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Contender scrapheap: Should this have been the Bulldogs’ year?

The losses are stacking up for the Bulldogs. (AAP Image/Julian Smith)
Expert
4th August, 2016
20
1003 Reads

One of sport’s favourite fallacies is that the best team always wins. The season is so long, the trials so thorough, that surely only the most deserving victor could possibly emerge.

Some seasons, maybe even most seasons, the best team does win. 2007 was always Geelong’s year, just like 2000 was always Essendon’s. Often the narrative is late to form, but by the end of 2010 it felt right that Collingwood should win, just as it felt right by the end of the following year that they should lose to the Cats (although if Mick Malthouse had just put Chris Tarrant onto Tom Hawkins to start the last quarter like any sane person would have…).

2016 has no coherent narrative driving it, and, of course, that’s ended up becoming the season’s story – a league and a ladder swimming triumphantly in ambiguity. But with the perspective of October second, we’ll look back on the season as though it had an arc that made sense, and fill in the gaps to make the story understandable and purposeful.

In retrospect, it will become clear that 2016 was the coronation of Clarkson’s Hawthorn as the greatest team in AFL history with their four-peat. Or maybe it’ll be self-evident that it was always Geelong’s year, their season to remind history of their own merits, with a fourth flag in a decade to match Hawthorn’s tally.

Perhaps Lance Franklin and the Swans will win, and prove how influential free agency can be, or maybe the Crows will prevail and prove that the movement of star players isn’t decisive at all. Whatever the story, we will make sure it makes sense.

But I can’t help but feel that the 2016 story was shaped, or rather, bent out of shape, all the way back in Round 3. Should this have been the Bulldogs’ year?

When Robert Murphy went down against the Hawks, the Dogs didn’t just lose their captain; they lost maybe their best player.

After being defined by breakneck pace and heavy scoring last year, the Dogs, even before the mayhem of the past fortnight, haven’t been able to generate enough offence this season. In 2015 the Bulldogs ranked fourth in points scored, one goal short of being tied for third with Adelaide. This year they rank 10th.

Most of the attention for these scoring woes has focused on the forward line, with a stagnating Jake Stringer, a regressing Tory Dickson, and a misfiring or absent Tom Boyd the poster boys for disappointment.

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Stringer and Dickson combined for 4.72 goals per game last year – this year they’re at 3.56. That greater than goal per game drop off goes a long way in explaining how the Dogs have fallen from 96 points per game in 2015 to 87 in 2016.

The absence of Murphy goes even further in explaining the fall. The logic wouldn’t usually be fluent in figuring out how the loss of a defender has significantly compromised an offence, but Murphy is a unique, wonderful beast, whose attacking influence from the back half is as great as any player in the game.

When a team lacks a transcendent, gravitational key forward in the form of a Lance Franklin or Josh Kennedy, transition offence becomes a lifeblood of scoring.

So often last season Murphy would be the conductor of the Dogs’ transition orchestra, accelerating off the back-flank, pacing purposely through the middle of the ground and pumping the ball inside 50 with accuracy and conviction. Players like Stringer and Dickson were the final beats in the cadences of Murphy’s music. This year the Bulldogs have had to rely more on solo performances in the absence of their captain, and the results have been the difference between a Thom Yorke album and a Radiohead release.

Of course, Murphy going down was just the first haymaker that the Dogs had to wear this season. Already dazed by the suspension of Stewart Crameri (who kicked a not insignificant 32 goals last year), Murphy’s ACL tear put the Bulldogs on the mat. But they got up, like they always have this year.

I googled ‘Western Bulldogs injuries’ to remember exactly everyone they’d lost, and an article came up detailing their horrific run. The article was dated June 25th – a.k.a. before Mitch Wallis and Jack Redpath went down for the year, before Tom Liberatore and Jackson Macrae had their seasons put in jeopardy.

Along with that crew of wounded, Jason Johannisen, Luke Dahlhaus, Easton Wood, Matt Suckling, Marcus Adams, Koby Stevens, Boyd and Dickson have also had long stints on the sidelines. There’s ‘bad luck’ with health and then there’s the universe burning your toys and giving you tonsillitis on Christmas when you haven’t done anything wrong.

After that June 25 article detailing their Walking Dead cast, the Bulldogs went out and beat the Swans at the SCG, in what still might be the most impressive win of the season. This team is special, and the resilience they’ve shown all season is proof. Resilience in a losing cause is admirable, but this team might have been special enough to go all the way.

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A premiership team has to go through adversity, through real pain, and the Bulldogs endured that with last year’s finals defeat, put to the sword by the Crows and one of the greatest kicks Ryan Buckland and I have ever seen (it came from the state of Texas).

It was early, but with two minutes to go in Round 3 this season, it was already starting to feel like the Dogs’ year. Two emphatic victories, and on the verge of toppling Hawthorn, they’d announced themselves as an upper-echelon contender. And then fate, ligaments and James Sicily intervened.

The Dogs are young, so it’s easy to see 2016 as an unfortunate blip on the road, a cosmic slap to the face that’s a mere hiccup before a premiership. But this team was ripe enough to win now.

Robert Murphy and Matthew Boyd will both turn 35 during next season, assuming the latter plays on. Dale Morris will be 34 and Liam Picken 31, and Suckling, Dickson and Crameri will all be 29 – it’s unlikely they’ll get better.

The decline of the veterans will be more than outweighed by the improvement of the youth. Marcus Bontempelli, Lachie Hunter, Shane Biggs, Tom Boyd, Johannisen, Dahlhaus, Adams, Macrae, Wallis, Liberatore and Stringer are all under 25. That young core is the envy of every team in the league.

Maybe this year from hell will be the fire that ignites that core into maturity. But they might have already been there – they might not have just been ready this year to contend, they might have been ready to win it all.

Even with their injuries, the Dogs have remained elite this season. They’re the best contested possession side in the competition, number one in clearance differential, and they’re second only to Geelong in dominating territory. The only team in the eight with a higher effective disposal percentage is Hawthorn. It’s all there for the Bulldogs – everything except enough men left standing.

Fate and injuries have conspired to sink many contenders over the years. West Coast in 2007, Hawthorn in 2009, the Bulldogs in 2010, Hawthorn again in 2011, Collingwood in 2012, and Sydney and Fremantle last year could all argue to varying degrees that they would have had a real shot at the flag if health had just been slightly kinder to their stars. The Bulldogs are that ‘what if’ team this year.

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Realistically, now there are five premiership contenders. There should have been six, and the sixth might have been the best of them all.