Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Melbourne vs Footscray - Allen Jakovich Cup Preview

(This preview simulcast on the Bulldogs Big Footy forum)

Hi sports fans, greetings from the wrong end of the ladder. Now we've all suffered it at some point or another, some of us more than others in the past couple of decades, but I think it's fair to say that there are few teams in 110+ years of VFL/AFL football who have walked into a season labelled as top four contenders and have ended up where we are at the moment. Yes, zero and six. Who would have thought it?

So how do Footscray win this week? Showing up would be a good start. With the worst injury toll since the Black Death swept across Europe in the 15th century currently affecting us Melbourne have been lucky enough to have their best 22 on the field for all of a quarter this season before it started to wrong. First there was McLean, then Neitz, then Robertson, Whelan, Rivers, Green, Jones, Wheatley, Bate, Brown and god knows who else - and anyone who thinks Cameron Bruce was playing at 100% even before he hurt himself on the weekend has completely lost the plot. Basically all that's standing between us and Fitzroy 1996 is a 3/4 fit Bruce, the ever reliable James McDonald, a shockingly capable leadership cameo role from Brad Green, a much improved Brad Miller and the return of Jared Rivers. After having his best season yet last year full-back Nathan Carroll has opened the year in nightmare form, and without the likes of Rivers and Whelan (the Jurassic Pack) there to help mop up the damage he looks completely lost. He clawed back some lost ground against Warren Tredrea last week, but claiming the scalp of a half fit Port skipper counts for little if he goes out to get smashed every week. He should cope better against the smaller Dog forwards, and with Daniel Bell having come into his own this year there is some light at the end of the tunnel for the much suffering fans of the Demon backline. Again, light at the tunnel doesn’t do anything for our prospects of scoring four premiership points. In fact the way we’re going might be a freight train coming the other way and about to clean us up.

If you haven't followed Melbourne's list carefully the alteration of defensive responsibilities means that Alistair Nicholson is no longer employed as our key defensive stopper and you will not be treated to the remarkable scene of him attempting to play as a modern ruckman as you were in the corresponding fixture two years ago, which is a shame for both the footballing public and the makers of Australia's Funniest Home Videos. Even Byron Pickett, a man who you can be assured of going at it 100% no matter how fat or unfit he is had part of his ear ripped off on Sunday. All that we're lacking is for somebody to do their back getting out of a car or fall out of a tree a'la Keith Richards.

Speaking of ruckmen, it has been a most troublesome division for us so far this year. Anyone can see that while he still puts a serviceable performance in every time Jeff White is not the player he used to be, and having let Troy Simmonds and Darren Jolly both leave over the years rather than play second fiddle to him during his prime we're left with the situation where both Mark Jamar and Paul Johnson aren't good enough yet (or at all depending on who you ask) to make the role their own. With Jamar rightfully sent to Sandringham last week Johnson was much improved and will obviously retain his position but despite a fine performance against Port it’s clear White is rapidly slipping down the pecking order of AFL ruckmen, and with no obvious replacement what do we do? Trade for one? Draft one? That's precious little comfort this week when, with our midfield also out of sorts and bleeding clearances at a rapid rate, you can comfortably expect the Bulldog ruck division to notch up a victory. However having said that our attack on the ball over the last three weeks has been absolutely ferocious, so even if they haven't got the skills to carry off a victory you can be sure that there will at least be fight. Sadly fight can only get you so far and when it comes down to skills we’re clearly second best in this one.

The Positives

Well there are so many great things to be said about our season so far (!?) that it'll be hard to fit them all in but I'm willing to have a crack.

