ALASTAIR Clarkson calls this the most treacherous time of the year in football. And two events within 24 hours of each other on opposite sides of the country demonstrated why.
First it was West Coast defender Eric Mackenzie, who fell to the ground seemingly innocuously in the Eagles’ NAB Challenge opener against Carlton on Friday, only for the result to be an ACL tear that will keep him out for the season.
The next day, Tom Liberatore's knee buckled, and he too wrecked his ACL and will be out for the season.
So after four games of semi-official football, two of last year's club best and fairest winners will be out for the season. Even before the start of autumn, Adam Simpson and Luke Beveridge already know that there is no chance they can field their best 22 this year.
Mackenzie, brilliant in one-on-one contests, was so good last year that he won the club best and fairest at West Coast ahead of Brownlow medallist Matt Priddis. As for Liberatore, he led the AFL in 2014 for tackles (173) and clearances (156) and was seventh for contested possessions.
The Bulldogs are now facing a season without their two best midfielders from last year – Liberatore and the departed Ryan Griffen.
Liberatore's father Tony had two knee reconstructions during his famed career with the Bulldogs that included the 1990 Brownlow. In 1998 he tore up his knee and famously returned after just 18 weeks. But judging by the media statement released by the Bulldogs on Sunday, Tom will have the traditional reconstructive surgery and will return next season, hopefully stronger and even better.
Not that I recall. No wonder this is heart-in-mouth time for players and coaches as they ponder how many games, or more to the point, minutes they need to properly prepare for the season.
The general consensus is that players do need game time before the start of the season. Beveridge noted on Saturday evening that his players have been playing some form of match practice between themselves since the middle of December, but to play against another team represents some sort of step up.
Hawthorn left 15 first-choice players out of Thursday night's NAB Challenge clash against Collingwood. Richmond had a similar number of its best 22 watching on against the Bulldogs.
But at some stage your best players have to get out there and play. The Hawks will field a far stronger team next Sunday against North Melbourne in Shepparton. The same goes for the Tigers when they next play, in a fortnight against Port Adelaide at Lavington.
But when there are no premiership points on the line, getting through the match unscathed is the best every team can hope for.
New Dog's new tricks
So what did we learn from Beveridge's first game in charge of the Bulldogs?
There were some traces of Hawthorn, where he spent the last three years as an assistant coach, in how the Bulldogs went about it, with the keeping possession in the back half, moving from one flank to the other and then finding the right outlet man for the kick into the forward line.
The most notable positional change was to play erstwhile defender and regular scrapper Liam Picken as a defensive small forward. Beveridge explained that the move wasn't directly inspired by the success of Paul Puopolo in a similar role at the Hawks (Puopolo was a small defender when he was drafted from Norwood) but did have something to do with flexibility and using players where they can have maximum effect.
"I liked his game," Beveridge said. "He's such a hard, dour customer, but he's got a creative side. I wouldn't like to play on him as a defender. He's hard as nails in the midfield and so versatile and one of our really experienced players. I think he did really well."
Beveridge indicated that it could well become a permanent move for the Bulldogs, as it might for Steven Morris, usually a half-back for Richmond, who also spent most of Saturday afternoon as a small forward for the Tigers. Richmond coach Damien Hardwick said the retirement of Jake King had opened up the prospect of Morris playing closer to goal.
Where Beveridge also got things right was his post-match observation that the Bulldogs' faithful had a cracking day out at the Whitten Oval on Saturday. The crowd of 9513 all but guaranteed that there will be a repeat fixture next year and hopefully beyond.
The Bulldogs did it well to the point of inviting former coach Terry Wheeler to speak to the players during the week about the significance of the famous old ground.
"He's an emotional guy," noted Beveridge. "He spoke almost like a poet.
"You can't build these games up because there's no consequence, but the players enjoyed it and I hope the supporters did."
If you take as an indicator the packed local establishments before and afterwards, you can bank it that they did.
Second Gold Coast launch for 'Rocket'
Keener students of the game will recognise that this is Rodney Eade's second time around on the Gold Coast.
The Suns coach wasn't one of the original 'Bad News Bears' in 1987 but did join the Brisbane Bears 12 months later, spending three years as a player when they were based at Carrara and in 1991 as reserves coach, guiding the club to the premiership.
The difference between AFL life then and now is chalk and cheese. At the Bears, the level of community engagement wasn't a whole lot more than giving away a pair of free tickets with every Big Mac, whereas the Suns have worked their local community hard.
"It really is a community based club," Eade told AFL.com.au. "Gary (Ablett) helps being there but the identification with young people is with the Suns."
He noted that at a recent community day at which a crowd of about 500 people was expected, more than 3000 ended up being in attendance.
"Lots of kids in were there in Suns jumpers which was fantastic and that identification with the local team has jumped up since I was last there. The club is building for the long term and the I've been impressed with how they've gone about it."
The culture of professional sport on the Gold Coast is under the microscope amid the drug scandal involving former Sun Karmichael Hunt and several players from the NRL's Titans. But Eade has few concerns about the environment in the area, particularly for the Suns and their mainly young playing list.
"I'm not saying there are no temptations, but it's the same as any other city. Surfers Paradise is like the capital city but the players live in the suburbs.
"There are rules. I don't think they go to Cavill Avenue but it's the same in Melbourne – there are places that no players would go. It has to be driven by the players and I'm fairly confident the bulk will adhere to that."
Eade added that the Gold Coast area is a popular training area for elite Olympic athletes from several sports. "As a destination, I think a lot of players would want to come here," he said.