x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Hope rises in the shape of a Bulldog

For years the experts have been saying the Western Bulldogs will never win a Grand Final without a power forward. This year they have one.

There has been a vile irritation deep in the stomach for the past month; the kind of alien discomfort that, if you could reach it, you would scratch it very hard to see if it helped. After days of introspection, the malady has been isolated and diagnosed. It is hope. Hope, not the almost pathetic, acute optimism with which a lifelong supporter of non-performing teams enters each AFL season.

The source of this particular bacterium is a man who was last year referred to in these pages as a "goose" as he was being booted out of the Sydney Swans. For years the experts, both genuine and armchair, have been saying the Western Bulldogs will never win a Grand Final without a power forward. This year, we have one. Rodney Eade, the Bulldogs coach, has convinced big, bad, bustling Barry Hall to give up all thoughts of fitting progression on to the canvas and become a Son of the West.

The early signs show Rocket may have been wise not to listen to this supporter. In as much as the pre-season NBA Cup knock-out competition can be a barometer of a team's performance in the big boys' league, Hall's imposing body fits snugly into the Doggies' forward set-up. His seven goals in the Grand Final against the Saints two weekends ago was crucial to the Bulldogs buying their first silver-polishing rag in 40 years after they beat last year's regular season Grand Finalist and minor premier St Kilda by 40 points.

Hall provides a long-needed, so far reliable target for the hard-working centre list of Adam Cooney, Matty Boyd, Daniel Cross, Daniel "Guido" Giansiracusa and whoever else enters the rotation. A big, talented bloke like Baz also demands at least two defenders to throw his considerable weight at, providing some relief for his colleagues at the pointy end. The wickedly clever Bob Murphy, Jason Akermanis, Shaun Higgins, Mitch Hahn and the captain Brad Johnson - who will play game number 350 whenever he laces up for his first match this year - should revel in the extra attention given to their big new mate.

Up the other end, the bulk and long-trumpeted ability of a surprisingly uninjured Tom Williams will allow the creative Dale Morris, Ryan Griffin, Ryan Hargraves, Lindsay Gilbee and Jarrod Harbrow to run off forwards closer to their size, while the All Australian full-back Brian Harris looks after the big guns. The Melbourne media have jumped on the Bulldogs bandwagon for season 2010 flag, as have the more romantic followers of other clubs.

The parched Dogs have the longest premiership drought in the league, not having carried the cup since 1954 and were deprived a spot in the past two Grand Finals after being knocked out - by Geelong both times - in the preliminary. (Fremantle, who entered the league in 1995, are the only team in the league without a cup - and they won't have to move furniture to fit one in for a while yet.) All that lack of success, it becomes a habit for a supporter.

There is some comfort in knowing you can fondly review the season's highlights knowing the stress will be over before that One Day in September. You can just kick back and enjoy the spectacle. This year, according to the pundits and Rocket's vow that anything less than a spot in the Grand Final is unacceptable, that pressure on supporters looks like stretching on for a lot longer. It's all a little bit bewildering, really.

@Email:pstafford@thenational.ae