We were travelling down the Western Highway to Ballarat for our blockbuster against the Gold Coast Suns when the bad news filtered through: Marcus Bontempelli was a late withdrawal from our already depleted team.
It was almost enough to cause traffic chaos. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see multiple cars with Bulldogs’ bumper stickers hastily executing U-turns, their long-suffering occupants fleeing back to the safety of the western suburbs.
With captain and vice-captain sidelined, teenagers holding together a brittle backline, and only eight of the 2016 premiership team taking the field, the youth of the Dogs’ team is almost shocking. Whether measured by games played or age, our profile is that of the franchise clubs in their first season or two, when there was widespread acceptance that they would be thumped by 10 goals every time they took the field.
Yet in the watery Ballarat light, those that bravely continued down the highway saw Our Boys somehow find a way to win.
The signs have been faint, but there are rumblings of momentum, little signs that our team, shell-shocked by that hideous injury list, was finding something of a mojo, learning to play together, gaining confidence after our horror start to the year. It has to be said, though, our ‘streak’ of two wins in a row against fellow bottom of the ladder stragglers weren’t exactly classics. But our team had shown heart. Often that’s enough.
We left encouraged, if not buoyant.
The Bont is back for our match against the Lions. He is the skipper in a team where only Matt Suckling is over 26. Within minutes of the match beginning, his class, grace and instinct for the game are on display. Operating in that different time zone of the truly gifted, Our Golden Boy snaps a goal. There haven’t been too many exhilarating moments in 2018. But this, at last, is one of them.
When those cars nearly veered off the highway last week, part of our angst – our unfairly directed angst – was not just that The Bont was out, but that his replacement was the much-maligned Mitch Honeychurch. In every season, in every team, in every year that I’ve followed the Dogs, there’s always been that one player (okay, in many years more than one) who’s a magnet for criticism.
The "suppository" — as that former prime minister would have said — of our frustrations.
The one whose mistakes loom large, whose errors we cannot forgive.
The Tragician is far from immune from these unworthy thoughts. Yet admitting this makes me uncomfortable and sometimes ashamed. After all (and for this we can all be truly thankful) it’s not me going out there putting my body on the line, risking injury in each brutal contest. I’m not the one who has a millisecond to decide what do; I’m not shouldering the burden of knowing that each of my actions out on the field may be the difference between the team’s success and failure.
Mitch Honeychurch has been around our club longer than you’d think; he was drafted in 2013. There was never any suspense about who would be the number one pick selected that year by The Acronyms, who of course had access to the cream of the land’s talent; they chose the prototype modern, powerfully built footballer, with the movie star looks, Thomas Boyd.
2013 was also the year that our recruiters made the momentous decision to select (thank you, thank you, THANK YOU) our number four pick, a rangy kid called Marcus Bontempelli.
Fifty nine names were called out – and the two Sydney-based teams had actually called out: PASS rather than make a selection – before Mitchell Honeychurch, just 175 cm and 70 kilograms, was drafted, without fanfare, to the Western Bulldogs.
The career paths of the three draftees have diverged widely. The Bont has now played 92 games; he was pivotal in our 2016 finals and premiership. He’s been the youngest ever AFL captain; he’s already snared two Charles Sutton medals. The number four Guernsey is the hottest property for sale in the Bulldogs shop. With his Italian good looks, I always picture him as a profile on a Roman coin. He’s humble, affable, sure of himself without cockiness, and somehow in all his interactions with the fans, I see something not always associated with AFL players. Kindness.
Tom Boyd’s career has taken a more circuitous, even melodramatic path. A sensational, contentious transfer to the Bulldogs. Sneering criticism of his pay-cheque, endless debate about his true value. Stints in the twos. A bizarre dustup with a team-mate. A fairytale ‘coming-of-age’ performance in a Grand Final, followed by a year of more struggle and mental health concerns.
This year Tom seems comfortable in his own formidable strength, throwing himself into the ruck contests while we all hold our breath, a man-mountain. No longer the cleancut youth of the draft photos, he now sports an interesting array of facial hair and resembles a swashbuckling pirate.
And Mitch Honeychurch? He’s had no luck with injury. His role in the team is precarious, his hold on his spot always a week-to-week proposition.
He’s mustered just 29 games in his five seasons; seven of them this year.
Last year he was out of contract. The Dogs offered him a one-year extension.
He is small, but not particularly quick; brave, but not noted for his skills. Even Bulldogs fans would struggle to recognise him if he strolled down Barkly Street, though he’s adopted the ubiquitous man-bun. Yet his name takes up disproportionate space within the fan forums. The commentary is rarely kind.
Kids don’t hero-worship our number 22. Nobody hopes and prays the ball will be in his hands at a critical moment in a final of the future.
