I couldn't shake a sense of nervous apprehension before the game. A tension, a foreboding. And soon enough my worst fears and suspicions were confirmed.
Yes, the Commentary Non-Dream Team - Messrs Ricciuto, Dunstall and Russell - had assembled for our match against Port.
Pumped, primed. ready, willing and depressingly able, to provide zero insight, and shamelessly one-sided 'analysis'. Their inane drivel would be, alas, my only lifeline to a match being played hundreds of kilometres away.
I could maybe cope with the partiality that the unashamedly parochial local men, Ricciuto and Russell, brought to the table. It was harder to deal with the fact that there was barely one insight, perceptive comment or well-placed statistic that could make you see the match in a different light; no thoughtful reflection on how things were unfolding. You would scarcely credit that two of these men had been greats of the game. (The third was, of course, Dwayne Russell).
I was labouring under extra disadvantage in my dependence on the Non-Dream Team. Staying up the coast on the long weekend I could only access the game through the Foxtel app on my ipad. It was difficult enough to make sense of the small shadowy figures flitting around the small screen and try to grasp the ebb and flow of the match; the tedious and often ludicrous Foxtel commentary offered no help at all in those endeavours.
Surely in these days of technological innovation, there should be some alternative to these mugs. An instant 'google translate'-type feature; or even better a 'red white and blue' (aka RWB Channel) option in Foxtel settings, where Bulldogs' supporters could instead tune into much more insightful commentary by Brad Johnson, Barry Hall, and - why not? - the Bulldog Tragician. (I think it's time for me to extend my influence and become a multi-media personality).
Just think about it. You could switch off Dwayne (what sort of name is that anyway?), Ricciuto (who sounds like Dermott Brereton. This is not a compliment) and Dunstall (probably the best of a very poor bunch). Instead of fuming when ten minutes are taken up in an endless analysis of whether a free to Port had been missed, Channel RWB subscribers would be savouring a loving frame-by-frame replay of The Bont tapping the ball to his advantage to create a magnificent goal. (Maybe even an interview with his grandmother at quarter time).
You wouldn't have to withstand hysterical commentary about the (alleged) excitement machine in the Port forward line. So often did they use the phrase that I began to believe there was a Port player whose name was actually Charlie Dixon-Lurking. Port kicked it constantly in the direction of Charlie Dixon-Lurking, who reasonably frequently got his hand somewhere near the ball (WITHOUT ACTUALLY MARKING IT - sorry, Non-Dream Team, I thought that was the point of forwards).
But instead of hearing the commentary team's shouts of pre-emptive ecstasy at the prospect of Charlie Dixon-Lurking actually clunking one at last, you would instead hear the calm, measured tones of RWB Channel.
'That's a clever mark to Matthew Boyd, reading the play well, while Charlie Dixon, who's been a largely disappointing recruit for Port, flapped around uselessly some metres behind the ball. What did you think, Tragician?'
You'd be insulated from Dwayne's shrieks of infatuation as the ball launched into what he alone, despite all evidence to the contrary, labelled 'Dixon territory', but to the appreciative listeners of RWB channel, was more accurately described as unattended space in which three Bulldogs defenders could gather to move the ball briskly away and launch a scoring opportunity.
In fairness Dwayne's raptures around Charlie Dixon-Lurking even made him oblivious to any good work by The Hyphenated One's team-mates. You might have thought at one point a mark by Ollie Wines was the result of his own smart play and hard work. Dwayne alone saw it differently - it was in actuality some superb decoy work by C-D-L in dragging his opponent out of the square. Or as RWB listeners in their parallel universe might have heard:
'Well, Barry, Charlie Dixon led to the wrong spot and was overlooked for the footy.'
I shouldn't save all my venom for Dwayne alone, however (though it's fun). He was more than amply supported by Ricciuto, who was keen to point out that three of Port's defenders were injured (Jason Dunstall eventually did chip in to advise Ricciuto that the Dogs' men's department was somewhat depleted of late). I guess you can't expect Ricciuto to have done any research or preparation and exhibit any awareness of automatic inclusions such as our captain Murphy, vice-captain Wood, ball-winning magnet Johannisen and Marcus Adams.
Ricciuto made a Nostradamus-style prediction at half time that it would be tough for the Dogs to get back into it. Perhaps a tad harsh given that WE WERE ACTUALLY IN FRONT.
Early in the third quarter, with Power ten points ahead in what had been a fierce, absorbing contest, Ricciuto pronounced that the Dogs were 'on the ropes' and 'just don't look like scoring.' (We kicked the next three).
One of these goals, a superb snap by Libber, was greeted with funereal silence by the Foxtel crew. I've rarely heard such clear deflation, bordering on depression as their preferred narrative hit a speed-hump. As the replay was shown, Ricciuto finally mustered the ungracious view that it had been 'opportunistic'.
Not long after, Jake Stringer sustained a knock to the head when sandwiched in a tackle. Only our man Ricciuto could see it differently, even when several replays showed Jake, standing upright in the tackle, clashing heads with a Port player. 'That's what happens when you duck your head,' opined Ricciuto, who, it appears, has had one too many knocks to the head himself. He repeated the assertion again until even his fellow commentators became embarrassed and corrected him given the clear vision showing otherwise.
At three quarter time, with more sparkling perceptions from Ricciuto about Port's wonderful record in closing out matches, my app had begun to crash (even though I'd so far resisted the strong determination to throw the ipad at a wall). I closed it down to steady my thoughts and ponder the progress of the game so far.
