The Brisbane Lions are living perilously close to the edge ahead of their Round 4 clash against the Western Bulldogs.
With the off-season additions of gun midfielder Adam Treloar and veteran ruckman Stefan Martin, the Western Bulldogs arguably now possess the best on-ball brigade in the competition.
The added depth these new signings provide should also enable dynamic players such as Tim English and Marcus Bontempelli to drift forward and have more of an impact on the scoreboard.
This could certainly lead to greater headaches for opposition backmen than was seen last year, with Aaron Naughton and Josh Bruce struggling to have the consistent aerial influence many expected of them.
Despite these likely improvements, when you look at the Dog’s possible Round 1 line-up, they are still missing a key piece of the premiership puzzle: a match-winning key defender.
Try as they might, inexperienced backmen Alex Keath and Ryan Gardner are often overwhelmed by the opposition’s tall timber, a weakness especially prominent in the Dog’s elimination final loss to St Kilda, with Paddy Ryder, Tim Membrey and Max King each booting two goals and combining to drag down ample contested marks in the Saint’s forward line.
Now I wouldn’t necessarily say that either of Keath or Gardner should be culled from the best 22 come Round 1 this year, as both have shown potential and should end up great players, but right now additional support in the air is needed if the Dogs are to become a genuine premiership fancy.
If you reflect on the grand finalists from the past three seasons, you will recall that each team had at least one All Australian defender that effectively played the role of goalkeeper.
Think Dylan Grimes, Harry Taylor, Nick Haynes, Jeremy McGovern and Jeremy Howe. A player of this calibre therefore appears to be an essential ingredient in the premiership recipe, yet it is something the Bulldogs have failed to acquire over the off season.
In terms of how this can be resolved, there are two possible quick-fix solutions, but both seem very unlikely to occur anytime soon. Firstly, pick one in the draft Jamarra Ugle-Hagan could explode onto the scene and allow one of Bruce or Naughton to assume a key post in the backline.
However, the Dogs have expressed their desire for Ugle-Hagan to gradually build up to AFL standard via the reserves, they are very keen to continue developing Naughton as a forward, and it is doubtful that Bruce can become an All Australian defender at 28 years of age.
Alternatively, one of Keath or Gardner could have a breakout season and transform themself into an All Australian quality defender. Whilst this is a possibility, the pair have currently combined for less than 60 AFL games and are likely to take a little while longer before being any chance of becoming dominant defenders of the competition.
It is therefore much more likely that the Bulldogs will be forced to turn to the trade table for a defensive upgrade come season’s end, no doubt following a finals exit at the hands of a contested marking demolition from a player the likes of Tom Hawkins or Charlie Dixon.
Hence, the Dogs will continue to improve forward of centre in 2021, yet their neglected weakness in the defensive 50 means that we won’t be tuning in to watch them in the final game of the season.