The Western Bulldogs are back at the tail-end of the premiership season and are one of the remaining eight teams in the running for the AFL premiership, but to get through the next week of the finals series, they're going to have to travel back up to Perth to take on the West Coast Eagles in a rare Thursday night game for the red, white and blue boys.
These two will meet in a final for the first time since 2006, where the Eagles comfortably accounted for the Dogs in a semi final in Perth and went on to win the premiership that year. Granted, a trip to Domain Stadium to visit the Eagles in what is sure to be a hostile environment is no easy feat at any time of the year, the Dogs haven't won at Domain since 2010, but the fact that it will be a cut-throat final raises the pressure to a whole another level.
Entering season 2016 as the runners-up to the AFL premiership, many had written off the Eagles' premiership chances after losing to Collingwood at the MCG in round 19. Playing away from Domain Stadium had been a key weakness for the Eagles throughout the year, losing key games away to Hawthorn, Geelong, Sydney and the Bulldogs, but since the loss to the Pies, the Eagles have gone on to beat GWS at Spotless Stadium, Hawthorn at home and Adelaide at the Adelaide Oval., and will be primed for another win over the Dogs at their home ground.
As for the Doggies, they have probably been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the controversial bye week after round 23, after regaining nearly half a dozen players from injury this week, and badly needed them to return as well, given they ended the home and away season on a disappointing note, going down to Fremantle by 20 points, but despite this, the Bulldogs have enjoyed another successful season in year two of the Luke Beveridge era, winning one more game than their 2015 total, and did so without the likes of Robert Murphy for most of the year, and having the likes of Jason Johannisen, Jake Stringer, Matt Suckling, Mitch Wallis, Easton Wood among others missing fair slices of game time.
The Dogs go in tonight as the underdogs of this game, but will be treating this game with an 'us against the world' mentality and will throw everything at West Coast, regardless of whether they win this game or they don't. They'd love to get through to at least next week, after they crashed out of the first week of the finals last year against Adelaide.
IN: Easton Wood, Jake Stringer, Jordan Roughead, Jack Macrae, Tom Liberatore
OUT: Koby Stevens, Fletcher Roberts, Bailey Williams, Nathan Hrovat, Will Minson (All Omitted)
B: Shane Biggs, Joel Hamling, Matthew Boyd
HB: Jason Johannisen, Dale Morris, Easton Wood
C: Lachie Hunter, Marcus Bontempelli, Liam Picken
HF: Lin Jong, Zaine Cordy, Jake Stringer
F: Tory Dickson, Tom Boyd, Caleb Daniel
FOL: Jordan Roughead, Luke Dahlhaus, Josh Dunkley
INT: Matthew Suckling, Jack Macrae, Clay Smith, Tom Liberatore
EMG: Tom Campbell, Toby McLean, Fletcher Roberts
The Dogs have made five changes to the team that lost to the lowly Dockers just under a fortnight ago, and they are five massive ins, headlined by the inclusion of Jake Stringer, who missed the final two games of the season, after he was sent back to the VFL side to gain some form heading into tonight.
Jack Macrae and Tom Liberatore are big inclusions in their own right after missing the past month of footy with respective injuries. Both went down in the round 19 loss to Geelong, with Macrae injuring a hamstring and Liberatore suffering an ankle syndesmosis injury, while Easton Wood and Jordan Roughead, both important to the Dogs' structures, missed the final game of the season with minor injuries and are back for the big game, Wood, who suffered an ankle injury in the round 22 win over Essendon, was initially feared he'd miss the remainder of the year.
Unfortunately the ones that have been forced to make way are Koby Stevens, Will Minson, Bailey Williams, Nathan Hrovat and Fletcher Roberts, Roberts in particular I thought was a bit unlucky as he played a solid game on the 2016 Coleman medallist Josh Kennedy the last time these two sides met.
