Travis Cloke of the Bulldogs in action during the round one AFL match against the Collingwood Magpies.
Travis Cloke of the Bulldogs in action during the round one AFL match against the Collingwood Magpies. JULIAN SMITH

Cloke inspires new Dogs teammates to silence Pies

TRAVIS Cloke getting booed by Collingwood fans - including Joffa - would have been unthinkable three years ago.

Cloke was no less of a Pie than Tony Shaw or even Nathan Buckley. Albeit not a captain, the power forward symbolised an 'us against them' culture.

And on Friday night, it was Cloke against them. Only this time, 'them' was the same fans who adored him for more than a decade up until six months ago.

And the jeers did not impress his older brother Jason, who took to social media to support Travis.

Jason, who played 76 games for Collingwood - including the 2003 grand final - was less than impressed with the reception his youngest sibling received as he lined up for his 442nd AFL goal but first in red, white and blue.

"Well done Collingwood boo a bloke that gives you 12 year of sweat and tears and was made to go then you boo him," Jason posted on Instagram.

"Kill them bro."

This was a trimmed-down Cloke that debuted for the Dogs on Friday night, almost as if his summer had consisted of running, bike riding and zero carbohydrates. According to those in the know, he didn't even indulge in pudding on Christmas Day, while heavy weights that make you stronger but more cumbersome were as regular as a right-foot goal.

Yes, this Cloke was almost unrecognisable from the one that spent 246 games in black and white and led the goalkicking every season from 2011 to 2014.

His first act was distinctly un-Cloke like too (at least the 2016 version). Under pressure just inside the forward 50, the 30-year-old finessed the Sherrin to Lachie Hunter, who duly finished the job. He was unhurried despite the congestion and unfazed despite the occasion.

The crowd barely had time to realise the Bulldogs' new No.13 was Cloke and not Nathan Hrovat. Those who did jeered, although it was somewhat muted compared to his next significant involvement.

Having lined up on former teammate Ben Reid, he ran back with the flight and held on to a mark just on the arc, no more than 20 metres away from where he booted that famous grand final goal in front of the MCC members back in 2011.

Not since 'Nice Garry' echoed around the MCG on Boxing Day 2016 has a noise so loud been heard at the MCG as the boos that accompanied Cloke as he lined up for goal. His approach was far from fluent, but his connection with the football was sweet.

Not unlike an up-and-under nine-iron that carries a bit too far with the wind, his kick sailed through. All but two Dogs immediately circled him to celebrate and the boos were no more.

"When you look at the Travis Cloke package, how could tonight not be personal?" dual North Melbourne premiership player David King asked on Fox Footy.

"For the last 18 months, the Pies told him he wasn't part of their plans or best team, he wasn't the man he once was. For the last 12 months, he was disrespected in a way as a footballer. Tonight, it will mean nothing more to him to come out and put the skids under Nathan Buckley's coaching career."

Joffa's reaction to the goal was priceless. What made it even better was that every person in the stadium saw it on the big screen. Hundreds of thousands more saw it on their televisions at home. The theatre of dreams is just that for a reason. This was AFL drama at its finest.

His next contribution was silky smooth - two words not often associated with the three-time Magpies leading goalkicker - gathering the ball below his knees with Reid on his tail. Cloke fired off a handball and his teammates did the rest with Jason Johannisen finishing the job further afield.

His influence was not lost on one particular teammate, with skipper Bob Murphy sprinting 50 metres to high-five his fellow veteran.

Twice he beat premiership teammate Tyson Goldsack on the lead. Twice the crowd booed. Even when he turned the ball directly over after one of these disposals, he followed it up by flattening young Magpie Tom Phillips with a body-slam tackle that would have impressed John Cena.

It's remarkable that a player with his CV can be criticised so widely for not being able to handle the heat. But there were no such problems on Friday evening.

Even when he skewed his shot for goal wide late in the piece, he responded by charging back behind the ball.

"It was all about Cloke before we started and it was all about Cloke during the game," Carlton great Mark Maclure told Fox Footy.

"His marking and work in the forward line was terrific. He's enjoying his game and having a great time."

Refreshed, revitalised and seemingly reborn. This was a Cloke we hadn't seen in years. He finished with 14 disposals, six marks and a goal, but that didn't necessarily do his efforts justice.

His performance was hardly vintage. But it takes a special coach to convince a fading star that he can still be a critical servant with a diminished role. It requires the player to concede they are no longer at the peak of their game.

Cloke is no longer the head of the snake and against the Pies he appeared to relish this relative anonymity.

Luke Beveridge and Cloke may be the perfect match. Indeed the Dogs and Cloke may be an even better one.

While the scoreboard will show the Bulldogs were victorious, Collingwood was super impressive throughout the night and refused to give in to the reigning premiers.

In fact Nathan Buckley's side beat the Dogs at their own 2016 game, winning the clearance count and contested ball very convincingly. Ultimately, it was the Dogs' system and defensive pressure that won them the game.

The Pies were led superbly by skipper Scott Pendlebury, who lifted his team in the second half with two goals to finish with 35 disposals, 24 contested possessions, 10 clearances, nine score involvements and six inside 50s.

"It was that will he had in the last quarter to get his side over the line. You could see it in the emotion when he celebrated his second goal," Western Bulldogs legend Brad Johnson told Fox Footy.

Pendlebury was superbly supported by Steele Sidebottom (two goals, 35 disposals), Adam Treloar (one, 33) and Taylor Adams (33).

News Corp Australia

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