The West Coast Eagles have suffered a heartbreaking loss in their long-awaited return to Melbourne after letting a last-quarter lead slip to the Western Bulldogs on Sunday.
In a classic arm-wrestle, the Eagles saw a 14-point advantage disappear in a frantic final term, as the Bulldogs secured a 14.16 (100) to 14.9 (93) triumph.
Led by their star captain Marcus Bontempelli (30 disposals, three goals) – who kicked the sealer with less than a minute remaining - the home side refused to lie down and fought back late to claim victory.
The Eagles appeared to have the game within their grasp when Jamaine Jones snuck out the back of a pack and slammed through his third goal of a highly-encouraging performance to reclaim the lead in the dying stages.
However, it was all Bulldogs from that moment on and West Coast was left to rue what might have been following a gallant effort in the club’s first match in Melbourne for 563 days.
There were heroes on both sides and few were better than Eagles champions Shannon Hurn and Josh Kennedy.
Hurn marshalled the backline and finished with 24 disposals, while Kennedy nailed four goals in a sign that neither veteran is slowing down.
Beaten around the ball in the opening half, the Eagles badly needed a lift in midfield and it was talisman Nic Naitanui who led the charge.
The reigning John Worsfold medallist was immense in the third term as the Eagles booted six goals to take control.
With the indefatigable Dom Sheed (26 disposals, 11 clearances) providing the grunt at ground level, and Jack Darling (three goals) getting dangerous up forward, it looked as though a stirring victory was on the cards for the blue and gold.
But the Bulldogs’ vaunted midfield brigade – rated as arguably the best in the game – found another gear late and capitalised on the frenzied final minutes.
What was billed as a match between two evenly-matched but diametrically-opposed teams in terms of style lived up to expectations, with Luke Beveridge’s handball-happy side using the ball by hand 100 more times than the Eagles.
When the match was played in the air it was all West Coast, though, and key defender Tom Barrass was an impassable object in defence with a game-high 10 marks and equal-high three contested grabs (with Kennedy and Oscar Allen).
In the opening stages, Darling and Kennedy both threaded the eye of the needle to get the Eagles going, before electrifying small Liam Ryan pulled out his bag of tricks, wrongfooting Ryan Gardner and dancing past him on the goalline for West Coast’s third.
It gave the visitors a handy break, but the Dogs hit back through Tim English to take the slenderest of margins into the first change.
Jones nailed his first goal in blue and gold after converting from a 50m penalty soon after, and the scene was set for a cliffhanger of a contest.
Going into the long break just seven points adrift would have been taken as a win by coach Adam Simpson given the Dogs’ command of the contest and the Eagles would have lost few admirers from their courageous effort.
They will return home and reload again off a six-day break for another blockbuster bout with rampant Port Adelaide at Optus Stadium next Saturday night.
Western Bulldogs 3.3 6.10 9.12 14.16 (100)
West Coast 3.2 6.3 12.6 14.9 (93)
Western Bulldogs Bruce 3, Naughton 3, Bontempelli 3, Daniel, English, Smith, Dunkley, Vandermeer
West Coast Kennedy 4, Darling 3, Jones 3, Ryan 2, Allen
Western Bulldogs Bontempelli, Macrae, Smith, Bruce, Naughton, Daniel
West Coast Naitanui, Hurn, Kennedy, Barrass, Sheed, Darling
West Coast Allen (shoulder)