The Western Bulldogs’ backline has never been what won them games, but with a dominant midfield shielding them from repeat entries more often than not, it has proved effective enough over the years.
But the Dogs are not the team they once were in 2022, and the crux of their woes in a defeat to Port Adelaide that was far more emphatic than the scoreboard suggests, centred on the backline.
Sliced open mercilessly in the first half by the Power on the counterattack, and powerless to stop the home forwards marking virtually everything that came their way in the second, this was as dismal a defensive performance as we’ve seen all year. Indeed, it took the Dogs’ midfield dominance for much of the first half, and Port’s inaccuracy beyond that, to so much as keep this contest close.
You’re not going to win too many games when you permit the opposition to take 21 marks inside 50. Or when you let them score 24 times from just 44 inside 50s. At one point midway through the second quarter, the Power had six goals from just 10 entries into their attacking zone.
Comparing the Dogs’ set-up on Friday night to that of Melbourne, the masters of defensive organisation, was almost like watching a different sport. Where the Demons maintain their structure come what may, with Steven May content to stay a kick behind the play and the rest of the unit marshalling themselves around him, the Bulldogs seemed drawn to their opponents like bees to a honeypot all night.
Whether it was a coaching move by Luke Beveridge or otherwise, Tim O’Brien, the Dogs’ designated interceptor, regularly followed Robbie Gray wherever he went, creating ample space inside 50 for the Power to use. Then, when found one-on-one inside the arc, Gray’s smarts and some clever kicking from the Power midfielders, particularly Connor Rozee, saw the veteran capitalise with two first-quarter goals.
With the Dogs dominant from the centre early – they were 7-2 up from centre clearances by quarter time, despite missing captain and talisman Marcus Bontempelli – there were always going to be dire consequences if the Power mids had a run on.
Which they did after half time. Up until the early stages of the third term, the Power won six centre clearances in a row – and made the Dogs pay full price for most of them.
With O’Brien subbed out of the game with a calf injury, and missing Alex Keath, the Dogs’ undersized backline, with medi-sub Hayden Crozier tasked as a second tall, made Todd Marshall and Jeremy Finlayson look like Dunstall and Brereton. No Charlie Dixon has made the Power look toothless at times in attack this year, but not tonight.
Marshall disappears from games completely far too often at this stage of his career to be an elite forward, but with five-goal hauls against Adelaide and West Coast already this year, he can run riot when on song – or when handed a mismatch. Marking everything that came his way in the third term, he’d boot two goals in quick succession to put the Power’s lead, small for much of the match, into safe territory.
It was here as much as anywhere where the Dogs sorely missed Bontempelli, who will regularly run back into defence and provide a timely spoil to help in the air. So, too, was the intercept marking prowess of Tim English notably missing – Stefan Martin is well and truly past being capable of that. It goes without saying that Keath would have made a notable difference, too.
Bizarrely, the Dogs’ major weakness this year – their forward line – actually looked reasonable, against an admittedly undersized Port Adelaide defence. Aaron Naughton was exceptional with four goals and plenty of trademark pack marks – though his lead into space in the final quarter after a gut-busting series of runs was just as eye-catching – while Buku Khamis looks like he may have a future in attack.
It’s there where the injury carnage hit hardest, though, with Cody Weightman (arm) and Laitham Vandermeer (hamstring) failing to finish the game. Should they miss any period of footy, the Dogs’ chance of resurrecting their season looks slim.
There’s no denying the Power were good – they look back to their damaging best around the ground, with their ball movement slick and their forward structure humming far more nicely than in earlier rounds. They, at least, look capable of getting on a run towards September – who would have thought that a month ago?
The most impressive performance of the night, though, came from Fremantle, with the caveat of their opposition being the turnover-happy North Melbourne.
Missing both Matt Taberner and Rory Lobb in attack, the Dockers could easily have opted to rest on their miserly defence and North’s loss of Nick Larkey, and grind out a win. Instead, they aimed to dazzle, and bring their small forwards into the match.
The result was an eye-catching, fast-moving brand of footy that shows the Dockers have plenty of strings to their bow. David Mundy remains one of the best in the business at delivering inside 50, while half-backs Hayden Young and Jordan Clark also pushed up the ground to help their forwards feast.
Sean Darcy was immense in the ruck, helping the Dockers boss the clearances 38-31; while the Roos’ forays forward were constantly stymied by their poor foot skills. 67 inside 50s to 32 is a colossal disparity; indeed, North’s defence probably did a reasonable job to keep them to ‘just’ 15 goals.
But it was a night for the Dockers’ smalls, and showed even without Taberner and Lobb, this Freo remain more than capable of kicking a winning score. Bailey Banfield, often on the fringes of this team, could have had a big bag but for inaccuracy; he, Sam Switkowski, Michael Walters and Lachie Schultz terrified the Roos’ backline all night, and the goals flowed as a result.
Really, the Roos’ best player – and their most important all year – was Ben McKay. An intercepting titan in the third quarter, his knee injury that saw him subbed out at three quarter time came too late to be the death knell on the Roos’ victory chances, but could prove ultra-costly down the track.
The one knock on Freo in recent weeks has been their forward line, with questions as to whether they can challenge the best in the business – Melbourne – on the attacking front. On the evidence of tonight – and you can’t dismiss that North Melbourne caveat – the answer is a resounding yes.