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Believe it or not, the Bulldogs were 2018's biggest overperformers

Marcus Bontempelli. (Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)
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1st September, 2018
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It’d be easy to look at the Bulldogs’ record since winning the 2016 flag and question the quality of their performance, but if you look below the surface, they’ve arguably done better than expected.

Today in my list breakdown series we’re looking at the last of the bottom six sides, which is exciting because it means tomorrow we’ll be moving on to some of those who were making a more genuine attempt to play finals this year.

Before that though, let’s take a look at the Western Bulldogs, and why despite falling well short of finals, they were arguably 2018’s biggest overperformers.

List breakdown

If you were to look at the Bulldogs’ overall list profile then you could quickly get a sense of why more might have been expected from them this year than what they ultimately delivered.

They entered the season with the seventh-youngest playing list on average – older than all the other bottom-six lists and also, surprisingly, reigning premiers Richmond.

They were equal 13th for most experienced – not great, but tied with Carlton and ahead of all the rest of the bottom six.

However, their overall list profile ultimately was not indicative of what kind of team the Bulldogs were putting on the field in any given week, and instead they tended to field a historically young and inexperienced side.

They gave 56 per cent of all games in 2018 to players aged 23 and under, the most of any side in the AFL.

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They were rewarded with 82 AFLCA votes from players in this age group, ahead of the AFL-wide benchmark of 71.

Marcus Bontempelli is the headline act in this group of young stars but it also includes the likes of Tom Boyd, Toby McClean, Caleb Daniel, Josh Dunkley, Tim English, Josh Schache, Bailey Williams, Ed Richards and Aaron Naughton who all look to have strong futures at AFL level.

There’s also Patrick Lipinski, Lewis Young, Billy Gowers, Bailey Dale, and Zaine Cordy in this group, all with some talent.

The Dogs didn’t just make an abnormally high investment in 23-and-under talent though – even in their prime-age group, everything was geared towards youth.

They saw another 28 per cent of their total games played put into players aged 24-26, returning 126 AFLCA votes. For comparison, the average across the AFL would be 25 per cent of games from this group for 99 votes – so again, they’re ahead of expectations.

Who are we talking about here? He’re talking Jack Macrae, Jason Johannisen, Lachie Hunter, Mitch Wallis, Tom Liberatore, Luke Dahlhaus, Hayden Crozier and Marcus Adams.

Jackson Macrae

(Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

It’s once we go higher than this age group however that we see why the Bulldogs were such an incredibly young team.

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Players aged 27 and older for the Dogs only filled 16 per cent of the 2018 team for a return of 14 AFLCA votes, compared to a leaguewide average of 37 per cent and 128 votes.

Looking even more specifically at players 30 and over, they played just six per cent of games for the Dogs for no AFLCA votes, while the league average was 14 per cent and 48 votes.

Why? It’s ultimately a combination of player unavailability and player quality. Some players were too injured to make a consistent impact for the Dogs, some just weren’t in good enough form.

In the 27-29 bracket they’ve got Easton Wood, Jordan Roughead, Jack Redpath, Shane Bigss, Tom Campbell and Jackson Trengove. Trengove managed 16 games, no one else in this group could muster more than 12.

When it comes to players 30 and over they’re looking at Matt Suckling, Tory Dickson, Liam Picken and Dale Morris. Suckling and Morris managed 11 games each, Dickson eight, Picken none.

The overall picture is one a team whose youth and early-prime-age players are elite, but above that is a little more shaky.

A bad roll of the injury dice probably exacerbated that dynamic in 2018, so with a little more luck and continued improvement from youth in 2019 they should rise – and rise, and rise to follow that.

The Dogs have relatively few glaring list needs, position wise. They’ve invested in young talls so are well set there.

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There’s an arguement that a mature ruckman to shoulder the load would make them more competitive, and it would, but I don’t mind the more longterm way they’re eyeing things now.

I’d say they could probably use a good small forward, and other than that just keep adding midfield depth.

All of those things they will have the opportunity to gather at the draft inside the next few years so keep going back to the well and it will be hard to go too far wrong.

Underperformed or overperformed?

Because they invested so heavily in youth – sometimes by choice, sometimes with their hand forced – the Bulldogs fielded a side that was incredibly young and incredibly inexperienced.

Their average side on the park was about 23-and-a-half years old, which is a whole year and a half younger than the AFL average.

It made them by far the youngest side in the league, almost a half a year younger than the next youngest, the Gold Coast Suns.

Their side fielded 1477 games of experience on average, again by a huge margin the least experienced side in the league, 550 games less than the AFL average.

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It was 150 games less on average than the next youngest side, again Gold Coast.

