Western Bulldogs 6.4 10.8 13.14 15.17.107
North Melbourne 3.4 7.5 12.7 16.10.106
Western Bulldogs: Picken 3, Redpath 2, Dale 2, Hunter, Wallis, Suckling, Dahlhaus, Stringer, Wood, Campbell, Bontempelli
North Melbourne: Waite 3, Wood 2, Daw 2, Brown 2, Cunnington 2, Macmillan, Goldstein, Hrovat, Garner, Clarke
Alex Docherty's Best
Western Bulldogs: Bontempelli, Macrae, Campbell, McLean, Wood, Picken, Hunter
North Melbourne: Cunnington, Brown, Waite, Hrovat, Ziebell, Macmillan
The last few years have seen the Western Bulldogs and North Melbourne put on some fantastic games, but Saturday night's encounter may have been one of the most thrilling games we've seen in years between the two.
The Western Bulldogs have found their way back onto the winners list on Saturday night - but barely, hanging on to defeat North Melbourne by the barest of margins - a solitary point in a heart-stopping encounter at Etihad Stadium. A miserly crowd of 28,263 witnessed perhaps one of the games of 2017, with both sides giving 110% effort in a game that ebbed and flowed, plenty of scoring and a few controversial umpiring decisions, that have left Kangaroo supporters fuming that they couldn't get the job done again - this being the second time this season North Melbourne have fallen to the Bulldogs by less than a goal.
After heavy defeats in the past fortnight to Sydney (46 points) and Melbourne (57 points), the Dogs had the microscope on them during the week, with fears that player unrest was destroying the club and that their premiership defence was in grave jeopardy. But it looked a little bit like the Bulldogs we had the joy of watching last year on Saturday night. They were playing as a team, the intensity was on from the first bounce and they were making the most of their opportunities inside 50 - exactly how a premiership team should be playing.
North made the challenge at the start of the game - sending Taylor Garner and former Bulldog Nathan Hrovat to antagonise the out-of-form Jason Johannisen, and a goal to Garner in the opening couple of minutes got the Roos off to a good start, but unlike last week, the Dogs refused to lie down, as the opening half of the first quarter was a goal-for-goal contest, before a goal from acting captain Easton Wood started a run of three-straight goals. Bailey Dale capped off a stunning opening term with his second goal of the term and a Lachie Hunter goal from on the boundary on the quarter-time siren resulted in the best first quarter the Dogs have had this season.
An 18-point lead at quarter time was quickly wiped down to single digits in the second quarter as goals to Hrovat and Jarrad Waite in the opening three minutes took it back to six points, but the Bulldogs were up for the challenge, kicking four of the next five goals of the game to open the margin up to 27 points late in the second quarter. Waite's second goal came just before the half-time siren, gifting North some hope heading into the half-time break, but with the Dogs leading the free-kick count 16-4 in the first half, leaving many North fans crying foul at a few decisions that were made during the half.
It came apparent that Waite's goal late in the second term gave North the lift it needed in the second half as Ben Brown - who was virtually unsighted in the first half, came up with two early goals to firmly establish himself in this contest. North were coming, Jamie Macmillan goaled to trim the margin back down to nine points, before the Bulldogs came back to control the contest. Luke Dahlhaus and Picken kicked a settler, but several other opportunities went begging. Mitch Honeychurch, Lachie Hunter and Jake Stringer all missed opportunities on goal, but despite a 3.6 quarter, it would be a missed opportunity from another former Dog in Shaun Higgins that caused one of two massive talking points.
Higgins was awarded a shot on goal late in the third quarter, but with no shot clock on the replays, his 30-second time ran out, and whilst he had no idea that the umpire was calling play-on, Jake Stringer ran him down as he was approaching the goals, denying North Melbourne a chance to go into three-quarter time behind the Dogs by single digits. Instead, it was 13 points seperating the two sides, and the tone for an epic final quarter was set with a three-quarter time scuffle that surrounded Higgins who failed to hear what was going on around him.
By the 11-minute mark of the final term, the Bulldogs had kicked the only two goals of the quarter - one from a Jack Redpath set-shot and the other through a cool Matthew Suckling snap on goal, and looked like running away from the contest. 26 points up, Bulldogs supporters were hoping for a much-needed percentage boost, but instead we got what was looking like a miraculous charge from North Melbourne. Ben Cunnington started the charge with a good running goal, which followed by goals from forwards that have torched the Dogs in recent history in Waite and Majak Daw, the four-goal run ended with Cunnington's second of the term and with plenty of time remaining, the Roos were only a point behind.
And then came the moment that would eventually prove to break the hearts of North supporters and save the skins of the Bulldog players. Ben Brown took a strong mark close to goal, and played on to kick the go-ahead goal to seemingly put North ahead late in the game, but unbeknowngst to him, the umpire paid a free kick to the Bulldogs for an illegal block laid from Mason Wood to ruckman Tom Campbell, and then paid the 50 metre penalty for kicking the ball away. North still managed to tie the scores up shortly afterwards, when Shaun Higgins' snap at goal sprayed to the right, setting up what could've been the first draw of 2017 and the fourth draw of the history of these two clubs, dating back to 1925.
