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The "Ifs", "Buts" and Other Stuff - Western Bulldogs

Although we’ve come to the end of the road, still I can’t let go...

OK, that’s a little weird, but I’m pretty sure Boyz II Men were prophesizing how I have felt about our “ifs”, “buts” and “other stuff” series as we head into a column about the Western Bulldogs. This is our last in the series, and though my arthritic four-finger typing style has left my fingers begging for it to end, I’ll kind of miss it, and may even start again with updates for each team.

No, that’d be silly, but what I will do is pour my heart and soul into this preview of the 2019 Western Bulldogs because there’s so much to talk about, and so much to explore.

Their ruck situation, their young forwards, their injuries, their potential, their two years in the finals wilderness, and their criminally underrated midfield, including one of the most overlooked players in the game.

For the record, I’m a Hawthorn man. I remember in 2008, the night before the Grand Final I was laying on the couching touching my… errr, I mean I was laying in quiet contemplation, wondering what I’d trade off for a win over Geelong. I remember settling on an internal deal that five years of footballing pain was well worth one moment of glory that’d live forever. It seems like a fair trade for a flag, doesn’t it?

Until the results of the next couple of years start sinking in, and the memory of the premiership, as beautiful as it is, starts feeling a little distant. I started wondering whether we’d get there again in the next ten years. Seriously, I was wondering whether the stupid deal I had made with myself had cursed the team I loved. Who was listening that night? Who tipped the scales to give the Hawks the a premiership they had no right winning? And were they really going to hold me to experiencing five years of pain? After the 2011 prelim and 2012 Grand Final losses, I thought it may have been a possibility.

It turns out it wasn’t five years of pain. It was one and a bit until we were playing finals again, and we were a contender again relatively quickly. We won the flag in 2013 and went on to a couple more in as many years.

It made me wonder what Bulldog fans traded off in their own fantasy scenarios in 2016. When they were left with their thoughts prior to the Grand Final, what were they willing to give up to finally have that elusive flag in their possession? Five years? Ten years? A lifetime? Was it worth it? And how does that deal sit with them now?

The Western Bulldogs enter the 2019 AFL season flying under the radar of many. They battled injury for the entirety of 2019 and are looking at making moves to right the wrongs of the past two years. The talent is still there – players simply don’t forget how to play – but what has to go right for the Bulldogs to get to September?

And what happens if things go wrong?

Let’s take a look at the “ifs” and “buts” of the Bulldogs.

 

IF…

 

… the Bont is healthy, the Bullies have the best 1-2-3 midfield in the game

I’m a positive kind of guy. I like to look for the good in teams, and the good in people… except my neighbours; I’m pretty sure there is no good in them at all. Alas, we’re not talking about those scumbags at the moment. We’re talking about a midfield that has the capacity to run teams off their legs in 2019, but so much of that relies on one man being healthy and drawing the lion’s share of the opposition attention.

Some have said I am overly critical of Marcus Bontempelli. They’ve said I hold him to a higher standard than I do other 23 year olds in the game. And you know what? They’re right on that second point. I do hold him to a higher standard, mainly because he is capable of so much more than 95% of the players in the game. I don’t dislike him, as people have speculated. I don’t target his performance and like to shoot him down when he has a quiet game. I just want to see the best players in the game play at the level you know they can.

And we haven’t seen Bont do that in a while.

I know, I know… injuries. He carried them all last year and still managed to drag some excellent performances out of his beaten-up body. So, what will he be capable of once he is injury-free? Scary proposition for opposition coaches, huh?

But it’s not just about what Bont can produce himself. It’s about what he allows two other stars to do once he gets the best run-with player.

Jack Macrae was a ball magnet in 2018. After averaging 27.59 and 27.50 in 2016 and 2017 respectively, he exploded to be +5.29 in disposals for last year. His career-high 32.79 touches per game was second only to the record-breaking effort of Tom Mitchell. Had it not been for an untimely hamstring injury (as if any hamstring injury is timely), we may have seen Macrae take his place in the All-Australian Team.

But you know… he missed too many games, right? Three, in fact.

Just three. Less than the All-Australian captain missed.

