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    Western Bulldogs under Marcus Bontempelli push to repeat 2016 premiership

    Western Bulldogs under Marcus Bontempelli push to repeat 2016 premiership



    They started in Tasmania, have flown to Brisbane and if they keep winning will journey to Adelaide and then Perth. There is an exciting whiff of history about the 2021 Western Bulldogs

    IT was footy’s version of the magic carpet ride that unlocked one of the longest premiership droughts in history.

    Four backs-to-the-wall, knockout wins in the space of four weeks on both sides of the country; overcoming a form dip on the eve of the finals; the return of players from injury at the eleventh hour; and an emotional journey that had even the most partisan of footy fans heavily invested.

    Western Bulldogs premiership hero Dale Morris this week likened that wild ride through September 2016 as being akin to riding the crest of a perfect wave — for an entire month.

    His former coach Luke Beveridge, the keenest of surfers, would love that analogy.

    The reward was the club’s first flag in 62 years and one of footy’s most stirring fairytales.

    Fast forward five years, and the now retired Morris can see eerie similarities surrounding what his team achieved in 2016, and what the 2021 side has in front of them now.

    Could we be about to see a case of deja vu … or deja red, white and blue?

    Morris, now working in the Bulldogs’ administration, can see parallels, even if he concedes there is so much work ahead following their elimination final win over Essendon last Sunday.

    “There are a lot of similarities between 2016 and now,” Morris said as looked ahead to Saturday night’s semi-final clash with Brisbane at the Gabba.

    “There’s the injuries the team suffered during the year, the travel factor, and overcoming a few hurdles in the last few weeks of the home-and-away season.

    “You can’t read too much into it. But you can definitely draw on past experiences.

    “There are still a lot of guys in the team who were there in 2016 and they have lived through those experiences.

    “Just like it was in 2016, there are a lot of young, exciting players in the team now. Guys like Aaron Naughton and Cody Weightman, but there are really experienced players, too.”

    Only seven 2016 premiership players have been named in the starting 22 for this weekend’s game, but Morris has faith in the group.

    He added: “Back then, we were riding the wave of the crowds at the Whitten Oval for every training session. This year the team doesn’t have our loyal supporters physically there, but the players will know they are supporting them as much as they ever have.”

    In 2016, the Dogs recalled a host of players before getting on roll with wins over West Coast in Perth in an elimination final; Hawthorn in a semi-final at the MCG in week two; and Greater Western Sydney in Sydney in a preliminary final before making it a clean sweep against Sydney in a spine-tingling grand final.

    Former Bulldogs great Tony Liberatore, whose son Tom remains as crucial to the team now as he was in 2016, attended every one of those four finals.

    The 1990 Brownlow Medallist hopes last week’s elimination final win over Essendon — the club’s first finals victory since that 2016 Grand Final — can prove the catalyst for a similar sweep.

    “I can definitely see the similarities, 100 percent,” Liberatore said.

    “We beat West Coast in the first final in 2016; and now we’ve had a big win over Essendon (this year). All you can do is beat who you are playing against and that’s what we’ve done.

    “Look, there is a lot of work still to do, but they’ve done it before and we hope they can do it again.”

    2016 REVISITED

    Peter Gordon may have handed over the Bulldogs presidency to Kylie Watson-Wheeler at the end of last season, but he will forever be seen as the man who helped to reshape the Bulldogs destiny.

    “I’m really proud of where the club is right now, we have the right people in the right roles, from Kylie as the president right down to every other role at the footy club,” Gordon said.

    Looking back, he sees all four of those 2016 finals wins as separate chapters, each with their individual storyline.

    “There was just a different euphoria to all of those games,” he recalled.

    The first, against West Coast, saw the Bulldogs go into the game as one of the biggest underdogs in modern finals memory.

    “That game was played at Subiaco and the club had organised for Bulldogs supporters to turn up to a watering hole (near the ground),” Gordon said.

    “We had about 400 Bulldogs supporters. I think the crowd was about 40,000. I remember making a speech, saying, ‘we’re the only Bulldogs supporters here and we’re outnumbered by 1000/1, so everyone needs to make the noise of a 1000 Eagles supporters’.”

    The Bulldogs stunned the footy world, winning by 47 points.

    Liberatore knew something special was in the wind.

