THE WESTERN Bulldogs soaked up the best of Fremantle on Sunday night and then pounced when injuries crippled their opponents, winning a feisty clash by 28 points at Optus Stadium.
The Dockers mounted a second-half challenge but were then hit by injuries to captain Nat Fyfe (shoulder), ruckman Sean Darcy (hamstring) and defender Brennan Cox (hamstring) in the space of two minutes.
DOCKERS v BULLDOGS Full match coverage and stats
They fought on but were unable to stay with their fancied opponents thereafter, with the Bulldogs doing what was needed, with grit rather than their usual flair, to win 13.15 (93) to 9.11 (65) in a workmanlike performance.
It was the Bulldogs’ first win from five attempts at Optus Stadium, with captain Marcus Bontempelli leading the charge and setting up the victory with 27 disposals and two long-range goals under fierce opposition attention.
The Dockers targeted Tom Liberatore early through tenacious youngster Caleb Serong, but were forced to refocus their energies on the Bulldogs' skipper as the contest ground on.
Liberatore worked into the game to finish with six clearances and 20 disposals but had his biggest impact in the third quarter when he pushed forward to kick back-to-back goals when the Dockers were on the charge.
Jack Macrae (35 and six inside 50s) was his prolific self, while Caleb Daniel (23) spent more time in the middle and was creative.
Key forward Aaron Naughton flew spectacularly several times inside 50 but was wayward with his kicking, scoring 1.5, with Mitch Hannan and Cody Weightman booting two goals each.
The injury carnage was the story of the night for Fremantle, who were brave but ran out of legs, with defender Griffin Logue (concussion) and Mitch Crowden (AC joint) adding to their issues.
Midfield pair David Mundy (30 and eight clearances) and Andrew Brayshaw (27 and six) were excellent, with Brayshaw's checkside goal on the run in the first quarter a highlight of the match.
Young forward Josh Treacy continued to emerge, booting three goals in an impressive display from the key forward, leading strongly and kicking with confidence.
Mountain to climb
Already losing touch with the top eight, the injury carnage at Fremantle will make finals an almighty challenge. The 11th-placed Dockers are now two games behind eighth-placed Richmond and with an injury list that is already bulging, meaning replacements are going to be hard to come by. They were brave on Sunday and showed plenty of fight once the injuries had hit, but there was no margin for error if they wanted to get back in the finals hunt. There certainly wasn't room for the injury chaos that engulfed them.
Astro-Naught's nearly night
Bulldogs forward Aaron Naughton is usually one of the more reliable set shots in the competition, and there were plenty of gettable chances among his five behinds. A bag beckoned for the young star, but he walked away having missed the opportunity to charge up the Coleman Medal leaderboard with 1.5. What he did do was put on an aerial masterclass, pulling in 13 marks, including five contested and eight inside 50. The best of them saw him fly from behind and hang on top of Brennan Cox, reaching to his right on the way down to pluck a memorable grab. He wasn't the only player misfiring. Docker Rory Lobb missed everything with a snap set shot from 20m on a very slight angle as the Dockers continued their misfiring season.
Serong gets under the Bulldogs' skin
Young Docker Caleb Serong has shown the ability to fluster experienced opponents with his tenacious approach to a run-with role, and he had the Bulldogs angry in the opening half. The Dockers went to school on Melbourne's tagging job on Tom Liberatore and went after the in-and-under Bulldog. It worked early, with Serong holding him to two touches in the opening term and prompting several scuffles as the Bulldogs tried to break up the tag. Overall, it was a feisty match, but Docker Nathan Wilson overstepped the line when he struck Cody Weightman in the groin in an incident that will be looked at by the March Review Officer.
FREMANTLE 2.2 4.4 7.8 9.11 (65)
WESTERN BULLDOGS 3.3 6.8 8.10 13.15 (93)
Fremantle: Treacy 3, Brayshaw, Serong, Henry, Lobb, Crowden, Walters
Western Bulldogs: Bontempelli 2, Liberatore 2, Hannan 2, Weightman 2, Hunter, Scott, Naughton, English, Bruce
Fremantle: Mundy, Brayshaw, Treacy, Darcy, Ryan, Fyfe
Western Bulldogs: Bontempelli, Macrae, Hunter, Liberatore, Naughton, Daniel, Duryea
Fremantle: Logue (concussion), Fyfe (shoulder), Cox (hamstring), Darcy (hamstring), Crowden (AC joint), Matt Taberner (ankle) replaced in the selected side by Connor Blakely
Western Bulldogs: Martin (shoulder)
Fremantle: Tobe Watson (replaced Griffin Logue)
Western Bulldogs: Rhylee West (replaced Stefan Martin)
Crowd: 32,875 at Optus Stadium