It's half time at Etihad. As I stamp my feet to get warm, I'm doing some soul-searching, trying to work out what's gone wrong.
Maybe it's rustiness from the bye; maybe it's complacency, or a lack of preparation. It certainly seems that the fundamentals, the basic tenets of footy, have been sadly overlooked.
There was simply no way in the world that a seasoned veteran like myself should have come to a night match, in the middle of June, without wearing two pairs of socks, bringing a blanket to sit on, and armed with a flask of hot chocolate.
Sure, this may seem hypocritical, given my frequent romantic reminiscences about the bracing, character-building experience of a wintry day at the Western Oval. After all, here we are, with the luxury of a closed roof - no biting wind or icicles of rain trickling down the back of your neck any more - and I'm still complaining.
Despite, or maybe because of, the creature comforts of our current 'home', I've gone pathetically soft. I've spent the half-time break mentally composing a friendly email to Gill McLachlan with some ideas for Match Day Experience Enhancements. Why not consider hot water bottles, heated seats and renewable energy projects, as surely the hot air from the Channel 7 commentators could be redirected beneath the stadium to thaw out frozen toes.
(And while I had the supremo's attention, I just might mention the restitution of Chris Grant's Brownlow and a public apology for other crimes against our club. The '97 booking of Craig Ellis, Daniel Southern and Steven Kretiuk for intimidating behaviour would be a good starting point).
Back to the present chilly evening: the problem was, the footy was uninspired. Drab. Our team didn't really look like losing, against a mediocre opposition. But there weren't moments that had you leaping onto your chillblain-infested feet either. We were even getting a good run from the men in ...(what exactly is that colour? slime green?) A few howls of satisfyingly righteous indignation could have get the heart rate soaring, but Tom Boyd even got two free kicks right in front of goal (mind you, for the same sort of mauling he's had with no reward all season).
It was one of those halves of footy with long patches of emptiness. A 'Waiting for Godot' atmosphere. Stoppages, ball-ups, and a lot of pedestrian, unmemorable footy in between. Fumbles, stumbles. Sloppy disposals. Bob losing his feet. The Bont, after three weeks off, out of touch with his innate Bont-ness with some ragged handpasses. Ill-timed decisions to play on, the wrong balance between attack and defence. It just doesn't seem to be quite happening tonight for the Dogs, though we're five goals up at the break.
Ten minutes into the third quarter, I'm not bored any more, but another kind of chill is in the air. The Lions have momentum and trail by only 9 points. Even to me it seems unbelievable that they could win, but let's face it: such an outcome would hardly be uncharted territory for our team.
The first step in arresting the Brisbane mini-surge comes via Mitch Wallis. He lunges at a Lions' player and brings him down with a tackle that would have brought a tear to the eye of The First Libber. Though Mitch is not the longest or most penetrating of kicks, he goes back from almost 50 metres and nails it, as he's done for us more than once at crunch moments. I find myself thinking that there's no one else I'd prefer to see with ball in hands, in that oft-touted, scary but wonderful, 'We're-two-points-down-in-the-grand-final' scenario.
Within a few moments Jake Stringer moves into rampage mode, deciding to single-handedly rescue the game from its torpor. Maybe we weren't 'waiting for Godot' after all; we were waiting for Jakey, the one man who could lift this game from ho-hum to memorable.
Later on I hear that there were some contrived attempts by the Channel 7 commentary team to give Jake a new nickname: 'The Package' (accompanied, of course, by a few blokey sniggers). Memo BT and others: there's a much more Australian, and fitting, expression for our Jake. He is, quite simply, 'The Lair'.
Here's the dictionary definition: (noun) 'a flashy man who likes to show off.'
Lairs do special, unbelievable, freaky things. Lairs sometimes do selfish, frustrating, non-team oriented things, because ... well, because they're lairs.
