Felines and canines
You'd expect the Cats and Dogs of the AFL world to share a fierce rivalry.
But over the years, the relationship between Geelong and our team has been more like a one-sided competition in which a pesky younger sibling tries desperately to engage the attention of the cool, superior older teenager.
Or like the futile efforts of my little dog Belle (a Brussels Griffon who weighs only four kilos), who is constantly embarrassed in her battles with the insolent cat from next door who sleeps on our front porch and shows humiliating indifference to her frantic attempts to scare him off the property.
Like Belle, it often feels we're just yapping away at the AFL Cats' heels, all sound and fury. Meanwhile they're yawning, looking bored, and licking their paws, not one bit troubled by our feverish, futile efforts.
As long as I can remember, when we've had the merest tantalising sniff of premiership glory, those cool Cats have stood nonchalantly in our way, effortlessly swatting us out of contention. Fearing this was just a trick of my Tragician-style doom-and-gloom memory, I checked the records and established that the picture was even worse than I thought. We've met Geelong seven times in finals, but have never beaten them.
While the style and narrative of our defeats has shown a commendable range of diversity, the dire outcome has always been the same. While I can't comment on our first two losses to them in 53 and 76, unfortunately I've witnessed the other five.
They were memorable. For all the wrong reasons.
There's been your garden-variety humiliating wallopings; in 92, we probably set a finals record (I'm too dis-heartened to check) by losing twice to the Cats by more than ten goals in the space of three weeks. I guess you've got to applaud our consistency. These were the days when you could meet your tormenters from the qualifying final a mere fortnight later in the prelim. And luckily for us, the Cats awaited us in the re-match, only too ready to pounce on a team that they certainly had the measure of.
The Cats piled on the agony in 94 when that 'Billy! you are the king of Geelong!!' moment unfolded with the awful slow motion horror movie style that is reserved just for us in finals series (to the uninitiated, this was the ghastly moment when Bill Brownless marked just before the final siren, when we were one point ahead. I never had the slightest doubt that he would go back and slot the goal).
To restore a more familiar order, they belted the living suitcase out of us when we fronted up again in 95, by a mere 82 points.
In our more recent stoushes with the Cats, in the finals' series of 08 and 09, we have at least been a bit closer. But... not really. Their fantastically talented super teams accounted for us comfortably; even if we were much more competitive than in the dreadful humiliations of 92 and 95, and had chances to beat them in the last quarter, the point was: we never did. And still there they were, a barrier we could never overcome, our hoops-wearing nemesis. It was, of course, our wretched misfortune that they were playing their greatest ever footy, perhaps some of the best ever witnessed, right at the time when we too were challengers.
The Cats have always had a way of delivering us a painful reality check. Earlier in 2008, we headed down the Geelong highway chock full of optimism; while the Cats were on top of the ladder, we were second, and flying. Flying enough to get within 61 points, in fact, as the Cats toyed with us and reduced us to a rabble.
The dreary atmosphere on the train trip home, with the carriages packed with silent Bulldogs' fans, resembled assassinated President Lincoln's funeral procession. The only chatter came from two Geelong fans who artlessly prattled away about how many of their players had been down, and, really, it had been one of their less impressive performances. The Cats hadn't been tested, and would need to lift to beat a team of quality, they agreed. (That yawning, insolent cat on the porch again).
These were just some of the inspirational memories of the Good Ole Days, that made me decide to take up position on the couch for Sunday's match rather than brave the elements and another example of innovative AFL programming (4.40 on a Sunday in winter, anyone?). I feared the Cat-astrophe (sorry) Performance Index for our young team, not perhaps known for exquisite foot-skills, was likely to reach harrowing, foofer-valve-busting, proportions. And I thought, despite recent sanctimonious words from me about being there for your team, that I'd prefer to be dry and warm if indeed a foofer-valve-busting Cat-astrophe was on the cards.
The decision seemed more than justified early on (with one important exception: for my sins of non-attendance, I had to suffer the awful inanity of the Fox Sports commentary). A kicking efficiency of under 30 per cent from Our Boys was not making for a pretty spectacle. The Dogs, it seemed, could well be goal-less for the match, as our lack of composure and comparatively immature bodies made us look badly outclassed. Our feline foes, stacked with triple premiership heroes, were, surely, set to grind us into the ground. They were living proof of the adage that rain and wind doesn't even out the skills gap between good and poor sides; it just makes it even more of a chasm.
But here's the thing: almost unremarked upon over the last few weeks, the Dogs have been quietly, almost stealthily, creeping towards respectability. From the nadir that was our humiliating loss to Brisbane - where our direction and even our place in the competition were questioned - we've pulled off an emotional, character-defining win against the Pies; lost to Port after a bright beginning and a horrendous spate of injuries against the top-of-the-table team; defeated Melbourne where we dug deep and just wanted the win more. And a big chunk of that improvement rests with our still raw younger guys, not content with mere cameos anymore but making influential, match-shaping contributions, at the right time, the right moment.
After half time, that growing resilience and refusal to give in was on display again. After huddling together in the rooms, on a gloomy, sodden night, four goals down with nothing really on the line for us... the Dogs showed there WAS something on the line. Pride, desire, and competitive spirit. Their efforts didn't drop away, they grew. They came gamely at the Cats, they scrapped, they fought. They kicked GOALS, they even out-scored the Cats. That kid called The Bont - have you heard of him? - was awesome, again, significantly, saving his best footy for the parts of the game where the contest was fiercest.
In the end, our tardy start made the mountain just that bit too hard to climb. We lost, as was always expected, but it felt like it was another step on our journey: that we displayed the courage to not meekly roll over and get thrashed when it was cold, wet and dismal. To want to win. More pointers to a future that seemed so bleak a few short weeks ago, and a reason to keep those Bulldogs' tails wagging. But I hope when the footy wheels turn and we are contenders again, those Cats are safely anchored down the other end of the ladder, not sitting languidly on the porch ready to spoil our party and break our hearts, one more time.
A story from last year: in 2006, the Dogs and Cats both faced a bright future, but only one went onto premiership glory(s)....
Cats, dogs, sliding doors and premiership windows
10/7/2014 03:43:34 am
Is there such a thing as being over-qualified to join the Royal Order of Tragicians? I think I just might be the man.
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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.