'Fast and ferocious Western Bulldogs deliver Adelaide's first loss'
"So many words could be used to describe the way the Western Bulldogs played in the first half of Sunday's game that it was little wonder most of the Adelaide players had a 'hang on, wait, what?' look about them. The Bulldogs were fast, first of all. They were creative, adventurous, confident, relentless and fierce, an energetic blur. They kicked the first goal, then the third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh. They played like they had absolute faith that everyone would be where he was meant to be, doing what he was meant to be doing".
- Emma Quayle, The Age, April 27, 2015
"Don't dream too loud, or I'll come and shoot you"
- Ned Kelly's menacing 'advice' to a schoolteacher at the siege of Glenrowan
The Dogs unleash a blitzing first quarter. They tackle like fiends. When the ball inevitably spills free, they pounce and sweep the ball downfield with lightening speed. They have six goals. It should actually be more.
They're fast. They're daring. The arena seems wide and spacious, full of possibilities and endless green turf for our boys to charge into; our forwards lurk, dangerous and threatening. One moment they're locking the ball in with insane intensity, the next moment they're galloping down the ground together, waves of players running in formation.
We're up by 35 points at half time; a whopping 65 at three quarter time.
We look like a top team. Like contenders.
The Tragician, of course, had secretly hoped only for a respectable showing. The unsporting and mean-spirited Hawks had laid bare our inexperience and defensive fragility, ruthlessly reminding us of how long a journey lay ahead. Losing Wallis and Morris to injury, I was philosophical about the likelihood that the bubble of hope and possibility would quickly deflate. It seemed realistic to expect, against an undefeated and impressive Adelaide, that the hard grind of a year with a young and inexperienced team was about to begin in earnest.
Yet here are the Dogs, regaining the zest and free flowing footy of the first two rounds, energetic, feisty and (this is the most stunning bit) crisply skilled.
Early, there is a spine tingling, time-capsule moment. It gives that message from the universe that comes only in the most perfect of wins: that this is our day, that we can't possibly lose.
Clay Smith has marked the ball; he's playing his first AFL game in almost two years. Aged just 21, he's already endured two knee reconstructions, a bout of salmonella poisoning, and a serious shoulder injury. It's hard to imagine the loneliness of his rehab, the despair and heaviness of each setback, the isolation and doubt, wondering whether your awful luck will ever end. But his team-mates can imagine it only too well; they take the field each week, knowing they are one awkward movement away from it being their story, too. They know that joy in footy is never far away from sorrow.
There seems no doubt whatsoever that Clay will kick the goal. When he does, the fans make an incredible, roof-lifting din, an outpouring of our gratitude, love and goodwill. But when virtually every team-mate runs and he gets wrapped closely in their midst, you know this is a moment for the players, and the players alone.
Meanwhile Jake Stringer is exploding with the complete performance that he has promised but never quite delivered. Jake might not have the full hipster Ned-Kelly-style beard so beloved of footballers these days, but he's got Ned's irreverence and larrikin spirit. From his very first appearance in our colours, only the word 'lair' (in the best Stevie J sense of the word) has seemed to fit. He has an aura, something threatening and electrifying and breathtaking all at once. He's catlike on his feet, he bursts through tackles, he creates a bristling forcefield whenever he goes near the ball. He takes his energy from the crowd, a showman loving the spotlight. (He also misses regulation set shots and drops a chest mark; perhaps these are a little mundane for one of his exceptional talent).
You just know that one day Jake will kick ten. It could be soon. Very soon.
Jake's all fire; his captain is more like an airy sprite, drawing on Celtic magic. Maybe Bob Murphy has played better games; if so I don't recall them. He makes the ball sing. It bounces and sits just for him, yet really that's a trick of the mind; it's just that, balancing on his twinkle toes, he's perfectly attuned to what's going on, he's there intercepting it seconds before mere mortals realise it's arrived.
And yet my favourite moment of our captain's superlative performance is not very whimsical or Bob-like at all. A Crows player is slightly fumbling the ball near the boundary line. Bob Murphy, not exactly the most brutish of men, arrives simultaneously. He delivers a bump that is somehow both delicate and forceful. It's easy, I think, to be misled by Bob's unlikely footy physique, his gentle and self-effacing humour, and forget the burning intensity that lies just beneath the grace and artistry.
Around Bob and Jake there's a support cast; it's rare for any side to be totally in synch, but today every-one in red white and blue plays their role to perfection. While we're dazzled by the crackling energy of Jake, just as important are the relentless running and will to get the ball of his fellow high draft pick Jackson McCrae; yet just like Bob, it's unwise to be deceived by his unobtrusive, sometimes laconic, appearance as he lopes up and down the field. Jason Johaniesson with his dash and line-breaking runs sends us forward countless times; it seems a travesty that Eddie Betts ends with four goals when JJ has trounced him so comprehensively. Michael Talia and Jordan Roughead hold up the 'Men's Department' so stoutly that it is only at the end of the game that I remember that our premier defender over the past ten years, Dale Morris, is missing - yet for once not really missed.
Before the match there had been a round of family jocularity about the hapless Ayce Cordy, and his somewhat puzzling selection after a two possession game in Launceston. My sister had announced that she would run down Bourke Street naked if Ayce defies the odds and is best on ground. (When in the first five minutes, a fired-up Ayce wrenched the ball out of a pack and kicked a goal, my sister was looking a tad pale).
We're chortling about this as we drive home together (Ayce, who had been at best workmanlike, had fortunately spared my sister's blushes). We're remembering wonderful moments, trying to capture again the magic and fun that this team of kids (seven of them have not yet played 20 games) are bringing to us with their exuberance, their vitality; at times I expected some of them to perform cartwheels of sheer joy and enthusiasm. We're talking about Lukas Webb and how naturally he has slotted into the backline, this baby-faced kid wearing the old number of his coach (who I dimly remember as a blur of small determination in our forward line). We're revelling yet again in the form of Lin Jong, his courage and his creative dash; the rejuvenation of newly crowned Disposal Efficiency King Matthew Boyd in the backline; the willingness of Tom Boyd to play a patient, second fiddle role to ShowPony Jake in the forward line; the heroics of Liam Picken; the athleticism and leap of Easton Wood.
We want to hear every post-match detail, of Bob saying: 'Today I'll put my arms around them, last week I was more like Rocket Eade'. Lin Jong telling us that Beveridge doesn't get them to tag, he wants them to play their own game 'and how much taller does that make us all walk out onto the ground.' About how second-gamer Lukas Webb had been practising the words of the club song, getting ready for this moment.
We could talk about it forever. And I realise that not once today have I looked back or thought about the Preliminary Final That Must Not Be Named, or The Other Preliminary Final That Wasn't Really Very Good Either.
My sister says, suddenly: 'I just think they can do it. I think this group are going to do it for us. They're going to win us a flag one day.'
For a fraction of a second, I think with a pang of Grant and Johnson, and Smith and West, and Gia. And Murph.
'Yes,' I say. 'I believe it too.'
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.