Round 4 - April 14, 2017. History had been made at the Etihad Stadium as for the first time since the league was introduced in 1897, the AFL had held it's first-ever contest for premiership points on Good Friday.
The two participating teams, North Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs had put on a thrilling show all game long, with North Melbourne leading by as much as 29 points early in the third quarter, before the Dogs dug their way back into the contest and from the 22nd minute of the third quarter, the margin was never greater than double-digits. A last-gasp behind from Lindsay Thomas gave the Dogs a thrilling three-point victory in front of a blockbuster crowd of nearly 43,000 spectators.
The skills might have been a tad scratchy at times, but the game was as epic as it should be for a game held on a public holiday. It had controversy (The third-man up rule at three-quarter time), it had a heart-stopping finish and it had exciting moments all throughout the game. So what is puzzling me and to a lesser extent - frustrating me - is this:
Why is it that the Western Bulldogs - premiers just over 12 months ago, get denied another Good Friday game by the AFL for the 2018 Season?
Word broke through last week that the Bulldogs were set to be denied of another Good Friday contest with North Melbourne last week and that was made official on Tuesday, when the AFL fixture was released, with St. Kilda taking the place of the Bulldogs for next year's Good Friday fixture, which is to be held in round two.
Despite the fact that the Western Bulldogs went from premiership winners to a side that missed the finals altogether this season - finishing 10th, I don't see how replacing them with a side that finished 11th is going to make things any better. Not surprisingly, the Western Bulldogs have demanded a please explain from the AFL about the Doggies' exclusion from the Good Friday fixture - something that the club has worked on getting for years.
"The board will seek a meeting with the AFL commissioners to understand whether there was any shortcoming in the Bulldogs' 2017 support for or participation in the game, or any principle or competitive balance or fixturing, which provides an explanation for the AFL's decision." Quoted Western Bulldogs president Peter Gordon, who was very disappointed about the AFL's decision and he had every right to be.
The Western Bulldogs and North Melbourne are perhaps the only two Victorian sides left in the competition that do not have a marquee game, where as every other Victorian club has, so to take this away from the Western Bulldogs will no doubt face huge backlash from the red, white and blue faithful.
Richmond and Carlton have the Thursday night season opener, Hawthorn and Geelong have Easter Monday footy, Melbourne and Richmond have the Anzac Day-eve blockbuster, whilst Essendon and Collingwood have the Anzac Day game and Melbourne and Collingwood have the Queen's Birthday game.
St. Kilda don't have matches as big as these, they still have the 'Pride' game with Sydney, 'Maddie's Match' with Richmond and the 'Blue Ribbon' cup game with Hawthorn. They may not be public holiday games, but still, all three of these games all go for such great causes and get a lot of recognition, but I am yet to understand how St. Kilda still gets the Good Friday game over the Bulldogs, especially since the Dogs handled them to the tune of 40 points in their one and only contest this year.
AFL fixture boss Travis Auld had this to say about the Good Friday game:
"We made it clear that we wouldn't lock in two teams and we've been true to our word... The Bulldogs did as well (As North Melbourne), but they've got a lot of other things in their fixture which made it difficult to get them back on Good Friday. So it's a balance."
So his definition of balance is to deny the Bulldogs a marquee game? One that this side has been craving for years and once they get that opportunity, make it a game that will be remembered for years to come and then take it away and give it to a team that hasn't tasted finals footy in years because the Dogs weren't good enough and were awarded a very good draw for 2018?
Spare me the details Travis.
This is why the Western Bulldogs and North Melbourne deserve the Good Friday game over anyone else. Permanently.
I have been to the past five contests between the Western Bulldogs and North Melbourne and each contest delivered a really thrilling game of footy. Forget about the skills for a brief moment and forget what positions they sat on the ladder, these five games brought me to the edge of my seat every time. Have a look at these numbers the last five times these sides met:
Round 20, 2015 - 37,299 at Etihad Stadium - Western Bulldogs by 23
Round 6, 2016 - 47,622 at Etihad Stadium - North Melbourne by 16
Round 20, 2016 - 30,740 at Etihad Stadium - Western Bulldogs by 14
Round 4, 2017 (Good Friday) - 42,814 at Etihad Stadium - Western Bulldogs by 3
Round 14, 2017 - 28,263 at Etihad Stadium - Western Bulldogs by 1
The average crowds for those five games were 37,347 and the average winning margin was less than two goals, but yet the AFL are not satisfied with giving these two teams the marquee game that they want and deserve. Now Let's look at the last five times North and St. Kilda played at Etihad Stadium.
Round 10, 2013 - 25,658 at Etihad Stadium - North Melbourne by 68
Round 6, 2016 - 27,254 at Etihad Stadium - North Melbourne by 7
Round 19, 2016 - 44,287 at Etihad Stadium - North Melbourne by 23
Round 13, 2017 - 26,107 at Etihad Stadium - St. Kilda by 17
Round 22, 2017 - 29,126 at Etihad Stadium - St. Kilda by 49
The majority of these games were already decided by three-quarter time, with the average winning margin of 33 points, with the average crowds of these two teams in comparison to the Bulldogs and North Melbourne a tad smaller, averaging a crowd of 30,486. The 26,107 that attended the game between these two in round 13 this year, was one of the smallest crowds attracted at Etihad for a Friday night game. On top of that, this game was riddled with more errors than I could possibly count, and by three-quarter time I was nearly asleep on the couch.
Yet somehow they want these two sides to battle out on Good Friday over a team that had won a premiership just over a year ago. Given that North are further away from both the Dogs and the Saints, it's easy to go and say 'North don't deserve a Good Friday game'. But the truth is, North Melbourne have lobbied for a Good Friday game for many years and to have that taken away from them because of poor performances would be just as great an injustice.
The Western Bulldogs are a team that could very well be back in the frame for Finals in 2018, it's not me saying St. Kilda aren't a chance, because they are a good side but that is when they want to be, and trust me when I say this is an unbias opinion, I strongly feel that the Dogs are a better chance to play finals than the Saints are, but it's not by a lot.
AFL's chief executive Gillon McLachlan claims that it is only fair to give other teams a crack at this chance to play on a public holiday and it may be a few years yet until the AFL settle on two teams to play on Good Friday, but why settle on just one match? One rival football code - the NRL had three games on Good Friday this year, so why not involve a fourth club to join this trio of clubs for a marquee, public holiday game? I have no doubt the numbers will flow in.
But until that day comes, I will continue to express my anguish and disappointment that my Western Bulldogs won't get the Good Friday game it deserves next year. However, I will still eagerly anticipate as to whether or not St. Kilda or North Melbourne can back up the show that the Dogs and North put on this year - If recent history has anything to account for, I'm not so confident they can.