2016 AFL Grand Final: The Western Bulldogs win one for all

Ryan Buckland Columnist

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    It happened, folks. The Western Bulldogs have broken a 62-year premiership drought – and raised their middle fingers to AFL convention along the way – by beating the Sydney Swans in the 2016 AFL grand final.

    All the wash-up from the AFL Grand Final
    » Match report: Bulldogs are premiers!
    » Seven talking points from the match
    » Our top ten tweets from the day
    » Another classic Bulldogs banner
    » Re-live all the action with our live blog

    How about them Dogs hey? Footscray were supposed to be a first up loser to a rampant West Coast – they’ve knocked off the teams ranked sixth, fourth, third and first in four straight finals to win their first premiership since commercial television became a thing.

    It was a grand final for the history books, one that will be watched time and time again – an incredible contest where neither team really seemed to hold a winning advantage until the Dogs pulled away in the final quarter.

    The Dogs are the first team to finish seventh in the home-and-away season to win a semi-final, win a preliminary final and win a grand final since the current top eight system came into place in 2000.

    The Dogs are the first team to win a premiership without a player with premiership experience on their game day roster since 1996.

    The Dogs have the lowest home-and-away percentage of a premier since Sydney in 2005.

    The Dogs have six players on their long term injury list, and a few others on the short term injury list. Their grand final team was their first unchanged line up since Round 2.

    The Dogs are the first team to win four games in a row as betting market under-dogs since records of that sort of information began in 2003; one assumes they are the first team to ever achieve that feat, and they did it in a finals series.

    The Dogs are the first team that isn’t Sydney, Geelong or Hawthorn to win the flag since 2010, and only the second team since 2006.

    That last point feels like as good a place as any to start. In this year where the competition felt more egalitarian than ever on the field, a victory by the Western Bulldogs, through their adversity, is a symbolic changing of the guard.

    The ‘Scrays powered through three of the AFL’s powerhouse clubs, and HQ’s-own juggernaut, to win it all.

    Geelong, Sydney and Hawthorn will be back. The Eagles will be too. GWS are the favourites for next year’s flag. But bugger all that for now, because the Western Bulldogs have shown us all what a united club can do if it commits to an identity and pursues it ruthlessly.

    The 2014 off season was, at the time, an abject disaster for the Dogs. They lost, in no particular order, Liam Jones (ok that was probably a positive), Shaun Higgins, veterans Adam Cooney and Daniel Giansiracusa, captain Ryan Griffen, head coach Brendon McCartney and chief executive Simon Garlick. That all happened in a single off season.

    They also bought in Tom Boyd on a million dollar contract, in a move long foreshadowed in direction if not in magnitude.

    That same year, the Brisbane Lions and Western Bulldogs finished on seven wins, and had the same number of games played on their list. The Dogs finished half a win behind Carlton. Footscray’s rise shows how quickly things can turn.

    The Dogs aren’t the prettiest football team to watch. Their game is built on being tough and numerous around the contest, exiting with chains of quick handballs, in an attempt to possess the ball and move it forward at all costs. It contrasts strongly with the games of Hawthorn and West Coast, who are built to play the kicking game. It is no less effective.

    The Dogs play zone defence like professional partakes in a hot dog eating contest: relentless, efficient and with no desire to let anything escape whence it came. You’ve read all year about how the Dogs are this razzle dazzle football team that play with speed and gay abandon.

    That’s the four or five fast break plays the team’s structures manage to create per game talking – the other 115 minutes are like a scene from Saw.

    Earlier this week, head coach Luke Beveridge was awarded the AFL Coaches Association Coach of the Year award for the second year running. That’s quite an achievement. It is also his second year as an AFL head coach.

    Beveridge’s tactical nous is unquestionable. He becomes the first of the Alastair Clarkson Coaching Academy graduates to have not only beaten his mentor in a finals series, but to have taken his team to Clarkson’s premiership hang out.

    Speaking of the Hawks, there is quite a parallel between this victory and Hawthorn’s first post-2000 flag. In 2005 and 2006, the Hawks were a mess. A young mess, but a mess all the same. 2007 saw them leap to fifth on the ladder (from 11th the year prior), with a boost in their percentage from 85.7 to 113.1. They followed that through in 2008 with a second placed finish, a percentage of 131.9 and that premiership.

    The Dogs were also a young rabble in 2013 and 2014. They jumped from 14th to sixth, lifting their percentage from 81.9 to 115.1 in 2015. They didn’t follow the same home-and-away season trajectory (their percentage remained at 115.4), but have evidently followed the Hawks to a premiership.

    The difference? Those Hawks had 2,362 games of experience in their 22 on game day. The Dogs had 1,807 games today. They’re young, and are set to get younger in the years ahead as their 200 game players transition into retirement.

    Strikingly, at the end of next season, Liam Picken could be the most experienced player on the Dogs’ list should Will Minson leave as expected this year, and Robert Murphy, Matthew Boyd and Dale Morris ride off into the sunset. The Dogs are still pups for the most part, and you get the feeling that the spectacular, unprecedented finals run they’ve just completed is the start of something special.

    Really, this season has been something special. Sport is the best.

    Ryan Buckland
    Ryan Buckland

    As an economist, Ryan seeks to fix the world's economic troubles one graph at a time. As a sports fan, he's always looking one or two layers beneath the surface to search for meaning, on and off the field. You can follow Ryan here.