The Western Bulldogs, like the Giants and Crows before them, fell over again when it came to picking themselves up off the canvas after a Grand Final belting.
However, this Dogs team was vastly different to the GWS and Adelaide teams who were completely outclassed. In 2021, the Western Bulldogs were 35 minutes away from glory. Sadly, those last 35 minutes was brutal as they ran out of legs and the Demons ran all over them as a result.
2022 was a lost year for the Dogs. Their ups were matched by the downs, and a team with a powerful midfield was left to ponder “what if…” as they exited the finals in the first week.
But 2023 offers new opportunities for the Western Bulldogs. They have recruited wisely, whilst allowing players who were surplus to needs (despite how good they were) find new homes. In doing so, like a good bunch of Jedis, they have brought a bit of balance to the team. Or so they hope.
Can the Dogs climb back into the top four and make up for lost time? Or is the weight of the 2021 capitulation still too much for them to carry?
Let’s find out.
It’s that time of year, already.
The break after Christmas and New Year is over. The holidays are finished for AFL players, and the hard stuff starts now. Yes, the teams had been training for well over a month prior to Christmas, but as we head into 2023, the ante is upped and the intensity increases.
This is where premierships are won and lost. This is where improvements are made and lists come together. New faces, new colours, old heads with renewed passion… so much feeds into the making of a contender. And as the days tick down toward the intra-club clashes, practice games, and eventually the real stuff, questions are raised about each team and how they’re going to perform in 2023.
We don’t do things by halves here, at The Mongrel. When we do a season preview, we go all out to make sure it is the best, most comprehensive coverage you’ll receive. We pride ourselves on it. If you are going to read one season preview for your team, or any team, this series provides it.
The way it works is as follows.
Each club has a minimum of 15 questions asked about their 2023 season, their coaches, their players, and their expectations. The answers are not glossed over. We dive deep on each and every one – some singular answers would normally be long enough for an entire column. The first five questions/answers are free for you to consume. The next 10-14 for each club are for our members, including a special appearance from Mrs Mongrel to throw her two cents in the mix.
You will not read a deeper season preview than this – I guarantee it.
And with that, let’s jump into The Big Questions relating to the Western Bulldogs in 2023.
IS RORY LOBB THE ANSWER TO TIM ENGLISH’S RUCK WOES, OR JUST ANOTHER QUESTION MARK?
If Rory Lobb is an answer, I am not sure what the question should really be. What I am sure of is that unless he has had a big change of heart in regard to playing the ruck, poor bloody Tim English will be shouldering the load for the Dogs again, whilst Lobb hangs around inside 50 as one of the tallest key position forwards in the game, refusing to take on ruck duties.
You didn’t know about this?
You thought you were getting a bloke that was going to put his hand up and head into the middle to give English the break he sorely needs?
Lobb was seemingly upset at GWS as they wanted him to play in the ruck. A trade to Freo was facilitated so that he could play his preferred position of forward and what happened next? He’s off to the Dogs, as he found something else that upset him.
The positive here, is that Lobb actually got the job done as a forward for Freo last season, notching 36 goals, or 1.7 per game, but in terms of the ruck, he managed just 7.4 hit outs per game. If the question is about helping Tim English, the answer is a negative one.
So, where does that leave the Dogs’ ruck division in 2023?
Approximately the same spot it was in 2022 and the years before, sadly. The numbers below are sobering reading. They are the positions the Dogs have ranked in ruck taps for the past five seasons.
2018 – 18th
2019 – 18th
2020 – 18th
2021 – 16th (yay!)
2022 – 15th
At least they’re improving, right?
Well, not really. You see, the three teams below them in 2022 were West Coast, who were without Nic Naitanui for 14 games, Carlton, who lost their ruckman, Marc Pittonet, for 14 games, and Port Adelaide, who rucked Jeremy Finlayson for over half a season.
In essence, the Dogs “Bradbury-ed” their way into 15th place. They may as well have been 18th again, given they had their number one man in the side all season.
I wonder how good the likes of Jack Macrae, Marcus Bontempelli, and Tom Liberatore could have been had they possessed a ruckman capable of actually getting first hands on the footy more often than not? The word “unstoppable” quickly leaps to mind, particularly given they have fared so well without silver service of any sort for at least five seasons.
Right, so the ruck still looks to be screwed, but surely Lobb helps the game of Aaron Naughton, right?
Yep – I will not dispute this one. On paper, Naughton should get more space with Lobb drawing some attention, and vice versa. Last season, it seemed that whenever Naughton had a ball kicked high and long in his direction, he was forced to contend with two or three defenders, who were all aware that he was basically the only real aerial weapon the Dogs possessed inside 50. Lobb changes that dynamic, and if he is able to create opportunities for Naughton just by being a presence, then that is a huge help.
A forward set-up of Naughton, Lobb, Josh Bruce, and Jamarra Ugle-Hagan is capable of causing more than a few headaches for defences, and with Cody Weightman and rookie, Charlie Clarke at the feet of the talls, the Dogs genuinely look like a potent scoring force this year.
