AFL coaching great Mick Malthouse is a firm believer that premierships are built on defence. When a side like Warrnambool boasts three of the best marking forwards in the competition, no wonder some see success based on goal scorers.
But after the reigning premier held one of its main challengers, North Warrnambool Eagles, to eight goals or less for the second time this season on Saturday, it’s easy to understand the importance of defence.
Warrnambool’s 36-point win against the Eagles on a heavy Bushfield Recreation Reserve surface enhanced its standing as flag favourite and struck an important psychological blow that home and now away, the Blues are a considerably better outfit than last year’s preliminary finalist.
While Saturday’s 12.15 (87) to 8.3 (51) result was significantly better for the Eagles than round three when it was thumped by 70 points, the reduced margin was cold comfort given the tougher conditions and evolving nature of Warrnambool’s defence.
Brad Bull, a three-time premiership player more regarded for his run-with roles on midfielders or counter-attacking jobs across half-back, was an unsung hero at full-back.
Bull, who didn’t play his first senior game of the season until round nine because of a broken hand in a pre-season mishap, kept the Eagles’ leading goal scorer Mark Murphy to 1.2.
Murphy, who uses his pace to find space in the forward line and through the midfield, was nullified by Bull’s matching speed and dour defence.
When Murphy was struggling to get into the game playing out of the goal square, he was thrown further up the ground and on to a wing. But Bull was always on the charge, running him down and creating turnovers.
“Tilty (coach Scott Carter) gave me the heads-up on Tuesday night I would be on him,” the 23-year-old said.
“I just went out to do a job and didn’t worry about getting many kicks myself.
“There was always help from the other five in the back line, it was good.
“We’ve set a benchmark to get the job done. We’ve got to keep improving every week.”
Carter said Bull was an important part of the back six, having played a shut- down role on Koroit star Joe McLaren in last year’s grand final.
“Very rarely when we give Bully a job does he let us down,” Carter said.
Bull was named the Blues’ fourth best player, behind midfielders Damien McCorkell, Brendan Moore and regular defender Michael Threlfall, who became a goalkicking wingman. But he could easily have been their best.
The same could have been said for key forward Sam Cowling, who took more than 10 powerful marks across half-forward in a three-goal performance, including one long set shot after the three-quarter-time siren that snuffed out any chance the Eagles had of a final-term charge.
The Blues set the game up with 3.6 to 0.1 in the first quarter, kicking with the aid of a south-west wind but crucially extended the margin by half-time after kicking 2.4 to 2.1 against the breeze.
The Eagles looked to be mounting a charge in the third quarter when Jeremy Parkinson kicked two goals in less than three minutes to cut the margin to 19 points but goals by Cowling and Peter Corredig in less than two minutes deep in the term kicked the gap back out to 32 points.
Cowling had good support from Travis Graham, who had an entertaining dual with former Eagles captain Tom Batten, while Adam Wines, returning to defence after stints up forward, held the league’s leading goalscorer Jason Rowan to one goal.