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Old Dog with new tricks made for Grand Final stage

Football

If recent outings are anything to go by, Liam Picken will be in his element on AFL grand final day.

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The aerially gifted Western Bulldogs utility has already pressed his case for best player of the finals with game-changing displays against early-September scalps West Coast and Hawthorn.

Picken was again influential in Saturday’s scintillating six-point preliminary-final triumph over Greater Western Sydney, making a crucial smother with three minutes remaining to set up Jack Macrae’s match-winning goal.

It’s becoming standard fare for the 30-year-old former tagger, who has been reincarnated since Bulldogs coach Luke Beveridge let him off the leash in a more attacking role.

His endurance and sky-high marking this month has turned heads and drawn comparisons with the 1970s and ’80s finals exploits of his father, Collingwood VFL legend Billy Picken.

Beveridge, in turn, has been quick to praise his quietly spoken charge as a big-game performer, someone who thrives on high-stakes footy and will do practically anything to win.

“He is one of those players whose game really relates to big finals,” Beveridge said last week.

“He doesn’t shy away from anything.”

The question now is what impact will he have at the MCG in the hunt for the Dogs’ first premiership in 62 years?

Pitted against a Sydney side boasting oodles more grand-final nous, the comparatively inexperienced Bulldogs players say they draw confidence from Picken’s mix of fearlessness and reliability.

Stand-in captain Easton Wood has even likened his game to that of North Melbourne great Wayne Carey.

But less than a week before making his own grand-final debut, Picken himself is more concerned with lauding his team’s even spread of contributors.

He backed the close-knit squad to make it count on the biggest stage of all on Saturday.

“The team is really tight and sticks together – we’re a very unique group,” Picken said.

“It’s great momentum at the moment and the boys are playing really well. We’re really gelling.

“To get the chance to play in a grand final is just amazing.”

Clay Smith of the Bulldogs after the AFL preliminary final between the Greater Western Sydney Giants and the Western Bulldogs at Spotless Stadium in Sydney, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016. (AAP Image/Craig Golding) NO ARCHIVING, EDITORIAL USE ONLY

Four-goal hero Clay Smith, who lost a close friend early last week, lets his emotions flow after Saturday’s win. Photo: Craig Golding / AAP

The Bulldogs will closely monitor Jordan Roughead’s eye injury in the coming days, but remain optimistic the ruckman will play in Saturday’s grand final.

Roughead, along with Lin Jong (collarbone) and Matt Suckling (Achilles), are the key injury concerns for the Dogs going into the premiership decider against Sydney.

Roughead did not return to the field after leaving the pulsating preliminary final win over Greater Western Sydney in the second quarter when he was hit in the right eye by the ball.

He consulted an eye specialist in Melbourne yesterday after he suffered bleeding in the eye.

“It’s a wait-and-see game … (but) it’s just his eye – I don’t think he was concussed,” Bulldogs midfielder Jack Macrae told reporters on Sunday.

“I think they didn’t want to risk (further damage) – when it’s your eyes that’s your life – you don’t want to be going blind over footy.”

Jong broke his right collarbone in the elimination final win over West Coast less than three weeks ago but pressed his claims for a return with a strong performance in yesterday’s VFL grand final.

With his good shoulder strapped in a ploy designed to throw off opponents keen to test him out, Jong was awarded the Norm Goss Medal as best player afield in Footscray’s win over Casey.

Nevertheless, he had a torrid time of it as he was slung heavily to the ground by Casey defender Lynden Dunn in an incident that sparked a melee and also fell on his back in a marking contest late in the game.

But he was all smiles after the final siren and indicated his collarbone had passed the test.

Suckling has managed an Achilles injury during the latter stages of the season and didn’t play against the Giants.

However, the club is bullish about his chances of returning to the side.

Roughead’s injury was one of the few negatives to come out of the Dogs’ stirring win that put them into their first grand final since 1961.

Injuries, most notably a season-ending knee injury to captain Bob Murphy, have been a recurring theme for the Bulldogs this year, but Luke Beveridge’s side has shown remarkable resilience to earn their premiership shot.

“It’s hard to put it down to just one thing, but if I had to I’d say it’s the belief in the group,” Macrae said.

“We’re a young group but we’re as determined as any I’ve ever seen. The belief in the players and the spirit that we get off each other throughout the year (has been great).

“When we had injuries players stepped up – it was always about who was coming in to play and not who was going out.

“It’s been a tough year at different times but to get through the other side has really made us grow into a complete team.”

-AAP

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