Port Adelaide 2.2 5.5 8.10 14.12.96
Western Bulldogs: Dale 4, Cloke 2, Hunter 2, Dunkley, Liberatore, Suckling
Port Adelaide: Dixon 4, R. Gray 2, Wingard 2, Ryder 2, Wines, Boak, S. Gray, Polec
Alex Docherty's Best
Western Bulldogs: Macrae, Dale, Dahlhaus, Daniel, McLean, Johannisen
Port Adelaide: Ryder, Boak, Dixon, Wines, Polec, Powell-Pepper, Amon
It was history in the making in Ballarat, however for the players and the supporters the Western Bulldogs, they'll remember it for all the wrong reasons, as Port Adelaide grinded out a 17-point win and locked themselves in for this year's AFL Finals Series and on the flipside, have just about extinguished the Western Bulldogs' aspirations of playing finals footy in September, let alone winning back-to-back premierships.
The loss pushes the Bulldogs closer to a piece of unwanted history as they look to be the first side since Hawthorn back in the 2009 season to miss the Finals altogether after having won the flag in the previous year. Despite all that, just over 10,000 that had gathered Ballarat's Mars Stadium on a windy afternoon in Ballrat were treated to a beauty of a contest with the margin never higher than three goals.
With the Bulldogs going with a slight three-goal breeze in the first term, there was a sense of expectation that the Bulldogs would get a good start with the wind, and aside from the opening two goals from Bailey Dale and Matthew Suckling, the quarter was mostly controlled by Port Adelaide, and with two goals from the in-form Paddy Ryder, the Power were only trailing by seven points at quarter time.
Going into the wind in the opening quarter, the Power took 26 uncontested marks in to only three of the Bulldogs as they handled the windy conditions the best in the opening change as they chipped the ball around the ground, whilst the Bulldogs were opting to go with a handballing running game, instead of trying to use the wind to their advantage.
A second hamstring injury to Jake Stringer in the opening minutes of the game weren't going to help the Bulldogs' chances of winning the game one bit, but one has to imagine if Luke Beveridge brought Stringer back to the top flight too soon. The 2015 All-Australian injured his hamstring in the round 17 win over Carlton and only came back in last week's loss to the Giants.
With the expectation now on the Power to kick away in the second term, the Bulldogs did remarkably well to not just hold the Power at bay, but to hold on to their quarter-time lead, despite Port winning the quarter by a point. Three of first four goals of the quarter saw Port Adelaide take a seven-point lead of their own midway through the quarter, before a wonderful snap goal and a second to Bailey Dale gave the reigning premiers back the lead.
A miss after the half-time siren from Bulldogs' captain Robert Murphy should've put the margin from single digits to double digits, but the bottom line was that the Bulldogs held their own with Port Adelaide going with the wind in the second term and had a chance to make amends for what I considered was a poor opening quarter from the red, white and blues, and despite a couple of moments in the third term that saw the Bulldogs threaten to get away with it, Port stuck with them in the third quarter.
Both teams each kicking three goals for the term, with some wayward kicking also involved with the Dogs kicking six behinds to Port's five. Tom Jonas might be sweating on the Match Review Panel after his off-the-ball hit on Luke Dahlhaus didn't go unnoticed and certainly didn't help Port's cause. Two goals in as many minutes from Lachie Hunter and Josh Dunkley propelled the Bulldogs up to a two-goal lead as the third quarter approached time on, before Charlie Dixon pegged the margin back to single digits once again - seven points seperating the two sides by the final break.
But with the Power going into the wind, the odds weren't looking for the Dogs, despite leading at every change so far, but it looked set up for a good finish, with multiple lead changes throughout the first three quarters. The Dogs' seven-point lead was quickly erased when Sam Gray kicked a miraculous snap goal from the boundary line to tie the scores up two minutes in, before goals to Tom Liberatore and a fourth to Bailey Dale gave the Doggies a two-goal advantage.
However it was all Port Adelaide from there, as they kicked five unanswered goals. Charlie Dixon took two impressive contested marks and followed up with two goals to take his tally to four for the afternoon to take the lead back. Goals to Chad Wingard, Robbie Gray and Jared Polec took the margin up to 18 points and out of reach when Polec kicked Port's 14th goal of the day.
It was far from a disgraced performance from the Western Bulldogs in their first home match in Ballarat, but their disappointing final minutes in the last quarter was all it took for Port Adelaide to effectively end their season. Everything needs to go right for the Bulldogs from here on out in order for them to still participate in September action this year.