With less than two minutes to go, the Dogs wasted no time getting the ball back to the other end. Jack Redpath needed to make amends for costing his team a goal earlier in the fourth quarter and did with a crucial mark outside defensive 50 and then hit a target in Lachie Hunter, who quickly delivered into the path of Jake Stringer who marked right next to the boundary line. A couple of years ago, Stringer had a simliar opportunity to put a side away with a mark inside 50, but the ball slipped through his fingers - not so this time. His kick resulted in arguably the most important behind he's kicked in his career to date, taking his tally for the evening to 1.4.
North tried hard in the final seconds to get one last opportunity, but the Bulldogs held on to record a nail-biting win to keep their season alive. The Dogs led North in most statistics, they had 70 more disposals, five more clearances, 15 more contested possessions, four more tackles and six more scoring shots than their opposition.
In my eyes, it wasn't a very impressive victory, and this doesn't give me any confidence whatsoever that the Western Bulldogs are in fact 'back'. They stopped midway through the last quarter and let the 17th-placed Roos back in with a huge chance to cause a miraculous win. North should've won, I felt that they were incredibly unlucky with the umpires, but given how poor the Dogs have played the past fortnight, I'm just happy they got the win.
Leading The Way
Whilst my opinion is that the Bulldogs as a team aren't back yet, it looked like a few of their premiership stars were back to their best. Jack Macrae continues his great year, recording a game-high 32 disposals alongside ten tackles, seven marks, five clearances and five inside 50s, whilst Marcus Bontempelli also starred in the midfield with 28 disposals, ten tackles, eight clearances, seven inside 50s and a goal.
Liam Picken's 2017 campaign has been incredibly poor in comparison to his dream 2016 Finals campaign, but on Saturday night he wound back the clock with a three-goal performance from 17 disposals and four marks. Another Dog that has struggled to perform in 2017 in comparison to last year - Lachie Hunter - a man who's performances in 2017 paled in comparison to 2016 - had one of his finer games this season, recording 22 disposals, nine marks, four clearances, four rebound 50s and a goal, as did Easton Wood, who responded to a poor game last week with a brilliant display in defence and picked up 21 disposals, seven marks, four rebound 50s and a goal.
But the keys to this victory came from a few of the lesser names in this side, as there were a few household names that had below-average games. Jason Johannisen was rendered ineffective for the third-straight week, but he still got himself involved enough to record 19 disposals. Tom Liberatore only recorded 13 disposals and four tackles, and Caleb Daniel had an off night, only recording 16 disposals.
Tom Campbell came into the side and played one of his best games for the club, dominating All-Australian ruckman Todd Goldstein in the hitouts 49-25, he also recorded 12 disposals, six tackles, four marks, four clearances, three rebound 50s and one goal. Mitch Honeychurch was lively again down forward, but again his ability to finish in front of goal let him down, registering 0.3 for the evening from 16 disposals and five mark. Those three behinds being very gettable shots on goal - I say keep him for next week and get him practicing his goal-kicking during the week. Bailey Dale kicked two first-quarter goals and finished the evening with 18 disposals and four marks, whilst Toby McLean had a great game in the midfield, recording 26 disposals, seven tackles, six clearances and three inside 50s.
To say that North Melbourne were brave in defeat, would be a massive understatement. 26 points down midway through the last quarter. They could've easily have rolled over and let the Dogs win by a landslide, but the way they fought back time and time again on Saturday night to stay within reach is a real testament of where this team will go in the future, they were unbelievably unlucky not to get the win. They may be 17th on the ladder with only four wins, but there is a lot of upside in this team and I can definitely sense a rise up the ladder within the coming years.
Both Ben Cunnington and Ben Brown were the guys that took North Melbourne forward when they needed guys to stand up. Cunnington kicked two vital goals in the last quarter and finished with 28 disposals, six clearances, six inside 50s and four tackles. Shaun Higgins was North's next best possession getter with 19 disposals, but I felt he really struggled to make a real influence on the game. North captain Jack Ziebell (17 disposals, nine tackles and five clearances) did his best to will the team on in the last quarter, whilst Nathan Hrovat (17 disposals, six tackles, four marks and a goal) and Jamie Macmillan (17 disposals, five rebound 50s and a goal) were also prominent
Brown was the focal point up forward with Jarrad Waite playing wing, and after a slow start, came to life in the second half, kicking two goals in the third quarter, could've had three if it weren't a poor shot on goal, and maybe would've had four match-winning goals if the umpire didn't call that illegal block on Mason Wood in the dying minutes. Waite spent a lot of time up on the wing on Saturday night, but still managed to kick three goals from 13 disposals and nine marks, which suggests this newfound role is working well and can give Majak Daw, who also kicked a pair of goals, to work with Brown in the future.
Bulldogs fans will hope that this win is the one that gets the Bulldogs up and about, and do they need them to fire up quickly. The next fortnight of footy sees the Dogs face a very winnable game as they play West Coast at Etihad Stadium, before playing an Adelaide outfit that has looked a little bit shaky recently, that game to be played at the Adelaide Oval.
But let's focus on the Eagles, who as we all should know by now, have had incredibly poor history whenever they travel to Melbourne. In 2017, the Eagles have lost three of their four matches in Melbourne, and given the Eagles snuck home in their meeting back in round eight, you can almost be certain that the reigning premiers would want to get one back at them.
The Western Bulldogs might not be back just yet in terms of being a genuine finals threat, but this win, this nail-biting, heart-stopping win could just be the tonic this club needs to go forward. One can only pray that it is indeed the case.