One rule for one…

Anyway, onto this other bloke who flies so far under the radar that he has a gravel rash. Lachie Hunter was painfully close to topping the 30 disposals per game mark as well in 2018, and was +7.2 disposals per game on his 2017 output. Why does he get no press?

Hunter is one of the Bulldogs’ better consistent ball-users, but has been completely overlooked when speaking about accumulators from last season. Though he mostly gained uncontested possessions, he was at times required to be throwing his body into situations that simply are not his forte. He is a classy outside player, and will benefit greatly from the return to form of Bontempelli.

If Hunter has another 28+ touch per game season, can the AFL media continue ignoring him? You don’t win club B&F awards by luck. It’s about time those from outside the club started giving him recognition.

If the Bulldogs get these three up and running simultaneously, they could wreak havoc through the middle of the ground. And yes, I know there are other strings to the Dogs  midfield – I just wanted to shine the light on the impact Bont would have on these two in particular. Bont, Libba and Wallis inside. Macrae, Hunter and McLean outside… wow.

So what is a realistic expectation for Bont, assuming he isn’t thrown forward in an effort to either create a mismatch or kick start a stuttering forward line? His career high disposal average is 24.35 in 2016, and though the drop-off hasn’t been significant in the last two years, there hasn’t been the progression either. So you’d want to see some forward strides, rather than standing still. A more involved Bont, at say 27 touches per game, would be a boon for the Dogs.

But it’s not just about the touches - it’s the type of touches. You want Bont up around 5.5 clearances per game, which is a +1.0 jump. And though he is already getting his share of contested touches (13.84 in 2018), he’s been above 14 before (2016). So let’s say he hits 15 contested touches per game in 2019 - does that suffice? It’d put him at 7th overall in the league based on 2018 numbers.

Patrick Cripps averaged 17.5 contested touches in 2018 - is there anyone who doubts that at his best, Bont can’t match him? But that flies in the face of being realistic, and I want you guys to look at these parameters and think Bont can achieve them easily. 27 touches, 5.5 clearances and 15 contested touches per game. Do-able? I think so, and so much of who the Western Bulldogs are in 2019 rides on him being around those marks.

It’s a lot of pressure on a young fella, I know, but at some point he has to take that enormous potential and turn it into production. I hope it’s this year.

 

… there is a watch list for young big men who could be great, put Tim English on it.

We’ve only seen a small sample size of Tim English, but the Mongrel’s jury isn’t out. We’re in, and we’re declaring that this kid is a keeper.

Look, there hasn’t been a game where he’s put his stamp indelibly on a game, but there’s been enough to convince me that English will be the kind of player teams start to factor into their plans when they come up against the Dogs in the years to come.

At just 20 years old, he’ll take a few years to truly grow into his lanky frame. There are not many big men in the game that waltz on in, and start dominating, and I’m afraid there’ll be moments or games where English fades from games, but there’ll be enough signs to keep the Dogs’ hopes buoyed along the way.

His 19 possession and nine mark outing against the Dockers in Round Five last season was a sign of things to come, and though he’ll be forced to ruck against some of the monsters of the game this year, it’ll be a classic case of short term pain for long term gain as he grows into the role.

English has a beautiful pair of hands, and reads the ball wonderfully in flight. At 205 centimetres, if he can start taking the ball at its highest point in marking contests, he could be incredibly dangerous when he either rests forward, or is stationed there permanently.

It may be a learning year for Tim English. My hope is that he can stay on the park and continues to shine brightly at points, so much so that he becomes a beacon for others to flock to. He is the future of the Western Bulldogs ruck stocks… I just hope they haven’t gone all-in on him before he is ready to pay off

Grab a Mongrel Bumper Sticker - click the image, grab a sticker and help spread the Mongrel word. We’d really appreciate it.

Grab a Mongrel Bumper Sticker - click the image, grab a sticker and help spread the Mongrel word. We’d really appreciate it.

 

… you’re adding Tim English, add Aaron Naughton too.

I’ve been waiting to talk about Naughton since I started these columns, and due to stupid alphabetical order, I’ve had to wait until the end… he is a star in the making, and showed plenty in his rookie year.

