Liam Mackie sends the Bullants into attack during Sunday’s loss. Photo: Nathan McNeill (NWM Sports).
Match Report by Daniel Kelly.
The Northern Bullants plucky start to the season was punctured by a heavy defeat to an outstanding Werribee Tigers outfit at Preston City Oval, 3.3 (23) to 27.21 (183).
While the recent history of the Bullants is one of re-birth and against the odds survival, these stories rarely follow a continuously ascending trajectory. Sometimes it is to be expected that there will be setbacks and corrections along the journey.
Although the Bullants’ return season so far has been a series of respectable losses, where they were rarely outgunned for extended periods against league leading opposition, the match against the Tigers was one where moral victories were hard to find.
Not that Bullants coach Josh Fraser was in the mood to be philosophical about the display.
“Today was an embarrassing performance by both coaches and players,” he said after the match.
“We just got completely outplayed in all facets of the game”.
Fraser was especially disappointed with elements which had kept them in games recently, particularly in forcing contests and generally having high intensity.
“We really didn’t put up any resistance there. Credit to Werribee, they set the tone and were able to play the game on their terms, and after half way through the first quarter we were just trying to plug holes.”
Indeed, the Bullants were jumped early as Werribee dominated play from the outset. In a first quarter display as perfect as the weather, the Tigers moved the ball with ease in a relentless display of attacking football.
The Tigers’ transition game was almost faultless as they, seemingly at will, were able to choose their route inside their attacking 50 on their way to a 10.7 (67) score, whilst the Bullants 1.1 (7) total was reflective of the Ants’ influence on the game.
— Northern Bullants FC (@NBullantsFC) May 23, 2021
The Bullants struggled to move the ball past the wing and, often, the only controlled possession they had during the Tigers relentless attack was from a kick in after a behind.
Wylie Buzza, for Werribee, was on his way to a dominant performance in possession, in the ruck, and – by kicking four goals for the match – on the scoreboard. But the Tigers were not short of contributors as they kicked seven goals straight before registering a behind.
Finbar O’Dwyer’s goal was the only sign of resistance from the Bullants for the term.
To make matters worse, Ants talisman Tom Wilson left the game permanently after suffering a broken nose late in the quarter. Liam Mackie and the impressive Will Mitchell would eventually follow him out of the game in later quarters, and Daniel Hughes was in obvious discomfort, meaning the repercussions from the match will linger into the coming week.
Coach Josh Fraser’s message at quarter time was to slow the Werribee run and to stay true to their defensive responsibilities by getting closer to their opposite numbers. By forcing more contests, Fraser argued, then the possession gap would be more evenly balanced.
On the attacking side, Fraser wanted his men to increase their probability of converting their inside 50 entries by delivering the ball to the hotspot, and dwelling less on finding the perfect pass.
The second quarter brought respectability for the Bullants early on as Paul Ahern and Glenn Strachan went to work in the midfield.
Jack Boyd became a presence in the forward line, although he could only convert one of his three set shot efforts.
The Bullants task was made much harder though, when Liam Mackie left the field with a wrist injury, with Fraser needing to not only cover Mackie’s (and Wilson’s) workrate, but to do it with a short interchange bench.
A familiar pattern returned later in the quarter, as Werribee’s sleek transition, from back to front, gave little cover for the Bullants backline. The Tigers took full advantage adding four goals for the quarter, whilst the home side could only add one meaning the Preston outfit trailed 2.4 (16) to 14.10 (94) at half time.
During the main break, Fraser focused on simplifying his message and the game plan.
‘We made some positional changes, we tried to play a little bit straighter and not open the ground up as much,’ he said.
‘We tried to give them some confidence to move the ball and score. We challenged the way we defended; we didn’t think we were defending across the ground that well from our forward line right through to our midfield and defenders.’
The half time break brought no respite for the Bullants though as the Tigers piled on five goals whilst the Bullants could only muster one behind. Shaun Mannagh and Ryan Kemp, for the visitors, joined Buzza in hurting the Bullants on the scoreboard on their way to five and four goals for the day respectively.
Fraser was considering all options at this stage, as was evident by defensive stalwart Doug Lawrence bringing his usual energy to the full forward goal square, as opposed to being the last line of defence.
As the sides turned for home at the end of the third quarter, the Bullants had only been able to add a behind, totaling 2.5 (17), still in the shadow of the Tigers’ 19.14 (124).
And the Bullants were also losing in the luck category with debutant Will Mitchell, on his way to an impressive outing with 17 disposals by that stage, suffered a finger injury, and joined Wilson and Mackie as valuable ball winners reduced to spectators for the rest of the game.
Before the final quarter commenced, Fraser asked for his team to be able to look each other in the eye at the end of the day, knowing they had given their all.
By this stage, though, the momentum was almost irrepressible and the Tigers peppered the Bullants goal, finishing strongly with eight goals in the final term punctuated only by Jean-Luc Velissaris’s smart finish.
The final siren brought with it some relief, although it made for difficult reading – the Bullants 3.5 (23) falling to the Tigers 27.21 (183).
— Nathan William Media (@nwmsports1) May 23, 2021
Glenn Strachan was amongst the highest possession winners on the ground, and the Bullants would have been less competitive without his drive and energy. Strachan would go on to record his best performance of the season, totaling 31 possessions.
Despite the impressive performance from Buzza, Fraser made note of Ben Silvagni’s performance too.
‘His game was pretty admirable – for the amount of ball going inside our defensive 50 and the way he stood up,’ he said.
‘Jack Boyd, in our front half, the way he was jumping at the footy and competing, was a really positive sign. And Tim Jones too – he always gives us everything and is very compliant.’
Matthew King was also noteworthy, taking a team high 10 marks and distributing the ball evenly around the ground. And Billy Murphy was his usual busy self, winning possession in difficult situations, laying tackles and willing the team forward.
After the match, Fraser and his coaching staff were already dissecting the reasons behind the heavy defeat.
“We wanted to walk away understanding that we can’t accept that result,’ he said. ‘You can lose games of footy, but you can’t lose games of footy that way.”
Fraser does acknowledge where his team is though, compared to a Werribee side which is well established in the league.
“It’s a steep learning curve for these boys, because they are a relatively young group, and don’t have a lot of experience at this level, but we also have to grow up and mature as quickly as possible.”
There is an opportunity to come together as a team further with a trip to south east Queensland and Southport.
“They’re a very good side, particularly up there. They’ve got a lot of mature bodies, some ex-AFL talent, and we’re going to have our work cut out for us.” Fraser said. “But we really just need a response on some of the key indicators of the game.”
Whilst the Bullants haven’t registered a win yet this season, there is a valid argument that some of the final scores did not reflect the flow of play.
That was not the case in this encounter, but progress is rarely linear and Fraser, and his coaching team, will use this result to focus the mind on what is required to be competitive in this league.
As the old saying goes, ‘Sometimes you win; sometimes you learn’.