THE GOOD, BAD AND UGLY – WESTERN BULLDOGS 2020 SEASON PREVIEW
So, we’re making this an annual tradition now – extensive season previews for all 18 teams in this format because… well, people seem to like the Good, Bad, Ugly format for game reviews and I thought why not? Also, I really like Clint Eastwood.
The Dogs leapt back into the minds of a casual fans with a second half of the season that looked as though it would provide a springboard into the finals. However, the pre-finals bye – the one that aided them so much en route to their 2016 triumph, worked the opposite way this time, halting their momentum. They crashed out in spectacular form, on the end of a beat down by a team they had thoroughly humiliated just weeks before.
Can the Dogs hit the finals hard in 2020? Can they take their new acquisitions, welcome back a familiar face or two and give the flag a genuine crack in 2020? Let’s explore
THIS IS THE BONT WE’VE BEEN LOOKING FOR
I wasn’t a fan of Marcus Bontempelli’s 2018 season. There were points where I felt he looked out of sorts and almost as though he was going through the motions as his team floundered for the second-straight year. Part of me wondered whether his form was symptomatic of the team, or vice versa.
I got my answer in 2019, when Bont slipped into high gear and started to make good on the potential he showed in 2016, and became the player he’s been threatening to be for a while now. The Bulldogs followed suit. Bont finally became an undoubted superstar and the Dogs were in form again.
There are others who get more of the ball, and sure they have their fans in AFL circles, but when Marcus Bontempelli grabs the ball at a stoppage and runs into the forward half, there are few better sights in the game. The comparisons between him and Patrick Cripps have been flying around all day today on Twitter. I’ve checked in on them here and there to see if anyone made convincing arguments either way, and it’s made me smile a bit. They’re very different players that just happened to be chosen in the same draft. Both great, both dominant, and both capable of swinging a game in their team’s favour.
And this is exactly what we saw in 2019.
Their two meetings last year were polar opposites. Cripps destroyed an unaccountable Bont in their first meeting, but in their second, Bont burst from the gates like a man with a point to prove. Make no mistake – it was the early efforts of Bontempelli that gave the Dogs the lead that won the game. The Blues may have come back hard, but Bont ensured the Dogs were in a position to win long before the Carlton revival occurred.
So, after winning the Coaches Association Player of the Year Award in 2019, what is the next logical step for the three-time Charlie Sutton Medallist? Many would think the Brownlow would be something he would be right in contention for, particularly if the Dogs improve on their 2019 result and amass a few more wins, but I’d like something more… meaty.
What I would like to see Bont take a finals game and tear it to shreds. I’d like to see him make a stand in the middle, tear the ball out of there to give his forwards a series of clear one-on-one chances, and then drift forward later in the game, himself to slam a couple home.
Reputations are made in September, and whilst Bont already has a premiership medallion to prove he more than belongs, being the best player on the best team is something that only the great ones ever achieve – it is all in front of him this season
THE MIDFIELD SUPPORTING CAST
There was another Bulldog on the podium as the All-Australian team was named last September, and that honour has never been as richly deserved as when Jack Macrae was named in the team.
Macrae has been an unstoppable ball-winning machine for the Dogs over the last couple of seasons, capable of tearing a team to shreds on the outside, or winning his own ball where necessary. That he has a running mate like Bontempelli means that Macrae will usually get a relatively free run at the footy, as most of the defensive attention goes to his new Captain, however it might be time for teams to rethink that strategy.
You see, it is not just Bont that hurts, and for that matter it is not just Macrae that hurts, either. 2019 saw the emergence of the third member of this elite midfield trio, that pound-for-pound, would have to be the best in the game right now.
After six games masquerading as a forward, Josh Dunkley was unleashed into the midfield, with devastating results. Whilst Macrae is the finesse, and Bontempelli is the heart of the team, Josh Dunkley is the Junkyard Dog. The Junkyard Bulldog, perhaps? He will get down and dirty, tackle you until your insides burst, and then win his own footy as well.
