“[St Kilda’s] pressure was pretty good,” he said.
“We didn’t plan to go in and have that kick-to-handball ratio but it happened. It was off the back of us not spreading up the ground well enough. It’s not something we train, but it crept into our game so we’ll need to make sure that we make it clear to the boys what the right patterns are there.”
How dearly the Dogs would have liked to be able to call on Hunter, consistently one of the club’s top gut runners, to help with that spread issue.
More to the point, Hunter’s position on the wing – generally a “set and forget” role for his side – had to be filled. This is where the domino effect of Hunter’s serious indiscretion is witnessed. In 2019, Hunter’s premiership teammate and contemporary Jack Macrae attended an average of 20 centre bounces per game, according to Champion Data. Macrae’s centre square brilliance earned him All-Australian selection last year.
Against the Saints, Macrae was sent to the vacant wing in the first half. He didn’t attend a single centre bounce. With Macrae – an enormous accumulator both on the inside and outside – away from his usual position, the Dogs were blitzed in the midfield, as Zak Jones and Jade Gresham, in particular, led St Kilda to a 15 plus advantage in contested possessions at half-time.
Clearly something had to be done so Macrae returned to the guts in the second, attending nine centre bounces. He was far from dominant, and the Bulldogs were still beaten in centre clearances after half-time, but the contested ball problem was neutralised.
It would be unfair though to sheet home the blame for the Dogs’ loss to Hunter’s absence. As Beveridge frankly acknowledged post-match, his side have several serious issues.
While Easton Wood and Tom Liberatore remain on their respective comeback trails from injury, one issue which is largely within Beveridge’s control is selection.
The continued absence of versatile small Toby McLean continues to raise eyebrows, both from Dogs supporters and within opposition football departments.
“Toby’s made some really strong contributions over a period of time,” Beveridge said.
“We’ve got some very similar players playing in our front half. We’ve got to work out what that mix is and the balance of it. The players who were in tonight earned their spot.”
They may have earned their spots in Beveridge’s eyes, but question marks remain over the long-term viability of forward Gowers and key defender Ryan Gardner.
The latter, picked up in last year’s mid-season rookie draft, made some costly turnovers against the Saints, after being preferred ahead of the vastly more experienced Jackson Trengove and Zaine Cordy.
“He mucked one or two up tonight, but he’s actually a pretty good kick,” Beveridge said of Gardner.
“But he’s trying to acclimatise to the intensity of the game. He had his moments tonight that he wouldn’t have been overly pleased with. You can’t end up a good AFL footballer if you don’t get opportunity, and so we’ve got to make that decision as to whether he gets that opportunity now and a long run at it, or whether we change things around.”
That last sentence from Beveridge goes to the heart of the biggest question about the Dogs. They won seven of their last nine home and away games in 2019, and Champion Data rated their 2020 list as the second-best in the AFL. That points to a team ready to contend for a premiership. Is it really the time to be chancing the arm with speculative players?
“You’re always in a state of flux and transitioning. You’ve just got to keep an open mind and stay positive, and can’t look any further than next week,” Beveridge said.
“You’re always going through change, and sometimes it’s a step backwards to go forwards.”
Asked about where the Dogs sat in the AFL’s pecking order, Beveridge noted that key talls Tim English and Aaron Naughton – despite their obvious promise – remain callow and that Josh Bruce and Alex Keath are still acclimatising to a new side. However, that didn’t seem to hurt St Kilda, whose foreign legion of off-season recruits was central to their win on Sunday night.
Like all clubs, the Dogs are also feeling the pinch of football department cuts. Midfield coach Jordan Russell and stoppages expert Joel Corey both remain stood down, with the club opting to prioritise their medical and myotherapy team in these austere times. Senior assistant Steven King is filling the midfield breach.
While acknowledging that his workload had increased because of the diminished numbers, Beveridge was loath to use the circumstance as an excuse.
However, as one senior football department figure at a rival club noted, the Dogs don’t look like an organised team at the moment.
Bottom of the ladder after two rounds, in a shortened season, they have to turn things around quickly. By the time Hunter returns, it could almost be too late.
Daniel is an Age sports reporter