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Stephen Hill stars as Western Bulldogs go down to Fremantle

FREMANTLE 4.2 8.3 9.6 13.11 (89)
WESTERN BULLDOGS 1.4 2.8 5.12 6.15 (51)

GOALS Fremantle: S Hill 4 H Ballantyne 3 M Pavlich 2 A Sandilands N Suban P Duffield R Crowley. Western Bulldogs: K Stevens 2 L Dahlhaus N Hrovat S Crameri T Williams.
BEST Fremantle: Hill, Johnson, Clarke, Crowley, Neale, Barlow. Western Bulldogs: Liberatore, Murphy, Wallis, Macrae, Minson, Cooney.
UMPIRES Sam Hay, Ray Chamberlain, Andrew Mitchell.
OFFICIAL CROWD 14,913 at Etihad Stadium.

This was a game where the numbers led you down the garden path, and if you were a Western Bulldog, at its end was a maze from which there was no escape. Or at least, no way to find the major target.

The Bulldogs went inside 50 on 67 occasions, a season high that bettered Fremantle by 26 on the day and their own season average by more than 20. They had 50 more possessions, a dozen more of the hard-won variety which has been both their motif and recent disappointment. Mitch Wallis kept influential Docker Nathan Fyfe as quiet as a mouse.

And for all of this, the Dogs emerged with a 38-point defeat and a new record-lowest score in 25 clashes with Fremantle.

‘‘It felt like we were hanging on all day, which tends to happen when you’re playing real good footy teams,’’ mused coach Brendan McCartney. 

‘‘[But] I was pretty proud of their efforts today, I don’t mind saying that. If we keep applying that effort, play with a little more thought and belief at crucial times, we’ll be pretty competitive and play some good football.’’


That only 14,913 could be bothered seeing the latest step on a long and trying path was disappointing, and while McCartney pondered the impact of the weather and a major pile-up on the West Gate, his belief that the only way forward is to ‘‘keep cracking away’’ was unshaken.

‘‘I’m sure there’s some impatience outside the club – we’re impatient too,’’ McCartney said. ‘‘We saw today what they’re going to become for a long time, because they’re all 18 or 19 those boys, there’s a good nine to 11 years of top-notch footy in front of them.’’

For now, they inhabit a different football world to Fremantle, which this game encapsulated. The Bulldogs have much learning and growing to do, and even then could be a totem pole or two short of the best. The Dockers are mature, drilled, ready, and attempting to appraise them without lauding their pressure and defensive structures is like trying to lose Aaron Sandilands in a crowd.

The Dogs managed this several times as the quest to find a way to goal became a head-scratchingly frustrating business, confronted with a forward 50 arc that must have looked like it was inhabited by 45 white jumpers, a dozen of them worn by the hulking Sandilands.

To concede six goals from 67 entries pleased Dockers’ coach Ross Lyon, although with the rider that ‘‘there’s entries and there’s entries’’, some wide, some slow, some barely crossing the line. McCartney thought the figure was skewed by featuring so many ‘‘repeat’’ thrusts, barely out before they’re back in again.

‘‘At the extremities – first kick out and first kick in – we were very good,’’ Lyon concluded. ‘‘We were really efficient with the ball.’’

McCartney experimented with Jordan Roughead and Fletcher Roberts in attack alongside Tom Williams and Stewart Crameri. Michael Johnson was an impassable general of the packed Dockers defence, ably assisted by Luke McPharlin, Zac Dawson and the likes of Stephen Hill, Lachy Neale and Tendai Mzungu who ferried the ball swiftly into the open spaces at the other end.

Lyon made particular mention of his indigenous stars, whose will to mark the round honouring their people could well have been worthy of every Brownlow vote cast.

Ryan Crowley made a compelling bid for at least one of them, shutting down Ryan Griffen so comprehensively that the Bulldogs’ prolific captain didn’t touch the ball in the second quarter, and for all his effort had it just 10 times for the game. Mitch Wallis had a similar impact on Fyfe, but was later required to go with a rampant Hill as the Dockers’ runners kept coming and coming.

Will Minson did a manful job rucking solo against Sandilands and Zac Clarke but couldn’t be two men in one, and at length Sandilands’ mass and Clarke’s transitional running were crucial to Freo’s triumph.

The Bulldogs’ chipped a 37-point deficit back to less than three goals during a third quarter that like the first was dominant without scoreboard reward. Lyon had been in no doubt his players would be facing an ‘‘inside, dour, competitive team’’, and Tom Liberatore’s effort in inspiring the Dogs to a 47-32 clearance win was meritorious.

For all that the numbers said, McCartney was adamant the best team still won the game. He predicted that late withdrawal Matthew Boyd would be fit to meet Brisbane Lions next Sunday, as the Bulldogs seek to get some overdue reward for all of that effort.