You know, I’m about two-thirds of the way through these season previews and this has been the most difficult to write. I actually put it down a few times, wrote a different team’s preview, and had to come back to it.
I try to be positive about teams in these articles, trying to find the areas of their games and lists they can elevate. I really do. However, when it comes to the Western Bulldogs and recapping what transpired in the back half of 2023, I feel nothing but disappointment. They’re better than what we saw.
I know it.
You know it.
The players know it, too.
And yet, there they were, watching finals instead of playing them.
That’s what was so frustrating when watching this team. Hell, with a finals berth on the line, they fell over to West Coast – bloody West Coast, of all teams – and at Marvel Stadium, as well! The Eagles were a team with very little to gain and the number one pick to lose. But somehow, the Dogs found a way to blow it!
What can this team do to bring things together in 2024? How can they take what transpired at the end of the 2023 season, rip it up and throw it away so as to never have to look at it again?
That’s kind of what they need to do – start from scratch with the wealth of tools they have at their disposal, play basic, hard footy, and make sure they do not revisit the back half of the 2023 season any time in the near future. Their best can be brilliant, but we saw way too little of it last season.
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 2024, 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 to 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 2024.
We don’t do things by halves here, at The Mongrel Punt. 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 the upcoming 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.
Isn’t it a bit early for a season preview? Well, I suppose, but do you know how long it takes to write seven thousand words? That’s 18 x 7,000… gets out the calculator… that’s 126,000 words. The average novel is about 85,000 words, so buckle the hell up with these previews.
Also, if there are any issues that arise after the publication of the preview, they will be covered in standalone articles to act as additions to this preview.
You will not read a deeper season preview than this – I guarantee it. This is where we start the run to the new season and believe me – nobody does it better than The Mongrel.
WHAT DOES THE LOSS OF BAILEY SMITH MEAN TO THIS CLUB?
It kind of depends which Bailey Smith we’re talking about, to a point.
The loss of the 2023 version, who averaged 23 and a half touches per game and had pretty limited influence on games in the second half of the season won’t be missed that greatly, at all.
That may sound harsh, but it’s true – the longer the season progressed, the less impressive Bailey Smith became, clocking in at 18.86 touches per game over his last eight outings and playing without that gut running that made him so special. Much has been made of his struggles, and I reckon we may have seen them get the better of him at points last year. The Dogs, and Smith himself, will have to be vigilant as he undergoes his rehabilitation from his ACL injury. Both parties need to work in order to keep him involved with the group and not have him sit out on an island.
It can be a very lonely place doing rehab while everyone else is preparing to play each week.
All that said, the Dogs would dearly love the 2022 version of Smith out there. It all clicked for him in the 2021 finals, where he rose to the occasion and showed the footy world just what he was capable of. He carried that form through to the 2022 season, averaging over 29 touches per game before he fell off the 2023 cliff.
Further to my harsh answer that the Dogs won’t miss him too much, we need to look at the the structure of the Western Bulldogs over the last five years. They haven’t been short of midfielders, have they?
This has meant that losing one midfielder hasn’t impacted the team as a whole. They have run so much talent through the midfield that even a player with a profile as large as Smith is completely replaceable. We must remember that both Smith and Jack Macrae both spent copious amounts of time away from the middle in 2023 and the Bulldogs’ midfield, with Bontempelli, Liberatore, and Treloar at the helm, hummed along.
The purpose of this section is not to talk down the contribution of Smith in the past, or the potential contribution of the future. No, it is more to break down what he was providing and see whether the Dogs could cover his absence.
And they can. Comfortably so, in fact. A quick shuffle of the considerable midfield resources at his disposal, and suddenly, the Dogs have a legitimate half-forward playign that role, and Jack Macrae could move into the guts.
Would they prefer Smith was healthy? Absolutely, they would, but this is not like losing Bont or Libba. This is Bailey Smith – relegated to the wing and half-forward in 2023. They have others who can do what he was doing last year, but they do miss the bloke who was doing great things the year before that, too.
Depending on who you listen to, the fact that Smith comes out of contract following the 2024 season will become a major talking point at some stage of the year. Should the Dogs bite the bullet and offer him a big deal early in the season, despite the drop in form and the injury that will keep him out all year?
Or will we see rumours start to swirl all season leading to a trade request? Even without being on the park, there will be plenty of focus on Bailey Smith in 2024. Fox Footy will make sure of it!
HAVE THE DOGS PAINTED THEMSELVES INTO A CORNER WITH TIM ENGLISH?
