WESTERN Bulldogs key defender Alex Keath is under no illusion that Friday night's crunch game against St Kilda at Marvel Stadium is as close to an elimination final in July as it gets.
After winning three finals on the road before reaching last year's Grand Final at Optus Stadium, Luke Beveridge's men have been chasing their tail since dropping the first two games of the season and four of the first six.
The Bulldogs are a game outside the eight in 10th spot after being dispatched by Brisbane and Sydney on the road, drifting to level with Gold Coast and Port Adelaide at 8-8, just behind the Saints who have been squeezed out of the eight on percentage.
With only six rounds to play, both St Kilda and the Western Bulldogs can't afford to drop this game if they are going to feature in September this year.
The task has got even more difficult for the Dogs with Aaron Naughton, Lachie Hunter and Josh Schache entering the AFL's health and safety protocols amid a COVID-19 outbreak at the club.
"The build-up hasn't been do-or-die, but we're fully aware of where we're at being a game outside the eight and things being pretty tight with other teams as well. We are under no illusions what we've got to do this week to basically keep our season alive," Keath told AFL.com.au.
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"It’s been a disappointing couple of weeks. Obviously Brisbane and Sydney are two teams that are around the mark and are both expecting to go deep into September. A couple of great opportunities for us and a couple of disappointing performances, but we are looking ahead, really looking forward to this Friday night against St Kilda."
Star midfielder Bailey Smith will return for the first time since round 12 after serving a two-game suspension for headbutting Zach Tuohy, followed by a two-game sanction for conduct unbecoming. Key forward Josh Bruce will also return – his first AFL game in 342 days after tearing his ACL late last season – following four goals in the VFL on Sunday.
"'Baz' has been great, head down, bum up, training really hard as he always does. He'll be fresh and raring to go this week. We all look forward to having him back in the side," Keath said.
"We love what 'Juicey' (Bruce) brings. All the boys were there supporting the VFL at Sandringham on the weekend. Just his presence, his leadership and his passion as well, we love that about him and what he brings on the field in the forward end."
Keath admits the performance of the backline hasn't been satisfactory, with the Western Bulldogs conceding the most points of any side outside the bottom six and continuing to struggle containing not only key forwards like Jeremy Cameron, Tom Lynch, Peter Wright and Mitch Lewis, but also smaller types like Toby Greene and Charlie Cameron.
"It has been challenging at times. Our performances haven't been up to scratch in the last couple of weeks. As defenders, we own that as well. We're really wanting to improve on that," he said.
"We've had a bit of change in the backline and got some new combinations down there, guys with really good attributes that were finding their feet. We are doing the best we can to try and lead and guide them, we look forward to seeing what can happen in the back end of the season."
After playing 30 games for Adelaide, Keath has now played 52 games for the Dogs since he requested a trade back to Victoria at the end of 2019, holding down a key spot in an undermanned defence and finishing sixth in the best and fairest in 2020 and 2021.
The 30-year-old triggered a contract extension for 2023 earlier this year and believes he has plenty more in the tank after turning his back on a cricket career to join the Adelaide Crows as a Category B rookie when he was 24.
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"My body feels really good at the moment. I love the club environment. I love the challenge of performing week to week," he said.
"I'm really grateful to be at a club such as the Western Bulldogs and playing alongside some significant players in the club's history I think, once everything is done and dusted. I think there are some guys at the club at the moment that will go down as genuine stars of the competition. I love playing my footy here."