The Western Bulldogs aren’t going to play finals footy in 2017. I’ve made this call among friends and they’ve laughed at me, looked at me with bewilderment, and some have threatened the ultimate disownment of unfollowing me on Facebook.
But once I layout my reasons, I get that, ‘Well… maaaybe’ tilt of the head.
The Dogs didn’t storm into the finals – they managed to hold on to seventh place. This is after rocketing to sixth in 2015 from 14th in 2014.
It generally takes a few years of playing finals before you get through to the big dance, but the Western Bulldogs certainly bucked that trend.
While the Doggies have an undeniably talented list with some of the brightest stars of the future, their best players of that finals series are green and fuelled by that youthful exuberance:
Marcus Bontempelli is 21, Caleb Daniel 20, Tom Boyd 21, Luke Dalhaus 24, Jason Johannisen 24, Jackson Macrae 22 and Lin Jong is 23. And that’s just a taste of their young list.
They also have the older heads of Liam Picken and Matthew Boyd bringing that wisdom to the pack, but that charge to the premiership was definitely headed by the kids.
It had shades of Hawthorn’s 2008 flag – no one was expecting them to take that out. It was Geelong’s to lose, but that lack of expectation saw the Hakws flying under the radar.
That same vibe caused no one to give the Dogs any real chance either. ‘Everyone’s second team’ finally climbing that mountain had a little bit of romance about it, but nothing more.
In 2008, the Hawks had the greatest man-manager of recent memory at the helm in Alastair Clarkson. He used that lack of respect to light a fire under his players, snatching it from the Cats, who already had a place cleaned out in their cabinet for the cup.
Of that Hawthorn coaching machine, the best product is perhaps Luke Beveridge – the stars aligned when he rolled into Whitten Oval.
The club was a mess. It looked like it had just run a marathon and come in at the back of the field. Despondent bodies lying everywhere. Coach sacked, captain walked out, CEO resigned, and their No.1 pick and Brownlow medallist was off to the Dons. It was the aftermath of a warzone.
Beveridge used that to galvanise his charges. Nothing brings people together like adversity. He tapped into that youth and inspired them, ‘Why not us?’ was the catch cry.
Then, in the cruellest of Shakespearean tragedy, Bob Murphy’s knee buckled.
It would not have been shocking if that was the watershed moment that saw those kids look at each other with black holes in their stomachs and silently ask ‘what do we do now?’
Bevo used that inspiration and got Murphy back among the coaches as soon as he could. ‘Do it for Bob.’
Mitch Wallis had one of the worst leg breaks possible and his 2016 was written off. Injuries kept coming, and the media kept calling it the end. But Beveridge was ready to make it a new beginning for whoever came in to fill that position.
He called on all of his team to pick up the slack, stand up and be counted. And they did. All of that massive pressure was dutifully carried by this champion team. You can find that extra ten per cent when your mind says you’re done – Beveridge found even more.
There was never a game they weren’t leaving everything on the field. It was amazing to watch.
But that weight does get to you. Those 2008 Hawks (by their own admission) snatched the title ahead of time and the next year dropped to ninth.
Playing on emotion can exhaust you. Playing for those who can’t be out there, playing harder to prove the doubters wrong, playing with 62 years of hope riding on your back. Once that pressure is lifted, players can relax too much, assume that they’re done, let the exhaustion get to them. Not every player, but harking back to the core of that group being so young? A lot can.
Maybe too many get the head wobble, the premiership hangover – or worse still, they could go the other way and train themselves into the ground (but in the days of the ever watchful eye of sports science, the latter scenario is less likely).
Not forgetting that their big power forward was snatched away from them by ASADA and replaced by an instant millionaire who hadn’t proved much up north, then continued to prove very little in his new colours. The Dogs had to find new ways to score and managed to do it without the clunky hands of Tom Boyd being involved.
I will give him credit in the grand ginal – cometh the hour, cometh the man – Boyd played out of his skin and was just as worthy of the Norm Smith as Johannisen.
But if not for that game, his season could easily be considered on the high end of underwhelming. Can he stand up again for more than one game in 2017?
Then it brings the question – there will now be three behemoths in the forward line and do they need any of them? Are they stacking an area that is irrelevant to Beveridge’s game plan? I’ll obviously back in a premiership-winning coach’s plan, but it raises the question.
And how will these young stars play with a white-hot target on their back? Or worse still – expectation? They’ve not had to contend with either of these elements for over half a century. Will it be a straw to break the camel’s back, or will this champion team absorb it like all the other turmoil that befell them?
I need to stress that I’m not taking anything away from that fantastic grand final win. Those Dogs will deservedly be immortalised in football folklore. Dogs fans will re-watch the game for the rest of their lives – they won and they won against all the odds! They beat the Sydney beast. Both of them, actually. They took out West Coast in Perth. Stepped over last year’s premiers. What more could they do?
They beat everyone in front of them like ’90s Van Damme.
The Dogs grinded out a premiership in true Western Suburbs style: nothing flashy, just hard, slogging work. That makes the cup in their hands worth every push-up, every gut-busting run, every spoiled mark – those one per centers were never more valuable.
These Dogs will be hovering in and out of grand finals for a long time as these superstar kids only get better.
I just don’t think they will next year.