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AFL Friday Footy Fix: Bulldogs bite, Pendlebury spews and ump dissent rule sucks

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4 days ago
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The Western Bulldogs have had plenty of Thursday and Friday solo games to start this year (and, on one occasion, a Wednesday) that they’ve spent plenty of time being closely analysed in these pages.

Even in their wins, I haven’t exactly been glowing of the way they’ve played. Part of that is the inherent frustration that comes with being a supporter, most of it as a result of the higher expectations demanded of a side that made the grand final last year and has probably the most talented squad in the club’s history.

That ends, for now at least, tonight. Because the Bulldogs’ performance in downing Collingwood by 48 points at Marvel Stadium was that of a side that not only can consider itself well and truly still in the finals race, but even a premiership contender as well – if all, and I mean all, the chips fall their way.

The first quarter, and in particular the period between the 12th and 19th minutes, was some of the most dominant football played by any team this year when the opponent wasn’t North Melbourne or West Coast. The Dogs massacred the Magpies out of the centre, their forwards looked dangerous whenever the ball went near them, and on the occasions when a black and white jumper found the ball in their possession, a wave of suffocating pressure ensured turnovers aplenty.

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Every stat was its own exercise in one-way traffic: contested possessions were 43-28 at quarter time, clearances 15-6 and centre clearances a staggering 7-1, and inside 50s 22-12. All of those stats can at times be misleading; none of them were tonight.

It was accomplished, encouragingly for the Dogs, despite Marcus Bontempelli still spending plenty of time up forward, and even Josh Dunkley starting in the goalsquare for more than one centre bounce. Both made their presence felt in attack – Dunkley’s overhead marking in particular was so impressive that it couldn’t help but feel like a move Luke Beveridge could and should make more often in coming weeks.

In the guts, Bailey Smith brought his own football with 14 touches, Tom Liberatore had his best and most impactful game in probably 12 months, and Adam Treloar benefitted from increased time around the ball without Bontempelli and Dunkley pushing him to the periphery.

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Treloar’s confidence grew from then on, finishing as clearly the best player afield with 35 touches and three composed goals. It would have been a defiant middle finger to Nathan Buckley, Ned Guy and Eddie McGuire if, y’know, any of them were still around to receive it.

In the ruck, Jordon Sweet, playing his first game since Round 11 last year and just his sixth overall, made his continued omission in 2022 all the more baffling. With Stefan Martin and Tim English on the sidelines, the 205cm 24-year old was as industrious as anyone at the coalface, with some deft tap work giving the Dogs midfielders first use when the game was there to be won.

Not only did he shade opposite number Darcy Cameron for the points on the night, five marks around the ground showed he could get involved in the play on the outside too. With English to miss another week due to a severe bout of flu, as confirmed by Beveridge after the game, Sweet should get at least one more game to ply his trade against Gold Coast and the colossal Jarrod Witts – and probably should be in Beveridge’s plans even when English returns.

The cracks in the Dogs’ armour were still there – the Magpies, amazingly, finished with five marks inside 50 to three for the term despite the domination, emphasising their still-leaky defence. B

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ut many of those marks came from the 40-50 metre range, with the Dogs either content to sit back and wait for the long kick or for Oliver Henry to try and fail to pass the ball off. Once the second-year youngster shelved that approach in the second term and took responsibility himself, it became clear why he had so little faith in himself to begin with.

When the Pies were able to expose that backline, just as Port Adelaide did so ruthlessly last week, things happened for them: the only trouble is, you actually need to have the ball in hand to do it. Couple that with the seamless return of Alex Keath from a five-week hamstring lay-off, preventing the sort of contested marks that were barely a contest the Power talls took last week, and a seven-goal evening feels about right.

Really, though, the Bulldogs should be doing this to a side like Collingwood: this was, after all, an established reigning grand finalist against a team whose coach is in his ninth game in charge. That it wasn’t was down to the Magpies’ excellent, if inconsistent, start under Craig McRae, as much as it was the Dogs’ sluggish start to the year. The result, in the end, was one you’d have been more surprised about two days ago than two months ago.