With 18 games in his first season, Naughton found himself thrown into a major defensive post way earlier than expected. The great thing was, he more than held his own, and on several occasions emerged victorious in one-on-one battles against players much bigger, older and stronger than him. Of course, there was the odd occasion when the bigger, stronger and older specimens were just too big and too strong. Naughton learned a couple of valuable lessons on those days.

We’ve got a slightly bigger sample size for Naughton; in half the timeframe we have for English, which tells us he is both a) a little more durable than his fellow big man, and b) he was able to break into the side and stay there.

The Dogs trialled Naughton at both ends of the ground, but he looks most at home in defence, at least at this early stage of his career. He reads the ball beautifully in flight, and is no pushover in physical contests either. I loved his duel with fellow-young star, Charlie Curnow when the Dogs and Blues tangled last season, and I had him as one of the Dogs’ best in the game against Port Adelaide where his team stopped to a walk in the second half and he was forced to contend with Charlie Dixon.

Naughton is the sort of player that you can’t help but notice when he is out there. It’s a broad, and somewhat silly statement, I know. However, there are some players in this league that can accumulate 25 touches in a game, and you barely register their presence. You check the stats after the game and think “wow, I didn’t even notice him.”

That’s not the case with Naughton. He has a presence about him, and makes an impact whenever he is in the contest. I’m not saying he will be dominating in the backline for the Dogs in 2019 – not at all, but what he will do is grow into the role that will eventually be vacated by Dale Morris, and in the coming years, he’ll be the glue that binds the Western Bulldogs back half together, providing some stability for Easton Wood back there.

As a matter of fact, I firmly believe that there’ll come a day when we all sit back… all us Mongrels, and look at the 2017 draft through our lens of hindsight, and we very well may ask ourselves whether at pick nine, was Aaron Naughton the steal of the draft?

Hell, in a draft with names such as Rayner, Stephenson, Brayshaw and Higgins, we may even ask whether he should’ve been number one.

 

… you’re looking for a solid defender to take the next step, look no further than Bailey Williams.

I know I’m focussing a lot on the younger brigade at the Whitten Oval, and for good reason – there’s some high quality there, and one who I was really impressed with in 2018 was Bailey Williams.

He is trending in the right direction, with his numbers increasing every year to this point. He was +4.37 in disposals to register just over 20 per game and was a driver of the Bulldogs’ transition from defence into attack last season.

In 2019, he moved into second on the team, behind Matt Suckling for metres gained, with 429.5 per game. How much value you place on that stat depends on whether or not you rate his disposal highly, but should he take the next step in 2019, he might be the name on the tip of everyone’s tongue.

Often, teams get a lift from a player they’re not really expecting to flourish just yet. Williams is just 21 years old, and with significant progress made already, could a big leap in 2019 be on the cards?

And if it is on the cards, what’s realistic?

Matt Suckling’s return to the fray may step on Williams’ toes a little. Suckling is the preferred kicker from half back. His bullet-like left foot can cut a defence to ribbons. Whilst Williams is a weapon, he is second choice to deliver the ball out of defence, for mine. That said, if I am an opposition coach and I want to shut down either of the two, I send a defensive forward to Suckling – Williams may get plenty of it as a result.

A step backwards is not in Williams’ nature. Another significant statistical leap forward may well be beyond him, but I expect him to move forward at a steady pace. Teams will try to hurt him as he makes space to receive, but he was adept at knowing when to run to receive and reap the benefits of his teammates’ hard work in 2018 – he’ll be a little wiser in 2019.

If he can hit 23 touches per game, he should move within the top 20 for metres gained. How high within that top 20 depends on the Suckling-factor I mentioned above. I half expect him and Suckling to share kick in duties this season. The sight of Williams grabbing the ball and darting away from the goal square could become a common sight as the season wears on.

Even if Suckling is the number one man, he’s a 31 year old going into the season, and the Dogs will be looking to the future. And that future has Bailey Williams as the sweeper across half back.

