A devastating, last-minute knee injury to Western Bulldogs captain Robert Murphy not only robbed his team of a final chance of victory against triple premiers Hawthorn, it may have robbed the game of one of its true characters.
With less than two minutes left on the clock and his team in front by just three points, Murphy had the chance to spoil a mark from either James Sicily or Luke Breust.
But Murphy’s left leg twisted awkwardly, Sicily took the mark uncontested and then kicked a goal to give Hawthorn victory. It was a double tragedy.
Murphy, who turns 34 in June, was helped off the ground by trainers. It is likely he will require a knee reconstruction to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
The full extent of the injury won’t be known for a day or two but an emotional Bulldogs coach Luke Beveridge said he expected the diagnosis to be “no good” – a season-ending, and potentially career-ending, injury.
“I think it’s bad news. The worst I think,” said Beveridge.
— AFL (@AFL) April 10, 2016
“As you’d expect, it’s quite shattering (to Murphy). We know what sort of person he is. What sort of character he is. He’ll bounce back but it’s sad news.
“We’re really close (as a group) and they (players) will be hurting tonight, and not just because of the loss, but they’ll be hurting more for ‘Bob’. We all will be.”
Retirement is a possibility and, at his age, it must come into his thinking. Either way, the Dogs skipper – so admired and respected for his quirky and relatable manner and dashing runs off half-back – will remain stranded on 295 AFL games for some time.
The error that cost the Bulldogs
It had all been going to plan for Murphy’s men, who had three-time defending premiers Hawthorn on the canvas at Etihad Stadium on Sunday.
They trailed by 32 points just six minutes into the second quarter but, held goalless to that point, the young and daring Bulldogs then showed why they are the most exciting team in the game, kicking 10 of the next 12 goals and running in waves across the half-back line.
The challengers were not only taking it up to the champs, they were beating them.
They should have led by more than 19 points at the final change but even though the Hawks edged their way back in front, goals to Luke Dahlhaus and Jake Stringer looked to have sealed a famous win for the Bulldogs.
A behind from Dahlhaus – which extended their lead to three points – gave the ball back to Hawthorn with one minute and 45 seconds to play, though, and the Dogs were caught out by Grant Birchall’s torpedo from full-back.
It was a poor kick but the direct nature of it, and Hawthorn’s win of the follow-up, allowed Shaun Burgoyne to kick long into the forward 50 to a two-on-one mismatch in his side’s favour.
The one was Murphy, the two were Breust and Hawthorn hero Sicily.
As Murphy and Breust jostled for position, the Dogs skipper landed awkwardly, allowing Sicily to mark uncontested, and while Murphy limped off, the 21-year-old showed nerves of steel to kick the match-winner in a classic contest.
It was Sicily’s third goal of the final quarter – a truly superb 30 minutes of football from a key forward in just his sixth game.
The Hawthorn roar that followed his goal, and the siren, said it all. The premiers had got away with one.
‘He’s their spiritual leader’
Former Western Bulldogs coach Terry Wallace said Murphy’s skills and leadership would be sorely missed while he is on the sidelines.
“He’s the general (at the Bulldogs),” he told SEN.
“When everything had fallen apart at the end of the season before last … Robert Murphy really picked up the pieces at that football club and just did such a magnificent job.
“He’s their spiritual leader…he’s their general on the field, let alone his ability…it’s a massive loss.”
It’s a loss that will be felt across the competition, not just in Bulldogs’ locker room.