But yes, back to the original question – no, it is not a heap of help to English, UNLESS Lobb has the penny drop and comes to the realisation that sometimes he needs t take one for the team and put his wants and desires to the side.
It will be a situation worth keeping an eye on.
CAN THE DOGS MIDFIELD BE BETTER WITHOUT JOSH DUNKLEY?
I initially titled this as the first of a few dumb questions I’d ask because, on the surface, you just don’t take a player the calibre of Josh Dunkley out of the team and actually get better as a result, right?
That’s just common sense.
Yet, I cannot shake the feeling that the Dogs had too many players looking to play similar roles over the last couple of seasons, and though that midfield power helped propel them to a Grand Final two years back, it also ended up with a bunch of players biding time in positions they were either not comfortable with, or didn’t completely understand.
Dunkley was not a half-forward.
Nor was Adam Treloar.
Yet, that is where they slotted in as Luke Beveridge attempted to play the equivalent role of All-Australian selector, by adding great players into his team in roles they simply did not play. It was initially thought that having so many top-line midfielders was a great problem to have, but inevitably, the word “great” was removed from the equation.
In a perfect world, Dunkley would be one of the best two-way players in the game. But he had Libba at the foot of packs, meaning his main strength was redundant. Adam Treloar would be a great inside/outside runner, but Jack Macrae was in front of him and wasn’t going anywhere. Something had to give.
It turned out those somethings were Dunkley and Hunter.
And now, the Dogs get to field a team without the pressure of fitting people in just because they’re too good to leave out.
Not only does Dunkley’s absence mean less pressure to make sure everyone gets time in the middle, it also frees up a spot at half-forward for someone whose skill set actually matches the job description. Ditto for the role vacated by Hunter – it offers someone a chance to slot into a wing role (we’ll cover that later) without wishing they were twenty metres inboard all the time.
Josh Dunkley is an excellent player, but in a kitchen with too many chefs, he was left washing dishes too often. At least now, both he, and some of the Dogs will get their turn cooking.
Of course, if there was one thing that was going to throw a spanner into the works of all this, it would have to be injury, right? The fact that Adam Treloar is not yet on the track with the others after ankle surgery would be very concerning as the season gets closer. As mentioned, they have options… for now, but going from a heap of options to having too few to fill the spots would be a disaster.
CAN BAILEY SMITH CLOSE THE GAP ON HIS 2018 DRAFT MATES?
I have two sections on Bailey Smith in this article… because he is soooo dreamy. I could do two sections on his lustrous locks.
Nah, one is this one (evidently) and the other is more to do with the position he plays in the side and where he is suited best, both for his own game to flourish, and the team to benefit most.
To the matter at hand, however… it is probably a little unfair to suggest that Bailey Smith sits behind Connor Rozee and Sam Walsh when it comes to rating the talent from the 2018 national draft. Smith has barely put a foot wrong (on the field), excelling in his first four years in the game to improve his numbers year upon year.
Perhaps it is due to the fact that Smith plays in such a stacked midfield that prevents him from being as prolific as Sam Walsh, or because he has not been stationed forward and as such, has not had the opportunities to kick handfuls of goals like Connor Rozee.
Whatever the reason, the consensus from most (Dogs fans excluded) is that Smith is sitting in third place when it comes to that draft class. Not far behind, but still behind. After averaging over 29 touches in 2022 and going +5.5 in disposals on his 2021 numbers, you have to ask, what else can Bailey Smith do to get through to numbskulls like myself?
I’m glad I asked.
There are two aspects of footy that are vitally important. One is that you must know, or learn how to get the footy. For Bailey Smith, this is no issue. The footy just finds him like he’s its long-lost parent. It gravitates toward him like he’s Sauron and it is the one ring. And damn those hobbits for trying to stop him!
The second is a more difficult proposition. You have to be able to do something with it when you get it. We’ve all known blokes who are lovely kicks of the footy, right? I have definitely known a few – some of these fellas just had no idea how to get the ball, though. If someone else farmed it out to them in the open, or the ball happened their way, they would be great, but when it came to going and getting it – nup… no idea.
Bailey Smith is the opposite of these blokes. He finds the footy without even trying, but when he kicks the ball, it is like he lined up when God was giving out feet and he got two left ones!
Smith was the number one player in the league for turnovers in 2022, averaging 6.71 per game. This is particularly damning, as he was also third in the competition for uncontested possessions, indicating that many of those turnovers were in pressure situations, but rather, that Smith was just careless with the footy.
In contrast (and I know this is unfair – don’t yell), Sam Walsh was first in uncontested possessions, yet ranked 12th in turnovers. See the difference?
If Bailey Smith wants to be mentioned in the same breath as both Walsh and Rozee (both Best and Fairest winners at their respective clubs), he really needs to clean up his disposal and start hitting targets when he tucks the ball under his arm and takes off.
