The ball pinged from one end of Docklands to the other, bodies crashed in on the ground and in the air – Sunday’s clash between the Western Bulldogs and West Coast Eagles was football in its purest and richest form.
Laitham Vandermeer’s shepherd, Jamie Cripps’s tackle, Bailey Williams win against the odds on the half-back flank, Nic Naitanui’s tap work, clutch kicks and smothers — I could go on and on – left you gagging for more.
The Bulldogs came from 14 points down in the last quarter to win a match that contained 12 lead changes and had you so engaged your head was protruding through the commentary box window.
West Coast had taken control of the game in the third quarter with Natanui and midfield weapon Tim Kelly combining superbly. The Eagles dominated the air both in defence and attack, where Jack Darling, Oscar Allen and Josh Kennedy were all influential.
When that trio failed to mark it, they put the ball to ground for Liam Ryan and Jamaine Jones to get busy.
That the Bulldogs pulled off an amazing win was in no small part due to their breathtaking level of desperation and commitment, personified by the unflinching efforts of Tom Liberatore, Jack Macrae, Williams and emerging star Bailey Smith.
And then there was Marcus Bontempelli.
Bontempelli with a football is like Shakespeare with a pen — every stroke is wondrous, albeit the Bont produces the stuff of dreams in mid-autumn, winter and the start of spring.
The Western Bulldogs captain amassed 14 telling possessions in the opening term, finished with 30 for the match and kicked three goals including the sealer at the 32-minute mark. The Bulldogs-heavy crowd of 21,000 almost blew the roof off the stadium.
Calling footy off the TV in the ABC boardroom during Melbourne’s lockdown last season seemed a million miles away. It was footy at its absolute best.
There is no doubt recent rule changes have enhanced the spectacle. The new man on the mark rule has led to an attack-first mentality, and giving defenders more room at kick-ins has almost completely eliminated those painful chips to the back pocket and laborious movement of the ball from inside the defensive 50.
On a couple of occasions, Eagles veteran Shannon Hurn launched bombs into the middle of the ground that Ben Graham would have been proud of. The game is more open and as a result more enjoyable.
While the Eagles were ultimately beaten on Sunday they remain a serious threat this year, especially with the imminent return of their captain Luke Shuey from a hamstring injury and Elliott Yeo (groin) also still to come back.
Demons look dangerous
I had a few conversations with Melbourne supporters I know in the lead-up to this AFL season and was taken by the shared sense of pessimism.
Even the Coodabeen Champions’ famous talkback caller Danny from Droop Street would have struggled to match these Demons for negativity when it came to their team’s prospects.
Melbourne’s round-one win over Fremantle did little to brighten the prevailing mood. The Dockers are a developing side, not much good in Melbourne and it was a scrappy win was the general consensus.
Saturday night seemed a psychological turning point. From former captain Garry Lyon’s stirring pre-match address onwards, Melbourne’s performance struck the right chord.
Yes, at times the ball use was again scrappy, but the Demons genuinely looked dangerous in their three-goal win over St Kilda. Melbourne’s 31 scoring shots to the Saints’ 18 offered a truer reflection of the side’s overall dominance.
The 2020 season was a long-awaited breakout year for Christian Petracca and it seems he is only going from strength to strength. As always, Clayton Oliver accumulated a stack of possessions, but he used the ball more damagingly and Tom McDonald is slowly returning to some of the form that helped the Demons to a preliminary final in 2018.
Simon Goodwin’s side also possesses young players who get you excited. Luke Jackson is showing glimpses, James Jordan looks a player and Kysaiah Pickett … goodness me.
The midfield to forward connection has been an ongoing problem for Melbourne but the side is starting to play with more synergy. Star recruit Ben Brown will be highly encouraged as he nears his recovery from knee surgery. The fast and more open game style of 2021 has been suiting the lead-up forwards and there are few better than the gangly mop-haired Tasmanian.
On the topic of key forwards, most thought Adelaide’s Taylor Walker would struggle to replicate his opening-round form at the SCG on Saturday.
Walker, whose decorated career appeared to have reached a period of steady decline, produced a vintage performance in the first round with five goals in a shock win over Geelong. Big Tex produced in a big way again against Sydney with six goals in a losing side. Perhaps a few people — including me — have been guilty of writing off the champion too early.
At the other end of the ground, it was marvellous to see a long-lost ‘Buddy’. Footy is better for Lance Franklin and more than a year and a half after his last senior game he was his usual commanding presence, kicking three goals for the Swans in their 33-point win.
Franklin needs another 53 goals to become only the sixth player in the history of the VFL/AFL to kick 1,000 goals.
Lockett, Coventry, Dunstall, Wade, Ablett … Franklin? Names that go pretty well together, if you ask me.