By Russell Bennett
It loomed as an incredibly important clash between two playing groups up to their eyeballs in the West Gippsland finals race.
But in Saturday’s game at Spencer Street between the hometown Nar Nar Goon and Bunyip, it was the Bulldogs who came out snarling – teaching their opponents a lesson in finals like intensity and pressure early.
The Goon has been battling for consistency throughout the season so far and has proven to be the WGFNC’s Jekyll and Hyde team through the first 10 rounds.
At their best, and they can match it with almost anyone. But if their intensity is off, they can drop away as fast as any side.
They entered Saturday’s game without the likes of Troy McDermott and Sam Blackwood (both with hamstring complaints), and of course Jake Smith from his heavy knock earlier in the campaign. But Bunyip was hardly at full-strength either – missing Ben Ross, Jason Fisher, Ricky Clark, and Aaron Paxton.
But some of Bunyip’s young guns who stepped up to fill the void were absolutely pivotal in their side ultimately walking off the ground with a 20-point win, 10.7 (67) to 6.11 (47).
Nar Nar Goon skipper Brendan Hermann and star on-baller Trent Armour were seemingly in everything early, but some horribly wayward shots on goal meant the side was unable to capitalise on its work further up the ground.
It wasn’t until Brent Heus (three goals) and Jason Williams (two) goaled in quick succession late for Bunyip that the deadlock was finally broken.
The likes of the unflinching Jeb McLeod and Brad Walker were proving to have a huge impact on the contest the longer the first term progressed, while the big-bodied Jye Keath and Daniel Mislicki also refused to take a backward step.
It didn’t go unnoticed at quarter-time. With his side down 3.1 to 0.6, Nar Nar Goon coach Dean Blake asked a poignant question of his group.
“Are we going to be dictated to by a team that wants it more than us?” he asked.
Of course, the Goon’s cause wasn’t helped by losing young small Mitch Virtue to a fractured jaw and damaged teeth from a collision late in the term. He left the ground in an ambulance – one of five call-outs to Spencer Street throughout the day for a variety of reasons.
As the physical arm wrestle continued in the second term, Bunyip still refused to back down at the contest.
Their pressure, either real or implied, allowed them to shut down time and space at key stages throughout the clash.
It wasn’t until more than 10 minutes into the second term that the Goon had its first goal on the board, courtesy of key forward Matt Stevens.
This wasn’t the style of clash where either side was going to significantly gap the other on the scoreboard, and when Stevens slotted his second about a minute later, the Goon was again right there with the Dogs.
Key goals to Williams (Bunyip), Shannon Stocco (Nar Nar Goon), Walker (Bunyip), and Hermann (Nar Nar Goon) ensured the margin was only a point Bunyip’s way, 5.1 (31) to 4.6 (30), at the half.
In the rooms at the break, Bunyip co-coach Aussie Jones highlighted a few significant areas for his players to improve in – namely at the coal face.
“The dominance of the stoppages is really big in this game,” he said.
“Whoever wins the stoppage seems to be clear and running free – probably them, more than us. They’re hitting the stoppage, and going quick.
“If we don’t win it, we’re going to get caught out.”
Jones urged his players to take defensive positions at the stoppages where needed, and to immediately be on the move if the ball was turned over – in an effort to prevent the Goon’s run and carry the other way in transition.
But the visitors still led, despite a number of basic skill errors creeping in throughout the first half. That served as a reminder that they still had plenty more room for improvement.
And in the opening stages of the third, that much was obvious, as they went bang, bang, bang with three quick majors to extend their lead to 19 points.
Jarrod Mills-Franklin bobbed up with a goal late in the term for the home side to reduce the margin to an even two goals with a quarter to play, but Hermann was another casualty for the Goon – forced from the field during the term with what proved to be a broken collarbone.
He, along with Armour and Jake Blackwood, was again one of the home side’s strongest performers to that point.
At three quarter-time, Jones and his Bulldogs could smell blood.
“I don’t know if we can go up a gear, but let’s find out,” he said.
“This won’t come down to kicks and handballs.
“It’ll come down to communication, character, direction, and control of the footy from our leaders.”
Nar Nar Goon’s lone goal in the last came from a set shot by Daniel Galante at about the midway point, and that was testament to the superb efforts of the Bunyip defenders.
While inspirational leader Brad Walker was predictably impactful behind the play, it was young key position defender Reid Jenkin who was undoubtedly the biggest shining light – playing one of the more complete games anyone would want to see from a key back.
While the Dogs came away with a 20-point win – less than four goals – they had the bulk of general play on their own terms.
Again, that was not only testament to their leaders, but their more unheralded younger brigade who appear to be standing taller with each game.
“What a tough, tough win hey?” Jones said to his boys in the rooms after they’d sung the song.
“We identified this was going to be an arm wrestle. What I found was that we dictated it, and we dictated the hardness on the ball.
“They’ll be bloody sore (after the game) – we hit them hard, relentlessly, all day.”
Now fifth on the ladder with six wins, the Bulldogs are proving they might just be the real deal in the logjam of teams behind Cora Lynn and Phillip Island. The uncompromising brand of footy they played on Saturday definitely is. Now, it’s about reproducing it time and again as the finals draw closer.
NAR NAR GOON
0.6 4.6 5.8 6.11 (47)
3.1 5.1 8.2 10.7 (67)
NAR NAR GOON
GOALS: M. Stevens 2, D. Galante, J. Mills-Franklin, B. Hermann, S. Stocco.
BEST: T. Armour, J. Blackwood, M. Slattery, B. Hermann, T. Noy, S. McDermott.
GOALS: B. Heus 3, J. Williams 2, D. Mislicki, D. Proud, B. Walker, H. Morgan-Morris, C. Bertoncello.
BEST: R. Jenkin, J. McLeod, B. Walker, M. O’Halloran, J. Keath, H. Morgan-Morris.