When I walked through the gates of Etihad Stadium at the start of the year, the last thing I could've imagined was the Bulldogs making the grand final for the first time since 1961.
But they did it, these young pups have made it, and now that day is almost upon us.
This grand final looks set to be a beauty. The Western Bulldogs are searching for their first premiership in 62 years. Yes their last premiership, their only premiership in VFL/AFL history was back in 1954, when the Dogs trounced Melbourne by 51 points.
This year's grand final sees the 'Sons of the West' take on a Sydney team that will be in it's fourth grand final since 2005 and searching for what could be their third premiership in a dozen years. It was only two years ago that the Swans were in the grand final, only to get handed an absolute smashing from the Hawks, and against a Bulldogs team with no grand final experience whatsoever, will see this as a perfect opportunity to redeem themselves.
Ironically, it was also two years ago that saw the Doggies on their knees. They finished 14th, had their captain walk out on them, and their coach sacked. To say that this club was a Football atrocity was an understatement, but then came the employment of Luke Beveridge as senior coach, and this group of young Bulldogs grew significantly, taking them from 14th in 2014, to an elimination final defeat in 2015.
Despite feeling the sting and heartbreak of that loss to Crows last year, the Dogs only got stronger, even with all the injuries to the likes of Robert Murphy, Mitch Wallis, and guys like Jason Johannisen, Jack Macrae and Tom Liberatore all of whom have missed portions of the year. Finishing seventh this season, nobody expected them to get through the first week of the finals series, let alone the grand final.
How Both Sides Made It
After finishing first in the home and away season, the Swans faced their cross-town rivals in Greater Western Sydney at ANZ Stadium in what was the biggest instalment in their rivalry to date. Many expected the Swans' finals experience to get over a Giants side that had been one of the competitions biggest improvers this year, but after an even first half, the Giants piled on seven goals to two in second half to run out six-goal winners putting the Giants into their first preliminary final and the Swans fighting for survival.
But the Swans rebounded from the loss the following week in the semi-final, accounting for Adelaide by six goals in a match that was dominated from the Swans from the outset. A seven-goal first term by Sydney helped set up the win, and set up a date with Geelong for a spot in the grand final.
Many had expected this game to go down to the wire, given that Geelong lost to the Swans in their one and only meeting this year, but unfortunately for the Cats, this match was over by half time, as the Swans flexed their muscles, kicking seven goals to nil in the opening term – en route to kicking 11 of the first 12 goals of the match, to enter half time 49-point leaders. The Swans could go into cruise control from there, defeating Geelong by 37 points by the final siren.
The Dogs had a disappointing finish to the home and away season after failing to put away the lowly Fremantle on their home turf in the final game of the home and away season, finishing the year in seventh and resigned to a date with the West Coast Eagles in an elimination final match up. The week off was what the Dogs exactly needed as they regained a few of their more important players (Liberatore, Macrae and Easton Wood) from injury, but even with the week off, not many experts liked their chances as they headed West for the second straight game.
But against all odds, the Dogs blew the Eagles apart with a strong, four-quarter effort, defeating them to the tune of 47 points, setting up a semi-final date with the reigning three-time champions in Hawthorn. Nearly 90,000 in attendance witnessed a beauty between the old champs and the bright up-and-comers.
After a tight first half, the Bulldogs provided a third quarter flurry (six goals to one) to put the Hawks on the ropes at three-quarter time and three goals to open the fourth quarter proved to be the knockout blow, despite Hawthorn kicking some respectability back into the scoreboard, they left it too little, too late as the Bulldogs went through to their first preliminary final since 2010.
But they were up against the Greater Western Sydney Giants up on their home deck of Spotless Stadium, but with nearly 16,000 Bulldogs supporters travelling up to the game, it almost felt like a home game. This game was without a shadow of doubt, the game of 2016, and will surely be in discussions of being the greatest game of all time. Both sides led by as much as two goals in what was a physical, yet free-flowing game at times, with both teams showcasing their skills, commitment and physicality.
The Dogs led for virtually most of the first half, before the Giants began to get on top of the Dogs in the third quarter, eventually taking a one-point lead at three-quarter time. The Giants burst out of the blocks with two quick goals in the fourth quarter to take a 14-point lead early and looked set to get away with it, but the Dogs weren't to be denied, as they kicked the next three goals to take a seven-point lead with plenty of time to be played. A goal from Jonathan Patton got the margin back to a point, before Jack Macrae kicked what was later proven to be the deciding goal to get the Dogs into their first Grand Final in 55 years. The Dogs held on in the final minutes to clinch an epic win.
B: Jason Johannisen, Joel Hamling, Matthew Boyd
HB: Shane Biggs, Dale Morris, Easton Wood
C: Lachie Hunter, Marcus Bontempelli, Liam Picken
HF: Jack Macrae, Zaine Cordy, Jake Stringer
F: Tory Dickson, Tom Boyd, Clay Smith
FOL: Jordan Roughead, Luke Dahlhaus, Tom Liberatore
INT: Toby McLean, Fletcher Roberts, Josh Dunkley, Caleb Daniel
EMG: Matthew Suckling, Tom Campbell, Lin Jong
The Western Bulldogs go into the Grand Final with an unchanged line-up from the side that defeated Greater Western Sydney last Saturday, opting to leave out Lin Jong, who starred for Footscray's premiership team last Sunday after breaking his collarbone just weeks earlier and the only premiership player on the Bulldogs' roster in Matt Suckling, who missed last week's win with an ongoing achilles complaint, both men named as emergencies, and both equally stiff to miss out on selection.