At 26 years of age and coming off his first All-Australian selection, Tim English is at the peak of his powers.
He can run all day, is excellent around the ground, and in 2023, he finally started to do to opposition rucks exactly what some of the bigger blokes did to him over his first six years in the game – he started taking liberties with them. He started abusing them in the contest. And he started to dominate games, as a result
He was rightfully rewarded with his place in the AA team, though he placed just seventh in the Charlie Sutton Medal, which was a bit of a surprise.
Following the 2022 season, English spurned interest from “home” in WA to re-sign with the Dogs, but we’re now heading toward restricted free agency for the big man, and there are some who expect the offer from the Eagles to be substantial.
What do the Dogs do, here? And do they have much of a choice?
Jordon Sweet was a good VFL ruckman, but if the Dogs saw anything other than that in him, they sure as hell didn’t act like it. He wandered off to join Port Adelaide after 11 games as a Bulldog, leaving English with backups such as Rory Lobb… who likes playing in the ruck about as much as I enjoy socialising with people from work, Sam Darcy, who is 20 years old and built like a particularly thin twig, and Lachlan Smith, who was just drafted.
To me, it looks as though it is Tim English, or bust.
And the price for his signature is not going to be a small one, whether he stays, or goes..
I do wonder whether West Coast will go as hard at English now that they’ve grabbed Matt Flynn from GWS? They already have Bailey Williams as their backup (or possibly their number one man… the tussle between the two will be interesting to watch), and both guys are 26 or younger. Perhaps making overtures to English is now not as tempting as it was a year or two ago?
If that is the case, we may see English re-sign during the season, which would be the best outcome for all involved. He took his sweet time about developing into the ruckman he now is, but the wait may have been worth it.
The other question here is that the Dogs have Bailey Smith out of contract, as above, and Jamarra Ugle-Hagan to re-sign, as below. Can they keep all three, or does one have to go in order for two to be accommodated?
WHAT DOES THE ADDITION OF JAMES HARMES GIVE TO THIS TEAM?
This acquisition is underrated.
Whilst many will look to the pickups of players like Brodie Grundy, Ben McKay, Lachie Schultz, or Jack Ginnivan by their respective teams, when the season commences, the addition of James Harmes to this Bulldogs team adds some real mongrel to it. And it might just make of the biggest differences to any team this year.
Allow me to explain.
Harmes is no shrinking violet. He is a competitive beast who will happily sacrifice his own game for the betterment of the team. If that means he starts at half-forward, runs into the guts, and makes life miserable for whoever Luke Beveridge has in his sights as a run-with player, then Harmes will do that, and do it happily.
If you need him to stay at half-forward and make sure one of the half-backs earns every touch they get, he’ll do that, and he’ll enjoy it.
And if it’s decided that he needs to start on the bench as sub, come on late in the game and push hard forward to create opportunities, then Harmes will do it.
How do I know?
Because I have watched him do all three, and he strikes me as a bloke that would jump in front of a bus if it meant it advantaged the team. Selfless – that’s the word I associate with him.
Before I continue, I want to take you back to – trigger warning – the 2021 Grand Final. Yes, as the Dees were in celebration mode, Harmes was the one that limped to the bench, pretending to be hurt so that James Jordon could get a run. No one else bothered, but Harmes was thinking of others in the moment when his head could have been swimming in glory.
That’s the type of player the Dogs have recruited.
Over the course of this article, the Bulldogs’ midfield will be covered extensively – so much of what happens with this team revolves around the place they have the most talent – but I ask you – which of the stars in the middle readily foregoes his own stats, his own game, and concentrates solely on the defensive side of the game?
That’s right – none of the current group does!
Defence in the midfield is an aspect of the Dogs’ structure that has really let them down over the last few years. They are all “see ball, get ball” types. When the game is on their terms, they’re wonderful. When it’s not… well, that’s when a player like James Harmes comes into play. He gives the Dogs something they don’t possess and have not possessed since Josh Dunkley left.
Guys, there will be flashier players in new colours this season. Players will get more touches and kick more goals than James Harmes, but I don’t mind putting it out there – none of them have the capacity to change the group like Harmes does for the Bulldogs midfield. If he has his head screwed on right and does indeed want to make the most of his second footy life at a new team, then this bloke could be a pretty important component in making this Bulldogs onball division a little harder to play against.
Now… I wonder whether Bevo will actually play him as a run-with player or try to make him something he’s not?
IS THIS THE SEASON JAMARRA GOES PAST AARON NAUGHTON?