To put this in context, the Dogs on average were a full year younger and almost 300 games less experienced than two-win wooden spooners Carlton.

They were more than two and a half years younger and nearly 1000 games less experienced on average than the AFL’s oldest and most experienced side, Hawthorn.

Despite this they finished the season with eight wins and in 13th place – an enormous achievement given what they put on the park each week.

Verdict: Not only did they clearly overperform, but I believe there’s a case to be made that they were the biggest overperformers in the AFL. Age and experience suggests they should’ve been wooden spooners, but instead they finished the year well clear of the bottom four.

Contracts

Something that has been a little disquieting about the Bulldogs throughout the year is the fact they’ve left a number of key players hanging on the contract front for so long.

Mitch Wallis, Tom Liberatore and Luke Dahlhaus are all free agents this year and at times it has seemed like the Bulldogs are disinterested in keeping them.

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All three have declared they want to stay at the club at some point or another, and all of them are of at least reasonable quality. Two are premiership players.

From reports yesterday, it sounds like Wallis and Liberatore are set to sign new deals with the Bulldogs, which is good news.

However it appears Luke Dahlhaus is as good as gone with reports that he’ll accept a deal worth $2 million over four years from the Geelong Cats.

This baffles me because it is by no means an exorbitant price to pay for Luke Dahlhaus – we’ve been told that contract length and value was the problem with the Bulldogs. Are they really not willing to stump up this?

$500,000 per year is not that far above the average AFL wage these days and while Dahlhaus has had a difficult year, he’s certainly an above average AFL player.

I just don’t get it. Surely the Dogs can spare that much. And maybe it’s not too late to convince him to stay.

Billy Gowers is the other name to re-sign for 2019 sooner rather than later. He’s had a really good year coming in as a recycled rookie.

However the Dogs will no doubt already have their eyes predominantly on securing the signature of Marcus Bontempelli for the long term, as he comes out of contract at the end of 2019.

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Marcus Bontempelli

(Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

I don’t think Dogs fans should be too nervous about the Bont. Yes, you’d like to see it locked in sooner rather than later – but it really is hard to fathom him playing anywhere else than the Bulldogs.

There’s a few others in 2019 who’ll be important to sign up, in particular Caleb Daniel is one I’d look to move quickly on.

While he doesn’t seem likely to want to leave, he is a South Australian so might get targetted by clubs there if there’s a sniff of him being available – best to get the deal done before anything develops there.

2022
Jack Macrae
Toby McLean
Jason Johannisen

2021
Tom Boyd
Zaine Cordy
Ed Richards

2020
Marcus Adams
Tom English
Aaron Naughton
Josh Schache
Jackson Trengove
Easton Wood

2019
Marcus Bontempelli
Hayden Crozier
Caleb Daniel
Bailey Dale
Josh Dunkley
Fergus Greene
Lachie Hunter
Patrick Lipinski
Dale Morris
Liam Picken
Callum Porter
Jack Redpath
Fletcher Roberts
Roarke Smith
Matt Suckling
Luke Webb
Bailey Williams
Lewis Young

Out of contract
Tom Campbell
Luke Dahlhaus
Tory Dickson
Mitch Honeychurch
Billy Gowers
Lin Jong
Tom Liberatore
Brad Lynch
Jordan Roughead
Mitch Wallis

Free agency

The Dogs have no less than four free agents this year, with Luke Dahlahus and Jordan Roughead seemingly set to leave the club, Mitch Wallis and Tom Liberatore expected to stay.

Dahlhaus will go to Geelong as mentioned, while Roughead’s future is a little less clear. St Kilda are known to be interested, but he’s also currently meeting with the West Coast Eagles.

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Any deal that does happen is likely to be small potatoes and the fact that Dahlhaus is leaving for such a small contract suggests he won’t get much of a return either.

I’d expect that the Dogs will get either a second-round or end-of-second-round pick for Dahlhaus’ departure – while he’s not getting paid much, he is young, which works in their favour.

Luke Dahlhaus

(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Roughead you’d expect will get minimal compensation if anything.

Don’t expect the Bulldogs to target a free agent of their own this offseason. They haven’t been linked to anyone in particular and don’t really have obvious needs.

Picking up a free agent of their own would also cancel out the compensation they’d otherwise get for Dahlhaus and Roughead leaving.

Trade period

As things currently stand it looks like the Bulldogs will have relatively little involvement in the trade period, and might not have a single player go in or out through trade.

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The only player who has been talked about is Tim English, who the West Coast Eagles have reportedly considered poaching as they look for creative solutions to their ruck dilemma.

I don’t think this is going to eventuate – the fact that the Eagles are presently talking to Roughead, after all, suggests it’s not their No.1 focus.

