Despite the final score of the 2021 Grand Final, the Dogs were in the game up to their eyeballs until there were a few minutes remaining in the third quarter. Many have discussed their road to the Grand Final – the miles, the travel… it seemed to catch up with them all at once.
The result was not pretty.
In the end, the Dogs were runners-up and the Dees broke their premiership drought, but with a talented list, a superstar midfield, and another season of battle-hardness into this group, the Dogs will be determined to turn things around and make up for 35 minutes of madness that saw them relegated to second place.
Can they do it?
Over the last month and a bit, I have been slowly compiling questions relating to each team to include in our season previews. There were so many questions in need of answers. When I finally sat down and started the previews, it quickly became apparent these articles were going to be huge. There were simply too many things in need of addressing.
So, the way this is going to work is that the first five questions are available for free for each team, to whet your appetite and the next 10-15 are for our members.
So, it’s a ploy to get people to join the site?
Ummmm, yeah, kind of, but it also about providing value for those who support what we do here and enjoy the content – those who are already onboard. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
I am aiming to compile the most comprehensive team previews out there, so if you like sinking your teeth into articles with a bit of meat on the bone, that’s what you’re getting here. No flippantly thrown together article with a stupid prediction at the end – I’ll leave that to those with restrictions on word counts and pressure to make space for gambling ads. We’re diving deep.
So, without further ado, here are The Big Questions regarding the Dogs in 2022.
CAN THE DOGS BUCK THE TREND OF RECENT GRAND FINAL THUMPINGS?
Recent history has not been kind to the team that has faltered on the big stage.
The 2017 loss to Richmond saw the Crows plummet down the ladder. They are yet to fully recover. The 2019 loss from the Giants saw them struggle the following season, as well. The Cats fared a little better, but they weren’t exactly belted in the Grand Final in 2020 – they were just two points in arrears at the last change before the Tigers ran over them.
That would be the comparison for the Dogs this season. Yes, it was a 74-point margin, but for three quarters, this was NOT a hiding. This was a red-hot game, and the Dogs were looking at turning the corner at the last change well and truly in the hunt.
Despite being viewed as a Demon whitewash, this was pretty far removed from the Melbourne capitulation to Essendon in 2000. The margin there was 60 points but it felt like more. And this was not the 2019 effort, that saw GWS pummelled by 89 points. This was a heated contest, and when the Dogs made their run in the second quarter, they looked like the likely winners. Against the eventual premiers, they slammed on six goals to one.
That doesn’t happen in a belting – this was a contest that was a lot closer than the scoreboard indicated.
So, do the Western Bulldogs look at the scoreboard and wear that scar coming into the 2022 season? Or do they take a step back, watch the game and see where they went wrong? Are they confident that, with adjustments, they won’t be making the same errors again? Can they rectify the issues that caused them to fall in a heap against some of the best footy you’ll see played at the pointy end of the season?
The answer to the last two questions is yes – yes, they can make the adjustments to stave off what has become a bit of a curse for teams on the losing end of a Grand Final. Unlike other sides that have crashed and burned in September, the Dogs were one of the two best teams in the caper for the majority of the season. That they had the premiers on the ropes at one stage says a lot about what they’re capable of. And yes, it also speaks volumes about what Melbourne possess inside them, as well.
But that belongs in the Demons season preview…
The Dogs are well-positioned to rebound from their Grand Final capitulation. Their September form prior to the last quarter of the big game was excellent – to assess them based on one poor quarter and disregard some of the amazing feats that got them there would be short-sighted and opportunistic for someone looking for a headline.
The Dogs will be back in 2022. Curses be damned.
WHAT DOES AN INJURY-FREE JOSH DUNKLEY MEAN TO THIS TEAM?
There was a reason Essendon pursued Josh Dunkley so hard following the 2020 season. They saw what he was capable of and they wanted to offer him the opportunity to do what he loved as part of their team.
But the Dogs were having none of it.
You see, the Bombers weren’t the only ones placing a high value on the talents of Josh Dunkley – every team has got to be aware of his capacity to be the most effective player on the park on any given day. He is one of the Dogs that can truly do all things and do them well. He is the perfect inside/outside mid that loves the defensive aspects of the game just as much as the offensive, and he takes as much pride in dragging down an opponent in a vice-like tackle as he does clearing the footy and setting up his teammates going forward.
