Hangovers are supposed to be cruel and self-effacing – they are not supposed to be so sad.
Sadness is the Western Bulldogs right now. 2016 was the greatest one-night stand the Bulldogs ever had. 2017 is stinging daylight and an empty bedroom.
The Dogs are all alone, the Dogs are dead. They are living at the Villa Borghese. This is not a honeymoon; it is an economy class trip back to miserable earth.
It started off not so bad. 5-2 with the sneaking suspicion that they might just be building. They certainly seemed to be lurking. Now they are out in the open and paralysed while everyone takes their turn at punching them in the mouth.
They were listless against the Swans, somnambulant against a Demons team that was missing key personnel. They tried to lose an unlosable game against North Melbourne – the worst team in football right now. And then they didn’t show up against West Coast, a team that famously never shows up themselves in Victoria.
5-2 has been followed by 2-5. 7-7 and a tent set up in Nowhere is the result. There is no verve in these Dogs at the moment, no menace, no adventure, no nothing. The defensive ferocity, the tackling pressure, the feeling of irrepressible physical momentum they generated last season is gone. Something is wrong, and it has to go beyond Jason Johannisen’s desire for personal space.
The Bulldogs used to feast on fragility, now they have become delicate themselves. A team that used to play with such joy and boundless creativity – the impossibly quick handball chains, the manic forcing of turnovers, the joie de Bontempelli – now looks like a team with a set of tasks to perform.
Tonight is a reckoning. The Crows are deadly at home but also exceedingly mortal. The Hawks and Demons have shown that they can be outclassed. The Kangaroos and Geelong have shown that they can be walloped.
The Bulldogs have a month of eminently winnable fixtures after tonight. If they lose in Adelaide, their season will not be over. But seasons are not saved by beating Carlton, or the Gold Coast at Cazaly’s Stadium. They are saved with gutsy performances as big underdogs on the road in a hostile environment, key players missing, rain likely to be pouring down.
The stage is set. Like Keanu Reeves said in the 2001 not-Oscar nominated film Hardball, ‘life is about showing up’. The Bulldogs don’t need to win tonight, but they do need to show up. Tonight, we find out if the disease of 2017 (a strain of ‘2009’) is terminal for the Dogs, or whether they’re ready and able to start living again.