If it did it would be a disappointing result for the Bulldogs, but at the same time would present an opportunity to get some serious value back the other way.

There isn’t really an obvious player swap from West Coast’s list, though it might be worth asking the question of someone like Willie Rioli in circumstances like these.

That still seems unlikely though and probably the more likely development is that they could get West Coast’s first pick this year, which is pick 20, and their 2019 first-rounder.

I’m sure Dogs fans and the club itself would prefer to keep English, and fairly so, but it would be reasonable compensation.

They could then pretty easily turn pick 20 into another up and coming ruckman like Braydon Preuss, and still have an extra first-rounder in 2019 to play with.

Tim English

(Photo by Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images)

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They don’t seem to be pursuing any opposition players too aggressively at the trade table this year though and this is probably the right call.

However it might be worth talking to a team like the Adelaide Crows about a potential pick swap.

With pick 6, the Dogs are just one selection ahead of the Crows, but likely to be pushed out of the top six due Gold Coast getting a compensation pick for Tom Lynch.

Things are fairly even after that but the Crows, if they don’t have the chance to trade up even higher, might be interested in moving up to the Bulldogs’ selection to get the first shot at South Australian Conor Rozeee.

Adelaide have pick 7, Melbourne’s first pick and pick 19 to play with, plus whatever it is that they manage to bring in for Mitch McGovern.

The Crows’ first priority will probably be to target a pick near the very top of the draft order, but if that fails – which I suspect it will – then the Dogs might stand to gain some value late in the game.

Draft

As mentioned, Gold Coast getting a compensation pick will probably see the Bulldogs miss out on the top six, which is a shame as it’s where this year’s most proven talent lies.

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Instead they’ll likely have their pick of the next tier down, and I’d wager they’ll be looking at players like Connor Rozee, Jye Caldwell, Jackson Hatley, Curtis Taylor or Ian Hill with this selection.

Even if they miss on a top six pick, the Dogs are still set to get a major draft coup in the form of father-son player Rhylee West.

West, the son of Scott West, isn’t going to be bidded on before the Bulldogs’ first pick – more likely he’ll get some attention shortly after, and the Dogs can secure him for the bargain price of their second rounder.

Dogs fans will no doubt be excited to see the son of a gun come to the club, given just what an incredible player Scott was for the Bulldogs, his only flaw being an apparent inability to spell the name Riley in a sensible fashion.

For those of us like me who love words, it’s kind of neat to think that a literal son of West will become a figurative son of the West on draft night.

Rhylee West

Rhylee West. (Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

Expect the Dogs also to pick up 189cm South Sudanese refugee Buku Khamis via their next-generation academy at some point on draft night.

What I said last year

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“After winning the flag in 2008 the Hawks had to wait until 2012 to make the decider again, and 2013 before they won another one – it wouldn’t surprise me if the Bulldogs face a similar wait, but if they play their cards right, they have a similar chance of success.”

Outlook

There hasn’t been much need for me to talk about the Bulldogs in as much depth as I have so far other clubs in this series and that’s because little has changed for them since last year, and little looks likely to change this time around either.

Their 2016 flag was a classic example of when a group of quality veterans dovetails nicely with a group of quality young kids, and again the comparison to the Hawks in 2008 is accurate as they drop off temporarily as those veterans depart.

A player like Tim English perfectly sums up where the Dogs are at right now – a lanky lad who doesn’t look like he belongs on a footy field yet, but seems to punch above his weight already and promises plenty for the future.

It will take a few years, but they’ll get there, and if they do the smart thing by continuing to prudently invest in the draft between now and then, they’ll be all the more talented when they do. This seems to be the path they want to go down so they get a thumbs up from me.

My only concern is the willingness to let players go. Jake Stringer was forced out of the club last year and now it seems like Luke Dahlhaus has had his bags packed for him.

Stringer was obviously a controversial figure with his teammates so his departure is somewhat understandable, but as to why Dahlahus is leaving I am honestly left scratching my head.

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Is there some kind of salary cap problem? Surely not with so few older players on the list – they’d have to be frightfully mismanaged here not to be able to scrape together the cash.

The only way the Bulldogs could blow it from here is if they were to lose a big name like Marcus Bontempelli or Jack Macrae for no good reason when both should be slam dunks to secure as one-club players for life.

I don’t foresee that happening but this time last year I wouldn’t have foreseen it happening to Luke Dahlhaus either. Suffice to say my stomach will feel more settled on this team when Bonti has a contract for 2020 and beyond.

Overall though I still agree with the title of my article on them last year: “The five-years-from-now Bulldogs are still scary as hell.” The only difference is, now we’re one year closer.