Get these numbers – once Dunkley made his way into the midfield, he averaged 30.16 touches, 6.27 tackles and 6.11 clearances per game. To put it in perspective, on those numbers he would have been ninth in the league in disposals, 13th in clearances and 13th in tackles (amazingly, he was 13th in tackles anyway, so there you go). They’re the sort of numbers that the best midfielder on a team garners.
Dunkley would be considered by most as the third mid on this team. It’s crazy.
Two of the Western Bulldogs mids made the All-Australian team in 2019. The last time three mids on the same team made the AA team was in 2016, when Kennedy, Parker and Hannebery all made it from Sydney. We might see three Dogs in there in 2020.
THE BEST YOUNG FORWARD IN THE BUSINESS
Yes, forwards take a long time to mature – we’ve all heard that, right? The coaches preach patience whilst the media salivate over the next big thing and the possibilities of bags of goals.
And then along comes a kid who looks like a pretty good defender in the making, until the coach decides he might be a bit of alright if he throws him up forward.
Then, as a teenager, he goes about his business and comes within one grab of toppling the contested mark record, held by a player many view as the greatest of the modern era, Wayne Carey. But that’s where we find Aaron Naughton as we prepare for the 2020 season, already displaying and refining the kind of marking prowess that other young key forwards are trying to locate.
His nine contested marks against the much-celebrated Richmond defence were an ominous sign of what is on the horizon. Naughton isn’t waiting for the game to come to him – he is grabbing it by the throat and giving it an almighty shake. He is yet to play a game in his 20s, yet sat second to only Tom Lynch in contested grabs for the 2019 season.
He did this without a legitimate secondary marking target inside 50, as the Dogs looked to him as their bail-out option every time they needed one.
It’s hard to believe that Josh Schache averaged more goals per game than Naughton in 2019. Naughton had just 1.39 to Schache’s 1.71, but there is no question as to which player is more valuable to the team right now.
If we were to grab a bunch of list managers and ask them which player they would grab right now to build around, I wonder how many would choose the 20 year old Naughton. Many would probably grab a midfielder. Not me. Naughton would be my choice – key forwards who are ready to deliver before getting off their P-Plates don’t grow on trees. Aaron Naughton not only delivered in 2019, he delivered more than the Dogs had a right to expect.
Let’s assume he improves again – and why wouldn’t he improve again? What would be the ceiling for him in 2020? He averaged 2.3 contested grabs last season. Matt Taberner was leading the league until he was injured at 2.7 – there’s your Naughton benchmark for 2020. For goals, you’d want him to have a slight gain at least – up from 32 goals to around the 40-mark.
If he accomplishes those targets, he will be knocking on the door of the AA team in short order.
I have to admit, when Luke Beveridge started playing Naughton up forward, I thought he may have been flirting with the form of the youngster. Naughton had started to look right at home in his first season, but as we neared the end of 2018, there he was popping into the forward 50. I suppose the ends justify the means.
There are several good young contested marking players coming through right now. Harry McKay at Carlton and Mitchell Lewis at Hawthorn are two that are nipping at the heels of Naughton, but from what I saw in 2019, they have a way to go yet. He is now the standard by which young marking forwards are set.
And he is only going to get better.
THE NEW RECRUITS
I’ll touch on the ruck situation and why I thought the Dogs should have been targeting a secondary ruck below, but in landing both Josh Bruce and Alex Keath, you’d have to declare this trade period a success for the boys from Whitten Oval.
Whilst I obviously rate Aaron Naughton incredibly highly, the addition of Josh Bruce to an already potent forward line is a ripping move by the Dogs. Bruce was sixth in the league in contested marks in 2019, and when you consider that Naughton was second, you start to get a picture of what the pair can do for each other up forward.
Bruce really established himself as powerhouse inside 50, taking seven contested grabs on two occasions last season, one of which coincided with a six-goal haul against the Kangaroos.
