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Jamarra Ugle-Hagan wasn’t the best player on the court at Marvel Stadium. He probably wasn’t in the top 20.
But in a stop-start career that has so far sparked more doubt than silence, the Bulldogs’ number one draft picks have shown something against Hawthorn that has been missing so far. Presence.
He was no longer being shaken off the ball by a taller, stronger defender. His running and kicking jump were no longer critical aspects for a striker with his light frame, negated with the simplest of blocks. And – and this is important – his leads were no longer routinely ignored by his teammates on the pitch.
Not a player on the court had more disputed ratings than Ugle Hagan’s four – not even the exceptional Mitch Lewis on the other end of the court. Hit a little straighter, normally his strength, and a serious player will start to emerge.
Ugle-Hagan’s emergence as the game progressed mirrored that of the Dogs – torn early by the Hawks in all facets of the game, things accelerated midway through the second quarter. It was as if, after ten minutes of play and five goals down, the Bulldogs were finally waking up.
The results were immediate. After being butchered down the middle and torn to shreds on the half-back’s counter-attack, things couldn’t have been more different afterwards. Going 44-29 in contested possessions at the first break, the Dogs finished 150-133 ahead. 41-30 clearances at the final whistle also told a story; and, of course, you can’t bounce if you don’t have the foot.
Equally exceptional as Jack Viney for Melbourne on Thursday night was Tom Liberatore. Like Viney, he is surrounded by more vaunted, highly decorated, and highly paid stars of the game, whom he frequently outmatches with fierce determination, relentless attack on the ball, and old-school footy smarts.
If Marcus Bontempelli is a Rolls Royce, Tom Liberatore is super unleaded. The Rolls Royce will get you places, but not without something to start the engine. And I’ve never seen a Rolls Royce used in a Molotov cocktail either.
Liberatore’s 11 clearances and 16 possessions were comfortably the most of the night, while 439 yards gained is also a remarkable effort for a player who does his best with clean, tight hand passes. A goal in the final minutes to officially seal the result was a fitting reward for the man who strapped the Bulldogs to his shoulders in the second term and got them back in the game.
Liberatore in miniature is Rhylee West; he’s really starting to look like his famous dad Scott was right when he took to Facebook criticizing Luke Beveridge for not giving his boy a chance.
Short of a huge goal sack – and with 3.3 he could have had it if not for a few wayward kicks – you’ll be hard pressed to see a better game in the ever-demanding small pressure forward role. Proof of that is Cody Weightman, who after five goals in one half last week only managed one possession this time around as Blake Hardwick refused to give him a thumbs up.
West may never be the possession-winning machine his dad was, but after 18 games he’s doing a lot of things that make up for it. Above his head, his hands are sticky; in the general game, his decisions are most often fair and his performance becomes clearer from week to week; and inside the attack 50 he has a real attacking craft that puts some of his teammates to shame.
He tackles like a demon too. And you don’t get stats for things like this – a smart shot into space for Josh Schache to slam a goal with the game still up for grabs. You will see many players of all ages taking possession of it, getting tackled and causing a stoppage.
The Hawks have done well, and since they’ve been there all year, when they’re at the top, it can be extremely damaging. Their halfbacks have a license to run and be creative, with Changkuoth Jiath electric early on and Jack Scrimshaw scoring all night in surely the best game of his already fine young career. Luke Breust is as smart as ever when the ball hits the ground, and he’s got a ready-made protege in Dylan Moore; and Lewis is just as impressive as Aaron Naughton and Max King for about a fifth of the print space.
Ultimately, however, their problems lie in midfield, as they have done all year. Tom Mitchell’s phasing out may reap long-term rewards as Jai Newcome, James Worpel and Conor Nash get a chance to claim center stage, but when Ned Reeves’ brilliant first-quarter work dried up , their ability to generate any ball of their own.
Seven goals in the final quarter added some respectability to the scoreboard, with their run and run through center impressive again as the Dogs stalled late. But good teams don’t concede 13 goals in a row.
As for the Dogs, their last eight weeks have resurrected a seriously shaky start, and since Friday night, they find themselves in the eight. The hard work starts now, though: there may be no worse team in the game to face with a leaky defense than Brisbane next week.
But if Libba puts on more games like tonight, West continues to score at the highest level, Naughton continues to be Naughton and Ugle-Hagan can maintain his impact, so maybe the Dogs’ nightmare draw won’t. will not be their death. after all.