At this time of year, AFL clubs salivate over “what ifs…” What if Chad Wingard joined the Bulldogs? What if Andrew Gaff wanted to become a Kangaroo? What if Tom Scully makes his way to Hawthorn for a pick in the 50s? What if we were able to lure a star from another team?
It’s all about speculation, and how a list manager can make his team better. It’s all about what they can add right now. They also start to apply the “what ifs…” to other situations. Their attention turns to the draft. Who will they pick up? What sort of player will he become? And how will he impact our team as a whole? Will he play immediately, or is this player a slow burn that we will require patience with?
The Western Bulldogs season of 2018 was a far cry from that of two years before. As Easton Wood and Luke Beveridge held aloft the 2016 Premiership Cup, the Dogs looked set for an extended run at the top of the AFL tree. They were premiers and strung together an unbelievable finals run to take home their first piece of silverware in over 60 years.
62 long, unsuccessful years.
It was more than just a win for a team so bereft of recent success – it was almost a once in a lifetime kind of event, for many, with the hope it wouldn’t stay that way.
Sadly, injuries and poor form have seen the Dogs tumble down the ladder. A second flag with this group seems to be a bit of a stretch, but given that the bones of a premiership side still exist at Whitten Oval, a Bulldog renaissance may not be too far way.
As much as we can speculate how much and addition or a draft pick will help the team, I'm a big believer that it is organic Improvement within the current group that will drive their success in 2019.
There were great signs from the Bulldog youngsters in 2018. Billy Gowers made Carlton regret getting rid of him as he led the team in goal kicking and provided a reliable lead up option. Ed Richards found his feet rather quickly, and though he had some ups and downs form-wise, such things are to be expected of any first year player who’s not named Judd.
Aaron Naughton was an absolute standout. Taken at pick nine in the 2017 draft, Naughton demonstrated the kind of clean hands and ability to read the ball in flight that you’d have to be blind not to notice. He has “superstar” written all over him, and when all is said and done, he may be the one people look back at when revising this draft and state he should’ve “gone number one.”
Both Naughton and Richards gathered Rising Star Award nominations this season, and with a clean run at a second season, we should see huge improvement from both. Naughton’s ability to play either end of the ground are such a bonus for the Dogs, particularly with the uncertainty surrounding where Tom Boyd will play, and where he is best suited – let’s face it, if we don’t know by now, we may never know.
And then there is an enormous potential of Tim English, who didn't see enough game time in 2018 due to injury to really put a stamp on his place in the side. He looks like the type of hybrid ruckman-cum-forward that could tear games apart. He possesses a beautiful pair of hands and superb skills at ground level for a man of his stature. English could be the answer to the Bulldogs ruck woes for many years to come if his body can stand the rigours of AFL football, and when looking at the Dogs’ big men stocks, injuries aside, they look to be in wonderful hands with Naughton and English.
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However, it's not just the kids who need to provide the improvement for the Bulldogs. At the top of the pecking order at this footy club sits Marcus Bontempelli.
Far and away the Bulldogs’ best player on potential and ability, he was surpassed in 2018 in performance by Jack Macrae, and probably Lachie Hunter. Whilst Bont struggled for form and battled nagging injuries, often resting forward, McCrae took off and averaged just a shade under 33 touches per game to become the Dogs’ most prolific ball winner. He also used the ball at an impressive 74% efficiency, meaning that he wasn’t just hacking it forward and hoping for the best – he is a class ball user. He was ably assisted by Hunter who also racked up big numbers playing in the middle.
But in terms of being alive when the finals are on the line, Marcus Bontempelli is the Bulldogs pulse. Without Bont pumping the Dogs inside 50, the Dogs simply lack a little bite. In order for them to make the finals and be a force in the league once again, Bond has to be at his best.
Injury has robbed us, and the Bulldogs of their potential match winner over the last 12 months. His 2017 season was indicative of an entire-club drop off. Players who were expected to get better on the back of premiership success simply didn’t, and for a few, off-field indiscretions made more headlines than their on-field heroics.
Bont toughed out season 2018, with stats akin to his 2016 output, but at 22 years old, maintaining the level he did two years ago probably was at the lowest end of expectations, by both the footy public and the Dogs themselves.
When on-song, there is no more damaging player in the league than Marcus Bontempelli, with what we’ve seen to date simply a tease as to what could be. Whether he is loping down the wing with eyes on a forward target, or providing that forward option himself, Bont has the ability to turn a game on its head with a burst of brilliance. That is the kind of output the Bulldogs will require from him if they are to start their climb up the ladder again.
As season 2017 commenced, it was Marcus Bontempelli’s name on the lips of every football fan. Just how could he be? Coming off premiership glory, he was gracing the covers of season previews, and newspapers. He was touted as a future Brownlow medallist, with one publication declaring him “The Chosen One”. It’s hard to live up to such high expectations, particularly when your body won’t allow it.
Just 18 months later, looking at the market for the 2019 Brownlow, Bont now sits 15th in the betting (he’s paying over 30 bucks for those who have faith!). It’s fair to say that some of the sheen has worn off that glorious 2016 run, and Bont has to put some elbow grease in to make his game sparkle again.
However, the elbow grease will have to come from the entire club. With a group of pups around him that show the potential to become a force, Bont will be thrust into a leadership position, irrespective of Easton Wood holding the captaincy. His role is similar to that of Luke Hodge when Sam Mitchell was captain at Hawthorn. Mitchell might have been the official leader of the club, attending club functions and saying the right things, but Hodge was the spiritual leader of that playing group. The Hawks would follow Hodge into battle. The Dogs will follow Bont.
Of all the speculation as to who is moving where, and who so-and-so is drafting, one of the big questions of season 2019 will be the condition Marcus Bontempelli enters the season in. There are a few players in the league who mean as much to their teams as Bont means to the Bulldogs. Cripps at Carlton, Fyfe at Fremantle, and Martin at Richmond are those I consider to be Bontempelli’s peers in the midfield. They are all wonderful players, and have, at a point in recent history, lived up to the potential they demonstrated. Now, it’s Bont’s turn.
I’ve been called out on this site for being critical of Bont over the last 12 months, and that’s a fair call, I suppose. In my defence, I am only critical of him due to seeing what he can produce when at his best. When he is fully fit, he is a top-five player in the league, with the potential to be the best – I just want to see that, and not the watered down part-time forward we saw too often in 2018.
So let the pundits “umm” and “ahh” about who will make the biggest difference in 2019. Let them talk about which new recruit, or which kid will have the biggest impact on their teams. My eyes will be focussed on the footballing maestro wearing the number four guernsey in red, white and blue. It’s a lot of weight to place on the shoulders of a soon-to-be 23 year old, but 2019 is the year Marcus Bontempelli needs to turn that potential into production.
Such is the influence of Bont, that if he can hit the ground running, and attack the new season without restriction, the Western Bulldogs may be back in finals contention sooner than everyone expected.
But they can only do that with Bontempelli living up to expectations.
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