For one thing the boys have fought very hard this year to avoid being humiliated. Despite being outmanned and outgunned for most of the season they have not yet descended to 1997-esque levels of despair and started to suffer 15 goal defeats. At times it has looked very hairy but there's just enough left in the tank to make sure it doesn't end up as another humiliation in the long line of tragedy we've suffered over the last forty years. See for instance Tom Hawkins' four goals in the first half in round three - somehow kept goalless in the second half and spared us the humiliation of belting through ten in his second game. See also Pavlich a week later who should have had 15 in a 200 point win the way it was going through the second half. Thankfully serious damage control was exercised and we managed to hold him to a respectable half-a-dozen. The heart is there even if the bodies aren't - witness for instance the wild eyed intensity Byron Pickett brought back into the team early on against Freo. Sure he was out of gas about 11 minutes into the first quarter but those first ten were an absolute cracker - as the season gets longer he will get better, and his presence seems to inspire Aaron Davey to bigger and better things as well. Come the end of this year we may surprise a few teams and win a few games - just not this week.

In fact on Sunday against Port Adelaide the defence held up surprisingly well, and with Godfrey tagging Burgoyne to within an inch of his life it was really only poor kicking for goal - and David Neitz running a fingernail down Darryl Wakelin's back - which kept us from opening our account for season 2007. With some suggestion that Whelan, Green and Brock "The Saviour" McLean will all be returning for this one we would almost be back to full strength, and with Matthew Bate, Brad Miller (excluding the Port game), Lynden Dunn and Ricky Petterd all proving handy additions the squad is starting to look as it should. It’s not playing like it but for a club that hasn’t won anything in 40+ years we don’t do anything in big steps.

Perceived wisdom is that teams don't win the week after they come back from Perth, and despite the Dogs pushing a team that is head-and-shoulders above everyone else in the league to within three goals, we will be hanging any chance of getting up on this well worn footy cliche. And surely the umpiring can't be as bad as last week can it? One of these days we've got to be the team who are on the positive end of a day of ludicrous umpiring. Which country town will the umpire who paid a deliberate against James McDonald with 45 seconds remaining as we were 5pts down on Sunday after watching Port casually run it over the line all game be appearing in this week? And will they reintroduce the penalties for holding/dropping/throwing the ball that were mysteriously absent from the game last week?

A diversion, if I can, before delving into the thousands of reasons we won’t win on the weekend. I would have liked to have watched your game against the Eagles to dissect the performance a bit more and be able to make qualified judgements about your style and how it will affect us on Sunday, but due to the fact that the game is run like an absolute brothel these days and the rules change every twenty-five seconds I can’t bring myself to sit down and watch an entire four quarters unless it involves Melbourne or has Richmond losing by 150. This is our side of the story, I will leave those of you who are in the know to fill in the gaps from a Bulldogs perspective.

And now, on with the footballing emo…

The Negatives

Over the last couple of years our record at the Corporate Dome has been abysmal. But frankly this year our record everywhere is going to be absymal so who's to say that the ground is going to make any difference whatsoever to our performance.

Much of the beauty of our performance against Port was actually (shock horror) manning up on players as the ball was kicked to them, thus causing marks to be dropped and turnovers. A fundamental tactic of league football you say? Well obviously you've not watched Melbourne play in the last few years. It was refreshing to see it but there's no doubt that the Bulldogs play a brand of football which is not only quicker than Port but also far more likely to carve our midfield and defence into a million pieces. Alas our boys are not the smartest out there, and for all their increased intensity they are not Rhodes Scholars when it comes to matchups and options. Port sold more dummies than Mothercare over the four quarters of Sunday's game and every single time they were taken hook, line and sinker - in fact it was yet another one of these that allowed Motlop to kick the winning goal. All indications are that the Dogs will run Melbourne off their feet. Hopefully your lack of a true superstar full-forward (no offence to Johnson, but he's no Hall/Pavlich/Lloyd) will allow Nathan Carroll a better performance than he has produced in the last few weeks.

Prediction: Footscray to take the Allen Jakovich Cup by 25pts. Mass suicides amongst the 175 remaining Melbourne fans who haven't jumped off the bandwagon already. 0-7? I never thought I'd see it. Somebody hold me.

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