Leading The Way
For the first time since round 17 in the 2014 season, Jack Macrae finished a game with over 40 disposals, recording 41 touches, along with eight clearances, seven tackles, seven inside 50s and six marks to be the best Bulldog on the ground. In a season in which the Western Bulldogs have been plagued with inconsistency, Macrae has had a very consistent year in terms of finding the ball, and he does it with minimal fuss, which is what I love the most about him as a player.
Macrae was ably assisted in the midfield by Luke Dahlhaus (29 disposals and six tackles) and Toby McLean (26 disposals, seven clearances and six tackles) - both men continuing their fine seasons, McLean in particular relishing in his new role as a midfielder after spending last season as a half-forward, whilst Caleb Daniel was also very prominent with 27 disposals, four clearances, three marks and three inside 50s.
Up forward, the Bulldogs looked to an unlikely source in Bailey Dale. With Stringer done for the day early in the first quarter and Tory Dickson failing to trouble the scorers, The boy from Edithvale-Aspendale kicked a career-best four goals to continue his greatly-improved 2017 season. Travis Cloke continued to impress in Dogs' colours, kicking two very nice goals on the run from six kickes, whilst Jason Johannisen (27 disposals, six marks, six inside 50s and four rebound 50s) loomed a threat all game long, but could only register four behinds
And on a side note, how good was it to see Dale Morris back playing footy just three weeks since he broke his arm up in Cairns? He looked like he hadn't skipped a beat in a defensive unit that is crying for a veteran presence down there with captain Robert Murphy playing more forward now, Matthew Boyd languishing in the VFL and Easton Wood on the injury list.
Despite this hard fought victory over an opposition eyeing a spot in September, Port Adelaide will still have its critics ahead of their first Finals Series since 2014, when they were a kick away from reaching their third-ever Grand Final, but there's no doubt that the Power can win it all, despite the fact that they haven't beaten any of the teams in the top four.
Paddy Ryder continues his fine season in the ruck, dominating Jordan Roughead in the air, recording 55 hitouts to go along with his 12 disposals, five tackles, four clearances and two goals, whilst Travis Boak was perhaps the Power's most influential midfielder on the day, recording a team-high 33 disposals along with nine inside 50s, seven tackles, seven marks, six clearances and a goal, Ollie Wines (28 disposals, nine clearances, six tackles and a goal) was perhaps their next best midfielder, whilst Jared Polec (23 disposals, seven tackles, six marks and a goal was also really prolific in the middle.
Charlie Dixon was a huge influence in the last quarter and kicked a match-winning haul of four goals from 18 disposals and eight marks - six of those being contested marks. Chad Wingard and Robbie Gray also chimed in with two goals although neither had the influence on the contest quite like Charlie did. Todd Marshall did some nice things on debut, registering 10 disposals, four tackles and three marks and covered the ground quite well.
It should also be pointed out that Port Adelaide's younger players were also quite good in their win on Saturday. Sam Powell-Pepper (16 disposals, 12 tackles and four clearances) has the potential to be an AFL star one day. Karl Amon (22 disposals) worked hard all game long, as did Riley Bonner (18 disposals, five tackles and four inside 50s) in just his second game and I admired the game of Dan Houston, who injured his shoulder in the opening quarter and came back on after quarter time, to eventually play out the game.
Perhaps for the final time this season, the Western Bulldogs are under the Friday night lights as they take on Hawthorn under the roof of Etihad Stadium in what will be their first meeting since their semi-final match-up last year, which saw the Bulldogs dominate the Hawks in the second half to win the match by 23 points.
Mathematically, the Bulldogs are still a shot of playing finals, however everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, must go right from here on out. No ifs, buts or maybes, the Bulldogs must win next Friday night and rely on Essendon, St. Kilda and West Coast to all lose their games next week to secure the final spot on the AFL ladder. With that said, they first need to worry about the Hawks on Friday night and they have proven in this second half of 2017 that they are no easy beats.
With the Hawks now officially out of the Finals picture, they will prepare to farewell a couple of premiership champions of their own in Luke Hodge and Josh Gibson and you can put your life savings on it that Hawthorn will be out to seek some form of retribution for the Dogs ending their Finals campaign last year and look to send their retiring veterans out on a high.
The Dogs will also most likely see Matthew Boyd and their captain Murphy play their final games in the red, white and blue on Friday night, so you can sense an emotional night ahead for both of these football clubs. Strap yourselves in Friday night for what could certainly be the last of many thrilling games for the Western Bulldogs in season 2017.