Coming into the 2021 season, I viewed Dunkley as part of the big three at the Dogs – Bontempelli, Macrae, and Dunkley were a combination that had the potential to rip a game to shreds, as evidenced by their run in the midfield together in the latter stages of 2019.
After starting 2019 as a half-forward, Dunkley was shifted into the guts following Round Six – it was the opportunity he had been waiting for.
For the remainder of the 2019 home and away season, Dunkley averaged an incredible 32.68 touches, 6.62 tackles, and 6.31 clearances. Mind you, this was in a team WITH both Bont and Macrae running around. Dunkley was a monster surrounded by those with monster numbers of their own.
However, over the last two seasons, Dunkley has suffered setbacks that have impacted his ability to be the player we saw in that 2019 stretch. And during that period, the Dogs have amassed an incredible level of talent through the middle. A little injury here or there, or in Dunkley’s case, a significant one, and the deck is shuffled in the midfield pretty quickly. Tom Liberatore and Adam Treloar are both A-Grade talents as well. It does not take long for them to grab an opportunity and refuse to relinquish it. As a result, the back half of 2021 saw Dunkley used sparingly in the guts. His numbers reflected that, as well.
After a start that saw him average 30.3 possessions over the first six games, Dunkley was forced into shoulder surgery. His return was nowhere near as spectacular, averaging just 18.55 over the last nine games.
What we can take away from this is that Dunkley requires a clean run in order to be effective. When he has an injury interruption, he struggles to regain the form he displayed at his peak fitness. Luke Hodge was very much the same at Hawthorn. Fitness dropped off him like Joe Ganino’s pants in a local swimming pool.
Dunkley is out of contract following the 2022 season. With so much talent at the kennel running through the midfield, it will be interesting to see how he approaches this season, and what sort of fitness he maintains throughout the year. The worst-case scenario for him is that he cops an injury, misses time and isn’t pleased with his role when he returns. That could spell trouble.
The best-case scenario is that he goes through the season injury-free, has the type of influence that demonstrates just how valuable he is in the middle (he and Clayton Oliver going head to head at the conclusion of that third quarter of the Grand Final would have been interesting) as he picks up where he left off before injuries killed his momentum.
A fit Josh Dunkley, completing the three-headed offensive monster in the Bulldogs midfield could be the key to the Dogs raising the bar for themselves in 2022. If he can get a clear run and hit the season as fit as he has ever been, people will start to realise that this club has a little more to give than what we saw in 2021.
And what we saw in 2021 was pretty damn good to begin with.
WHAT IS THE CEILING FOR CODY WEIGHTMAN?
There was plenty going on for Weightman in 2021. So much so that he started to get attention for some of the wrong reasons.
It takes a bit to get under the skin of AFL supporters, but Weightman managed it quite easily in his second season, making the step up to play 16 games at an average of 1.6 goals per game. Whilst a cheeky character, Weightman earned the ire of the Bomber fans in the Elimination Final.
In a game that was put to bed in the third quarter, the Dogs holding Essendon goalless, Weightman’s ability to draw free kicks had the fans in red and black baying for his blood. And you want to know what the best part was? The impish little smile Weightman had after receiving one of his six free-kicks for the game. It would have driven them nuts!
Weightman has emerged as one of the brightest young small forwards in the game, and I hope that the Dogs have every intention of keeping him there. Too often, you hear of clubs looking at expanding their goalsneak’s role, wanting to move them into the guts or have them work further up the ground – please don’t do that with Weightman. He is a genuine small forward with great instincts and knows when to push the buttons of others. He could possibly kick five goals per season on the basis that he has pissed his opponent off and forced them into a mistake!
In terms of his ceiling, Weightman is already the number one small forward in the Dogs’ team. He was behind only Aaron Naughton, Josh Bruce, and Marcus Bontempelli in terms of scoring in 2021, and I would expect him in the top three this season. But how does that look in terms of sheer numbers?
At ten touches per game in 2021, Weightman has the capacity to improve and become more creative for his fellow forwards. Whilst it’s nice that he has his eyes on the prize, there were points where a little give, or drawing a player to him could have opened the game up for the Dogs last season – sure, it is easy to state now, but with more experience and a bit more composure, you’d think Weightman will see some of those opportunities unfolding around him a little better. If he can increase his pressure rating inside 50 to move from just over a tackle i50 per game to somewhere close to two, the Dogs will find they get quite a few more second chances due to the perceived pressure, as well as the genuine tackling and hassling.