 

… Sam Lloyd grabs his chance, he could lead the team in goals

There was simply a glut of talented players at Tigerland, and something finally had to give. With Tom Lynch entering the fray, the opportunities for Sam Lloyd to shine diminished once more. He knew it was time to go.

In five seasons with Richmond, he played 57 games, and was good for over a goal per game. It’s an okay effort, I suppose when you look at it as a stand-alone stat. However, in those games, he was playing fourth, fifth or sixth fiddle. In the current Bulldogs team, he may find himself further up the pecking order.

In 2018, here are the players who averaged a goal or game or better for the Dogs. Billy Gowers, Josh Schache, Bont, Mitch Wallis, Fergus Greene and Tory Dickson.

It’s not exactly the who’s who of prominent forwards, is it?

The Tom Boyd discussion will happen in a little bit, and by discussion, I mean me writing and you reading, but the Dogs needed a little more firepower, and whilst Lloyd probably isn’t going to contend for the Coleman, he is a reliable mid-size forward who can also find his own ball.

I have fond memories of his 48 disposals and 4.5 in one VFL match in 2017 which almost compelled Richmond to give him a game. I said “almost.”

Lloyd knows what it is like to be overlooked, and once he gets his chance in red, white and blue, I expect him to grab it by the scruff of the neck and shake the life out of it. He is a blue-collar worker, and will fit in nicely on the half forward flank for the Dogs. You’d probably like to see him break three tackles per game once he starts playing – a mark he hasn’t hit since his debut year, and in the modern game he’ll be hard-pressed getting away with anything less.

In order to keep his spot, and justify his recruitment, Lloyd has to hit a goal per game. His career-high is 1.59 per contest in 2016. If he matches that, the Dogs may have found their new leading goal kicker.

 

BUT IF…

 

… the ruck was a problem last year, it could be catastrophic this year

Oh man… I just gave Tim English a nice little wrap in the section above, but as a ruck unit, I reckon the Dogs are in huge trouble this season.

Let’s have the Tom Boyd chat.

Without Tom Boyd in the ruck, the Dogs are incredibly vulnerable. You’ll always have 2016, but it is seemingly more and more apparent that Boyd is an entity that may never reach his potential in an ongoing capacity.

And that’s okay, actually. On Grand Final day in 2016, Tom Boyd earned his big pay day. I asked at the start of this article what you’d sacrifice… if I told you that Tom Boyd would be THE pivotal player in one of the biggest two games in the club’s history, but won’t do much for years after it, would you take it?

I would.

In a heartbeat.

And with news that Boyd won’t be ready for Round One coming through, you would smile and remember his heroics. You’d know you traded off. You’d be happy with it, irrespective of what it means for your team now, and how much it could hurt you in the present.

I’ve stated it in just about every team preview we’ve done – the rules are changing even further to make dominant ruckmen more important. You thought Brodie Grundy was a clearance beast in 2018? Watch him in 2019. He can take the ball out of the ruck and NOT be pinged for holding the ball if he gets caught. That rule is gone. Without Boyd there to run with players like him, and match him body-to-body, the Dogs are going to have to rely on… who?

Tim English? As much as I like him, a player like Grundy will massacre him in body to body tussles around the ground. Jack Redpath? Gone, and had no tank anyway. Jordon Sweet? Too raw. Jackson Trengove? Might be the best option… and that’s saying something.

People, this is a huge issue. I spoke about the quality of the Dogs’ mids earlier – they’re going to have to rove to the opposition ruckmen. They’re going to be chasing tail.

Here’s your top rucks of 2018 in terms of average hit outs per game. 1- Tom Boyd. 2 – Jordan Roughead. 3 – Jackson Trengove. 4 – Tim English. Josh Dunkley was fifth! This could be carnage.

It’s almost a little unfair the way the AFL changed the ruck rules over the past few years. Teams like the Dogs, and Geelong did away with the monsters, and went for more mobile rucks, believing the game was heading in a certain direction. Then the AFL stopped the third man up in ruck contests. Now they’re allowing rucks to take possession again without being caught holding the ball. It’s like these teams are being punished for being innovative.

I’m not sure what the answer is here for the Bulldogs. I feel like a right prick, pointing out the problem and not providing one answer. Do the Dogs cop the ruck loss and try to hurt the opposition with mobility? That’s the only win I can see them having.

