The sum of us
Just when did the Kangaroos morph into the least likeable, most irritating team in the competition?
I'm excluding, of course, the Acronyms - GWS. Because they're not a real club. And the Crows, for obvious reasons, because 'least likeable' seems far too mild for the hideous memories that team conjures up. As for the 'whatever it takes' arrogance of Essendon - well, I feel I'm in danger of digressing.
North are right up there. That's all I'm saying.
Our two clubs SEEM as though there should be an affinity, some sort of kindred spirit. Culturally, there are similarities; both smaller, working-class clubs, often struggling to make themselves heard among the clamour and din of bigger and more successful teams. (With four flags, North are well ahead of us; however, pretty much everyone is.) The two clubs are geographically close as well - though that's never brought about a sense of camaraderie with another neighbour of ours from across the posh side of the west's scenic attraction, the Maribyrnong.
But I may be digressing. Again.
The Tragician, as you may have gathered, holds no truck with ludicrous concepts such as having a second team, or (why?) having a 'soft spot' for an opposition club. However, given that North are not one of the teams against whom we have aparticularly abysmal win-loss ratio (these things are always relative, of course), I feel I should have - if not affection - at least less animosity toward them than I do.
I suspect, in fact I'm sure, it's the Scott brother factor. Honestly, is there any free kick to the opposition that the scowling, put-upon twins consider justified?
Petulant Brad and Morose Chris bring to mind a headline in an Australian newspaper when the England cricket team were losing, none too graciously. "Can the Poms be beaten fairly?"
Instead of running around kicking a footy with each other in their early days, the Scott brothers, I reckon, must have practised synchronised 'incredulous-that-can't-possibly-be-a-free' arm-waving routines in preparation for their future coaching careers.
Then there's North's squadron of fake tough guys, forever drawing lines in the sand and making 'statements', puffing out their chests with bumptious and hollow bravado. Like the time when they decided that the moment when Barry Hall was tying up his shoelace might be a good opportunity to push him over. And follow up with some ultra-courageous jostling and bumping as the Big Bad Bustling One attempted to leave the arena after three or four of them held him down in a headlock.
This - apparently - is known as Shinboner Spirit.
It was hardly unexpected, then, that before the first bounce, a group of North Melbourne Fake Tough Guys would attempt to rough up The Bont. Though, to be perfectly honest, my money would have been on 'Celeb' Daniel as the more likely target of their huffing and puffing.
However, The Bont had committed a heinous sin in the strange world of footy ethics. He had taken exception with the fact that in our previous encounter, Lindsay Thomas had launched a head high tackle on Lachie Hunter. One which put him in hospital over night.
In the interests of fairness, let's recap on the full extent of The Bont's outlandish accusations:
"We didn't really like it at all, we thought there was quite a bit of malice in it.
"[Hunter] will be OK, hopefully he can relax and be OK over the next couple of days. But we thought it was quite a bit unfair."
Shame, Bont, shame.
It was little wonder, with such provocation, that the North posse, led by the aptly named 'Spud' Firrito, decided to jostle and bump our superstar.
A few things soon emerged as significant flaws in North's master plan (for there needed no imagination to see Brad Scott's fingerprints all over it). The problem was, though he may not be Barry Hall (he has a lot more hair for one thing), Marcus Bontempelli is no longer a raw-boned and spindly 18-year-old. While, like a fond parent, I still haven't quite adjusted to the fact, the Bont stands shoulder to shoulder with many ruckmen; at an imposing 93 kilos now, he was far from daunted by the so-called physicality of the North players. And not one to launch a theatrical, Nick Riewoldt-style dive into the turf in response to North's attentions.
Nobody - especially Firrito - puts Bonti in the corner any more.
The Bont is, I always think, a mysterious mix of the calm and competitive. While the burning, intense desire to win is virtually imprinted on the faces of some players (Libber, both The First and Second, come to mind), The Bont looks affable, unruffled. He looks as though footy is still, somehow, a game, albeit one he is stupendously good at. His power, rather like our champ Chris Grant, is in his grace, rather than brute force. And yet, as Firrito and gang were about to find out, and as Joel Selwood discovered last week, it is unwise to overlook the fierceness, the ruthless side of Marcus Bontempelli.
There were more things to worry about, indeed, than how The Bont would stand up to the attempted intimidation. Last time we played, the Kangaroos had beaten us by 16 points; it felt like more. And the names we were missing from that day were painful reading; no Wallis, Liberatore, Macrae, Campbell or Adams, while Toby McLean and Koby Stevens are finding form at Footscray after their long lay-offs.
And yet, during the week, Bevo Our Saviour had said, when asked if this Dogs' group could still win a flag: 'You try telling them they can't.'
I try and hold that thought in my mind, even as we make a poor start, even as again, the question of how we can scrounge enough goals looms, and we go close to a goal-less quarter. Then after this shaky beginning, the perennially unlucky Clay Smith goes down with concussion, and we find ourselves in a far too familiar situation. One man down, unable to return for the match.
We gain the lead early in the second quarter (and won't lose it again) through sheer grit. Goals are still hard to come by; with Jake the Lair mysteriously subdued, new sources must, and do, bob up. There's one bloke, for example, who juggles a one-handed mark at centre half forward before going back and slotting a long goal. None other than the composed and lion-hearted 'Celeb' Daniel of course.
