With six rounds remaining, including this weekend, the race for finals spots will continue to heat up this weekend.
The Western Bulldogs captured the imagination of many a footy fan in 2015 and now head into 2016 knowing they will catch no-one off guard. They will need to find improvement to remain a finals team.
Fortunately for them they come in with a good mix of experience and some dynamic youngsters. The Bulldogs should push strongly for a to four spot in 2016.
Western Bulldogs: Third
B: Matthew Boyd, Jordan Roughead, Dale Morris
HB: Jason Johannisen, Easton Wood, Robert Murphy
C: Matt Suckling, Tom Liberatore, Jack Macrae
HF: Luke Dahlhaus, Tom Boyd, Liam Picken
F: Tory Dickson, Jake Stringer, Koby Stevens
FOLL: Tom Campbell, Marcus Bontempelli, Mitch Wallis
I/C: Nathan Hrovat, Lin Jong, Lachie Hunter, Joel Hamling
Matt Stringer is one of the best young players in the competition, yet to turn 22 but coming off a dominant season in which he kicked 59 goals. Selected fifth in the 2012 draft, a move to the midfield may seem to be a natural progression, but with his mix of strength and explosive speed he is best left deep in attack.
Tom Boyd may never live up to his price tag, but at the moment the Bulldogs don’t need him to justify being paid $1 million a year, they simply need him to be the main tall target and compete every time the ball comes in his area.
Boyd is unlikely to turn into a top-class focal point overnight, but kicking a little over a goal a game and taking so few contested marks won’t be acceptable in 2016. Based on pre-season form and natural development, it would be reasonable to expect Boyd to improve dramatically this season.
Tory Dickson is one of the more underrated forwards in the competition, coming off a stellar season where he kicked 50 goals. Dickson gets very little of the ball but makes it count when he does; he kicked a goal from about every third kick he had last season.
The midfield depth will see the likes of Luke Dahlhaus, Koby Stevens and Liam Picken rotate through as half forwards. While a natural small forward is missing, it may not be an issue for a side with so much potency among its midsized players in this area.
Forward line – 7/10
This backline conceded the seventh least points in 2015 as well as the seventh least inside 50s, but they allowed the most conceded marks and the third most marks inside their forward 50.
The loss of Michael Talia over the off-season places pressure on both Jordan Roughead and Joel Hamling to continue to develop as they are poised to become regulars in this backline. Both showed plenty of promise in 2015 and Hamling’s improvement in particular will play a key role in enabling Easton Wood to avoid playing a lockdown role.
The 26-year-old Wood is coming off by far his best season in 2015, having won the club’s best and fairest award and featuring among the league leaders in intercept and contested marks. Seemingly entering his prime, his continued improvement would allow Robert Murphy and Matthew Boyd to utilise their experience and skills as attacking defenders who can start many an attack from the backline.
Having been leaders and stars for so long at Whitten Oval, these two veterans enter their twilight confident of being able to contribute as long as they can play their preferred style of game.
Tom Suckling was a prized free agent signing and is likely to get considerable attention from opposition teams at the Dogs, but his foot skills and big game experience will make him a fantastic weapon across half back and possibly on the wing.
While their defence is arguably the weakest of their lines, its ability to dictate the tempo of the game and play with flair will go a long way to determining where they finish in 2016.
Backline rating – 6/10
The young talent in this midfield is unmatched by any other team in the league. Marcus Bontempelli, Tom Liberatore, Mitch Wallis, Jack Macrae, Lachie Hunter and Stevens are all under 25, as well as Dahlhaus and Lin Jong who add depth to this group.
Liberatore enters 2016 effectively as a new recruit, having spent 12 months out of the game. He will be eager to repay the club after off-field turmoil in 2014. Liberatore ranked seventh in contested possessions and second in clearances in 2014 and third and first in those same categories in 2013. He remains an elite inside midfielder who complements Bontempelli and Wallis perfectly in what is set to be a first class starting midfield.
Bontempelli is just two seasons into his career but his arrow is pointing sky-high. He has already established himself as one of the better young midfielders in the game, ranking among the league leaders in inside 50s and tackles and performing at a consistent level. With an injury-free run and more support in midfield this season, a leap into the AFL’s very best players is not beyond the former number four draft pick.
Macrae and Hunter both performed very well as uncontested players in 2015 and combined for almost 50 possessions a game. The Dogs’ strong reliance on a running game and their fondness for the fast track at Etihad Stadium should see these two youngsters continue to thrive this season.
The ruck is the one area of concern, with Tom Campbell still raw and just 26 games into his career and Will Minson nearing the end and with a questionable relationship with the coaching staff.
Despite ranking 14th in hit outs in 2015, the Bulldogs ranked seventh in clearances and will be hoping that Campbell can contest and try to break even where possible. Their strength once the ball hits the ground should cover for the shortfall in the ruck position.
Midfield rating – 8/10
Fourteen games at Etihad Stadium, including the first seven games of the season is a fantastic result for the Dogs. Home ground advantage is not overly strong for most Victorian-based teams, but the Dogs dominate at this ground and will look to this favourable draw to mount a challenge on the top four.
They face seven six-day breaks and double up against losing 2015 preliminary finalists Fremantle and North Melbourne as well as expected improvers Geelong and Collingwood, and face four road trips in seven games mid-season.
The first month sees them tackle Fremantle and Hawthorn, while they finish the season with games against North Melbourne and Fremantle in Perth. This is not a simple draw, but is weighted heavily in their favour given how well Etihad Stadium suits their daring, attacking style.
Fixture rating – 6/10
Luke Beveridge was a driving force behind the Dogs in 2015, coming in as a rookie coach and immediately impressing a new game style on this strong young list. He will be expected to have learnt from their elimination final loss to Adelaide, where the Dogs dominated most statistical categories and had ten more inside 50s but were wasteful in front of goal.
The league will have a better plan to attempt to defend against the Bulldogs in 2016, but Beveridge showed enough in 2015 to make fans confident he will have an alternative plan in place. His main challenge will be ensuring the Dogs are not the Port Adelaide of 2015, powering up the ladder one year but falling back down the next due to a lack of imagination and gameplan flexibility.
Coaching rating – 7/10
The Bulldogs are primed to play in the last fortnight of the season in what promises to be a tight 2016 AFL season. Their list profile has a mix of experienced veterans and young talent, and the addition of Suckling and continued development of Stringer, Bontempelli, Hunter, Macrae, Dahlhaus and Wallis gives them as talented a top-end as all but a few other teams.
They will not prove whether they learnt from last season’s finals loss until September comes around, but it looks likely they will finish high on the ladder. The Bulldogs are set to at least return to the heights of 2008-2010 when the club made three consecutive preliminary finals. Their 62-year premiership drought may be very close to being broken.
Predicted finish: Third