For Bulldogs supporters like me, we’ll look back on 2022 as a year of frustration, unfulfillment and utter disappointment, and if you’re a regular here on The Mongrel, or if you listen to the A3 Footy Podcast, then you’ll know exactly what my thoughts on the team were.
Sure, there was the joy of seeing Carlton choking away their spot in the top eight, that was fun. As they say in the olden times though: what goes around, comes around, and the Dogs choked away a seven-goal lead on Fremantle in the opening week of finals – summed up our season if we’re being completely honest, because it was just that damn inconsistent.
When chief Mongrel tasked us with the job to find things we liked about our club heading into the new year, I feel slightly more optimistic about our chances of at least giving the contenders a shake this year.
I don’t expect us to get to the heights of 2021 again, maybe not until 2024. But there’s a lot within this team to suggest that we won’t be going anywhere but back up in the not-so-distant future.
At times in 2022 I’ve been very critical of my own team and maybe I can go a bit too overboard, but I just want them to do well with what’s already a great little group of players. Having said that, here is a list of some of the things I love about this club heading into the new season.
WEEDING THE WEAK OUT
I heard a lot of supporters in our camp give off a big moan on social media for our trade period last year. Okay, losing Josh Dunkley hurts, particularly because he’s the reigning best and fairest winner, but I’ll get to that one later.
In the case of reality, what did we really lose? Josh Schache, Lachie Hunter, Zaine Cordy. I’m not too worried about any of them.
Maybe Hunter is a loss, because he has been the club’s best wingman over the past five years. But since the 2020 season and his little incident during the pandemic, he’s been on a downward spiral that is now Melbourne’s problem. Great for them if he can recapture that form in-between 2016 and 2018, but that is a big if. I’ve had concerns about his consistency towards his commitment to contest over the years and there were times in 2022 that he played like he was a bit burnt out.
As far as Josh Schache goes, he’ll be nice for Casey in the VFL. Seriously, he’s in a small category of players who can dominate a game of VFL footy one week, and then the following week he plays as if he’s a child running around a group of under-18s; lost and beaten way too easily. No loss there.
And Zaine Cordy… well, I’ll give him this – he tries most weeks, but even then, it’s not good enough to make the grade in senior footy. Ryan Gardner was the whipping boy for a few years, but his 2022 was a year of great improvement – both in terms of aerial impact and his use of the footy. Compared to Cordy, the difference is significant.
The common denominator between these four players is that whilst they all gave it a crack, they all knew they weren’t going to be around for the long haul, so the club cut them loose. I like that about the club – they need players that will be all in for this year and beyond.
SOME MIDFIELD STABILITY?
So, continuing on from the Josh Dunkley exit, there are a lot of supporters that saw the departure leave a bit of a sour taste in their mouths, but looking to a broader perspective, I think it eases a fair amount of stress on who goes where in the midfield heading into the new year, and that’s cool. Here is a list of the midfielders who spent averaged a percent of centre bounce attendances across season 2022:
Jack Macrae – 23 games, averaged 64 percent of centre bounces
Tom Liberatore – 23 games, averaged 59 percent of centre bounces
Marcus Bontempelli – 22 games, averaged 58 percent of centre bounces
Bailey Smith – 17 games, averaged 54 percent of centre bounces
Josh Dunkley – 23 games, averaged 50 percent of centre bounces
Adam Treloar – 22 games, averaged 37 percent of centre bounces
It’s a tough gig to give midfield minutes to everyone involved. When we compare that to the premiers last year, Geelong had a more settled midfield lineup – two players averaged over 60 percent of centre bounce attendances over the course of the season. Tom Atkins, from round 11 all the way to the Grand Final, also averaged over 60 percent of centre bounce attendances and Joel Selwood averaged 56 percent.
With Dunkley now out of the equation, not only does it mean we finally don’t have to see a midfielder play a secondary ruck role, but it also gives Luke Beveridge a little bit more leeway to utilise a player like Adam Treloar more through the guts. Since arriving at the club, he’s been a bit of an everywhere man, being played all across the ground from half-back, to half-forward, to being on a wing.
There are also other intangibles about this midfield from last season. Bontempelli was playing hurt for the first half of the season, and I wouldn’t be too surprised if it carried to the back end of the year too. Bailey Smith – for all the flaws he has with the ball in his hands – he was in some pretty decent form before the suspensions mid-season and then tapered away horribly after that.