Weightman came into his own in 2021. Now 21 years old, he will be 12 months older and wiser when he takes the field. Injuries aside, he should play every game for the Dogs this season, and given what we’ve seen thus far in his career, 38-43 goals is not out of the question for him in 2022. The latter number would be his absolute ceiling at this stage, but if he is providing that level of danger around goals, it will take a diligent defender to stop him. And a diligent defender is not a creative run-off player – they’re too disciplined for that.
Weightman playing good footy means that the Bulldogs forward line is functioning well. If that is happening, more opportunities abound for all.
IS THE CORDY/KEATH DEFENCE A PREMIERSHIP PAIRING?
I struggle with this one.
I’ve never really rated Cordy as an elite defender. He is more one of those unsung players that props himself down back and does a job. In a lot of ways I see him as similar to David Astbury when he played at Richmond, or Darcy Gardiner up in Brisbane at the moment – all steak and no sizzle.
With Keath, he would be the ideal third defender, but the lack of a genuine star key position player forces him into the role of the main man in defence, and whilst he does an admirable job, I believe this is an area that Dogs are still somewhat suspect.
So, righto, Mongrel – what would you do with the Dogs backline to solidify it and make it a little more difficult to score against?
Good question – I am glad I asked. The answer, however, may not be the one you’re looking for.
This may rankle a few Dogs supporters, as I know this bloke is a whipping boy for many at the club, but the role of Ryan Gardner in defence this season will be vital to the Dogs’ structure, and ability to combat a three-talls forward line. He played nine games in 2021 before copping an injury, and despite a couple of mistakes (which people jumped all over, mind you…) he was pretty solid back there as long as you weren’t expecting him to kick to position like Caleb Daniel. His job was to spoil, harass, and get in the way – hopefully, in the way of the opposition.
When the Dogs have this trio playing, they’re a much more settled back six, but there are always points in the year where cover is required. What do the Dogs do then?
The re-emergence of Josh Schache was a boon to the Dogs late in the season, and though they may need him up forward initially as Josh Bruce continues to recover from his knee reconstruction, having the option to swing him into defence may work well with the retirement of Easton Wood leaving a big hole back there.
So, I guess the more pertinent question is – can a defensive combination with three of the following four players hold the fort against the best attacks in the league?
Cordy, Keath, Gardner, Schache.
There is not much sizzle there at all – I don’t expect any of them to be in the top 20 in either one-percenters or intercepts (Keath was 41st in one-percenters and 28th in intercepts last season) but when it comes to defence, I’d prefer steak over sizzle any day. If these four can work cohesively, and the midfield can apply enough pressure to restrict easy entries, then who needs sizzle. It’s overrated, anyway.
WHAT DOES TIM O’BRIEN ADD TO THIS TEAM?
Hmmm, stemming from the question above (I left him out of the mix on purpose, you see? I am shifty like that) the arrival of Tim O’Brien at Whitten Oval has the potential to breathe new life into a career that seemed to be stuck in first gear at Hawthorn.
TOB was an ‘almost’ player at the Hawks. Some of you may know I am a Hawthorn man… he was so bloody frustrating to watch get his hands on the footy and almost take marks. I started calling him “Tom O’Brien” as it was almost Tim O’Brien… but that was just mean, so I won’t do that now he doesn’t play for my team.
Whilst he took a massive hanger in 2021 that was nominated for mark of the year, O’Brien’s best footy may come as a floating defender. Being able to attack the footy unimpeded could see him clunk more marks, and we saw a little bit of that in 2021 at Hawthorn. Not enough, though.
I’ve often thought, and said (which saw me shut down) that O’Brien would make a good wingman. Lanky and not without speed, he would make a great “get out of jail” option for defenders looking to exit defensive fifty, and to be afforded space to run into would see him able to use his body initially, and pace thereafter. He would be a tough matchup playing on the opposite wing to Lachie Hunter, and his ability to get forward or back to help out would add another tall to either end of the ground.
Look, I would not expect miracles from O’Brien. He can be a huge asset or a liability depending on which way the wind is blowing, but whilst he would be handy as a swingman, there is no chance in hell I would be relying on him to play consistently good footy.
You’ve been warned – feel free to come back to me if and when he proves me wrong.
And that’s it for non-members. The next 11 questions are for those members who support us. I want these to be the biggest season previews you’ll read and am determined to give value for money. Some sites will give you lip service about your team – I will be diving deep. The Mongrel does the work… always. Want to join us?