Could there be a more quintessential 'Jake The Lair' moment than his efforts in flying for a specky from behind T Boyd, who already had front position in a marking contest? How about elevating this already exceptional lairiness to new levels by landing on his bum while T Boyd takes the mark; and then, with no hint of contrition or recognition that perhaps flying like that against your team-mate was not the highest percentage effort, ruffling T Boyd's hair as you run past (probably to face the ire of his frustrated coaches)? As a consummate lair, only Jake could have the chutzpah to act as though this was part of some well-rehearsed team strategy.
What could he be saying, I wonder? 'Great stuff, Boydy, you outmarked me. This time.'
In the last quarter, after Jake has produced a few more dazzling cameos, Mitch Wallis again takes a shot at goal. His shot does credit to another fondly remembered Mitch (Hahn); it's a dreadfully ugly mongrel punt kick from 30 metres out. It barely clears the players on the line but, in Mitch's typically no-frills fashion, gets the job done. Jake congratulates him, ruffling his hair again. No threat to the Jake highlight reel from this blue collar operator, thinks Jake. 'The flashy man who likes to show off.'
The Lair Show even ends with melodrama. Late in the match Jake staggers off the ground as though he's been shot in a spaghetti western. The crowd hold their breath: has he suddenly come down with emergency appendicitis, or has a Brisbane opponent become fed up with his sheer brilliance and decided to deck him behind play? All eyes are on our hero, barely able to walk, being attended to by trainers while the match meanders to a close. But look! to tumultous applause, Jakey is on his feet and back on the ground. (It was, he admits, sheepishly after the match, merely a cramp. All hail the Lair!)
In Jake Stringer, we are blessed to have a unique talent who will drag people through the turnstiles; someone who wants to win the game off his own boot; who misses regulation shots but kicks them from near-impossible angles. Whose amazing reflexes don't extend to the spotting of lesser team-mates unattended in the goal square, because he's too busy conjuring an amazing 'goal of the year' contender. Who steps off one foot 50 metres out to curl in a left foot snap at goal. Who bursts his way through a pack with brute strength, yet knows how to make the ball sing.
I can't think of one past Bulldog player that Jake resembles. We've had the grace and elegance of Chris Grant, the will-o-the-wisp artistry of Bob, the relentless running and ball-winning of Scott West, the endurance and strong marking of Brad Johnson, selfless men like Daniel Cross, quietly and obtrusively putting their bodies on the line.
But oh what fun it is to watch a fully fledged lair in action. And what could he do 'One Day' (we all know which day I'm talking about) on the biggest stage of all.
While Jake's antics have kept us entertained, we've accumulated a 72 point win (and averted frostbite).
It's a sign of our dramatic improvement that as fans, we are pleased but not ecstatic. We know that this wasn't our best form; that's an encouraging thought, not a depressing one.
We had five teenagers in the side (apparently the last time this happened was in the '70s); while 19-year-olds Tom Boyd and The Bont are imminent superstars, the even younger trio of P-platers, Lukas Webb, Bailey Dale and Toby McLean, who all look as though they should have had notes from their mums to be out there, are all fitting in beautifully. (I loved Bailey Dale's look-away handpass in the fourth quarter, Toby McLean's clean hands and neat skills as he passed to the aforesaid Bailey Dale, Lukas Webb's damaging left foot and elegance).
It was the best game for a while from Jarrad Grant, for whom the word 'enigmatic' may have been coined; T Boyd earned himself a Rising Star nomination; Jackson Macrae loped elegantly around racking up 35 disposals. And it's a sign of the times that we're mildly disappointed with The Bont's form given that he still had 20 possessions, six tackles and scored a goal. (Did you know, too, that this 19 year old in his second season is sixth in the competition for launching us inside the 50 metre arc? Me neither).
Six wins out of 11 matches so far, and now we face the Saints, the team that have so often been our nemesis and who broke our hearts only a few weeks ago with a spectacular comeback. If Jake and a few of his prodigiously talented mates continue to delight us, I might not be needing that extra pair of socks and blanket. But a flask of hot chocolate could be a good idea anyway.
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.