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

Jay Croucher Columnist

By Jay Croucher, Jay Croucher is a Roar Expert


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    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?

    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.

    Jay Croucher
    Jay Croucher

    From MSG in New York to the MCG in Melbourne, Jay has spent his adult life travelling the world, indulging in sport and approaching it from the angle of history and pop culture. Follow him on Twitter @CroucherJD

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    The Crowd Says (32)

    • March 21st 2018 @ 9:13am
      I ate pies said | March 21st 2018 @ 9:13am | ! Report

      I’m obviously biased (to those who are regulars here anyway), but I get the feeling that we’re going to see the dogs of old this year. That first quarter against Collingwood in the JLT was a taste of what’s to come; they put the cue in the rack after that.

    • Roar Rookie

      March 21st 2018 @ 9:15am
      Wilson said | March 21st 2018 @ 9:15am | ! Report

      If the hunger returns then so too do the Dogs to the finals. Bevo is far too good of a coach/man manager to not reinvigorate them. 12 months ago the word “dynasty” was being thrown around when discussing the Dogs and while that was over the top, they should return to form this season. They’ll land somewhere in the top 6 I think.

    • Roar Guru

      March 21st 2018 @ 9:49am
      Cat said | March 21st 2018 @ 9:49am | ! Report

      They may play finals but I don’t see them as a real contender. In the year they won their premiership they finished 7th. They just weren’t that good of a team. They just timed their run right and everything fell their way draw wise.

      • March 21st 2018 @ 10:10am
        Aransan said | March 21st 2018 @ 10:10am | ! Report

        You mean they didn’t play Geelong?

      • March 21st 2018 @ 10:12am
        MattyB said | March 21st 2018 @ 10:12am | ! Report

        Cat,you could say injuries had a bit to do with the 7th placed finish,but that would be an excuse as much as a reason,and most of the injuries were in areas of the ground that could be covered,so the fact remains we did only end up finishing 7th.
        Timing in 2016 is a good point and there’s no doubt the dogs found form at the right time and rode that wave.
        I’m not sure the draw fell into place though,as we had to play WC and GWS away in finals. Getting a home state GF from 7th though certainly fell into our laps and was a major contributor to the premiership victory against the side that finished 1st.

        • Roar Guru

          March 21st 2018 @ 10:19am
          JamesH said | March 21st 2018 @ 10:19am | ! Report

          I wouldn’t even say the Dogs were overly favoured by the MCG as a venue for the GF. Neither they nor Sydney play regular footy that ground and from memory there was pretty even support for both sides on the day.

          Whatever caused the Dogs to finish 7th, no one can deny that they earned their flag with an incredible finals series. I think their efforts over those four weeks were as good as I’ve ever seen, given that they had two road trips and didn’t play a single game at their Etihad fortress.

          • March 21st 2018 @ 10:27am
            MattyB said | March 21st 2018 @ 10:27am | ! Report

            JamesH,we didn’t need to travel though.
            I’d also hardly call Docklands a doggies fortress,we actually play better at the MCG but this would obviously come down to good coaching as much as anything.

          • Roar Pro

            March 21st 2018 @ 2:43pm
            anon said | March 21st 2018 @ 2:43pm | ! Report

            Would the Dogs have preferred to play the Grand Final in Melbourne or Sydney?

            One city they wake up in their own beds and have a normal routine. The other they have to get to Sydney by Thursday for the parade, lose half a day travelling door-to-door, and then sleep in a hotel.

            • March 21st 2018 @ 5:23pm
              Kevin said | March 21st 2018 @ 5:23pm | ! Report

              Terry Wallace started making then overnight in motels for home games during his reign..as.he believed they better chemistry on away games ..so go figure ..

        • March 21st 2018 @ 11:43am
          Kevin said | March 21st 2018 @ 11:43am | ! Report

          Westcoast were with out question the hottest team In the final weeks of 2016 ..massive away wins v’s Adelaide and GWS in weeks prior

          • Roar Rookie

            March 21st 2018 @ 3:07pm
            Mattician6x6 said | March 21st 2018 @ 3:07pm | ! Report

            That injury to nic happened at worse possible point, but credit to the dogs they destroyed us when it counted

      • Roar Rookie

        March 21st 2018 @ 10:26am
        Wilson said | March 21st 2018 @ 10:26am | ! Report

        They had one of the most difficult run of finals I can recall to be fair, Cat.

        And yep, they finished 7th (they did win 15 games though which is easily enough to finish top 4) but for me at least, they had a style of footy that stands up in finals, much like the Tigers last season.

        I do expect them to contend this season.

        • March 21st 2018 @ 10:47am
          Aransan said | March 21st 2018 @ 10:47am | ! Report

          They could have come undone in the GF against Sydney. The Swans were reliant on Franklin and Tippett on their forward line, with Franklin injured early and with Tippett not performing I thought the Dogs were always going to win.

