Lions hold off inexperienced Bulldogs
NEVER underestimate a player's eagerness to impress a new coach.
Chris Fagan walked into the Gabba five months ago to meet a dysfunctional team whose leaders were either injured or jaded and their youngsters crying out for guidance.
Yet on Thursday night's evidence, Fagan has the elder statesmen reinvigorated and the kids playing like their boss believes in them.
Like Carlton under Brendon Bolton this time 12 months ago, the Lions shape as a side that will be harder to beat in 2017.
On Thursday night they stormed to a 52-17 lead early in the third quarter before surviving a Dogs challenge to win by eight points - 0.10.6 (66) to 1.6 13 (58).
A battling unit they will almost certainly be, we are only three days into March and the Western Bulldogs gutted their line-up, with only nine of the premiership team from October played. Marcus Bontempelli, Matthew Boyd and Zayne Cordy, plus star recruit Travis Cloke, were left out of the final team after being named in the squad for the match.
But what can't be denied is that Fagan has already unearthed that vital ingredient - spirit - and with it, a team that plays with conviction and surity.
"We'll be better this year I reckon. We'll surprise a few teams," new captain Dayne Beams said.
The Lions' pressure, particularly without the ball in their forward half, was impressive. They also controlled the ball selflessly, accumulating 44 more uncontested marks.
They also won the tackle count 80-59.
It was a bad night for rookie-listed Bulldogs player Roarke Smith, who appeared to suffer another serious knee injury and was helped from the field late in the first term.
Smith played one senior game last year after returning from a knee reconstruction.
Dayne Zorko starred for the Lions with a game-high 34 possessions and Josh Dunkley was among the Bulldogs' best.
By contrast, the Lions were nearly at full strength, with Allen Christensen and Josh Schache among the notable omissions.
Despite being only their second game of the pre-season, wins in Melbourne have become as rare as diamonds for the Lions and this is a confidence boost for the young squad.
Bestowing the captaincy on a bloke who has only just emerged from an injury nightmare was seen as a bold call.
Then Beams reminded us what he's capable of.
The midfielder, who hadn't played since Round 8 last year, on Thursday night returned to the game in superb fashion.
Beams played with intensity and class, but also a swagger sorely missing from this midfield. He had 15 at half time and finished with 24.
His partnership with Tom Rockliff and Dayne Zorko in the Lions' engine room could pose a few problems for rivals this year.
If Rockliff is bitter about losing the captaincy, it wasn't evident last night. Despite a quieter night disposal-wise, he rolled up the sleeves to lay eight tackles.
The Dogs left 12 premiership players - 13 if you count new Docker Joel Hamling - against the Lions.
Marcus Bontempelli is still yet to play this year, while the likes of Luke Dahlhaus, Lachie Hunter, Jason Johannisen, Tory Dickson, Tom Liberatore and Caleb Daniel all put the feet up at Etihad Stadium. New recruit Travis Cloke was also rested.
The result was a lethargic first half display that had the Dogs trailing by 35 points six minutes into the third quarter.
Clearly, this club is all about Round 1 and would have had a month's less pre-season training than the Lions, which at this stage of the year must still be a factor.
Coach Luke Beveridge wouldn't have enjoyed watching the first half, but it's hard to imagine his care factor shattering the richter scale.
The Dogs got better the longer the game went, which probably tells you everything you need to know before a full-strength outfit confronts Gold Coast next week.