The Roar
The Roar

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Unburdened by expectation, can the Bulldogs climb back into contention?

2016's premiers were 2017's non-finalists. (AAP Image/Julian Smith)
Expert
20th March, 2018
32

The year after the ultimate victory, premiers often go into single games needing to beat multiple opponents.

So the Bulldogs played last season, not just needing to beat a Fremantle or a Port Adelaide, but a big chunk of the world as well.

The 2016 Dogs played liquid football; the 2017 version were frozen in animation. A team that once played with fervour and violent, infectious joy suddenly became tired and fretful.

The premiership team was special because it was unconscious. The rapid handball chains were inexplicably perfect – the crazed hunting in packs overwhelming and magnetic. They didn’t think, they just tackled, passed the ball and ran, and then they just won – four of the sweetest triumphs the sport has known.

Last year, there was no sweetness, no unconsciousness. There was just this off-tasting, over or perhaps under-thought malaise – a team that spent an entire year trying to remember something.

They had stretches where they looked like what we considered ‘themselves’ – brilliant quarters where you could feel late 2016 again. But, for the most part, they just laboured, a mediocre team inflated by a few close wins and our expectations of what they should have been. They borderline capitulated after the bye, a 5-7 record to finish that could have been 3-7 if North Melbourne knew how to close or Cale Hooker knew how to kick straight.

Jake Stringer Western Bulldogs AFL 2017

Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

They seemed to outright give up in games against Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, alleged blockbusters that fizzled out because the champion got knocked to the ground after the first punch to land square.

The proverbial and surely often literal premiership hangover was pointed to, but deeper questions about the list also arose. Outside of Marcus Bontempelli, unequivocal game-destroyer, how many stars do the Bulldogs really have?

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Jackson Macrae is probably the team’s second-best player. Macrae is a wonderful player, a runner and accumulator with fine touch, and one of the league’s most underrated midfielders, but he’s ill-cast as the guy next in line to Batman.

Luke Dahlhaus, Lachie Hunter, Mitch Wallis, Caleb Daniel, Tom Liberatore, Toby McLean … they’re all solid to very good players, but they only become special when the chains that link them are special. In isolation, as men standing alone with the ball needing to make a hidden decision that will lead to something magical, they are far from superstars.

Outside of Bontempelli, and Tom Boyd in September, only Easton Wood and Jason Johannisen really look like stars – Wood with his superhero, protector of the Ark-type high horizontal-flying across half-back and Johannisen with his mad, purposeful dashes from the same starting point. Last year, though, Wood was ailing and Johannisen was much more than ailing.

Jason Johannisen Western Bulldogs AFL 2017

AAP Image/Julian Smith

This year they and everyone have a fresh start. The Bulldogs have gone from being presumptive contenders to realised contenders to expected contenders to now just a team that’s slightly ahead of Hawthorn and Collingwood in the pecking order of teams vaguely in the mix for finals.

The weight has been lifted, with a suddenness that only a year of biting disappointment can produce. They’ll be much younger this year, and surely re-energised. There are already issues with the defence decimated by injuries to Marcus Adams and Dale Morris, a problem compounded by the head-scratching decision to turn Easton Wood into a forward, Exhibit #1093 of coaches feeling compelled to shift players from something they’re definitely good at to something they might be good at.

But a couple of injuries won’t be nearly as much of a burden as the world expecting to you to go close to making impossible happen for a second time.

The opening eight rounds present a favourable draw for the Dogs, and an upset win in Round 1 would launch their season. The opponent will be the Giants, the team they beat so famously to put their hands around impossible, a week before taking it. On Sunday, they start the long journey back to where they so quickly rose.

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