We’ve seen many Honeychurch prototypes over the years. Some fulfil our gloomy predictions and never manage to scrounge more than 30 or 40 largely unappreciated games. There are others, though, whose initial careers were just as lacklustre. Blokes with unlikely body shapes, a dearth of flashy footballing talent, no scintillating highlight reels. Men like Tony Liberatore, whose physical stature meant he had no earthly right to play high level footy, but won a Brownlow. Like Daniel Cross, who had none of the gifts of the current wearer of the number four Guernsey except - and he had this in spades - courage, yet won a Sutton medal. Like Matthew Boyd, who willed himself from Frankston reserves to premiership player.
Mitch Honeychurch is probably no more — and no less — talented than these men. I’m sure if the Bulldog Tragician blog had been around in the early days of their careers, there would never have been excited predictions about future glory for Libba the First, Daniel Cross or ‘Keith’ Boyd. On the other hand it’s one of the crueller aspects of footy, that sheer talent does not alone foretell a future. Chris Grant, the ‘Rolls Royce’ never saw a flag while Clay Smith, more like a battered but somehow reliable Holden —a footballer of far humbler pedigree but outsized determination - who was desperately unlucky in so many ways but lucky enough that his brief window of footballing health came in the second half of 2016 — is a premiership player.
The Dogs defeated the Lions on Saturday night. Maybe for the first time this year, footy was fun again. Our team even kicked 100 points; our appalling inaccuracy was not quite so, well, appalling. There were errors, there were flat patches, but there were moments when Our Boys linked up, running like the wind to help each other out. Moments where you could see a future, a bright future at that.
The backline was held together by veteran player ‘In-Zaine’ Cordy, another of those unheralded players who’s never won a Rising Star nomination, but was a premiership player in only his eleventh match. I love that 'In-Zaine' always looks personally affronted when a goal is scored in his vicinity, let alone against him. His moustache somehow bristles in an enjoyably mean way. You get the feeling he wouldn’t have been too sorry when his knee collided, completely accidentally, with Callan Ward’s head in that bruising preliminary final. Zaine, pick 62 in the 2014 national draft, has now played 39 games, and is just 21 years old.
Another old hand, 23-year-old Jackson Macrae, was indisputably best on the ground with an incredible 47 possessions. In Jackson there’s not only a hunger to succeed; there’s a hunger to get better. We had him pigeonholed as a master accumulator, reliably racking up umpteen possessions per week. But now he takes contested marks in the forward line. He’s even a goal kicker, and actually features in highlight reels. Where, previously, his magic was unobtrusive, invisible, in the match against the Suns, he delighted us us all by careering down the wing, bouncing the ball, before landing an impeccable pass.
And his beautifully weighted kick to Tom Boyd had all the poetry of Marcus Bontempelli in full flight.
Mitch Honeychurch, meanwhile, played as a tagger on Saturday night. He kept the human scrabble rack, Dayne Zorko, in reasonable check, and accumulated the highest number of possessions of his brief career. Yet inevitably, as fans debate this week’s selections, Mitch’s name will - as always - be the first one viewed as dispensable.
Over in the camp of our mortal enemies the Bombres, selection debate will be even more frenzied, as they deal with the fallout of their humiliating loss to the Old Dark Navy Blues. (Cue some immature chortles from the Bulldog Tragician). The man in their sights will be one who had all the gifts, as much pure talent as any ever seen in the red, white and blue. While Jackson Macrae elevates his game to incredible new levels, his fellow 2012 draftee Jake Stringer’s career is, not for the first time, at a crossroads.
Meanwhile the statistics of our enthusiastic but rough-around-the-edges rookie Billy Gowers, who couldn't make the grade at lowly Carlton, are surpassing those of All-Australian and premiership player Jake Stringer.
My thoughts keep wandering back, though, to Mitch Honeychurch. I try to remember more about his debut in June 2014. The Bont already had a couple of games under his belt before his fellow draftee got the call-up. I realised, then, that the day the number 60 draft pick debuted was a match against Melbourne. Its highlight was the trans-formative moment when 18-year-old Marcus Bontempelli announced his greatness, manufacturing an unbelievable goal, hemmed in on all sides from the pocket.
The fans were in raptures; the Bulldog Tragician dedicated an entire blog to celebrating its glory, forecasting that The Bont would one day captain our club, win a Norm Smith and a Brownlow.
When The Bont kicked his freakish goal, Mitch Honeychurch was one of those in the vicinity. He was 19 years old, just at the very start of his footballing journey. He had kicked a goal with his very first kick, but had a modest eight disposals for the match, and would play only two more games for the year. But as The Bont's kick sailed through, Mitch Honeychurch raised his arms, laughed at the sheer genius of what we’d witnessed, and ran forward to congratulate his team-mate and prodigy.
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.