The Western Bulldogs achieved the ultimate in 2016, breaking a 62-year premiership drought after finishing the home-and-away season in seventh place.
First things first: the 2016 Western Bulldogs are gone and they aren’t coming back.
The game and the league have changed in the past three seasons, and half of the Dogs’ premiership players have either left or are unlikely to play for the club again.
Too much of the analysis on these Bulldogs is still viewed through the 2016 prism. It’s time for everyone to move on and see them for what they are, and what they could be.
The Dogs don’t have many A-graders on their list, which is part of the reason they’re stuck in the middle of the ladder. But they do have two bonafide stars.
It’s not difficult to make a case that Marcus Bontempelli is the best player in footy, and his prolific running mate, Jack Macrae, is one of the league’s best second bananas.
The second tier
This is the Bulldogs’ strength, and why when things click they can mix it with just about any side – they’ve beaten three of the current top-four.
Jason Johannisen, Josh Dunkley, Caleb Daniel, Hayden Crozier, Tom Liberatore, Lachie Hunter and Toby McLean are all quality footballers. Sam Lloyd and Taylor Duryea have been smart additions.
As one of only two Bulldogs premiership captains, Easton Wood will forever be a legend at Whitten Oval, but Father Time is undefeated, and it appears he’s come for the skipper.
Of 66 players this season who have been involved in at least 30 one-on-one defensive contests, Wood’s loss rate of 39.4 percent is worse than 62 of those players – blimey.
Luke Beveridge has earned some criticism since the glory of 2016. His regular shuffling of players both on the field and in and out of the 22 over the past three seasons has at times been baffling.
But while criticism is warranted, he has also come up with a plan to put his team in a winning position on many occasions only to be let down by woeful finishing in front of the big sticks.
Sunday’s loss to the Lions was a good example. There’s no shame in a three-goal defeat at the Gabba these days, but if the visitors had made the most of their early chances, it could have been a different game – that’s been a regular theme.
The Team That Should Be Footscray is far too easy to score against. They’re giving up a goal on 24.9 per cent of opponents’ forward-50 entries.
Some of that is because their aggressive transition game can leave them badly exposed on turnovers, part of that is because their defenders aren’t very good.
Zaine Cordy always seems to be outsized and outclassed, and while Jackson Trengove has been a solid addition to the back six, much of his good defensive work is undone by skill errors and poor decisions.
There’s not a more exciting young prospect in the league than Aaron Naughton. He can be a little shaky in front of goal – it’s the Bulldog way – but he’s special in the air. Naughton is eighth in the league for marks inside-50 this season and has taken more contested marks than anyone. Oh, and he’s still a teenager.
Tim English is starting to look every bit the modern ruckman he was advertised as, and Bailey Smith gives the club the kind of player they’ve been crying out for – an inside midfielder with breakaway speed.
Ed Richards has had a bit of a second-year slump, but still looks a long-term player off halfback or a wing. Josh Schache might never live up the lofty expectations that come with being a No.2 pick, but he should play plenty of footy alongside Naughton and – unlike many of his teammates – is a reliable kick for goal. As are Patrick Lipinski and Bailey Dale, who are both contributing forward of centre.
The finals door is still ajar and if the Dogs can beat the injury-hit Bombers on Saturday night, they’ll nudge it open a little further. It’s a game they should expect to win.
There’s a strong foundation here with one gaping hole: they desperately need a quality key defender. That has to be the priority this offseason, and their entire haul of draft picks should be on the table for ready-made players.
We’ve seen how even the league has become; the gap from first to everyone but Gold Coast is pretty slim, but if you don’t step up, you’ll quickly be left behind.
Three years without finals would be tough to swallow, a fourth would be borderline unacceptable.