As for the rest of the match, the Pies were game enough to not be fully shaken until the second half of the final quarter, with their exciting, free-flowing play seeing them live by the sword and die by the sword in just about equal measure. But their midfield was taken to the cleaners all night, and never gained anything close to parity in that regard.

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Tom Liberatore of the Bulldogs kicks over Jordan De Goey of Collingwood.

Tom Liberatore of the Bulldogs kicks over Jordan De Goey of Collingwood. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Jack Macrae, Smith, Liberatore, Treloar, Dunkley, Bontempelli and co. have been far from as dominant this year as those names indicate they should be. Tonight, they were – and the Dogs looked infinitely stronger for it.

For the Pies, while the loss of captain Scott Pendlebury to illness an hour before the bounce was a bitter blow, and probably scuppered their chances of an upset win then and there, it is a concern for a side still firmly in rebuild mode to be so reliant on a 34-year old, champion though he is.

Pendlebury’s creative and precise ball use, composure and smart decision-making were all sorely missing against the Dogs, and particularly early on their daring play lacked the calm head of the skipper to get them out of a jam as required. But more than that, McRae has always had the get out of jail option of throwing Pendlebury onto the ball when times get tough, as he did to great effect against Essendon on ANZAC Day and against Brisbane the round prior.

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Lacking that option, only Jordan De Goey really looked like upsetting the Dogs’ clearance domination with anything like a clean breakaway from a stoppage. Eight of the top nine possession-winners on the night were Bulldogs, including six of the primary on-ball brigade; with 24, Jack Crisp had more of the Sherrin than any other Pie.

Down by 46 points at three quarter time, the Pies through caution to the wind with some truly exhilarating play in the final term, regularly going from end to end and making the Bulldogs’ defence look vulnerable once more. It wasn’t without error, but whenever there was a mis-kick or dodgy handball, there was a black and white rush to effect a tackle and win the ball back, and so on it went.

It never looked likely to last – and as fatigue set in, the Dogs’ composure allowed them to find space for uncontested marks caused by loose-checking Magpies and wind the clock to safety – but there was genuine belief among players and fans after three goals on the trot.

Indeed, who knows how things might have panned out if not for the free kick and 50m penalty for umpire dissent against De Goey that gifted Dunkley his third, and the game-sealer. Speaking of which…

Of course the top talking point out of the match will likely be the resurfacing of the umpire dissent 50m penalty, with a number paid throughout the night – more, if memory serves, than I remember seeing in the past fortnight combined.

I’ve made my thoughts on the rule, and how it just increases frustration with umpires while making the game even harder to officiate, pretty clear on The Roar for a while now, so the point won’t be bandied more than to say that it sucks and always will. The frustration with it is that tonight was the first night it really smacked of the ‘rule of the week’ vibe the AFL often gives out.

You can usually tell as early as Friday night what the rule the umpires have instructed to pay more often is – we’ve seen spates of holding the balls, push in the backs and deliberate out of bounds in recent years and weeks.

Seeing three lead directly to set shots in the second half, and one or two more in the first, after the crackdown had slowly faded since the day of reckoning on Easter Monday, was deeply troubling to watch – especially as neither De Goey nor Buku Khamis, in an earlier incident, did all that much in the name of dissent. Indeed, if De Goey had bitten down any harder on his tongue he’d have needed to go off under the blood rule.

Put simply, a 50m penalty is too harsh for it to be the rule of the week this round, handed out like Tic-tacs to teams for the most minor of indiscretions. I can tolerate, if not fully accept, the odd one popping up to remind the players who’s boss, and to obviously come down hard on the most obvious acts of disrespect.

But if we see calls to the extent that were paid last night in a close game this round, just watch heads around the country explode. Mine will probably be one of them.

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