After a 0-2 start, the Bulldogs are on the winner's list after a close victory against the red-hot Sydney Swans.
Much of what we’ve come to love about the Bulldogs was on full display for the majority of the game.
The run in waves, the outnumbering at the contest, the ground ball presence and their trademark handball chains to surge forward was evident.
There was a sense of urgency to start well that wasn't apparent in the first two weeks.
It's remarkable to watch when they play this way.
There are a number of Bulldogs players who work the angles of their handballs so well (Treloar, Hunter and Liberatore in particular) to the point where they can make a great defensive team like the Sydney Swans look disorganised with their come forward to defend principles.
These handball chains are a thing of beauty when Bulldogs players are in sync:
But maybe even more important than the Bulldogs finding their offensive groove is how much stronger the Dogs looked defensively.
Let’s not forget that Sydney was the highest-scoring team going into Round 3 and made their living scoring off turnovers and transitions from their defensive half.
We saw with Geelong that if you aren't prepared to defend and cover up your mistakes on turnover, Sydney will score on you.
The plan from Beveridge was evident.
In regards to defending in the forward half, the Dogs had a clear focus to close off Sydney’s exits on the off-ball side - provide maximum pressure with their smalls (Weightman was sensational with this) and attempt to limit the ball use of Campbell and Blakey, two of Sydney’s better drivers out the back half.
Yet, in order for the Dogs to defend in their forward half and keep Sydney in front of them, they had to win the territory battle and close off Sydney’s exits outside of the stoppage.
To win the territory battle, grunt and ball-winning ability around the contest is key - enter Josh Dunkley.
Dunkley is a big-bodied midfielder, elite on the inside of a contest when given the licence to hunt and win his own ball.
Dunkley has his critics and some of it’s warranted - he lacks the leg speed to damage teams on the outside and is an average kick with little variety in his type of kicks.
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He has the versatility to play a mid-forward role, but has never really troubled defenders in 1v1 scenarios with his bodywork given his size and ranks average in contested marks for his position.
So a big-bodied midfielder who gets a lot of disposals but isn’t damaging by foot? Sounds like an empty stat midfielder.
Well ... no.
The thing with Dunkley is he is one of, if not the best, disruptive midfielder in the AFL when he wants to be - outside of his impressive 31 disposals and six clearances on the weekend, he had 11 tackles. No other player on the ground had more than seven.
These weren’t bottom-of-the-pack tackles either - Dunkley dispossesses midfielders with a clear path to dispose of the ball, creating an instant turnover opportunity for the Bulldogs to pounce on.
The below vision encapsulates the statement that Dunkley is a ‘disruptive defensive midfielder’.
He first lays a diving tackle on Mills’ that turns a definite inside 50 into a 50/50 disputed ball in the middle of the ground. Sydney wins the disputed ball but Dunkley doesn’t stop there, following up again for another tackle, pinning Mills and winning a free kick. This kind of work rate without the ball can be game-changing.
Here's another scenario - a likely inside 50 for Sydney results in a midfielder stoppage due to Dunkley's desire to lay a smother. Inspirational stuff.
The combination in Dunkley’s game to cause turnovers and disrupt defensively through his tackling and his ball-winning ability inside makes him a very valuable midfielder in modern AFL.
While the statistic can be overhyped, winning contested possession consistently builds trust with outside midfielders to hold their width and be dangerous as outlets - an important point when those players are Smith, Hunter, Daniel and Dale out of the backline.
Dunkley is pivotal to the success and balance of this Dog’s midfield - he was inconsistent with his defensive pressure last year due to a mixture of injuries and lack of midfield minutes.
There isn’t an expectation that he amasses 11 tackles every week but his desire to nullify opposing midfielders at the contest and cause turnovers when they arise will be crucial.
Dunkley is the biggest bull in the AFL when he doesn’t have the ball in his hands. Keep an eye on him.
When the ball spills out in that tackle on Mills, the umpires give Dunkley a free. Fine, if they’re consistent, yet about 10 minutes later – with 4:26 remaining in Q3 – Errol Gulden exceutes a very similar tackle, just inside Swans f50. Again the ball spills free, but this time the Dogs player is awarded the free, for “holding”. Players on both sides look stunned at the decision. Gulden misses out on a shot on goal that he would very likely hit and the ball quickly goes to the other end. Thus robbing Sydney of a crucial free kick when they held all the momentum.
Even Dogs fans took to twitter to express their dismay at the umpiring, rightly concerned that no-one would credit them the win in such an obviously rigged game. No-one cares how AFL rules are interpreted – umpiring will always be subjective – but we should expect that such an interpretation remains consistent, for both teams, throughout the game. In this game it was one rule for Swans players and another for Dogs.
Dunkley’s most probably a very good player, as his dad was for Sydney, but who could tell, with such an umpiring bias. Ironically, we’d have known for sure if he’d been picked up by the Swans as a father-son draft, but Sydney respected the wishes of his parents not to pick him up, as the family preferred he stay closer to home and play for a Melbourne club.
Let’s not underestimate the advantages the Dogs enjoy when they’re handed a shed load of extra frees by umpires, who are often also fans. By contrast, the Swans may get the odd dubious free, but more often than not they’re fighting against a skewed free kick count. Umpires are never from Sydney and it’s unlikely they were ever big fans of the Swans. The 2016 GF was testament to how far some umpires were prepared to go to ensure the Dogs won. It’s not only supporters of Sydney who consider 2016 to be a rigged GF. Even the AFL admitted the umpiring was sub-standard.
Most teams are disadvantaged by the umps when they play the Dogs, but for Sydney, that bias seems to be exaggerated out of all proportion. Of course the offending umpires attempt to sweep the evidence under the rug. They’ll hand the Dogs frees at critical times, in order to shift the momentum, then, with the damage well and truly done, they’ll give a handful of junk time frees to try to tidy the ledger, at least on paper. The free kick count ended up 31-14, more than twice as many for the Dogs, yet at one point it was out to 25-8, giving more than three of every four frees to the Dogs.
The AFL’s reputation, particularly in expansion areas, is being damaged by a blatant lack of umpiring fairness. No wonder it’s getting harder to recruit new umpires. Any fair-minded and well-intentioned young umpires coming through the ranks risk being tarred with the same brush.
It’s time the AFL allowed an independent, critical and effective umpiring review process. Coaches need to be allowed to comment publicly and to demand a review. Once a limit is reached an umpire should be barred or demoted. It won’t undo the damage but it will help the image. Calling out bad umpiring isn’t putting off new recruits. It’s the AFL’s failure to call out bad umpiring that’s putting off new recruits.
The Dogs may good enough to play finals unassisted, but who can really tell? Until they win games under their own steam, without enjoying a heavy umpiring bias, we can never know. Until the AFL clean up the umpiring of Dogs games we’ll never know if Josh Dunkley is a dynamic defensive midfielder, as you contend, or if he’s complete hack. At least no-one doubts the Swans’ credentials.
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