With a bit of luck on the injury front and some structure in place, the midfield might be poised better than ever to leave a mark on the competition.
THE ADDITION OF BRENDON LADE
Okay, it’s not often I go over to the coaching side of things, but a lot of supporters pointed towards our coaching staff last season as a big part of the club’s significant drop-off.
At the end of the 2021 season, the club lost Steven King as the club’s senior assistant coach and Ash Hansen, who was in charge of the forward line, and as a little aside, whilst I’ve had a lot of grievances with how the club likes to deliver the leather product to our forwards, it’s easy to forget that the Bulldogs were the second-highest scoring side in the AFL in 2021. They averaged over 90 points per game across the home and away season and averaged over 86 points per game during the finals. The only team that averaged more during September was, of course, Melbourne.
As a result of their departures, the club hired Marc Webb from Fremantle as their midfield and stoppages coach, and Matt Spangher as the forwards coach.
Looking at the statistics, not much changes from their 2021 season – they’re marginally down on contested possessions, but it’s not that big of a deal. Clearances – both stoppage and centre bounces – are among the top five in the competition and they were a top three side in terms of generating inside 50 entries.
So where it all goes wrong is the endgame – scoring. There were a few games where they shot themselves in the foot in front of goal and it ended up costing them games. The game against Carlton in round two was one they should’ve sewn up. The game against Richmond a couple of weeks later was one they could’ve won if they’d kicked straighter in the opening half.
Another big problem is their defensive transitioning, which allowed the opposition to kick more goals out the back than I’ve had hot dates. The Dogs are a high possession team, but their defensive pressure was among some of the worst in the competition last year. In tackles, they were 14th in the competition, only averaging over 56 tackles per game.
Luke Beveridge cops a lot of flak for this, but this should also fall back on the likes of these guys who are getting paid to help out and better the playing group to the best of their abilities through their past experiences both as a player and an assistant coach.
I’ll cut Spangher some slack because he’s only just fresh in the coaching caper – which look, it’s not great for a club supposed to be in a ‘win now’ phase, but I can also understand that coaches have to start somewhere, right? But Webb has no excuse, being in charge of Freo’s midfield under the Ross Lyon era – which saw some good, but also saw the worst of it as well.
But that’s where Lade comes in. He brings in a good wealth of experience at other clubs, seeing time at Richmond under Damien Hardwick, as well as time under both Ken Hinkley and Brett Ratten at Port Adelaide and St Kilda respectively. It adds a good dynamic for the coaching staff and probably needs another senior head. For the record, our development coaches as well are Travis Varcoe and Stefan Martin, both of which are recently retired players.
Oh, and if he could get the backline coach, Rohan Smith to tell the defenders to bloody defend, that’d be pretty great too.
GETTING THE COACH’S CONTRACT DONE EARLY
If you’ve read or listened to me over the past, you’ll know I’m not exactly Luke Beveridge’s biggest fan. There have been many issues from within the fan base over the years, not the least his constant positional changes to players. Some favourites over the years include Easton Wood as a full forward, Adam Treloar as a half-back flanker and Josh Dunkley and Marcus Bontempelli playing ruck.
I’m also getting a bit fed up with handing players plucked from Footscray’s VFL team and the constant push for games. Seriously, which of the other 17 clubs is going to give Robbie McComb a game? Before that, it was Billy Gowers – not even Carlton wanted him!
I will say though it has also had pros to go along with these cons. Aaron Naughton from defender to forward produced a 50-goal season last year, that’s cool. Caleb Daniel was an All-Australian defender after spending a lot of time in his earlier years in the forward half of the ground and Matthew Boyd was moved from midfield to defence and it saw him win an All-Australian and was a key piece to the club’s 2016 flag.
At the end of the 2023 season, Beveridge’s contract was due to be up, and as we’ve seen countless times – both in players and in coaches – that the longer one’s contract remains unsigned, the more the media love to play up the uncertainty, and in terms of psychology, I reckon it can unsettle sides a fair bit, especially someone like Beveridge who has a great record of adoring the media – just ask Tom Morris or Damian Barrett.
An agreement was made to see Beveridge coach until the end of 2025, which is great for them to get it done and out of the way now. Not only does it get rid of one potential headache into the new year gives more time for the list managers to start working on players out of contract this year and next – that includes Ed Richards, Tom Liberatore, Sam Darcy, Ryan Gardner and Alex Keath.
