Western Bulldogs boffins spent a long time after the devastating finals exit contemplating their next roster moves to get up the ladder four seasons after winning the club’s first flag of the AFL era.
The Western Bulldogs improved from 13th position in 2018 to seventh in 2019, by any measure a significant achievement.
In 2018 they won only eight games, but they improved to 12 wins in 2019 – a 50 per cent improvement – including wins against the teams that finished first, second and third at the end of the home-and-away season as well as fellow finalist Essendon. They failed to beat only Collingwood and West Coast.
A number of players who were part of the 2016 premiership matured to become part of the Bulldog’s elite all-time top 100 game players and provide a strong core for the new additions over the past three years.
The retirements of legend Dale Morris, the oldest player in the AFL to reach the 250 game milestone; and, earlier in the year, Tom Boyd and Liam Picken, mean that captain Easton Wood is the most experienced player remaining on the Bulldogs list. Wood played his 160th game this weekend and drew level on the club’s top 100 game players list with both Laurie Sandilands, the club’s leading goalscorer for the years 1972 to 1975 and captain from 1974 to 1976, and Ian Bryant, who played in the 1961 losing grand final side.
No other player at the club has played more than 150 games, but in the group that has played between 100 and 150 games is a galaxy of stars capable of taking the club higher in 2020 and beyond – Jack Macrae, Lachie Hunter, Jason Johannisen, Marcus Bontempelli and two sons of guns whose season was shortened due to injury, Mitch Wallis and Tom Liberatore. These players now sit between Nos. 64 and 88 on the Bulldogs all-time top 100 game players list and share the experience of a premiership and over five years of playing as a group.
Easton Wood turned 30 years old this week, and there are now only two other players on the list who are older: the serviceable Matt Suckling and current leading goalscorer – No. 29 on the club’s all-time top 100 goalscorers list – Tory Dickson. Given coach Luke Beveridge chose not to pick him for this week’s final, he may have been considered surplus to requirements in 2020, but the potentially serious knee injury suffered by up-and-coming star Aaron Naughtin may cause a rethink.
The recent imports have all added something to the team, and it would be expected that Hayden Crozier, Josh Schache, Taylor Duryea and Sam Lloyd will all feature in the Bulldogs plans for 2020.
Then there’s also the home-grown talent the Western Bulldogs have been nurturing, including in Billy Gowers (although he was also not picked for the game against Greater Western Sydney), Will Hayes, Toby McLean, Zaine Cordy, Caleb Daniel, Tim English, the outstanding Josh Dunkley, Patrick Lipinski and the three Baileys: Dale, Smith and Williams.
That makes a well-balanced, talented team that will improve markedly on this year’s seventh place and be much more competitive than the ten-goal thrashing by Greater Western Sydney suggests they were this year.