Earlier this week, the Lions announced Dayne Beams had taken over as skipper and Rockliff would be one of his deputies.
As the Lions floundered last year, Rockliff had a tumultuous season on and off the field and then there was constant speculation during the trade period that he would leave, with the Adelaide Crows one of a handful of teams linked to his name.
But there are strong signs that better times lie ahead – Rockliff worked hard against the Bulldogs as Beams and Dayne Zorko starred in the eight-point win at Etihad Stadium.
New coach Chris Fagan is impressed, saying Rockliff is showing strong support to Beams.
He added the Lions would have no problem with Rockliff standing in as captain if Beams is unavailable.
His brand is in a much healthier place right now
“With Tom, he copped a lot of criticism last year – some of it warranted, some of it unwarranted,” Fagan said.
“What he’s done over the pre-season to prepare himself, his attitude around the players, he very much deserved the vice-captaincy.
“I think he’d be a little bit disappointed he missed out on the captaincy, but he’s made huge ground.
“His brand is in a much healthier place right now than what it is was five or six months ago.”
While the Bulldogs were well under strength, Fagan was pleased with how his team moved the ball and then found a way to win when the Bulldogs challenged late in the game.
For the lowly Lions, right now a win is a win and this one was timely, given they have their Melbourne family day on Saturday at the MCG.
“It’s good to come on the road, win a game of footy against a great opposition … albeit we know they had a number of players out, but you still have to do it,” Fagan said.
“It’s a habit, isn’t it, and it’s good to start that habit.
“We have a long way to go this year, but it just reminds them of what it feels like.”
Of their youngsters, Harris Andrew was strong in defence, while forwards Eric Hipwood and Michael Close showed good signs. But what Fagan wants most is a more positive and aggressive attitude from his team.
“I encouraged them to keep going and try to crush the opposition, because we have to have that mindset,” Fagan said of the halftime message.
“We can’t worry about teams coming at us – we have to think about what we can do to put this game away.
“We weren’t quite able to do it, but that’s the language we’re going to continue to use.”
For the Bulldogs, though, last night’s match continued the AFL premiers’ wretched run of injuries, with youngster Roarke Smith most likely requiring his second knee reconstruction.
Smith fell over while contesting a ball late in the third quarter and hobbled off the ground with the help of a trainer.
Coach Luke Beveridge said post-match that the news was probably bad for the defender, who needed a left knee reconstruction in August, 2015 after he was hurt in a VFL match.
“We’ll be able to confirm it tomorrow, but our specialists think he’s done his ACL (anterior cruciate ligament),”‘ Beveridge said.
“Obviously it’s a lot of bad luck, but we’ll support him and get him going again,” Beveridge said.
“It’s obviously hard to give him that message at the moment, but it’s a bitter pill to swallow tonight.”
Smith returned last season to play one senior game – the second of his AFL career.
Round-one draftee Tim English is also firming for a round-one AFL debut against Collingwood, given fellow Bulldogs ruckmen Jordan Roughead and Tom Campbell are also injured.
Campbell has an ankle injury, while Roughead is out of action because of hamstring surgery.
English, taken with the No.19 pick in last year’s national draft, played his first game for the Bulldogs last night.
One of the key features of last year’s historic premiership is that the Bulldogs overcame a brutal injury toll, pro pting questions as to whether Beveridge was starting to feel any deja vu.
“Not really – we’ll get back both Roughy and Tommy Campbell back in the early part of the season, we believe,” he said.
“It’s not all doom and gloom.”
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