2016 was the year of the (under) Dog.
The Western Bulldogs weren’t the best team of the year, but boy were they the best team of September. It’s hard to argue against it being the greatest finals campaign ever put together.
Their first scalp was the previous year’s runner-up, and the hottest team heading into finals, West Coast. In Perth, no less.
Next up was the little matter of Hawthorn, the three-peat champions, who themselves had only missed a preliminary final berth by a metre or two the week before.
Then followed another interstate trip, to take on the barnstorming Giants, and claim victory in a match that is well in the conversation for the best final of this century.
Finally, grand final day, and claiming the premiership trophy in front of a crowd that was 19 shy of 100,000, against Sydney, the ladder leaders and most consistently successful team of the last 15 years.
Western Bulldogs’ best 22
|B||Bob Murphy||Fletcher Roberts||Dale Morris|
|HB||Matthew Boyd||Easton Wood||Jason Johannisen|
|C||Jack Macrae||Marcus Bontempelli||Lachie Hunter|
|HF||Jake Stringer||Stewart Crameri||Liam Picken|
|F||Travis Cloke||Tom Boyd||Clay Smith|
|Foll||Jordan Roughead||Luke Dahlhaus||Tom Liberatore|
|Int||Tory Dickson||Caleb Daniel||Mitch Wallis||Shane Biggs|
Emergencies: Matthew Suckling, Josh Dunkley, Toby McLean
There are four players not in the 22 named above that played in the premiership.
Joel Hamling has gone to Fremantle, Zaine Cordy has effectively been replaced by Travis Cloke, while Mitch Wallis and captain Bob Murphy have squeezed out Josh Dunkley and Toby McLean. There is also another premiership player, ex-Hawk Matthew Suckling, on the outside.
Wallis broke his leg last year, and will be missing for most of this season, while Jordan Roughead is a few weeks away, so there are a couple of spots available to start the year.
The Dogs lack quality height across the ground. We’re not seeing any Wayne Careys, Glen Jakovichs or Dean Coxs running out in the red, white and blue.
But they more than make up for this at ground level, where they are ferocious at the ball and man. Luke Beveridge understands that you need to play to your strengths as a football team, not just focus on mitigating or shoring up your weaknesses.
Fletcher Roberts looks likely to get first crack as the lump of wood in the backline, to be supported by the ever-reliable Dale Morris and flag skipper Easton Wood playing taller and broader than their frames.
Run will be the order of the day from the backline, with Norm Smith medallist Jason Johannisen the hardest to deny. He is a legitimate line-breaker amidst the contested possession bulls, something which helped him stand-out on grand final day, even if his kicking was often astray.
Bob Murphy will be welcomed back to cut the angles, while Matthew Boyd is coming off an All-Australian year, and will continue to accumulate and distribute.
The midfield is led by Marcus the Magnificent or, as he is more commonly known, The Bont. He landed at number four in our Roar Top 50, and you can read Jay’s thoughts on him there.
Lachie Hunter and Jack Macrae run the wings, while Tom Liberatore and Luke Dahlhaus are the first class support for Bontempelli on the inside. Dahlhaus is the most balanced player of this group, and arguably has a case as the most under-appreciated player in the AFL.
The ruck division is the most obvious weakness on paper, but this was also the case last year when the Dogs were ranked first in the league for centre-bounce clearances and second for all clearances, time in forward half and inside 50 differential. Stoppages for them were as easy as shelling peas.
Jordan Roughead was the premiership ruckman, but will miss the start of the season, so Tom Boyd will take up the cudgels in the early rounds. All eyes will be on Boyd to see if he can use the confidence gained from last year’s grand final, when he could easily have won the Norm Smith, to elevate his game.
Travis Cloke will be another Bulldog to receive major attention, especially as he seems assured of a spot in the 22 in the initial stages of the season. He fell out of favour with Nathan Buckley in his last two years at Collingwood but is at his best when on the move, knowing his fall-back is being hard to beat in any one-on-one wrestle deep in the forward line. Cloke’s last outstanding season was 2013, and he’ll need to prove his worth in order to hold his position.
Jake Stringer in 2016 was down significantly on goals, consistency and overall match impact from the previous year, and he seemed to struggle with the weight of expectation as one of the competition’s rising stars. Some VFL time late in the season might be the spark he needed to return to his best.
Stewart Crameri returns from his WADA-imposed suspension and will offer a marking target between the arcs. Liam Picken has been one of the Dogs’ best players in the past two seasons, with a superb finals campaign the cherry on top. Clay Smith averaged 18.5 touches and two goals a game through the finals and will be looking to post similar numbers across 22 rounds.
The beauty of the Dogs is the versatility they have in their second-tier players, and the sheer amount of them they possess.
Tory Dickson was a match-winner through the finals with his calm and canny finishing. Caleb Daniel is already one of the best decision-makers in the league. We know how damaging Matthew Suckling’s left foot can be.
The Bulldogs under Luke Beveridge like to win the ball at the coalface, then control it first by hand and then by foot, and they are exceptional at all these facets. They keep their turnovers down, which helps scores against them low, and they ensure the game gets played in their half of the ground.
The Dogs went into 2016 ranked 14th for age and 15th for experience, which makes them a premiership winner with a list profile similar to the 1993 Bombers and 2008 Hawks. Both of those clubs missed the finals the year after their flag success.
Are the Dogs psychologically mature enough to handle the expectation that comes with winning the ultimate prize, or will they flounder under the weight? This year they’ll be the hunted week after week, which is a completely different scenario to starting the underdog four finals in a row.
In their favour is a friendly opening five weeks, which should help them build momentum into the season. And, of course, they have the magic man Luke Beveridge. He’s had the answers to every challenge thrown at him in his senior coaching career so far, and it would be a brave person to bet against him.
Some young horses win a Group 1 race, and it is the peak of their career. Others come back the next preparation and reach new heights. It will be fascinating to see which category the Bulldogs fall into.
Predicted ladder spread: 2nd-6th
Predicted finish: 3rd
Best and fairest: Marcus Bontempelli
Leading goalkicker: Jake Stringer
All-Australian potential: Marcus Bontempelli, Luke Dahlhaus, Jason Johannisen, Jake Stringer
Rising Star candidates: Timothy English, Bailey Williams
3rd – Western Bulldogs
4th – Geelong
5th – West Coast
6th – Melbourne
7th – Adelaide
8th – St Kilda
9th – Hawthorn
10th – Richmond
11th – Collingwood
12th – Gold Coast
13th – Port Adelaide
14th – Fremantle
15th – Essendon
16th – North Melbourne
17th – Carlton
18th – Brisbane