I’m gathering you, like me, watched Jamarra Ugle-Hagan in 2023 and saw a star emerging?
His hands were brilliant above his head, and if he got space to run and jump at the footy, it was lights out for the defender. He was timing those leads and his leaps at the footy to perfection in some games, to the point where his defender looked absolutely hapless trailing him to the contest. You could visibly see them giving up on the contest at points, hoping Ugle-Hagan would just spill the beans.
As he moved up to a goal and a half per game, and saw his contested marking improve to sit at 1.35 per contest as well, it was like witnessing a star being born. And whilst he was on the rise in 2023, there was another at The Kennel looking as though his star was plateauing a little.
Aaron Naughton burst onto the scene back in 2019. After a first year where he played in defence, he was pushed forward in year two and started to look like he could become the best marking target in the game. Remember his game where he dragged in nine contested grabs? Only Wayne Carey has done better since the stat began being recorded (and he has another game just prior to the stat being recorded too – ten contested grabs against Glen Jakovich is nothing to sneeze at!).
However, after the meteoric rise, life as the number one man inside 50 has not been as easy as the Dogs would have hoped. Naughton has chugged along, with two seasons seeing him register over two contested grabs per game, but he wasn’t taking games by the scruff of the neck and demolishing them, as some thought he may have. He was more a consistent worker than he was a brilliant matchwinner.
However, Jamarra could be that brilliant matchwinner. He has the x-factor many were hoping Naughton possessed.
Two bags of five in 2023 would have had Dogs fans salivating as to what he could produce, but he is still in that period of his career where a close-checking defender can body him out of contests, so unless he is getting the run and jump at the footy, he doesn’t have the strength to hold off the gorillas in league defences.
But he will, soon enough. And if he doesn’t, he will develop enough forward craft to take them to places on the ground they’re not entirely comfortable in. We saw it in moments during 2023. Those moments should begin to occur more often, starting this year.
At the moment, Jamarra’s game is one of extremes. He either seems to be brilliant, or lousy with not much in between. He had nine games in 2023 where he kicked multiple goals, but they were offset by seven games where he failed to hit the scoreboard. The difference between his best and worst is still too far apart – it’s the curse of the young forward.
Naughton, on the other hand, is a lot more consistent, as you’d expect from a bloke who has been in the league for three additional years. He was held goalless just once in 2023, with 12 games where he kicked multiple goals.
That’s where Jamarra needs to get to. He needs to add the consistency to the brilliance without diminishing what makes him so special. It can be a bit of a balancing act.
Is he ready to go past Naughton in 2023?
Look, there might be times when he threatens, but until he can threaten and then deliver, the forward line will still belong to the man with the headband.
As long as Jamarra doesn’t get impatient, all will be well.
Bulldog fans will be hoping that patience is part of his character.
AND AT WHAT STAGE DO THE DOGS START GETTING NERVOUS IF UGLE-HAGAN HAS NOT RE-SIGNED?
Speaking of patience… how patient will Dogs fans be as they wait for Jamarra to re-sign with the club?
They may be getting a little impatient by mid-season.
Look, I am all for players testing the market to find their value, but with Ugle-Hagan, we may be looking at someone teams will pay way overs for. And it’ll be difficult for him to resist a Godfather offer like that.
Sydney seems to be the name on the lips of most people when they talk contract offers for Jamarra. They have a bit of a history when it comes to importing full forwards – Lockett, Hall, Franklin, Tippett… it seems to work for them (except one). Will Jamarra be the next cab off the rank?
The Dogs will want to fight tooth and nail to retain this bloke. As specified above, he is a special talent and if you haven’t been able to see why, I’d be getting your eyes checked. The Swans may believe he is worth a fortune and with their current forward setup, they’ll likely install him as the number one forward right off the bat. Maybe they sense Logan McDonald might be looking elsewhere?
Would that be something that attracts Ugle-Hagan to the move? Or would continuing to work in tandem with Aaron Naughton and sharing the load be something he’d prefer?
If he has not re-signed by the time the season is halfway done, there may start being some nervous people at the Whitten Oval, particularly those who see Ugle-Hagan as the face of the club for the next ten years. Bont won’t be there forever….
This concludes the free section of our preview. Not bad, huh? The next two-thirds are for our members. You can join, y’know? Get this stuff all year long…
As mentioned above, the first five questions are free – the next 10-12 are for our members. I believe my work is worth twenty-five cents per day. If you don’t, that’s fine. You’re welcome to join and keep reading