AFL Finals – Western Bulldogs v Adelaide: Respect is Earned, Not Given

I’m listening to the Dockers and Sydney on the ABC as I walk to the Paddock That Grew for the Bulldogs and the Crows.

The Swans are all over Fro like a rash, but kick themselves out of a Prelim final. As I take my seat in the MCC Members, the siren goes at Subi. The Dockers are home by nine points. There’s a lot of things about modern football that irk me. Inaccuracy in front of goals is pretty high on the list. It cost Collingwood wins against Hawthorn and Port Adelaide in rounds 14 and 15. I note the scoring shots; 19 for Freo to Sydney’s 25. Ross Lyon once said that the only metric that really matters in footy is the scoreboard. While clubs pride themselves on a lot of things – contested possession or hard running or discipline or tackling – I’m yet to hear anyone, or any team speak about their accuracy in front of goals as something they pride themselves on.

Collingwood miss the finals and Sydney, with injuries to so many key players, give away a much needed week off. Do they only have themselves to blame?

Footscray (let’s drop this Western Bulldogs shite, eh?) games at the G are as rare as rocking horse shit, yet there’s a lot of red, white and blue visible as people secure their seats. The walk-up seating tradition in the MCC is archaic to some, but I love it. There’s stillness, a calm before the storm that I love to take in. It’s my pre-game ritual, along with a visit to the MCC library and then a schooner or two in the Percy Beams bar.

As game time approaches, the crowd builds beyond my expectations. The Crows faithful have traveled east, and combined with South Australians living behind enemy lines who’ve turned up to support the lads, provide a raucous supporter base for the Pride of. After a season of significant and tragic loss, it appears that one of the few things to have meaning for the Crows players this year is footy. When lesser minds and resolve may have faltered, this playing group has found a way to overcome. They’re here, they’ve made the finals. And for Crows supporters, the possibilities are endless.

The Bulldogs fans are here also, witnessing something they likely thought impossible at the end of 2014. 12 months after sacking the coach, their captain heading to western Sydney, de-listing a Brownlow medalist and another senior player believing the grass was greener a little further north of Barkly St, Footscray have provided some of the most scintillating footy the game has seen in a while. As always, Bulldog fans seem to come in hope, not expectation. Luke Beveridge and his team, perhaps like the Bombers of 1993, continue to confound expectation, to win when others saw it as impossible. There’d be little surprise to suggest the Dogs would be the popular pick for those of us whose teams failed to make the finals.

By the time the teams run through their banners, the atmosphere at the game is palpable. Preliminary finals, Grand Finals and that classic Richmond v Carlton Elimination final in 2013 aside, I can’t recall being at a game with this kind of energy. The roar after Advance, Australia Fair is immense. 60,000 people are here looking for two of the competition’s more attacking teams to do their stuff. It is one of those moments that football fans exult in. The September air, the expectation, the standoff; the adrenaline flooding the system. Thoroughbreds as footballers about to be let off the collective reign.

Footscray start with intensity and confidence, an existential abandon rooted in youthful naivety. Mitch Wallis evokes a Sam Mitchell level of grunt in his attack on the ball. The Bont stinks of James Hird (the player, not the coach); silky smooth, charismatic, born for this kind of conflict. Will Minson, statistically overshadowed by Sam Jacobs is battering down clearing handballs like Scott Pendlebury or Jobe Watson. The Footscray midfield scrap the ball forward, forward at any cost; clean disposal or dirty, the ball must go forward.

Stewart Crameri is the big dog up forward. By design or not, Crammers looks to be drawing on his big game experience at the G from those ANZAC Day clashes. He puts himself in position to demand the ball. He takes the game on, his hands firmly around its throat, and slots through the Dogs first goal. Moments later, Footscray have four unanswered goals on the board. The Pride of don’t appear to have any answers. The Bulldog faithful at the City end can sense something, they can smell blood. Their roar is visceral.

But then, enter: stage left, Eddie Betts.

As a member, I watch a lot of footy at The Temple Down the Road. For all the excitement of their four-goal opening burst, it’s evident that the Dogs can’t play the G just yet.

On the occasions the ball makes it into attack for the Crows, the Footscray defenders are able to position themselves to take the intercept mark. But their downfall is their reliance on switching the play. They attempt to execute the switch like they’re at the Docklands.

Instead of moving the ball from a pocket to the corridor then the long kick to a hard running midfielder or lead up forward in space, they go for the long wide kick first, meaning the Crows have time to structure up further afield and stop the Dogs run.