Also should mention Aaron Naughton, Bailey Smith, Jamarra Ugle-Hagan and Tim English are all out of contract at the end of 2024 – get them all done and out of the way as soon as possible, because I guarantee that clubs will come knocking with big amounts of coin.
Having said that, I’ve got my own concerns about locking away Beveridge before a game has been played in 2023, considering the underwhelming end to 2022. Just remember, players and coaches can be let go whilst under contract today, and for my taste, it’s getting a bit more frequent as the years go by.
But I can also see why they would do it sooner than later. When Ratten was sacked at St Kilda at the end of last year, Beveridge’s name was publicly tossed up as a potential replacement and the media romanticised a lot with it when they weren’t romanticising with Ross Lyon.
On the back of some blowback from the media (myself included), there will be some pressure on Beveridge to perform and get the team back up to snuff. I’ve spoken about the fact that he’s never got this team to a top four, but yet have made two grand finals. It might just be me, but that is not normal for a coach.
But, with the core of this team in their prime and in a strong place, in conjunction with a young core that is going to come through sooner rather than later, the club is feeling pretty confident that Beveridge is the man to do it once again and whilst I think 2024 is definitely the prime opportunity to strike, I’ve got the feeling they aren’t going to wait around to make a splash on the competition again.
KEY POSITION DEPTH
By far, my favourite thing about this club is how well-stocked we are for key position players. I can remember being a wee lad supporting the club and practically begging my life for a key forward to come to the club. Now we just can’t get enough of them – but it’s not just up forward, it’s the other end too that is well stocked for at least the year to come and maybe more after that.
The club added Liam Jones and Rory Lobb through free agency and trade period respectively, whilst adding Jedd Busslinger in the draft.
I read chief Mongrel’s assessment of Lobb in Fremantle’s season preview and I agreed with every word he wrote about him. There’s no doubt that there is talent within him to produce, but those performances are few and far between. You’re more susceptible to getting a pea-hearted effort from him than a match-winning one.
But sometimes a fresh start makes the man. As an example within the club, I’ll use Farren Ray for instance. He departed the club in 2008 – he had moments, but wasn’t anything too special. After struggling for consistent games, he made his way to St Kilda and made himself a nice little role on the wing for them in a period where they made two Grand Finals (and a replay), and probably should’ve won at least one of them.
I hope for the same kind of impact for Lobb. There is a spot for him in this team, but he’s got to understand that he’ll most likely be playing backup to Tim English in the ruck. Him up forward, along with Aaron Naughton and Jamarra Ugle-Hagan is a nice little trio to have as they all bring something unique to the table. Naughton’s a great pack mark, Ugle-Hagan is brilliant on the lead or on the run and Lobb is a guy that can take a mark at the highest point and not many people will be able to stop him without drawing a free kick.
It’ll give versatility to someone like Sam Darcy, who thrived at either end in his limited game time last year, and whilst he’s already on an injury-interrupted pre-season, there’s already a great ceiling with him. Likewise with Busslinger, who excelled in the under-18 Championships last year despite being under injury duress for most of the year – facing shoulder surgery and a stint on the sidelines this pre-season, the kid can settle down without being rushed into the side.
Liam Jones will add some great stability to the side after 12 months out of the game. His best at Carlton was excelling in negating the key forwards, but also being able to peel off when required and was always a strong overhead mark. His decision making and his kicking has always worried me, both at his first stint at the Dogs and at Carlton, but he’s the wise head that the Dogs need in the defence.
I touched on Gardner earlier, but he’s a lock in this team now. But the key defensive depth is strong. Alex Keath has been reliable enough since arriving, but he needs a big 2023, considering most games last year, he was at the hands of the trainers at least once with some sort of injury. Josh Bruce has been a name that’s tossed up as a potential positional switch to the backline after struggling up forward when he returned from a knee injury and Buku Khamis showed glimpses of his potential when he played last year both as a forward and a defender.
…And Tim O’Brien…. Well, he’s there, and that’s something. In SOME fairness to Tim, he had a rough pre-season last year and that set him behind from the get-go, but I hope for his sake, he has a cleaner run and a better chance to cement his spot, because this is about as last-chance saloon as it gets for a player like him.