WHEN Bailey Smith's kick floated through for his second goal in Saturday night's semi-final epic with Brisbane – no, not that goal – the first person he saw was Western Bulldogs teammate Laitham Vandermeer.
Smith put both his hands around Vandermeer's neck in sheer excitement before they embraced in a hug, the duo caught up in the euphoria of perhaps the best game of the season.
But the pair, who have been close friends since going to school at Xavier College together before joining the Bulldogs at the 2018 NAB AFL Draft, both had bigger moments to come.
For Smith, it was his left-foot goal in the final two minutes that came with a now iconic celebration. For Vandermeer, it was the hurried but smart kick in the last 50 seconds that put the Bulldogs one point ahead and sent them into this week's preliminary final with Port Adelaide.
So whose was better?
"Yours is sick. You get to kick the snag on the left and pull out the 'Ice in the veins' celebration," Vandermeer told Smith when the pair caught up with AFL.com.au this week.
"Yeah, but if you didn't get the point, mate, we wouldn't have won," Smith said.
After nailing the crunch goal, Smith's relentless effort inside-50 and toe-poke pass saw the ball directly spill to Vandermeer, who quickly dribbled it through to give the Dogs the lead while being tackled.
"I thought I was on and someone dived on my legs and I fell over and you were there. It should have been in the back for you but you got the point anyway. How would you have gone if you had gotten the free kick?" Smith asked Vandermeer.
"I was talking about this before as we were going through my edits," Vandermeer said. "I don't know if I would have pulled out the opposite-sided snag or just gone the banana. I would have loved to get a goal, though. If you get a goal you can celebrate. You don't kick a point and start getting around yourself."
For Smith and Vandermeer, it was just the most recent occasion of a partnership that goes back to 2016, when Vandermeer moved from Mooroopna to board at Xavier, a prestigious Melbourne school with a strong football pedigree where Smith had done his schooling.
He was in year 11 that year and Smith in year 10, but they shared the same tutor group, with Smith usually arriving with a ham, cheese, lettuce and carrot toastie.
"That was probably my biggest memory of him from then, he loved his toasties," Vandermeer said. "He was so driven and is probably a bit more relaxed now but he is the ultra professional and easy to get along with. That's probably when we started to be mates."
On the field, their partnership began on Xavier's half-back line.
"We were both there at that stage and we played Assumption College in a practice game and we were having a day out. Laith had 40 plus…" Smith said.
"44 and two," Vandermeer jumped in.
"I did my ankle at quarter-time that day but we grew closer over those years and really wanted to do well for the school. We did lots together each day," Smith said.
Vandermeer was overlooked in his initial draft year in 2017 but went back to the Murray Bushrangers and proved himself as a tough, fast and versatile option at NAB League level in 2018.
He remained in close contact with Smith, who blossomed that year in his draft season to be a standout prospect and was taken with the Bulldogs' No.7 pick. The draft was staged over two days for the first time that year, and on the second Vandermeer joined the Dogs with pick 37.
"Knowing that Bailey was there just made it so much more comfortable. It's pretty daunting coming to an AFL club so having a bloke who you can lean on in that aspect is huge. Our mums have a good relationship out of our footy career so they were stoked themselves that we got to go together. Not many people get to have that opportunity to get drafted with a mate so it was the best thing that could've happened," Vandermeer says.
Smith played every game in his debut year – and has played 65 straight since arriving at Whitten Oval – while Vandermeer broke through last year for his first senior appearance. A hamstring injury last year and then a nagging knee issue this year forced him out of the side but he has become a valuable member of the Dogs' line-up.
That rise in his career came after the pair joined forces during last year's pause of the AFL season, with them pledging to make the most of their time away from the game. Smith took gym equipment in his car to the local park and they would meet for early morning sessions, afternoon runs and everything in between.
They over-worked: a broken measurement wheel that they thought had traced out a 400-metre track at Albert Park was later found to be faulty – accidentally they had been running 500s and then wondering why their times had slipped. So intent were they to make the most of the game's pause that they both had some nagging back problems later in the year.
"As soon as we got shut down we messaged each other and said 'Let's get the best out of ourselves'," Vandermeer said.
"We were training three times a week with each other and it's always good from my perspective because 'Baz' (Smith) is one of the fitter blokes getting around so it was handy having him there because he'd drive you.
"We made a promise to each other that we'd get the best out of each other and ourselves and looking back on it now I hadn't played a game to that point and after training with 'Barry' (another Smith nickname) my fitness got better and I ended up debuting that season. It's probably a credit to having him there and having fun in that time of our lives which was pretty ordinary."
Their time together has been shared on the road. In last year's Queensland hub they would often be found gaming together, and Smith calls Vandermeer his "constant" in another season of roadtrips.
"We've got differences in how we've grown up and stuff but I feel like we're so similar in what makes us happy, what pisses us off, what makes us laugh. It's all the same," Smith says.
"Even with the gaming all we do in our spare time is the same thing: he loves his Warzone, I love my Fortnite. He trains hard, I train hard."
They listen to the same music – rapper Drake a favourite – but Vandermeer suggests it's hard keeping up with Smith, who has even became a poster child for vaccination after his point-at-the-arm goal celebration last week.
"I'd probably say I'm a poor man's 'Bazlenka'. Probably the only thing I've got him covered for is speed," Vandermeer says.
On Saturday they will be vital in the Bulldogs' quest to make it to the Grand Final. For Vandermeer, it is hard to believe they will both be there in the penultimate week of the season. "I can't get my head around it personally," he said.
And for Smith, despite the high stakes of the game with a premiership two wins away, having Vandermeer next to him makes the big game feel a little more normal.
"Having the amount of memories with Laith before AFL and since then, it almost makes it less scary that we're in a prelim together because I've got him there and we've done this before," Smith said. "It's a big game but you've got your best mate alongside you."