Western Bulldogs coach Luke Beveridge is hopeful Aaron Naughton won’t miss the club’s finals series even if the star forward requires surgery on a facial injury.
The pre-finals bye weekend is the perfect moment for some reflection, and what better case for introspection than the club that was the first beneficiary of the bye, two years ago.
Since that drought-breaking premiership, the Western Bulldogs have failed to make finals in two successive seasons, and this year, at times, looked a long, long way off the mark.
Being the first team to win the premiership from seventh, and the first to do it from outside the top four under the current final-eight system, it’s tempting to view that one month of finals football as being a bit of a lucky break.
They certaintly were assisted by the bye weekend, with two or three of their better players being able to return from injury, while their opponent in that first finals game, the Eagles, lost a bit of momentum from having the break.
However, we shouldn’t view that seventh position in the manner one normally would. The Dogs won 15 games that year. In 1993, Essendon only needed 13 wins to top the ladder, and in 1998, the Bulldogs finished second with 15 wins.
Nevertheless, the last two seasons make that 2016 premiership look like a bit of a flash in the pan.
In October 2016, Dogs fans were on top of the world: premiership, record memberships, record profits, all merchandise sold out, and on it went.
On top of that, look at all the players who were going to come back from injury: Bob Murphy, Matt Suckling, Mitch Wallis, Marcus Adams, Jack Redpath and Lin Jong – our list was rock solid!
So many young players in their first, second and third year of footy were in that team: Marcus Bontempelli, Josh Dunkley, Toby McLean, Tom Boyd and Caleb Daniel.
The immediate future looked bright, we were on the verge of a dynasty.
The thing is, in the history of the game, no exact team of 22 who have won a grand final have ever appeared together in a game again… ever.
In the Dogs’ case, this would become evident within a week of the premiership. Even before celebrations had completed, Joel Hamling announced that he was returning to Western Australia.
Within 12 months, the whole back six had been decimated: Hamling gone, Morris and Wood injured for long periods, Fletcher Roberts barely played a senior game, Matt Boyd retired at the end of the 2017 season, and Biggs had lingering injury concerns that forced him into early retirement mid-way through this year.
Premiership heroes Liam Picken and Tom Boyd have had to face up to their own demons – concussion and depression, respectively – and have had extended periods away from the game across the two seasons.
Like Shane Biggs, Clay Smith has had persistent injury woes over the journey, and he too announced his intention to retire early mid-way through this season, at the tender age of 25.
For the whole of the last season, enigmatic forward Jake Stringer had to deal with a variety of personal issues, which ultimately forced him to consider a move to Essendon.
Elite ball-winner Tom Liberatore, son of a bulldog Brownlow winner, missed most of the season due to a serious leg injury.
So less than 24 months after winning the grand final, the Bulldogs had maybe 14 players to choose from who had played in the 2016 decider, and of those, a few have been out of form since that day, with others destined to go to other clubs in the off-season.
Considering how young the team was that won the premiership, it’s incredible that coach Luke Beveridge appears to have worked overtime to make the team even younger the last two seasons. It’s unclear whether it’s by design, or forced by a long injury list, but it has been happening.
This season, virtually all first and second-year players have seen game time. Most rounds, the Bulldogs were either the youngest team or the most inexperienced in terms of games played. There was at least one game where up to five players had fewer than ten games.
Does this point to some masterplan on the part of Bevo which is meant to come to fruition in the next season or two?
Most fans would like to think so, that there is method in the madness. Regardless, it has been a pretty big fall in a short period of time and all we can do is what the supporters of ten other clubs are doing right now: hope for better times next season.