I was in awe of how the Dogs had played, even though to my mind, each quarter had a different complexion. In the first, I thought we'd made a concerted effort to start well and blanket the crowd noise, and we'd succeeded, with some brilliant clearance work, sharp hands and attack on the footy. The Power hadn't wilted, however, and we seemed initially unnerved in the second quarter as they launched a ferocious counter-attack. The intensity of this quarter seemed even fiercer because I'd been at the Socceroos friendly against Greece a few days earlier. I was reminded all over again of the contrast between soccer and the sheer brutality of our game, how players get up again and again after jarring bone-jerking tackles, how relentlessly bodies are used as battering rams, how frightening and yet enthralling it can be to watch four, five, six players colliding in packs, placing head over the footy in horrifyingly dangerous places time and again.
The RWB commentary team would have been able to point out that the most significant thing about the sustained assault in the second quarter was that we'd somehow weathered it. It would have actually been fascinating to hear someone with genuine insight explain to me how, exactly, our undermanned defence - featuring 18 year-old-Bailey Williams and three other players who've appeared in less than 30 games (Biggs, Hamling and Roberts) - withstood the tide (and even contained the threat of brilliance from Charlie Dixon-Lurking). This ability to soak up an opposition period of dominance and then land a telling counter-punch is the area where we've most improved from last year. In periods of non-dominance we are no longer as fragile; remarkably given our injuries and where they've hit we are the number one defensive team.
In the third quarter, far from being 'on the ropes' as our mate Ricciuto would have it, connoisseurs of RWB Channel would have been appreciating that the Dogs were able to up the ante yet again, lifting the contested possession rate, and more importantly, and not always an area of strength for us, kick straight when we needed to.
At three quarter time, my biggest concern is that the Dogs might become overwhelmed by the rabidly intense atmosphere generated by 40,000 Port fans willing their team home. I have often thought there may be a connection with the Bulldogs' less than stellar finals record, and the fact that we get comparatively little exposure to big crowds and the intimidating atmosphere of a belligerent crowd.
I can't imagine what it's like to hear 40,000 people booing every shot at goal, screaming for free kicks; how on earth players are able to create their own mental space and only tune into their team-mates' voices and encouragement, and focus on what needs to be done.
I'm not really sure whether my Dogs, with 11 players who have played less than 50 games and with our energiser bunny Luke Dahlaus unable to take any further part, can muster the will and composure to bring this one home. But I'm relishing the chance of finding out.
Jake Stringer decides that he and he alone needed to provide our answer. As he bullocks around, a one person Man of Mayhem, he is unstoppable as he, to modify a certain phrase, tears the game apart.
While along with every other Bulldogs fan I can wish for The Lair to add consistency and four-quarter effort to his stable of tricks, there is, I have to admit, a part of me that relishes the unpredictability and dazzling nature of his intersections with the game. Like a fireworks display that briefly lights up the sky, it's about magic and an unexpected burst of colours; adjectives that you know are never going to be placed besides Jake's name are dour, workmanlike, or pedestrian. Have the Dogs ever had a player as mercurial, a one-of-a-kind matchwinner who can turn a game like quicksilver in a matter of seconds? Do we really want him to be any another way?
While these thoughts go through my mind, a different problem presents itself: the temperamental app finally splutters and dies. The Dogs are nine points up. There's far too much time to run. I've been texting my son back in Melbourne and when he hears my plight he Facetimes me and places the phone up against his TV so I can keep in touch. When Jack Redpath goals and we are still nine points up, I decide that the agony of watching it this way is too much. I hang up and opt to follow it on the AFL site. By the time it loads our lead has been cut to three points and I've no idea what's going on - no vision of the game, no sound, just a static scoreboard showing us at 94, and Port at 91. Suddenly the Bulldogs' score on the screen ticks over and we are at 100. It feels like the marauders' map in Harry Potter; a silent testament that great events have been going on while I'm stuck, adrift, apart, helpless, hoping.
Later I will see how that goal - that wonderful, match-winning goal - is constructed. The mighty tap from Roughead. Not just one, but two ferocious tackles by Libber the Second. Quick hands combining to link Wallis and then 'Celeb' Daniel. The Bont leading out, making up ground as the kick seems to veer out of his reach, grasping the mark with sheer will as he falls forward. And just as he did against Adelaide, the touch of a champion as he kicks the goal, the goal that had to be kicked.
When I return to Melbourne, I'll finally watch the game properly, with the luxurious knowledge of how it all ends and how this game, on foreign soil, was won. I'll be able to enjoy the powerful leading and marking of Jack 'First Quarter Specialist' Redpath. To notice all those little things that Jackson Macrae, heavily tagged, was able to do, celebrate his ten tackles, the bravery that he is now noted for, his unobtrusive contributions and run. To bask in another best on ground from The Bont who even by his stratospheric standards was superb in that nerve-wracking last quarter. To watch the ever-growing confidence and neat kicking of Shane 'Porn Star' Biggs, the gallantry and steely will of those backline veterans Boyd and Morris, Liam Picken's fanatical attack on ball and man, the way this team can withstand adversity and there is always someone to bob up, someone that can't be repressed any longer. To relish the will, the talent, the evenness of our contributors, the resilience of our game-plan and the ever growing self-belief of our young team.
And as the RWB commentators would like to point out (somewhat hoarsely):
'That is an enormous, gutsy, fantastic win, and another step forward in our premiership quest.
'And did you realise, listeners, that Charlie Dixon managed just three marks for the game?'
'I'm glad you mentioned that, Brad, because Tory Dickson took four.
'In fact Charlie Dixon took only one more than our 19 year old, 168 cm champ 'Celeb' Daniel. But not as many as Lachie Hunter with six, or Honeychurch and Bailey Williams who each managed five.'
'Well, that's a wrap; we're off to join the team and sing the song. We'll see you next week.'
About the Bulldog Tragician
The Tragician blog began in 2013 as a way of recording what it is like to barrack for a perennially unsuccessful team - the AFL team, the Western Bulldogs.