Bont, Macrae, Hunter, McLean, Libba… they’re wonderful on-ballers, but they’re almost going to have to study the opposition ruckmen like they’ve never studied before (maybe Libba can study it alongside poetry?) in order to get first use of the ball.

Look! Mongrel Punt Stubby Holders. Buy one and be cooler than all your friends! It also helps the site out.

Look! Mongrel Punt Stubby Holders. Buy one and be cooler than all your friends! It also helps the site out.

 

… Jason Johannisen doesn’t kick it up a notch, how does it impact his legacy?

Some blokes get a bit of a stigma about them throughout their careers. Some are justified, and some aren’t – I wonder how we’ll feel about JJ once all is said and done?

Some players are known to try to get the easy ball out the back. Some our outside runners who don’t win their own ball in tight. Some only run one way.

And some don’t like it when there’s a bit of defensive attention paid to them. And that’s where JJ is, and has been for the past couple of years in the minds of many who’ve watched him play.

The funny thing about this kind of stigma is that it can’t be addressed as a team – it has to be up to the individual to break the shackles and put his direct opponent to the sword. We saw it in Dayne Zorko last year – teams think they can get to him and make a concerted effort to throw him off his game. They think the same way about Jason Johannisen.

Sub-20 disposal games for a man of JJ’s ability should be few and far between. In 2018, he had had nine of them – that’s not good enough. Players who accept that kind of mediocrity are usually found out and dealt with by their club – JJ has the sort of ability and speed to beat even the most determined tagger.

But only if he wants to.

You ever see someone lose the Academy award? It doesn’t matter what category they’re nominated for; they have a standard response: “Oh it was an honour to be nominated.”

Do you really think they feel that way? If they do, they should get a foot in the ass (and really, who knows how much they pay for that after the show… those kinky Hollywood types). You’re in it to win it, and in the 2016 Grand Final, Johannisen showed the sort of heart and fight of a champion.

He got up there after his name was announced and accepted his award. It was well-deserved, and though there were other worthy contenders, he took the big prize home.

And since then, it’s seemed as though he’s just been happy to be nominated. Nine times in 2018… NINE TIMES he didn’t use his leg speed to create space and options. Nine times, he didn’t work as hard as he should have. Nine times, his performance was rated as a failure. If he didn’t have that Norm Smith Medal, would he have been given this much grace?

Johannisen had a good second half of the year. From Round 14 onwards, he dipped under 20 touches just once (a paltry nine touches), and that’s what the Dogs need from him. They don’t need an Oscar-nomination for best supporting actor. They need Johannisen to be the leading man for their club.

They know he can do it. They’ve seen him perform on the biggest stage of all. He may be happy to be nominated, but the Dogs demand more than just bit-part player on this team. They need him to be the star.

 

 

OTHER STUFF

I’m not really going to go into first year players and have any expectations on a bloke like Bailey Smith or Rhylee West - truth is these guys are a complete unknown to me until we start seeing them playing against men. Yeah, there’s a great pedigree in West, but let’s wait and see. If they have an impact, great. But if they don’t, and we had no expectations, it gives them a chance to transition to the professional game without a huge weight on their shoulders. That’ll be the last we speak of the rookies til they have some gametime under their belt. I hope they go well.

So, the Billy Gowers story is a good one, isn’t it? How many times last season did we hear how much Carlton could’ve done with him? The fact he led the team in goal-kicking is both a feel good story, and cause for concern. Yes, he led the team in goals. He kicked 26 for the year. It was good enough for 39th in the league.

Now, a healthy dose of accuracy will see a bit more of a respectable tally, but long-term, I think everyone knows Gowers is not a number one option.

Mitch Wallis up forward made for a nice change-up at points in 2018. With Liberatore down, I thought his presence in the guts would be required more, but Beveridge saw potential in him as a forward and… by gosh, he was right. Does he play there again this season?

I loooove talking about organic improvement. The best teams always have a few that jump out of the box and drag the team up the ladder with them. Who can play that role for the Doggies in 2019 other than those we’ve already discussed?

