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The Western Bulldogs have been the story of the year

The Bulldogs are on the verge of a premiership, despite a horror injury toll. (AAP Image/Julian Smith)
Expert
21st September, 2016
46
1556 Reads

The Western Bulldogs are one win from a grand final berth, their first since 1961.

To reach the season’s finale they must beat a side that has never before played in a finals series.

Much has been written about the leap in performance this season by Greater Western Sydney, the most recent club to enter the AFL.

Having joined the league in 2012, GWS has a chance to play in a grand final in their fifth season.

Of the other modern-day expansion clubs only West Coast will have reached a grand final as quickly.

For the others it has proven a tougher assignment – Adelaide (7th season), Port Adelaide (8th), Brisbane (15th) and Fremantle (19th), while in their sixth season Gold Coast has yet to make a grand final.

It will be a meritorious achievement should GWS make the last game of the season.

In their first two years GWS suffered losses of 15 goals or more on 14 occasions

In their first season the club averaged 58 points per game while conceding 125. They fared only slightly better in its second with the ratio at 69-136.

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Last season the ledger was pretty much square at 85-86 while this year it is comfortably in positive territory at 107-75.

Such a progression was always to be expected.

In 2012 the club was predominantly made up of first-year players. Being competitive was never going to come in the club’s formative years.

However, having had the ability to handpick the cream of the country’s young talent and with the addition of some shrewd trades the club was always going to come of age and threaten for a flag.

It is safe to say though the Giants have exceeded most people’s expectations with where they sit at present.

Contrast their position however, with their opponent this Saturday.

The Bulldogs – or Footscray as they were at the time – entered the then VFL in 1925.

Their first grand final in 1954 provided the club with their one and only flag. Their second grand final appearance in 1961 is their last.

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When GWS entered the competition very little separated the clubs on the ladder.

The Giants, through their first three seasons, finished 18th, 18th and 16th. The Bulldogs finished 15th, 13th and 14th.

Last year the Giants placed 11th while the Bulldogs finished the home-and-away season in sixth but a loss to Adelaide in an elimination final saw them officially finish eighth at the conclusion of the season.

The majority of experts pre-season were divided on the Bulldogs. Very few had them finishing top-four this year, with the majority putting them in the bottom half of the eight or just missing out.

The Dogs have seldom been viewed as a genuine flag prospect.(Click to Tweet)

While GWS has had a plethora of first round draft picks with which to build its current squad, the Bulldogs have not been afforded a similar luxury.

Since 2010 the Bulldogs have utilised three draft picks inside the top-16 – in 2012 they recruited Jake Stringer and Jack McRae with picks five and six and snapped up Marcus Bontompelli with pick four in 2013.

One of the clubs most astute pick-ups in recent seasons has been the acquisition of coach Luke Beveridge.

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A disciple of Alastair Clarkson, having been an assistant at Hawthorn from 2012 to 2014, he introduced a ‘fast footy’ game style at the Western Oval. The young team immediately bought into the plan.

In two seasons at the helm he has taken the club to successive finals campaigns.

This season has not been a kind one when it has come to injuries.

Only Brisbane, Gold Coast and Richmond used more players during the year.

Last season’s best-and-fairest and All-Australian Easton Wood missed five games while runner-up, captain Robert Murphy, who was also an All-Australian in 2015, suffered a season-ending knee injury in Round 3.

Marcus Adams, recruited last year to fill a key defensive role, played the first 11 rounds before injury ended his season.

High profile recruit Tom Boyd was sidelined for 13 weeks after Round 4 while Jason Johannisen missed rounds 5-14.

In the run in to the finals more trouble beset the club’s playing stocks. Mitch Wallis suffered a season ending broken leg in Round 18 while Jack Redpath’s season also ended that weekend when he injured a knee.

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Compounding their loss, Tom Liberatore missed rounds 20-23 and Dale Morris Rounds 21-22.

Despite the mounting injury toll the club won three of its last four games with the loss coming at Subiaco Oval in Round 23 versus Fremantle.

The Bulldogs returned to Perth ten days later for an elimination showdown against West Coast.

On the back of three successive wins against GWS, Hawthorn and Adelaide to end the home-and-away season and a home ground record of 11-1 for the year, the Eagles were pretty much seen as certainties.

Beveridge’s men had other ideas. With a combination of pace and ferocity they blew West Coast of the paddock, winning by 47 points.

Similarly, the Bulldogs went into last weekend’s semi-final against triple-defending champion Hawthorn as the underdog. Again the club defied the odds coming from 23 points down in the second quarter to win by the same margin.

The run and gun style of the Bulldogs has proved irresistible.

Over the next two weekends the club has the chance to create history.

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Since the introduction of the Page-McIntyre finals system in 1931, only one club has come from outside the top-four to win the flag – Adelaide from fifth position in 1998.

The Bulldogs entered September seventh on the ladder.

Having claimed the scalps of both of last year’s grand finalists in successive weeks the club is primed for a red hot tilt at its second flag.

Given its premiership drought, the current playing style and the adversity it has faced of late the Bulldogs have become a sentimental favourite for the flag.

It has been a mighty year for the club and right now I see them as the story of the season.

That story could be even larger in two weeks’ time.