"As is always the case when heading to the first game of a season, I made the journey to Docklands thinking that anything was possible. Today was all about a new coach, some new players, a new (or old) uniform and hopefully a new attitude. Even the weather was splendid – mid 20s and sunny. If it wasn’t for a footy match and all that can go wrong in one, the day could have been perfect!
I tried not to think for too long about our prospects, for I knew that would just dampen the buzz. In truth, deep down, I expected this to be a transition year for the Dogs and predicted only 6-9 wins. The Dogs made consecutive preliminary finals appearances in 2008-2010 before sliding to 10th last season. Most AFL fans will be familiar with the logic that you must “go down before you go up”, the part of the cycle frustratingly called bottoming out. Cycles. Bottoming out. Premiership windows. Modern footy jargon.
The theory goes that once a group of older, experienced players fade into retirement they must be replaced by players who are younger and lighter bodied, therefore less likely to win games and finish in the top half of the ladder.
This logic is so well known and agreed upon in footy that it’s even been said Hawthorn won a Premiership “too soon” in 2008; a belief that I’ve never really grasped. A Premiership is the ultimate. Can you get a job promotion or have a lottery win too soon?
In winning that flag, Hawthorn beat Geelong – a side who’ve won three Premierships themselves in recent years. Two of those flags were on schedule, and one was after they were supposed to have peaked. Can you win a flag “too late”?
Our new coach, Brendan McCartney, was one of the assistants at Geelong during their dynasty. On the way to the game I read a feature article in the Herald Sun, which painted a picture of the Brendan McCartney story.
At 52, he is the second oldest coach in the AFL – the next oldest is 45. He could easily be a father to any of the players and, from the outside peering in, appears to exude a paternal influence on those he organisers.
Intriguingly, McCartney lives on the grounds of Geelong Grammar (where his wife works), which is bizarre for an AFL coach in the modern era. He is part of a rare breed of top level coaches not to have played at VFL/AFL level. He isn’t a normal rookie coach.
He’s plugged away through footy ranks for over 20 years and admits that when he led the Newtown Reserves to 8th in the Geelong Footy League in 1990 he never would have thought that he would eventually coach an AFL club.
McCartney has a real world background which the likes of Nathan Buckley, those straight from playing the game at the highest level, wouldn’t know. The article told of how on his 35-minute drive to training he stops at the Werribee roadhouse for food and coffee and talks to the three ladies who work there. He could easily be a labourer driving to work each morning, stopping there and doing the same. It’s so real world.
His main message to the playing group is a simple one about going in and getting the ball when it’s their turn to do so. He expects the players to put in physically, just like a labourer.
Today’s opponents West Coast finished 4th last season and 2nd in the pre-season competition and are clear favourites today - even away from home. The Eagles are well balanced and boast highly regarded players on every line. This is a difficult fixture to begin the year with.
At the opening centre bounce Nik Naitanui won tap to Scott Selwood, who in turn booted it long to Josh Kennedy who juggled a mark. West Coast’s impressive key forward was lining up for goal after 7 seconds.
Immediately, you could hear the fresh groans of our faithful; returning sounds we’ve been able to store away with folded up scarves since the first week of last spring.
The Dogs commitment in the first half couldn’t be questioned, and the boys seemed to be as fired up as one expected them to be. Despite some sloppiness we kept pace with the Eagles and went goal-for-goal.
Clay Smith on debut was elusive and snared three quick goals – our unknown quantity caught West Coast off guard. Liam Picken snapped another whilst Luke Dahlhaus was typically lively. Tom Liberatore impressed.
At the other end, Josh Kennedy continued to prove a handful and was far too good for Lukas Markovic, a decent player but one with limitations against star men in the Kennedy mould. We went into half time with a 13 point deficit.
Early in the second half Liam Jones, our oh-so-important tall forward, squandered multiple opportunities in front of goal. West Coast then made us pay for that profligacy and suddenly the lead swelled to 34. I knew they’d taken the best shot of our young team in the first half and at the start of the second, when those chances went astray.
“You’re there to kick goals” my mate Waffles loudly said next to me, annoyed with the habit of Jones to give the ball off and not attack the sticks with confidence.
Our captain Matthew Boyd was typically accumulative, collecting 38 disposals, although his kicking efficiency was down to 30%. He was to bemoan this himself when talking to media after the game.
The final margin was 49 points. It was disappointing to lose by so much, but we were simply beaten by a better side, one expected to finish the season in the top 4.
A Bulldogs online forum made for interesting reading. As always, there was plenty of knee-jerkism:
- We're too slow
- We have too many good people in our club as opposed to good players
- We lack composure up forward
- Players X, Y and Z are bing played out of position
- We're facing 2003-2004 all over again.
It’s going to be a long year. At least we still have important players to return including Ryan Griffen, our best midfielder, as well as Dale Morris and Justin Sherman.
After a weekend of close matches including the thrilling Fremantle vs Geelong, we’re sat 16th on percentage. Things can only go up.
WESTERN BULLDOGS 4.3 8.5 10.11 12.15 (87)
WEST COAST 6.2 10.6 16.9 21.10 (136)
Goals: Smith 4, Dahlhaus 2, Higgins 2, Jones, Cooney, Giansiracusa, Picken