Gunnedah ensured their 40th year will be forever one to savour at Wolseley Oval on Saturday.
After a long and, at times tough, journey the Bulldogs can finally call themselves North West AFL champions again, after breaking the New England Nomads’ stranglehold on the silverware with a late fourth quarter spurt.
Chasing their first premiership since 1991, the Bulldogs prevailed in a pulsating grand final 15.16-106 to 13.8-86, the final 20-point margin not a true reflection of how close a contest it was.
The Bulldogs had to dig deep as the five-times reigning champions whittled away their lead to hit the front mid-way through the final quarter.
But as the crowd rode every tackle, every hand ball and every kick, the Bulldogs rallied, Mark Ewington restoring their lead.
Player of the grand final Andrew George then snatched a great intercept but couldn’t quite finish the job. Still it was a point, and when Mark Barrow turned and snapped his second for the game the Bulldogs were out by eight.
Ewington kicked them out to 13 with about five minutes to go after a great run from Jacob Spackman and searching kick into Ewington in the forward pocket.
Spackman then put the icing on a memorable win.
“We knew it would take four quarters to get the job done and it did,” an elated coach Greg Piggott said.
How much it meant is probably best summed up by George, who after accepting the premiership trophy was lost for words.
The heart and soul of the Bulldogs, he is one of three of Saturday’s side to have played over 130 games for the club.
His 132 is just shaded by Scott Hardy (133), who played virtually the whole game with broken ribs.
Then there’s club legend John Woolaston, who after 160 games spanning 15 years finally got to experience playing in a grand final.
And what an experience it was.
“It’s an absolutely sensational feeling,” Woolaston said.
“I got a bit worried there in the last quarter when Nomads kicked that goal to go in front.”
“[But] Once Mark Ewington kicked that goal I knew we were right.”
Part of both winning and losing grand finals sides, Piggott said Saturday was how you want a grand final to be.
“When you’ve really got to work to get the win you appreciate it more,” he said.
He said it wasn’t really until Spackman’s goal to put them four goals up that he started to relax, knowing it would take a miracle for the Nomads to snatch it from there.
“We knew it was going to be a tough game,” Piggott said.
“We got out to a bit of a lead, then they pegged us back.”
The first quarter was tit for tat early but then became the George show, the Bulldogs skipper kicking three for the term as they took a 6-4.40 to 4-0.24 lead into the first break.
The Nomads booted the first points of the second quarter but George replied with his fourth and Piggott followed with his first to extend the Bulldogs lead beyond 20.
But just as the home side looked to have taken control the Nomads found their running game and peeled off the next three to close within four points. Piggott stemmed the Nomads momentum with his second to give the Bulldogs a nine point advantage at the long break.
The third quarter followed a similar script with the Nomads the first to score, the Bulldogs kicking the next two only for the Nomads to fight back, Nick Locke’s second for the quarter a couple of minutes before the break cutting the Bulldogs lead back to a point.
The Bulldogs had a couple of opportunities early in the fourth but were off target, and the Nomads made them pay, Clarence Barker landing his fourth to put the Nomads ahead for the first time since the first quarter.
“We were struggling to get through half-forward for the first 10 of the last quarter,” Piggott said.
“When they hit that lead it was more about trying to win the centre.
“Footy is won in the centre. You win the centre clearance, you win the game.”
The Dogs did and the opportunities started to open up.
Piggott felt the Bulldogs superior fitness was a big factor in the result. They were able to draw on that in the fourth quarter and as the Nomads tired they were able to finish over the top of them.