At the other end, Alex Keath was having his name thrown around as a possible All-Australian candidate before injury sent him to the sidelines. Having him back there with Easton Wood, Hayden Crozier and Jackson Trengove fortifies a pretty strong defensive six for the Dogs.
It was against the Dogs last season that Keath really strutted his stuff, finishing with 21possessions and 14 marks as the Crows took home the four points. Now, with a weapon like Keath patrolling his own defensive 50, Luke Beveridge would have a smile from ear to ear.
Are these two inclusions enough to propel the Dogs deeper into the finals? Neither has experienced any September action to this point in their careers, and they appear to have joined a team on the upswing.
OPTIONS, OPTIONS, OPTIONS
I touched on Josh Bruce and Aaron Naughton above, and I feel as though with Bruce’s inclusion, the Dogs possess one of the most diverse forward set ups in the game.
Bruce and Naughton will hit contests hard, but it is the other sneaky (underrated talent) forwards that have the capacity to bring the pain even when the big blokes aren’t clunking them.
Sam Lloyd was an inspired pick up by the Dogs in 2019, so much so that he ended up leading their goal kicking totals for the season. Lloyd was starved for opportunity at Richmond and certainly made good on his them with the Dogs.
But it doesn’t end there.
Tory Dickson and Josh Schache both snagged 24 goals for the year and Bailey Dale bobbed up late in the season to provide yet another reliable avenue to goal. From Rounds 18-23, Dale kicked 20 goals, including two bags of five as he seemed to continuously get into the right spots at the right time. Whether he can do it over the course of a full season, of course, remains the challenge, but to average over three goals per game in a six-game stretch is nothing to sneeze at.
Waiting in the winds is Billy Gowers, who led the team in goals in 2018 but couldn’t find his way into the side for more than ten games in 2019. Whilst I am sure Gowers isn’t happy about it, it is a great sign for the Dogs to have someone like him ready to swoop on an opportunity should it become available.
THE STEALTH BOMBER
The Dogs are blessed with high-possessions winners and a midfield that can cut teams to ribbons, but one man that continually gets left out of the equation (as I did above) is Lachie Hunter.
So, given there is no such thing as word limits at The Mongrel, why not give the bloke his own section?
After a blistering 2018 placed him firmly in the spotlight, averaging over 29 touches per game, Hunter slipped back to play purely an outside game in 2019, with his contested touches dropping to six per game whilst his uncontested possessions remained over 20 per game. Used as an attacking weapon on the wing, Hunter averages a career-high 4.48 inside 50s per game and ran at an impressive 78% efficiency.
The Dogs have plenty of players who hurt by foot. Hunter, Suckling, Daniel, Johannisen – it’s an embarrassment of riches, really. You simply cannot cover them all. When the big midfield trio fires, it opens the door for the likes of Hunter to find the footy in open spaces without undue attention.
When the Dogs can manufacture space for Hunter to work in, it often spells doom for the opposition. The Dogs were 6-2 when Hunter had 30+ disposals in 2019. If they can get him loose, everyone feeds.
THE LITTLE MAN IN DEFENCE
At one point last season I heard people floating Caleb Daniel’s name as a potential All-Australian half back. I actually couldn’t believe my ears (or if I read it, it might have been my eyes I doubted). Whilst Daniel is a wonderful ball user, and excellent decision-maker, he is a complete liability in defence.
How many times early in the season did we see Daniel isolated with an opponent either at half forward or inside 50? It is a mismatch waiting to happen, and I was a little shocked that Luke Beveridge allowed it to happen so often.
With Daniel at half back, the Dogs were 7-10. I am sure I don’t need to remind anyone that this team made the finals, so I will leave it to all the math magicians out there to calculate their record without him in the team.
I’m not saying there is no place for Daniel in the team – far from it. I just don’t want to see him being exploited so easily by an intelligent forward. So, where to play him to maximise his strengths and limit his weakness?