When the Crows win the footy, the Bulldogs’ defence has pushed too far forward. Few teams can transition as quickly as the Crows. With the Bulldogs defenders sitting too high, Eduardo stays in the Adelaide forward 50 arc with 10 meters on his opponent and 10 meters is all Eddie needs. The first three of the Crows resulting four first quarter goals all come from running into an open goal, having won the footy uncontested 50-40 meters out.

If the Bullies supporters are in full voice, the response from the Adelaide faithful at the Punt Rd end with each of the Crows goals as they catch up on the Bullies gives the Tiger Army at their best a red hot run for their money. It is a sea of navy, red and yellow. The passion is evident. You’d think you were at a Premier League match. It is electrifying.

The game, as they all do, ebbs and flows. Momentum shifts on a five-cent coin. Save for a few minutes in the final quarter, the Crows though are never headed, even though the Dogs let too many chances go to waste.

Despite the narrow margin separating the teams throughout the second half, the Dogs don’t appear to be running hard enough to execute the overlap that you have to, to move the ball at pace on the expanses of the MCG. Hawthorn, Richmond (for 23 weeks anyway) and Collingwood do this to perfection. The Dogs move the ball too slowly, relying on a key forward to push up, or for Will Minson to somehow out-mark Sam Jacobs and two other Crows players in a contest. Instead, Footscray continue to handball backwards, or laterally which gives Adelaide’s defence and midfielders the time to clog up the leading space.

At the Docklands in these situations, Stringer, Wood, Macrae, Dahlhaus, Hamling, Honeychurch, Dickson and Redpath are all about surety, intent, confidence and purpose. On the vast expanses of the G, if it’s not coming down the corridor, the Dogs appear hesitant, indecisive and in an instant, the Crows pressure and discipline leaves the Dogs trying to move the ball around in a phone box.

Tex Walker struts the MCG like a Sherriff in the old West. This is his game, this is his stage. While Crameri, Grant, Jong and Bontempelli miss very gettable set shots, Tex bobs up on more than one occasion to slot a telling, settling Crows goal from distance, as if trolling the Doggies with only his right boot.

Eddie Betts is sublime and although Dale Morris has him in check during the second half, Eddie’s work is done earlier in the evening.

Patrick Dangerfield is at another level. No galloping runs, no breaking tackles, no goal haul. Danger is in and under, Danger is the guy prepared to draw three Dogs players into a tackle, then finding a way to handball off to Sloane, or Van Berlo or Thompson or Douglas.

Charlie Cameron is a precocious talent, with a frightening turn of speed reminiscent of a Golden Slipper winner. He is Adelaide’s Bel Esprit if that’s what Scott Camporeale and John Worsfold allow him to be. The Hawks won’t allow him the room to exercise his pace for attacking purposes next weekend, so why not give him the job of chasing down Cyril or Bradley Hill? He’s more than capable. And Lewis Jetta has shown before what seeing Cyril dragged down can do to the Hawks psyche.

This loss should sting the Bulldogs. It should hurt. It should make the players want to start their 2016 pre-season right away. For too long, near enough has seemingly been good enough for Footscray. The prevailing sentiment at the Whitten Oval shouldn’t be focused on the turn-around from 2014 to this season. It should be one of bitter disappointment and a determination to never let opportunities like Saturday night’s slip away. Bad kicking is bad football. Easy, bread and butter set shots inside your own 50 metre arc shouldn’t be missed in September. They were. The Dogs paid the price.

The Crows, as they have been since the loss of Phil Walsh are a study in compartmentalisation and purpose. They are the definition of a team. Like the Bulldogs, but for entirely different reasons, they too continue to win and confound the experts. Tonight they are disciplined. Tonight they stick to what they do best. For all of Tex and Eddie’s magic, for all of Danger and Talia and Laird and Thompson and Sloane’s grunt, there is still something intangible embedded in the DNA of this team.

They face the Hawks next Friday evening coming off a loss in Perth. Al Clarkson has enough worries to deal with this week if they’re to make it three premierships in a row. But one thing is certain; if the Crows’ season ends next Friday night, the Hawks will most certainly have earned their win. Some people demand respect without doing little to have earned it. Regardless of the outcome on Friday night, this Adelaide team have earned respect in spades.

MATCH DETAILS

WESTERN BULLDOGS:    4.6   7.10   10.16   14.18 (102)

ADELAIDE:   6.3   9.6   13.9   16.13 (109)

GOALS:

Western Bulldogs: Dickson 5, Crameri 2, Redpath 2, Stringer 2, Dahlhaus, Jong, Grant.

Adelaide: Betts 5, Walker 3, Knight 2, Cameron 2, Henderson, Lynch, Sloane, Thompson.

Umpires: Nicholls, Hosking, Schmitt.

Crowd: 60,782 at the MCG.

 

This article originally appeared at The Footy Almanac.  Yes, I would like to go there.

 

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