The Fremantle Dockers came back from the brink of AFL oblivion to keep their AFL finals campaign alive on Saturday night, but fingers are pointing in all different directions at the Western Bulldogs.
After leading by as many as 41 points in the first half and holding the Dockers goalless in the first quarter in Perth, the Bulldogs let their season slip away in devastating fashion.
'ACTING LIKE LOSERS': Collingwood coach's furious spray after gutting finals loss
Bulldogs coach Luke Beveridge described Fremantle's second half comeback as 'death by a thousand cuts', as the Dockers slowly worked their way back into the contest.
"As much as our guys hung in there, preserved through a period … ultimately it’s significant disappointment. It’s an opportunity missed," Beveridge said.
"We got it incorrect for large periods of the second half and that’s as blunt as I can be."
Multiple instances of poor discipline also burned the Bulldogs, with two key moments in the final quarter ultimately proving decisive.
Bulldogs defender Ed Richards was caught holding the ball by Michael Frederick 20m out from the Dockers goal to reduce the margin, before the visitors got distracted soon afterwards by a boundary line scuffle involving Fremantle's Lachie Schultz and the Bulldogs' Josh Dunkley.
As the likes of Adam Treloar and other Bulldogs players came in to support their teammate, Beveridge could be seen screaming at his players to refocus on the contest.
Looking to defuse the scuffle quickly, the umpires threw the ball in as the Dockers had a significant man advantage, quickly pushing the ball forward and scoring again, while a costly 50m penalty earlier in the fourth quarter had already cost the Dogs a goal to Griffin Logue.
“They were significant moments of the game,” Beveridge said.
“We’ve been a pretty disciplined side over the journey … but that wanting to go and fly the flag over the boundary in that situation – there was no doubt the ball was going to get thrown in so it was just a brain fade by all the guys who were in there.”
Bulldogs and AFL fans in general simply couldn't believe what they had witnessed.
— Chris Robinson (@CJKRobinson) September 3, 2022
Well that was a choke worthy of Collingwood. #AFLFreoDogs
— James Newburrie is waiting for Rocksmith+ (@DifficultNerd) September 3, 2022
This game was indicative of the Bulldogs entire season. Brilliant in small doses while threatening to fulfil the expectations of many who believed in the talent on the list but in the end fell short of achieving a level consistently needed to be a good team. #AFLFreoDogs
— Cameron Luke (@camluke) September 3, 2022
— Paul Johnson (@pjohnson_sports) September 3, 2022
— Jude Bolton (@Jude_Bolton) September 3, 2022
— Alex Fair (@AJFair85) September 3, 2022
Western Bulldogs rue blown lead as Fremantle move on in AFL Finals
Fremantle booted 11 of the final 13 goals in the 11.7 (73) to 8.12 (60) victory at Optus Stadium.
Beveridge's men will be left to rue a horrendous fade-out which had shades of their last visit to the west during September - their grand final defeat to Melbourne last year.
In the premiership decider in Perth, the Dogs had led by 19 points after halftime before the Demons turned the game on its head with 16 of the last 17 goals.
The Dogs dominated proceedings early on Saturday night, asserting themselves over a Fremantle side which lacked significant finals experience and appeared overawed by the occasion.
Marcus Bontempelli, superb for the Dogs in their grand-final defeat, was again brilliant on the big stage, booting two first-quarter goals while also influencing the midfield battle.
Bailey Smith and Adam Treloar also made hot starts with the Bulldogs comfortably leading contested possessions, inside-50s and tackles at the first change.
When Josh Dunkley slotted the first goal of the second term to extend the visitors' lead to 41 points, the Dockers looked done for.
But spurred on by a sellout crowd, Fremantle responded with Michael Walters' drought-breaking major kickstarting a stunning comeback.
A disappointed Beveridge said his side had been "chipping away at consistency" with their decision-making and ball use.
"We were up by 40, it's a significant swing and it's bloody disappointing," he said.
Beveridge, who denied his players had lost their nerve, cautioned against comparing Saturday's loss to their grand final defeat.
But he conceded it was difficult to know whether the "trauma" of that loss had lingered over the course of the season.
"It's difficult to understand any sort of magnitude on that, whether it did or whether it didn't," he said.
"We felt at different stages, with one or two of the significant wins, that we were definitely moving beyond that.
"But all of us as individuals, when we think about what we're capable of, we'd self reflect and say, 'I think I can be more consistent'.
"That's what we have to strive for next year."
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