High half forward or the wing seem like genuine options for Daniel. As I stated above, his ball use is excellent, and I would like to see him with more inside 50s than rebound 50s. In 2019, he averaged 5.94 rebound 50s to just 2.12 inside 50s. With Matt Suckling highly capable of playing that sweeping role across half back, could Daniel be the player that honours the leads of Naughton and Bruce in 2020?
I’d much prefer him in that role than looking around at his teammates wondering how he got caught in yet another one-on-one marking contest in defence.
TIME TO GROW UP… NOW!
I’ve written a bit about Tim English over the off-season, and there is a very good reason for it. His development could be the key to the Dogs taking the next step. Until this point, he has been bullied by mature rucks, and as he heads into year four of his AFL career, the Western Bulldogs will rely on him more than they ever have.
The Dogs didn’t get a back-up ruck in the off-season. I thought they’d really go after Paddy Ryder to assist English when competing against the monsters of the competition, but either they failed miserably, or they have so much faith in the development of English that they did not deem an experienced body necessary.
It is a very risky strategy.
Last season, the Bulldogs won the hit out count once.
It is testament to the ability of the Dogs’ midfield that they were able to win the total clearances on 13 occasions. Imagine what they could do if English actually started getting his hand to the footy first? The Dogs were easily the worst ruck team in the competition in 2019, lagging behind a Sydney team that relied on Callum Sinclair. The same Callum Sinclair that had 44 hit outs against the Dogs in Round One.
Here’s another stat for you. 50 hit outs in a game is relatively rare for all but the best rucks in the game. Opposed to English, players did it five times in 2019. This cannot continue.
In Round One the Dogs face Collingwood, with Brodie Grundy hungrily eyeing an opponent he averaged 23.5 disposals and 54 hit outs against. In this game, Tim English has to stand up. He was bullied by Grundy last season in a pair of efforts that resulted in six Brownlow votes.
Can English hurt Grundy on the rebound? Can he drift forward and kick a couple of goals to even the ledger? Can he put his knee into Grundy’s chest and let him know that the boy Grundy pushed around is no more, and in his place stands a mature AFL ruckman?
We get our answer in Round One.
A SOFT UNDERBELLY?
This might be a bit hard to read for Dogs supporters, but it’s the truth, and you know it.
GWS beat you up in the Elimination Final. They took a team that absolute humiliated them two games earlier and they rubbed their nose in it with a brand of football that was simply too tough for the Dogs on the day. Yes, there was a furore over Toby Greene’s treatment of Bont, and yes I suppose Dogs fans had every right to be upset about it, but my question is – where was the response from the players?
I heard a couple of players state in the media that they wish they knew their captain was being worked over by the Giants. What game were they part of? How did they miss it? Were they not listening at half time and three quarter time? Why didn’t they respond then instead of lamenting it after the fact?
There is a bit of chatter that the Giants exposed the Dogs a little in that Elimination Final. A few people have mentioned to me that they believe the Dogs were a bit soft. That has to sting a little, right?
Granted, the Dogs were missing Tom Liberatore and Mitch Wallis; two who seem the type to fly the flag, but if the entire team is going to rely on just those two to even things up, they had better reassess the strategy.
Mark your calendars – Round Three, under the bright lights of Friday night footy is where the Dogs have their chance to show that the lesson they learned the hard way was a lesson they learned well. If the Giants try any of that bullshit again, the Dogs have to respond, and not just with a little push and shove – they have to respond with a ferocity that leaves no question as to whether they are willing to fly the flag.
Hyperbole can get the better of us all at times, but anyone who has played footy knows how you can look forward to a certain matchup, more so than others. You know when there’s a team you dislike, or in some cases you might even hate them. You know in that game when there is the chance to line someone up and make them pay, you’re going to do it.
I reckon there are a few Bulldogs with Round Three circled on their own calendars right now. Yeah they very well might wish they knew Bont was being targeted in the Elimination Final, but this is when they actually get to do something about it. They know it happened now, and there are no excuses.
Let the fireworks begin.
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