Remember, getting the ball is only half the job. The complete players hurts teams with his disposals, not wastes them.
WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES LIAM JONES MAKE TO THIS DEFENCE?
This acquisition has been given far less airtime than it deserves.
Jacob Weitering is the player that receives the plaudits in the Carlton defence, and there are good reasons for that, however, a look back at the 2021 season gives a very strong indication that Liam Jones was doing a heap of heavy lifting for the Blues, as well.
Despite Carlton… well, sucking in 2021, Jones elevated his game to levels we had not seen before from him, providing a fantastic one-two punch with Weitering that allowed his young teammate to blossom in the defensive role. Not only did Jones defer when he had to, he also took it upon himself to be an excellent contest killer – close to the best in the league that season, and a vastly improved intercept player.
What do the numbers tell us?
Well, Jones ranked seventh in the league in one-percenters, whilst slotting in nicely as the number five intercept player. Other players to appear in the top seven for both categories include Weitering and Harris Andrews.
In a three-game stretch in 2021, Jones recorded consecutive Defensive Triple-Doubles, with 10 spoils and 12 intercepts against the Eagles in Round 12, 11 and 11 against the Giants in Round 13, and 12 and 10 against the Crows in Round 14. In the history of the game, nobody else has ever strung together three games compiling double figures in those categories. Liam Jones stands alone.
He ended up with five D2Ds (Defensive Triple Doubles) for the year, with the all-time leader having totalling 19 across his entire career. That’s Alex Rance for those playing at home. If you’d like to know more about this stat category, it is part of our Defensive Player of the Year Award, which is part of our Inner Circle Membership… /cheap plug.
Whilst some would look at Jones’ advancing age (he will turn 32 before the season commences), he was playing career-best footy when he sat out a year and the season off, assuming he has kept in shape, may do him some good in the long run.
And it will do the Dogs some good as well. In 2022, their defence relied heavily upon Alex Keath to hold the fort. That was a problem.
Keath is a solid player – a strong interceptor with a good feel for the game, but he is not equipped to be the number one defender, and that is what he had asked of him last season. He is much better suited to taking the second-best forward and zoning off to help others. Having Jones at full-back allows him to do just that, making the Dogs a more effective defensive unit as a result.
Is the recruitment of Jones enough to push the Dogs back in the vicinity of the top four? Or do they require some additional help?
No – not in isolation, however, the flow-on effect from his involvement permits players like Ed Richards and Bailey Dale a little more freedom to attack on the rebound, knowing that he has a pair of big bodies back there to repel any counter-attack. It also allows the stick man, Sam Darcy (assuming he is deployed at half-back again) the freedom to act as the third man in a contest and use his height and reach to pluck grabs. That could be the part I like best – Darcy looked wonderful in a small sample size in 2022. More on him later.
Josh Bruce has been training with the defenders, as well – maybe he can slot in and be another big body to clog up space and allow the rebounders more space to operate.
I’ll be keeping a close eye on Liam Jones as he heads back to the Kennel. He has the potential to be the recruit of the year.
DID THE DOGS GO TOO EARLY ON EXTENDING LUKE BEVERIDGE?
Mmmmaybe. Maybe not.
I’ve always looked at coaching contracts like this. A flag buys you five years. Getting a team across the finish line and hoisting the cup is a monumental feat, particularly at a club like the Western Bulldogs, who had been starved for success for so long.
Making a Grand Final gets you an additional two years. You’re close to the top of the mountain again – you just slipped a little at the summit.
So, given those flimsy formulas, the Dogs were probably within their rights to slide two years in front of Bevo. I know the final margin did not flatter them, but the season was about 35 minutes too long for the Dogs in 2021. Going back and watching that Grand Final (understandable if you haven’t), you can see that with five minutes remaining in the third quarter, this team was in the game up to their eyeballs.
You don’t get a team to be within reach of the cup by being a poor coach. It just doesn’t happen.
I like Luke Beveridge as a coach. I like his passion. I like his occasional anger. I liked that he put Tom Morris in his box before Fox Footy had the chance to over his “Licka licence” comments. He strikes me as a very straightforward kind of guy (Bevo, not Morris), and one that would be easy to relate to for players.
Some people lamented him receiving the extension following a disappointing season from the Dogs, but when I view their season, they were playing without a good second forward, without a genuine power key defender (Alex Keath is not a first-choice key defender – I am sorry), and despite having more mids than you could poke several sticks at, they were a team looking to patch holes all season. They finished right about where they should have.
That said, the next two years will be crucial to Beveridge, as he attempts to pick up the pieces of 2022, slot them in with the remnants of the 2021 side, and add in the new pieces, as well. This side is still capable of achieving plenty, and now that the “hangover” season is out of the way, Bevo has two years to prove he is still the right man to lead this club.
This ends the free component of the article. The next five or so thousand words are for our members. Want to join us?