    “One of our trainers, Annisa Groves, said to me: ‘We’re going to the flag!’. I said ‘what do you mean?’ She said ‘We’re going to win the flag’,” he recalled.

    Next stop was the MCG against the triple premiership-winning Hawthorn.

    The Bulldogs trailed by four goals midway through the second term, but stormed home.

    “There were 87,000 people there, and to that stage, I think it was the biggest crowd the club had played in front of since the 1961 Grand Final,” Gordon said.

    Step three came against the Giants in a preliminary final at Giants Stadium, and long before the pandemic closed state borders, Bulldogs supporters travelled north en masse.

    It was so tight and tense that Gordon suffered an anxiety attack during a frenetic final term.

    “I had to go into the changerooms in the last five minutes because I thought I was having an anxiety attack,” Gordon recalled. “I think it is the most stressed I have ever been.

    “I was only there for a minute when Billy Hector — who has been the doorman for 40 years and whose dad Norm was the doorman and before that the timekeeper for years — came and dragged me by the scruff of the neck.

    “He literally dragged me down the race and said, ‘You have got to see this’. Jackson Macrae was having a shot at goal, which put us in front. I will always be grateful to Billy for that.”

    Liberatore knew as soon as the Bulldogs beat the Giants that they would beat Sydney the week after.

    “The momentum was just too much to stop. In the rooms, we were like ‘we are going to win this flag’,” Liberatore said.

    Morris, who played the entire finals series with two broken vertebrae in his back, wasn’t so sure.

    In a closely-fought grand final, the Bulldogs clung desperately to a late lead when Morris launched a game-saving tackle on Buddy Franklin to help set up a pivotal Tom Boyd goal at the 21-minute-mark of the final term. It put the Dogs 15 points up.

    It was effectively game over, though Morris’ competitive instincts told him otherwise.

    He didn’t even feel safe when Toby McLean was lining up for goal in the dying seconds.

    “Toby was having his set shot on goal and there were just seconds left,” Morris recalled.

    “Jordan Roughead was running past me, saying ‘We are premiers’ and I said to him ‘Get in the zone, the game is not over yet’.”

    The siren sounded seconds later. The Bulldogs had won their first flag since 1954.

    ROAD WARRIORS

    The Bulldogs’ heartbreaking after-the-siren Round 23 loss to Port Adelaide, and Brisbane’s percentage boosting win over West Coast, cost the 2021 team the double chance.

    “We were all on the edge of our seats watching the Brisbane-West Coast game, and I think we went from fourth to fifth and back six times in the last quarter of the game,” Gordon said.

    “I had the AFL ladder in one hand and my calculator in the other.”

    The 0.5 percentage difference consigned the Bulldogs to a sudden death pathway.

    It meant they finished the home-and-away season on 15 wins and seven losses — the same ledger as 2016.

    Liberatore said the Bulldogs — like all sides during the pandemic — had no fear of travelling.

    “Every club has had to travel here, there and everywheres, so it shouldn’t be a problem,” he said.

    “I’m trying not to think too far ahead, but if we do beat Brisbane (at the Gabba) and Port Adelaide (at Adelaide Oval), we would get a week’s break before a Grand Final.”

    Morris agreed: “There is a bit of a template, but in saying that, there are no set rules or formulas, as we showed in 2016.

    “That’s why when you win finals, you celebrate them as hard as you want, because you need to, and that’s what they have been doing this year, too.”

    A snapshot in the rooms after the demolition of Essendon — arresting a three-game losing streak to close the regular season — saw the coach enthusiastically greet every player.

    As skipper Marcus Bontempelli said this week: “It wasn’t just about going forward in the finals series … but it was ultimately our first finals win since the 2016 Grand Final.

    “We’d been bundled out the last couple of years, so those images (in the rooms) are probably a reflection of how much just that win meant to the whole group.

    “It is obviously something we are really keen to continue.”

    Next stop, the Gabba. Then hopefully Adelaide Oval.

    And maybe even Perth Stadium.

    BEVO FACTOR

    Great coaches are invariably great storytellers, lighting a spark in the minds of their players with a well placed metaphor, narrative or theme.

    Beveridge has made an art form of this not only in his seven seasons at the helm of the Western Bulldogs, but as far back as his time coaching St Bedes Mentone in the VAFA.