North, like a swarm of frustrated, angry ants, initiate more rough stuff at half time.
The Bulldogs crowd pulses with indignation. There is in reality so little that as supporters, we can do to affect any of the game's outcomes (talk of lucky socks and scarves aside). We yearn sometimes, to show them how much we're with them, to give them our thanks, share their disappointments and sorrows, demonstrate - in this case - our anger. We can't leap the fence and put one of the North antagonists in a headlock (for those familiar with the petite stature of The Tragician, this sight would be comic rather than frightening. Especially the part where I fail to leap the fence.)
But we can show them we're with them, and part of them, so we launch a chant.
Bulldogs! Bulldogs! Bulldogs!
It thunders around the stadium. It's primal and raw. People who are mild-mannered and gentle in real life, are yelling it out at the top of our voices. Grandmothers. Teenagers. Nurses, teachers, people with uni degrees, alongside pensioners and students. Kids who've dressed in little handknitted Bulldogs jumpers hours after they were born. People from the western suburbs, people who've only recently taken up the faith. Refugees and new arrivals to our country, for whom it's all a dazzling and intriguing spectacle and a bewildering blur.
People who've never seen a Bulldogs' flag. People who have. But it's oh so long ago.
The warring tribes separate, with little harm done, and head to their own caves.
Do our efforts, to support and lift Our Boys, make any impact, elevate and inspire them, as we hope? Or are we, the fans, just white noise rumbling in the background, barely relevant to the tight little cocoon of players and coaches and injured team-mates?
We all resume our seats, a little sheepishly, and go off in search of our half time snacks.
Our Boys go further ahead in the third quarter. 20 points up at the last break doesn't really reflect the dominance we've established. It's a lot, however, in the context of this low-scoring affair. But far from insurmountable. We squirm in our seats and half wish for another scuffle to break out.
With audacious faith in his troops, Bevo places 20-year-old Lukas Webb, and 19-year-old Josh Dunkley, in the centre square to begin the last quarter, one with so much riding on it for our finals aspirations, for 2016 as a whole. It's strange, and a little poignant - and a whole lot scary - to see these kids in the thick of the action, instead of the comparatively grizzly old hands, Wally and Libber. But Josh and Lukas are undaunted. They're not there to play bit parts, despite their fresh faces, their light frames in comparison to their North counterparts.
But our run has slowed. Fatigue has set in. It's a scrappy, tough arm-wrestle. North get two frees in front of goal. Brad Scott's reaction is not shown on the TV screens.
Our defence becomes besieged. But the 2016 Men's Department are so much more than the sum of its individual players. The reliable duo of Boyd and Morris know where to be, how to direct the youngsters around them. Raw, ungainly Fletcher Roberts keeps learning and growing, game by game, quarter by quarter, from these stalwarts. And we have the magnificent Easton Wood; these tight last quarters seem made for his bold reading of the play, his spectacular intercept marking.
But I still feel the familiar, jittery panic. It is not shared by Our Boys, these young men who burn with more single-minded belief than I've seen in any Dogs team, ever before.
You try telling them they can't.
The siren goes, and our brave and injury-struck team have defied the odds magnificently again. The players head over to the cheer squad, stopping endlessly for the selfies that are requested, for the brief touch of hands, those little moments that connect the fans with their dream. Our dream.
We hope, but don't really know, that in some way we spurred them on. That our chant, ringing around the arena, played just a tiny part in their motivation. Showed the opposition the strength of our unity, fans and players alike.
The boys sing the song a bit more raucously than usual. Another test has been passed. We've won a torrid physical battle, withstanding and triumphing over the bullying tactics and trash talk with which North tried, and failed, to intimidate us.
The win cements our place in the finals. That it makes our rivals' position in the eight that bit more precarious - well, there's a grim satisfaction about that too.
The Bont gives a TV interview, modestly defecting attention back to 'the kids' who've stepped up.“A lot has been spoken about our injuries but we’ve got so much depth and faith in these boys out here tonight and they delivered on it.
“We knew coming in with a bit of a younger group again, it was great to see the younger kids step up."
High praise, I guess, from a seasoned veteran such as The Bont, accumulator of 56 games now, and all of 20 years old.
The Bont had 19 disposals. Not many by his peerless standards, yet to my mind he was, if not the best, the most influential player on the ground.
There was a wonderful moment, right in front of where the Tragician Tribe sit. Firrito had the ball, close to the boundary, and tried to launch a booming kick out of the danger zone of our forward line. But The Bont was right there, and with an athletic leap and full deployment of those "go-go-gadget" arms, spoilt the kick and forced it out of bounds.
'Spud' looked crestfallen. And The Bont's reaction, visible only to us facing the two players, was a sight to behold. There was jubilation, and a full and utter appreciation of everything the moment meant.
And there was a touch of that facial expression, the one that generations of mothers have threatened to wipe off their children's faces.
And among all the sublime and audacious things The Bont did that day, the nine tackles, the long raking kicks, the strong contested marks, that smirk may very well be the thing that delighted me the most.
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.