The Bulldogs’ Season Is Suddenly Very Alive
For four years, the Bulldogs have excelled at failing to meet expectations.
Great hopes in 2020 were electro-shocked in the first two rounds, with bizarrely lifeless performances leading to slaughters at the hands of Collingwood and St. Kilda.
The Dogs then rebounded, then stagnated, and gradually snuggled into their now annual normal of trading encouraging victories with deflating defeats.
Three consecutive losses to Richmond, Port Adelaide and Brisbane appeared to condemn their season.
But now, suddenly, the year is alive again.
Melbourne's losses to Sydney and Fremantle - both wholly unforeseeable and completely predictable– have pried open the door to the eight.
A loss to West Coast would have put an end to everything for the Bulldogs. Though they deserved the win, the Dogs were lucky to get it, lurching across the line like a 100m sprinter making the strange decision to long-jump the final few yards.
It was an uneven, not especially well played game, a battle of desperation and fatigue - a tired game of hacked kicks and confused pirouettes.
The Eagles were playing their fourth game in 15 days and missing Luke Shuey, Elliot Yeo and Nic Naitanui. They played like an exhausted team, with little run, but their efficient, decisive ball movement is like muscle memory and was almost enough, with two passages of searing precision and poise twice giving West Coast the lead in the final term.
Like most Bulldogs games, this one had elements of the absurd.
In the last quarter, Josh Bruce - the rich man's Jesse White of his era - sprayed a set shot from the edge of 50 out on the full, then moments later took a towering pack mark before immediately playing on to handball the ball straight out of bounds.
In stretches the Bulldogs played well, in stretches they played poorly, and most of all, like they often do, they interspersed poor play with moments of individual brilliance and sudden clarity.
The Dogs dominated contested ball and territory but wasted their control with mindless high attacking kicks to West Coast's intercept markers. Aaron Naughton took a surreal contested mark in the final term, effectively devouring the ball whole, then stabbed a timid kick at goal wide - so it went for the Dogs.
But there was just enough brilliance from the classiest players.
Tim English was supreme, barreling back violently with the flight of the ball, showing dangerous, inhuman courage. English took two pivotal marks at the death - one in defence in front of Jack Darling and one on the wing to seal it. The game at that stage was there to be sealed because of Marcus Bontempelli's strike - a kind of Kevin De Bruyne type hit, where from the edge of 50 Bontempelli lofted the ball with a quick, kinetic boom, getting the always aesthetically pleasing right-to-left in-swing, the proof of sweetest connection.
The ball barely crossed the line, but in the context of the game, one where the Bulldogs worked tirelessly and dominated general play, there was no injustice that it did. The inch that the Bulldogs got there may not have mattered if Jack Darling had taken his chances.
But the Bulldogs escaped and find themselves now within a game of three different teams in the eight, with matches against Hawthorn and Fremantle to conclude their season. The Dogs will be clear favourites in both games, though they are more than capable of blowing either.
There is little on paper to suggest the Bulldogs are close to the Richmonds and Geelongs of the league.
In differentials, they rank 8th for inside 50s, 7th for contested ball, 10th for intercepts, 5th for metres gained and 13th for clearances. They are 2-6 against teams in the top eight. Just like the past three years, they find themselves in the flat circle of the middle of the ladder, with a percentage right on 100.
They may or may not have the right coach to trigger a run. Luke Beveridge loomed as the natural successor to Alastair Clarkson after 2016 in the hierarchy of elite coaches, but instead has dissolved into an uncomfortable second act, replacing historic brilliance with strange, indie choices and an infatuation with Billy Gowers.
Even with all the strangeness and weekly uncertainty that surrounds this team, there are still flashes of 2016 and the hardness and perfect, rapid handball chains that led them on their famous run. In the first quarter blitz of Geelong and in playing Port Adelaide tough at the Adelaide Oval, you could see a team that might be a threat.
A month ago, at 5-6, it looked like no threat would ever get a chance to be posed at the most meaningful time.
Now the opportunity is there for them, and while on form a deep run looks unlikely, as Bulldogs fans know, when you have the talent, just getting in provides the glimmer and the chance that everything that was confused might suddenly coalesce.
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