    As he explained last year: “I like (to have) a laugh. I do like adventure and literature. You relate stories and relate it back to people and the team at different times, you create storylines and try to internalise inspiration.

    “The new generation love adventure and they love escapism.

    “They like for you to take the pressure out of it a fraction and give them an angle that makes them feel differently about themselves and the team.”

    Two themes played a role in the Bulldogs’ triumphant 2016 success.

    The first came from a little-known children’s book, Salty Dogs, which he had reprinted with the club’s emblem and handed out to the players at a pre-season camp.

    The theme centred on “facing our fears and getting out of our comfort zones”.

    He used those same themes at three-quarter-time of the 2016 grand final.

    The last page says, “run towards the fire”, Beveridge would explain.

    The Grand Final was as hot as it was going to get and they were ready for it.

    The second was when he likened his team to a band and urged his players to “use their instruments” in a stirring address before the grand final.

    Beveridge said there was a theme “bubbling” away internally for 2021, but stressed: “My philosophy about the themes and emotive hooks is you don’t really talk about them (publicly) unless they come to fruition, if ultimately you win the whole thing.”

    It will likely only surface if the Bulldogs happen to do the seemingly impossible for a second time in five years.

    MID STRENGTH

    Liberatore sees the club’s midfield depth as their greatest weapon in the hunt for the premiership.

    “Watching from afar, they are all a bit different personality wise,” Liberatore said of the mids.

    “But there is a real chemistry (his son) Tom has with Bont (Marcus Bontempelli), (Jack) Macrae, (Adam) Treloar and (Josh) Dunkley.

    “Melbourne has got some super midfielders in (Christian) Petracca, (Clayton) Oliver and (James) Harmes. But we probably bat a little deeper. It is the same with Port Adelaide.”

    Gordon agreed: “Without being disparaging of any other teams, because there are some other great teams in there, I just think the synergistic effect of having Bont, Macrae, Liberatore, Dunkley, Treloar and (Lachie) Hunter available in the midfield is a pretty special attribute. They run so deep, which is exciting for Bulldogs fans.”

    Morris said the attention had been put on the defence and the forwards, but said both seem to be holding up well against the odds.

    Liberatore added: “I always think when you lose a key position player like Josh Bruce, it takes a bit to rejig the format, but I think they have done that now.

    “If you look at someone like Aaron Naughton, he could just go to another level really easily. You can send Tim English down there as well. Then you have got some others like Cody Weightman and Mitch Hannan who can help out as well.”

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  3. #2
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    Re: Western Bulldogs under Marcus Bontempelli push to repeat 2016 premiership

    BEYOND 2021

    Whatever happens on Saturday or for the rest of the finals, Liberatore is convinced the Bulldogs won’t die wondering.

    “It’s going to be a hard trip up to Brisbane, but in saying that, they have a few injuries and we have beaten every side above us,” he said.

    “I can see any reason why we can’t keep going.”

    Gordon said the players across the past five-and-a-bit years have helped to change the narrative around the club’s history.

    “I remember getting absolutely savaged when the Brendan McCartney and Ryan Griffen thing happened at the end of 2014, and saying to someone having a go at me that our expectation was that we should make finals for the majority of the next 10 years,” he said.

    “I’m not keeping score, but since then we have made finals in 2015 and 2016, and for the past three seasons.

    “It’s a credit to the players and the coaching staff and the club as a whole.”

    He believes the future looks bright well beyond this year.

    “We have Jamarra (Ugle-Hagan) as a first-year player who shows potential, there is the opportunity of (getting) Sam Darcy, the list is comparatively young and (president) Kylie (Watson-Wheeler) and the (off field) team are doing a great job.”

    “We are eternally optimistic and really pleased with what our club — and other clubs — are providing fans in what is a very challenging time.”

    Gordon has his seat reserved at home where he hopefully won’t need to worry about any potential anxiety attacks.

    Libba confessed that his couch will cop a “fair pounding” on Saturday night and hopefully for the rest of the month.

    Morris now watches from afar with his sons Riley (12) and Charlie (9).

    But while they are in different locations — along with the rest of the Bulldogs army around Australia — they are united in the dreams that this team can once more keep riding the wave for a month.

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