Some six months and 3,000 kilometres removed from that unforgettable night in Perth, Melbourne fans were treated to the sweetest encore imaginable.
Anyone even remotely Demons-affiliated will have relived and rewatched the 2021 grand final over the summer, the vast majority of them more than once. Some would be able to recount every play, every contest, every swing in momentum back to you from start to finish.
For a split second on Wednesday night, some of those Demons fans might have had to double-check they hadn’t accidentally hit play on their 38th rewatch, such was the similarity with this much-anticipated season opener.
Melbourne got off to a scorching start, just like in the grand final. The Bulldogs responded and took over the game with a run of goals in the second quarter, just like in the grand final.
Melbourne’s system eventually proved much too much for the Dogs to handle, just like in the grand final. And Christian Petracca was an immovable and irresistible force, just like in the grand final.
The only thing missing was the “bang, bang, bang”, the red and blue eruption that ended last year’s decider in three minutes of simply obscene football.
In its place was a suffocation. A football team tuned to perfection, so in sync with one another and so comfortable within its tactical confines, that the second-best team in the competition was rendered completely helpless.
The grand final outburst was exhilarating. This was almost terrifying.
Time and again the Bulldogs, led by the grinding Jack Macrae, the ferocious Bailey Smith and the prodigious Aaron Naughton, mustered the courage to knock at the door. But on nearly every occasion they were shut down, grabbed by the collar and hurled out the back door.
There was no reason to expect a Melbourne drop off in 2022. They haven’t lost any key personnel, have bolstered their midfield depth and have another year of development into some incredibly promising youngsters.
The only danger for the Dees was the dreaded post-premiership hangover.
After such an outpouring of emotion after the 2021 flag, there was some reason for concern that Melbourne wouldn’t be able to muster the same complete devotion to the cause — or, to put it another way, that they would suddenly find themselves freed from desire.
Early evidence suggests those fears are misguided. It was clear from the first minute that commitment and hunger are not likely to be an issue for the Demons in 2022.
So how do the Western Bulldogs bridge the gap? They gave arguably a better account of themselves here than in the grand final but struggled again to score for the most part.
There has been a clear drop off in the Bulldogs’ scoring capacity since Josh Bruce injured his knee in the middle of the 2021 season. Bruce is key as a foil for Naughton, and as yet, the Dogs have not found a suitable replacement.
Josh Schache was poor on Wednesday night. Jamarra Ugle-Hagan, the number one draft pick of 2020, is not the answer as of right now. The Dogs drafted another promising young key forward in Sam Darcy, but a foot injury means an AFL debut is more likely to come in 2023 for him.
Against teams of lesser defensive repute, an attack led by Naughton and supported by an array of small forwards and forward-pushing midfield will be more than enough. But with the Demons lurking, it won’t win them a flag.
But the good thing for the Bulldogs is that, unlike last time, there is a next week. They’ll develop and shift and change throughout the year, all with the goal of one day knocking this Melbourne team off their perch.
That’s the mission for everyone then. Melbourne remain the benchmark. They may still be getting better. And on Wednesday night, they sent a collective shudder through the rest of the AFL.
Source: AFL NEWS ABC