The Western Bulldogs won the 2016 premiership against all odds, staging a remarkable run through September while starting as underdogs in every match.
With the fifth youngest list of that year, a number skewed older by the inclusion of 33-year-olds Bob Murphy and Matthew Boyd, it was natural to wonder if they were on the verge of a dynasty.
Of course, in 2017 the dreaded premiership hangover struck. Despite a 4-1 start, which flattered them in a soft run of games, the Dogs could manage only 11 wins, meaning they went 7-10 in the their last 17 games. Hardly the stuff of dynasties.
In Luke Beveridge’s first year at the helm, the Dogs were ranked fourth in attack and a solid seventh in defence, but lost a high-scoring elimination final to Adelaide. That match was the only time this decade a team has lost a final despite topping 100 points.
Bevo obviously didn’t want that to happen again, and in their premiership 2016, the miserliness went up. Ranked third in defence, the Dogs strangled sides, but at the expense of scoring, dropping to 12th in points for during the home-and-away season. Admittedly, they did score freely in the finals.
Last year, the scoring dropped further still, the Dogs ranked a lowly 15th, even below the dysfunctional Collingwood, and North and Brisbane who played off for wooden spoon honours in Round 23. They once again reverted to mid-table in defence, ranked eighth.
Will the real Western Bulldogs please stand up?
B: Dale Morris Zaine Cordy Shane Biggs
HB: Jason Johannisen Marcus Adams Easton Wood
C: Jack Macrae Marcus Bontempelli Lachie Hunter
HF: Toby McLean Tom Boyd Luke Dahlhaus
F: Liam Picken Jack Redpath Tory Dickson
Foll: Jordan Roughead Mitch Wallis Tom Liberatore
Int: Jackson Trengove Caleb Daniel Matthew Suckling Bailey Dale
Em: Bailey Williams Hayden Crozier Josh Schache
Luke Beveridge has been renowned for throwing his players around, both positionally within games, but also in and out of the side. As a result, there feels like a lot of “jack of all trades, master of none” about this squad.
Marcus Bontempelli, rated the seventh best player in the game by The Roar panel, was a classic example of this last season. He spent so much time deep forward, and yes he was devastating at times up there, but it ultimately deprived the Dogs of drive and creativity in the middle for too long. It felt like a net loss for the team.
Beveridge is so addicted to versatility that players brought over from other clubs must possess it – Jackson Trengove was a key defender for many years, but has in recent seasons been deployed as back-up ruck and defensive forward. Hayden Crozier played forward pocket, forward flank and a year at half-back in his time at Fremantle.
There must be a school of thought that individual players would be better served by being allowed to grow in the one position. Confident players are more likely to produce results. The Dogs had all the confidence in the world in the 2016 finals, but looked to severely lack it last year.
Has Zaine Cordy found a home at full back, or was he just warming the seat for Marcus Adams? Has Trengove been recruited to have all three play in defence? It would be unlikely based on what we’ve seen under Beveridge, when he’d rather go one extra small than one too many talls.
Dale Morris is out for a few months with a partially torn ACL, which is a shame for the veteran, but will hopefully open the door for someone like Bailey Williams to get an extended run at it.
Easton Wood is the official captain of the club for the first time, and would like to find his best form of 2015-16 again after a slip in standards last year.
Jason Johannisen, Shane Biggs and Matthew Suckling provide the rebound and drive from the back half, but Johannisen showed last year that he was susceptible to a hard defensive tag and can expect to face more of the same again.
In the middle, Bontempelli, Tom Liberatore and Mitch Wallis are there to extract the footy from any stoppage situation. Liberatore was yet another Dog that had a down 2017, but track watchers have him back to his best. Bontempelli is an artist in close, seeing angles few others can.
Lachie Hunter is the most outside midfielder at the Bulldogs, while Jack Macrae is the most balanced, and was arguably the only player at the club to enhance his reputation last year. Caleb Daniel was probably another one that fits this bill, and his canny ball use will again be to the fore.
Luke Dahlhaus has posted similar numbers across the last few seasons, but seemed to lack for impact – this may have been an illusion that we can put down to the general malaise at the Dogs.
The Dogs forward line still looks piecemeal.
Jack Redpath seems to get dropped as often as he is selected, and is only ever one bad game from falling out of favour. Will Josh Schache get the chance to show his wares from Round 1? He didn’t come across as the most resilient character during his time in the headlines, and the jury is well and truly out.
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Tom Boyd’s 2016 grand final, when he could easily have been crowned a Norm Smith medallist, had all the hallmarks of a breakout, but it wasn’t to be. It’s unknown whether he’ll return as a key forward or ruckman.
Boyd, Jordan Roughead and Tom Campbell have all spent time in the number one ruck role across the last two seasons, but it’s doubtful Beveridge cares too much about the warm body he puts in the position.
Tory Dickson never got going in 2017, and strikes as the sort of player that will disappear from trace quickly. Clay Smith is another premiership Dog that went backwards at a rate of knots, playing a couple of decent games but not much more.
Liam Picken was more up and down than he’d have liked, unable to produce his sterling back end to 2016, a common theme among his teammates.
There doesn’t look to be an easy path to goal for the Dogs, especially now that Jake Stringer has been jettisoned. He kicked 122 goals under Beveridge, clearly the most at the club in this time.
We’re unlikely to see a spike in scoring, which means the Dogs defence is going to have to be grimmer than ever in order to climb the ladder. It may not make for pretty viewing.
The 2009 Hawks and 1994 Bombers suffered premiership hangovers to miss the eight the year after their flags, but both bounced back to finals the following season. It’s possible the same fate is in store for the Dogs in 2018, but you couldn’t be confident.
Prediction – 11th
Cam Rose’s AFL ladder prediction
11th: Western Bulldogs
12th: St Kilda Saints13th: West Coast Eagles
14th: North Melbourne Kangaroos
15th: Fremantle Dockers
16th: Brisbane Lions
17th: Carlton Blues
18th: Gold Coast Suns