The Western Bulldogs have pin-pointed stopping Hawthorn’s dangerous small forwards as key to their chances of making a first AFL preliminary final since 2010.
Cyril Rioli, Paul Puopolo and Luke Breust have caused headaches for opposition sides all year, Bulldogs coach Luke Beveridge admitting the trio will require extra attention in Friday’s semi-final given Hawthorn’s talent in spreading the ball around the wide expanses of the MCG.
“They provide a significant aerial and ground threat, so we’ll need to put enough pressure on the ball and give our defenders a chance to win the ball back really quickly,” Beveridge said on Thursday.
“That’ll have a big say on the outcome, I would have thought.”
Much has been made of the contrasting paths the Hawks and Bulldogs have taken on their way to the finals.
The Dogs pride themselves on playing tough, contested football and will look to bring the same intent as they did in their elimination final win over West Coast.
Hawthorn have backed their outstanding footskills and ball movement to the point where coach Alistair Clarkson has dismissed the contested possessions metric as irrelevant.
But despite the rhetoric, Beveridge expects the Hawks to bring a hard edge to stoppages, and doesn’t think there’ll be much difference between the two sides’ skills.
“If you looked at the whole year, Hawthorn were way ahead of us, but we were better with our skills last week so I don’t think we’re poles apart there,” he said.
“Being able to defend the extremities of the ‘G is always a big challenge.
“That’ll have a say but finals are normally won at the intensity, the grunt, the appetite for the contest and the courage side of it.
“I know both sides will bring it. Hopefully it’s us that comes out on top.”
The Bulldogs’ three-point loss to the Hawks in round three – marred by an ACL injury to captain Bob Murphy – remains a sore point at Whitten Oval and Beveridge says he’s well aware of the need to match Hawthorn’s tactical nous.
“That’s one of the things Hawthorn have done unbelievably well over the journey,” he said.
“I think we’ve held up pretty well this year in close games. That’ll be our challenge – to make sure we pull the right string or the right cord if the time comes.”
Beveridge says the Dogs have pulled up well after last week’s win over West Coast, with Lin Jong (broken collarbone) expected to be the only omission.
His replacement is likely to be either forward Toby McLean or midfielder Lukas Webb, who were each held out of the VFL over the weekend.
Jong is considered an outside chance to play again in the finals if the Bulldogs make it past Hawthorn but is out of contract and likely to seek a trade to a new club.