Brad Lynch was a bit of a wildcard last season. He showed glimpses in his nine games, and coming into his fourth year on the list, he might finally be ready to make an ongoing impact.

Ed Richards tucked a Rising Star nomination under his belt and went on his merry way. There were times when he looked a little scrappy, but he had a knack of being in the right place at the right time to get the good bounce, or ricochet at times. Some may call it luck, but I’d much rather be lucky than good at times… and if he was doing it that often, either he’s really lucky, or he’s actually pretty bloody good.

With 21 games to his name in his first year, his place in the team seems guaranteed, and with that will come increased responsibility. Though sent to do jobs in defence last season, I expect him to start pushing through the midfield and possibly break double figures in goals this season.

Josh Dunkley is one of those players that could be anything. You watch him, and he looks hard at it, skilled, he’s a good finisher – there’s nothing he really can’t do. He made a huge leap in 2018 (+9.6 disposals) to average 21.9 touches. Whilst it is difficult to see him making another jump in numbers of that magnitude (it’d put him in the top five in the game), by season’s end we could be lumping Dunkley’s name in with the quality Dogs midfielders above.

Speaking of quality mids, how good will it be to see Libba back out there for the Dogs? I’m an unabashed Liberatore fan, be it Tom, or Tony (except when Tony tried to cut in front of me for a coffee once… had to show him where the line ended… and then change my pants). Whilst so much has been expected of him at times, I reckon Libba’s pass mark for 2019 is a modest one. 15 games and 20 touches per game… that’d be nice. Anything extra is a huge bonus.

Taylor Duryea was an interesting pick up by the Dogs. He’ll do the job down back, and do it well enough on a small-mid forward, but mistakes plagued him at Hawthorn, and he was a bit of a whipping boy amongst fans. This is his chance for a clean start.

What’s the pass mark for Josh Schache this season? Was 17 goals last season what you expected? Will 25 be enough this year? Not for me. I reckon he has all the ability in the world, but it has to manifest in a breakout season. We’ve touched on how thin the Dogs are in the goal kicking department – Schache has to pass Gowers on the goal kicking tally this season. There’s an easy barometer. I’d also like to see him take above one contested mark per game and start being the clear first option as a marking forward.

How good would it be to see Liam Picken back out there? It really was touch and go for a while there in regard to whether he'd continue his career, but even having him out on the track consistently would have the team walking taller. What can we expect from him? Let's just get him on the park first - he's a glue-guy, and his impact on the team will be measured in more than kicks and handballs.

It’s late and I’m getting tired, so let’s look at the draw. The Dogs get Brisbane, Carlton and Freo twice each. That’s six winnable games right off the bat, though I am guessing each of those teams would be looking at the Bulldogs based on last season and thinking they’re a chance as well. They also get the Pies and Cats as double-ups.

The Dogs could be 3-3 heading into their match against the Tigers, but only if they beat those they’re expected to (Suns, Dockers, Blues) in the first six weeks. Their run home is tough, with the Bombers, Giants and Crows to finish.

So, where do the Dogs finish in 2019? Sadly, I think finals are not in play; not because their best side can’t make it – but because no one gets to play with their best side for the majority of the year. They lost Jordan Roughead, which hurts ruck depth, and I was a bit of a fan of Marcus Adams. The loss of Luke Dahlhaus probably doesn’t sting anywhere near as much as it should, with Libba returning and the other mids playing at such a high level.

So what do they need to go right to improve? They’re going to need Easton Wood to show glimpses of 2015/16 form, Dale Morris to keep being Dale Morris whilst Naughton develops, and Toby Mclean to continue to be one of the most underrated players in the league. All that, and an injury-free run for Bont will see the Dogs look good, but the reality of the situation is that I can see them winning 8-9 games at most. They’ll be stuck in a glut of teams fighting out the 10-13 spots.

The big positives are that their young talent is SUPER-talented, and their young big man stocks, in Naughton and English are in my opinion, the best young tandem of bigs going around. Keeping those two healthy will be paramount to the future success of the team.

What do you think, Dogs fans? Where do you see your boys this season?

 

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