puzzle is like hitting on 20 in Blackjack hoping for an ace.
The team’s real Cat String Theory game-changer is the man who moves like a cat – Jake Stringer.
When he’s on, Stringer might be the most exciting player in the game, and he’s one of the most destructively influential too. He’s a pogo stick pterodactyl, someone who moves his feet as quickly as Lionel Messi, and runs with upright purpose like Cristiano Ronaldo.
He plays with force and finesse, just as likely to use a stiff-arm as a sidestep. At 192cm and 91kg with agility and pace to burn, Stringer is the perfect prototype for a modern football player.
But he also just turned 22 years old. And 22-year-olds typically don’t breathe fire every single week. Stringer’s season has been slightly disappointing, albeit effective.
Progression is rarely completely linear, and in his third full season, Stringer hasn’t taken the big next step many expected of him at the beginning of the year.
His goal tally is down – after averaging four shots on goal per game last year, this year he’s at 3.3 – and he gets found out by the better teams. In the Bulldogs’ four losses, against Hawthorn, North Melbourne, GWS and Geelong, Stringer has kicked a total of two goals. In the team’s eleven wins he’s kicked 31.
The problem with Stringer is that he doesn’t just go missing in some games – often he’s actively bad. Against Collingwood in Round 10 he was the unfortunate combination of anonymous and dreadful, barely touching the ball and then butchering it when he did, resorting to blind selfishness around goal, and killing the cadences of his team’s forward movement by trying to do too much.
These are just growing pains – you don’t become Lance Franklin overnight. Stringer has played 65 games so far and he’s perfectly on track to become a superstar. But the Bulldogs are set up to win now, as well as in the future.
A juggernaut is building in Greater Western Sydney, and the league may not be as wide open as it is this year for some time.
With their youth, you would expect the Bulldogs to be in the discussion for a flag for the next half decade. But forecasting the future is often hopeless. The 2005-06 Eagles were supposed to be a dynasty but were derailed by things that had nothing to do with football.
The 1993 Bombers and 2010-11 Magpies were set to dominate the competition for years, but Essendon’s dominance didn’t come for another six seasons, and Collingwood’s faded quickly into obscurity. Sparing the poetry, the future often sucks.
The Bulldogs are almost good enough to win now. They might actually be good enough, but despite the victory in Sydney, with their weak percentage and record against the best teams (3-4 against teams in the eight, a poorer record than Geelong, Sydney, Hawthorn, GWS and Adelaide have) you get the sense that they probably skewer slightly towards the lower end of the contender spectrum.
Jake Stringer can bridge that gap. He’s that good. And this team’s best avenue to higher scoring, and the premiership that could come with it, might be Stringer fully realising his potential in a hurry.
It’s not likely that he’ll develop that consistency so soon, but he may only need to do it for four games, possibly only three, during the finals. It might be the Dogs’ best hope. Because so often a team’s fortunes are not decided by good players emerging from nowhere – they’re decided by already good players becoming truly great ones.