West Coast Eagles
IN: Mitchell Brown
OUT: Lewis Jetta (Calf)
B: Brad Sheppard, Will Schofield, Tom Barrass
HB: Shannon Hurn, Jeremy McGovern, Sharrod Wellingham
C: Elliot Yeo, Matt Priddis, Jamie Cripps
HF: Mark LeCras, Jack Darling,Chris Masten
F: Jonathan Giles, Josh Kennedy, Josh Hill
FOL:Scott Lycett, Andrew Gaff, Luke Shuey
INT: Mitchell Brown, Dom Sheed, Sam Butler, Mark Hutchings
EMG: Jack Redden, Liam Duggan, Jackson Nelson
West Coast have made one change themselves, with Mitch Brown in for his fourth game of the season. Brown's last meeting against the Dogs came in round one last year and resulted in a ruptured ACL just 12 minutes into the opening term. Since then he has been stuck in the WAFL for the majority of the year after injuring his finger at the start of the year, but his ability to play at both ends of the ground make him a valuable asset. Lewis Jetta will miss after injuring his calf at training earlier in the week.
One notable name that won't be out there for West Coast in Saturday will be ruckman Nic Naitanui, who ruptured his ACL in the win over Hawthorn in round 22. The week before he kicked the winning goal just seconds before the final siren against the Giants, so we know that on his day he is a match-winner, and with Scott Lycett almost certain to not be at 100 percent, the Eagles' dwindling ruck stocks will be where the Dogs will be looking to exploit the Eagles tonight.
Last Time They Met – Round 11, 2016
Western Bulldogs: 12.11.83
West Coast Eagles: 11.9.75
It was one of the many close encounters that the Bulldogs have had to endure this season, as they defeated the visiting West Coast by eight points in a thrilling finish at Etihad Stadium, but it shouldn't have been so close. The Dogs were ahead by 21 points late in the game, when goals to Mark Hutchings, Josh Kennedy and Chris Masten reduced the margin to only three points, but it was Tom Liberatore who kicked the match-winning goal to sink the Eagles and gift the Doggies their eighth win of the year.
Liberatore, who kicked a career-best three goals was very good and stepped up at a very crucial moment, but it was young Marcus Bontempelli, who filled in as captain for Easton Wood after he was a late out on the day, excelled with 30 disposals and made history when he became the youngest-ever player to captain his team to a win, at only 20 years of age.
Lachie Hunter was the Doggies' leading possession getter on the ground with 38 disposals, whilst Matthew Boyd and Jack Macrae also topped the 30-plus disposal mark and were among the Doggies' best players. Jack Redpath, Tom Campbell and Jake Stringer all kicked doubles.
While for the Eagles, only five players could crack the 20-disposal barrier. Matt Priddis led the Eagles with 27 disposals and 12 tackles, whilst Luke Shuey (21 disposals and nine tackles), Chris Masten (21 disposals, one goal), Andrew Gaff (23 disposals) and Shannon Hurn (21 disposals) all battled on. Jack Darling and Elliot Yeo were West Coast's only multiple goalkickers, snagging two each.
Players To Watch
There have been many times that Stringer has come up as a player to watch this year, but this will be one game that he just simply has to perform, no other words needed to explain this. His last month of footy has been so dreadful that Luke Beveridge sent him back to the VFL in order to regain some confidence that appeared to be lost, but he'll take some solace in knowing that he kicked five goals the last time he was up in Perth against the Eagles. A big night is on the cards for Stringer if he can get going early.
West Coast Eagles
A lot of question marks have been raised of Scott Lycett's knee after he copped a knock to his knee in West Coast's win over Adelaide, and with Nic Naitanui out for the remainder of the year, they cannot afford to lose him. However if he gets through to the first bounce, how fit will he really be? Will he be able to contribute? Or will he be taking a back seat to ruckman Jonathan Giles? Big night coming up for the big guy.
I'm not surprised to see a lot of people here predict a massive blowout win for the Eagles, but I don't think that'll happen, the Bulldogs will go into this game with a 'nothing to lose' mindset given all the injuries they've been dealt with. But with that said, I can't see the Dogs winning at Domain Stadium against an in-form West Coast side.
West Coast look a much better team when they play at home, and given that their form in the last three games of the season have been as good as anyone else's, they're going to cause some problems for teams further up on the ladder, but by no means will they blow away the Dogs. I think this will be a lot more closer than what most think, the Dogs will play out of their skins in what is arguably, their biggest game of the season.
West Coast by 13 points