Every year, there are stories that are lost within the hustle and bustle of the preseason and all the action out on the track. An injury, a new face that is “flying” at training, time trial wins, and the hopes and expectations of teams in general tend to dominate headlines as we inch closer to the start of a new season.
However, those paying little heed to the story of Liam Jones’ return to the Whitten Oval are doing themselves a disservice, and could very well look a little foolish when the former Carlton defender slots into the Dogs’ back half and makes a big impact this year.
If there has a glaring weakness in the Bulldogs’ list over the past several seasons, it has been the distinct lack of key position defenders.
And the ruck, I suppose, but for the purpose of this article, we’ll focus on the the defence. No knock on the guys who were thrust into the role – they did as well as they could with the tools available, but the Dogs missed a contest-killing big man who can both hold down a big key forward and zone off to help teammates. In many ways, I am sure the phrase “many hands make light work” comes to mind when reminiscing about the efforts of Zaine Cordy, Alex Keath, and Ryan Gardner, but when other teams have many hands AND a big fist crashing into packs to make spoils that give his running teammates a chance to turn defence into attack, they become a more potent force.
And that is where the Dogs fell down.
Cordy is now off to the Saints, hoping to work in tandem with Dougal Howard to create a solid set of pillars in defence.
Alex Keath has been, and will likely remain a great third-man-up intercept defender. However, he was asked too many times to be the number key defender at the Dogs. He is big-hearted, but he was always going to be up against it in that role.
And Ryan Gardner, despite being a bit of a whipping boy at times, started to look like a solid second tall defender. At age 25, he now has a body to stand up under physical duress and give the Dogs a reliable stopper.
But none of them are true number one key defenders, and having watched the Dogs closely, it was painfully apparent the team needed one.
Enter the prodigal son.
Western Bulldogs fans have long memories when it comes to pre-Naughton forwards. Talk to them about microphone-head, Jarrad Grant and they’ll sigh. It seemed for a while that every time he looked like being let go, he’d have a nice game or two at the end of the season and the club would think he was ready to take the next step.
He’d take the step, alright… and stumble into another year of mediocrity.
And then there was Jones.
He seemed to have all the tools to make it as a key forward, didn’t he? Like me at the mechanics, the tools were there, but he just didn’t know how to use them. As such, the Dogs’ attack sputtered and spluttered on down the road, with little in the way of success.
If the Dogs were getting that version of Jones back in the fold, you could understand quite a few eye rolls from supporters. But they are now receiving something completely different.
As much as it may sting, you have to give Carlton a little credit – they tried something a little different with Jones. After two seasons of seeing him flounder as a forward, Jones and the club reached a point where they had to face facts – he was not an AFL-standard key forward. It took seven years in the system and two clubs to work it out, but they finally came to the realisation that a move had to be made. Had they not, it is likely Jones would no longer be a professional footballer.
So, thanks Brendon Bolton – you did a lot of poor things, but the vision to move Liam Jones into defence was one of your best.
Immediately, Jones commenced teaming with the Blues’ budding star, Jacob Weitering, forming the nucleus of a formidable defensive structure. Yes, there were teething problems, and it seemed as though communication was an issue at times (I can remember several occasions where Jones and then-teammate Caleb Marchbank crashed into each other in marking/spoiling contests) but by the time things settled at Ikon Park, Jones had learned the defensive caper and was now working beautifully with Weitering as the clear one-two defensive punch.
As a matter of fact, Weitering made a point of specifically thanking Jones as he accepted the John Nicholls Medal as the best and fairest the season. He knew what Jones had meant to his own game and was duly respectful and grateful for it. It seemed to make Jones walk taller. Jones, himself, finished in fifth.
His 2021 season was a standout. Sitting seventh in one-percenters (spoils) and fifth in intercepts, Jones became just as important as Weitering to the Carlton defence. He was one of just three players to sit in the top ten in both categories in 2021.It resulted in another top ten finish in the B&F.
Jones has now been out of the game for 18 months, after choosing not to take the Covid-19 vaccination. In effect, he couod have sacrificed his career for that decision. Irrespective of what you think about that decision, it was gutsy. It is also important to note that Jones did what he believed was right for himself – it is not a criticism or condemnation of your own choice.
He returns to the Dogs, not as a gangly kid trying to make it as a forward, but as a seasoned defender ready to become the number one man in a defence of his own.
And that could be the difference between his role at Carlton and what awaits at the Dogs in 2023.
If there were one criticism of the move, it would be that Jones has never had to hold down a defence as the number one man. At Carlton, he always had Weitering. As highlighted above, those earmarked to help him at the Dogs are no Jacob Weitering.
Can he transform the Dogs’ defence into a force to be reckoned with? They were a middling team in that area last year – could his presence elevate them into the top five?
It is a big ask for one man, coming into an unfamiliar system, to lift the defensive intensity of an entire back six, but the hope would be that he is able to do for a player like Ryan Gardner what Weitering was able to do for him – give him the steady hand of a dominant defender in order to allow Gardner to grow and flourish under his learning tree.
Yes, the Dogs fans have a long memory when it comes to Liam Jones. I am sure that many of those memories have them dropping their heads into their hands. However, as a 31-year-old veteran with fresh legs after a year out of the game, it may be time to start creating some fresh memories – some good ones.
Could Jones be the recruit of the year?
It’s possible, however, I expect some growing pains as he adjusts to life in new/old colours. Likening him to Robbie Tarrant at Richmond, it took half a season for the former Kangaroo to really feel at home. The good news is, Tarrant was just about Richmond’s best defender in the second half of 2022. Maybe that will be the case for Jones as well.
I’m backing him to come home like a train from around Round 12 onwards.
* Note – article coming in the next day for Inner Circle Members on the best three-man defences in the game. Spoiler – Jones’ scores in our DPOY Award were good enough to have him ranked as the number one defensive player… at the Western Bulldogs!