IN: Callum Mills, Jarrad McVeigh
OUT: Harry Marsh (Omitted), Aliir Aliir (Knee)
B: Jake Lloyd, Heath Grundy, Nick Smith
HB: Callum Mills, Jeremy Laidler, Dane Rampe
C: Kieran Jack, Josh Kennedy, Jarrad McVeigh
HF: Tom Mitchell, Lance Franklin, Luke Parker
F: Tom Papley, Kurt Tippett, Ben McGlynn
FOL: Sam Naismith, Dan Hannebery, Isaac Heeney
INT: Gary Rohan, Zak Jones, George Hewett, Xavier Richards
EMG: Harry Cunningham, Toby Nankervis, Harry Marsh
Sydney have made two massive changes to their team that defeated Geelong last Friday night, naming veteran Jarrad McVeigh and AFL's Rising Star winner Callum Mills, with coach John Longmire rolling the dice on both men, after McVeigh missed last week's win with a calf injury, and Mills missing the last two weeks with a hamstring injury. Both men play crucial parts in this team and Swans fans will be hopeful that they don't come in underdone.
Harry Marsh is the unlucky one to be dropped from this team, whilst Aliir Aliir will miss after injuring his knee last week, which to me, is a real shame given that Aliir has been one of Sydney's many great finds this year. Taken with the 44th overall pick in the 2013 AFL draft, the Kenyan-born player made his debut this year, playing 13 games for the Swans and has progressively improved each week.
Last Time They Met – Round 15, 2016
Western Bulldogs: 13.5.83
Sydney Swans: 11.13.79
The Dogs travelled to the SCG over a year after their stunning win over the Swans in the rain at the early stages of the 2015 season. However it was the Swans who started this contest on the upper hand, taking a nine-point lead into quarter time, when it could've been more, the Bulldogs returned fire, taking the lead early in the second quarter, before the Swans regained the lead in the midway point of the second quarter to take a 10-point lead at half time.
But the Bulldogs fired up in the third term, piling on six goals to two to take a 13-point lead into the last change, and led by Lance Franklin, it looked like the Swans would pinch this win in what was looking like another enthralling contest between the two teams. However it would be Jason Johannisen, who had just come back into the team after a two-month lay-off from a serious hamstring injury, who kicked a massive clutch goal with just seconds left on the clock that would stun everyone in the Sydney Cricket Ground – The Dogs ran away from the SCG with their second win at the venue in as many years in a thriller.
Johannisen had 20 disposals along with his match-winning goal to mark his return in fine style, but the best players for the Dogs were Lachie Hunter (31 disposals, eight marks, one goal), Marcus Bontempelli (29 disposals, eight tackles, six marks, one goal), Matthew Boyd (32 disposals, seven marks, six tackles) and Liam Picken (28 disposals, seven marks and five tackles).
Whilst for the Swans, it was Lance Franklin's five goals that nearly got them over the line in this match, but the work from Luke Parker (34 disposals, 10 tackles, three goals) couldn't be overlooked , he was huge in this game. Dan Hannebery (33 disposals, seven tackles, six marks), Josh Kennedy (34 disposals, five tackles) and Jarrad McVeigh (23 disposals, five tackles) were also amongst Sydney's best players.
Players To Watch
What a story it would be for this young man. Nearly 12 months ago, Sydney overlooked this father-son prospect as the Bulldogs bid their second round pick on the son of Sydney star Andrew Dunkley and succeeded in getting him. Dunkley's had a season to remember played 16 of a possible 25 games in 2016 and has had an outstanding past month, averaging 20 disposals and eight tackles a game. A win against his father's old side in the Grand Final would cap off a stunning debut season.
It's hard to argue that Clay Smith has been one of the Bulldogs' best players throughout this entire Finals Series. He was influential against the Hawks in the second term, and last week he had the game of his life with 26 disposals, eight tackles and four goals in a superstar effort, this comes after Smith revealed to channel seven after the GWS win that he lost his best mate earlier in the week. He is my dark horse for the Norm Smith medal on Saturday.
The Dogs allowed Franklin a lot of room in their previous meeting and finished with five goals. A repeat performance on Saturday could spell total heartbreak for Bulldog players and supporters alike. He'll be Sydney's go-to forward no doubt, could Joel Hamling, who's been perhaps the Doggies' best defender this series, go to him and limit him early?
Luke Parker is probably the one Sydney midfielder that the Bulldogs would want to stop from running amok on Saturday. Parker had a ball the last time these two sides met, with 34 disposals and three goals, which could've been more if he had his kicking boots on, but still, along with Franklin, nearly carried the Swans over the line against the Doggies.
I heard someone say that second-year player Isaac Heeney was tailor-made for finals football, well if you average 25 disposals throughout this years finals series, it's pretty obvious that the statement is true. Heeney has had an up-and-down 2016, but has come on strong in right time of the year and will be one that the Bulldogs will have to keep an eye out on. It should be pointed out that he only had four touches of the leather pill the last time they met.
Whilst most experts will tip against the Bulldogs, I don't see any reason why the Bulldogs can't win this. They've made it this far, and the Swans have gone through as many brutal games as the Dogs to get to this final stage. If you thought the Giants/Bulldogs game was something to behold, then I think we might be in for another thrilling chapter between the Bulldogs and the Swans.
The one thing that stands out in this Western Bulldogs team, is the belief, they've believed in themselves all throughout the finals series and are one win away from breaking one of the longest premiership droughts in the history of the VFL/AFL.
Western Bulldogs By 3 Points
Norm Smith Medal: Clay Smith
Photos Obtained by Getty Images