          A team generally needs to be playing its best footy in September on the MCG to win a premiership. A finalist that wins all its finals will always win a premiership. The Dogs did and the Cats didn’t.

        • Roar Guru

          March 21st 2018 @ 2:25pm
          Cat said | March 21st 2018 @ 2:25pm | ! Report

          While Richmond proved last year it is not an impossible roadblock to overcome, avoiding teams a club has historically been weak against does increase a sides chance to keep going on.

    • March 21st 2018 @ 9:51am
      MattyB said | March 21st 2018 @ 9:51am | ! Report

      The dogs should play finals again but to go any further they need to find improvment in a few areas.
      Outside pace is one area,most of midfield are inside players the balance isn’t quite right.
      Disposal,again due to having so many inside mids I don’t think the disposal is as good as it could be. This is most evident with poor or rushed movement into the forward line.
      The forward line,again because the list has so many inside mids some will need to perform as forwards.

      The forward line can probably be cobbled together and some sort of gameplan possibly devised.
      The lack of leg speed could probably be overcome with a gameplan that is devised around skill and precise ball movement.
      I’d say this is the area the dogs need to improve,and I’m not sure to what extent many of the players can improve their disposal,and to what level.

      • March 21st 2018 @ 11:00am
        I ate pies said | March 21st 2018 @ 11:00am | ! Report

        Spot on Matty. We’ve spoken about this problem many times on here, particularly with the usual suspects in Dahlhaus and Hunter, and it doesn’t seem to be improving.
        I think it’s partly due to their gameplan putting players under pressure when they kick; they need to find a way to give them more space when kicking into the forward line, and they need to be careful of over-use in the middle of the ground. The over-use causes the forwards to be out of position as they lead and then lead again and the ball hasn’t been kicked to them, meanwhile the backmen have manned up and when the ball finally goes into the foward line they don’t have any space. Then they kick it too far into the goal square and it’s easy pickings for the defenders. Even a short kick just inside the 50 would be a better option; that at least allows them a set shot on goal.
        Maybe Wood in the forward line will make a difference.

        • March 21st 2018 @ 1:48pm
          MattyB said | March 21st 2018 @ 1:48pm | ! Report

          IAP,if only it was Dahlhouse and Hunter who couldn’t hit the side of a barn door.
          Wallis,Dunkley,Smith,Jong,Honeychurch,Williams,Picken and we have an impressive list of players who struggle by foot and a couple by hand also,and don’t even get me started on Sucklings kicking ability despite one sensational pass out of every 20 turnover.
          The keys going to be manic pressure again to bring opposition disposal levels down to our own.
          On the plus side McLean seems like he can dispose of the ball to an appropriate level,and if Dale continues to find consistency be can also.

          • March 21st 2018 @ 5:25pm
            Kevin said | March 21st 2018 @ 5:25pm | ! Report

            I must agree .
            Hunter can be seriously one of the worst kicks in the competition..

          • Roar Guru

            March 21st 2018 @ 6:01pm
            Paul Dawson said | March 21st 2018 @ 6:01pm | ! Report

            One player no-one has really mentioned is Tory D1ckson – after 90 goals across 2 seasons in 2015/16, at age 30, 1.84cm – well, it’s hard to see him coming back and having a similar sort of impact this year, particularly after injuries

            Will need some younger players to step up in a back way to replace that sort of output

            • March 21st 2018 @ 7:05pm
              MattyB said | March 21st 2018 @ 7:05pm | ! Report

              Paul,good point on Dickson.
              In his favour last year is he tends to take few weeks to find form after injuries,and he didn’t get that,but working against him is the injuries could be catching up with him.
              I’d say the only natural forwards are Dickson and Redpath,and Redpaths only a moderate player with forward sense.
              In the reserves there’s Lipinski,but he’s to unproven to put any logical faith in yet. Greene also shows some forward craft but he’s an absolute mile off and he still needs to find more of the footy to be properly considered for AFL.

    • Roar Guru

      March 21st 2018 @ 10:30am
      JamesH said | March 21st 2018 @ 10:30am | ! Report

      Wouldn’t it have been a 3-9 record after the bye if they had lost to Essendon and Norf?

      At the start of 2017 you probably still would have called Stringer a star (or at least someone who looked like a star), even though he had a quieter 2016 than his amazing 2015. He still averaged roughly 14 touches, three marks, two tackles and two goals per game – hardly poor. It was last year that the wheels looked to have fallen off.

    • March 21st 2018 @ 10:57am
      Philthy said | March 21st 2018 @ 10:57am | ! Report

      I just don’t understand the pessimism about the Dogs chances this year. A large number of senior players had severely curtailed pre-seasons last year which caught up with them by mid-year. Together with opposition clubs spending the summer looking at their game plan, it was always going to be an uphill battle.

      Trust in Bevo. He delivered the first flag in 62 years, he can get the most out of what is still a very good list.