Story Of The Summer
The Western Bulldogs, like in previous seasons, weren’t overly active throughout the 2013 trade period, instead directing their attention towards quietly plugging holes in their list to solidify it for the next few years. There’s no doubt the biggest acquisition over the off-season was Stewart Crameri, who’d led the goalkicking for a handy Essendon side over the previous two seasons. He is no monster forward, but he provides a high physical presence and work rate – as well as the knack of hitting the scoreboard – that should fill a key position forward for seasons to come.
If anything, it will alleviate the pressure to perform on a player such as Tom Campbell, who across the last five rounds of the last home and away season ranked equal-fourth for contested marks in the league, as well as kicking nine goals and winning 22 hitouts to suggest he is a more than capable tall forward and relief ruck for Will Minson. There is, of course, also the ever-present trio of Liam Jones, Jarrad Grant and Ayce Cordy, and a forward line which ranked 15th in marks per inside 50 in 2013 should become more sound over the course of the season.
The Dogs picked up Sam Darley from GWS. Predominantly an outside player who should compete for a spot with the likes of Daniel Pearce and mature-age recruit Matt Fuller, especially early in the season to fill the void left by Bob Murphy after he succumbed to an elbow injury late in the pre-season. With Darley coming on the cheap – he only cost the Bulldogs pick 78, a pick GWS did not use – he should have the chance to establish himself as a lockdown small-to-medium defender the Dogs need, as well as being capable of working both ways through running and rebounding.
Also drafted were Fuller, Marcus Bontempelli and Mitch Honeychurch. Fuller may make appearances throughout 2014 for the same reasons as Darley, while Honeychurch is a small yet competitive midfielder with all-round skill, but at this stage the likelihood of any of the trio playing a significant role just yet is not particularly high.
It followed on from winning seven of their last fourteen games in the home and away season – as many as North Melbourne, Port Adelaide, Carlton and Brisbane – to finish the season with some optimism for the road ahead.
Where They Excel
There’s little secret the Dogs stand out in their ability to win contested ball, recording the third-most clearances and contested possessions in the home and away season last year. Last year’s captain and this year’s successor, Matthew Boyd and Ryan Griffen, were forces at the stoppages once again. The latter in particular stepped his game up to another level, becoming not only an explosive but consistent player, not dropping below 15 disposals in a match. He also averaged 29.5 disposals per game in losses (fourth in the league) and 33.6 against top eight sides (first in the league), suggesting that when the going got tough, Griffen got going.
The Dogs also oversaw the emergence of Tom Liberatore, who led the league in clearances, and the re-emergence of Adam Cooney who, despite missing a yard of pace thanks to his degenerative knee, certainly didn’t miss his form. With such a quartet that, at its best, can run with just about any other, and the rotation of the likes of Mitch Wallis, Luke Dahlhaus, Jackson Macrae and Koby Stevens – and of course the service of All-Australian ruckman Will Minson – and the Dogs look potent at the coalface.
However it is when the Dogs are able to find chains in possession and turn a clearance into a wave of forward play that they are at their best. They won seven of 10 games in which they had 20 more uncontested possessions than the opposition, but were still level in uncontested marks. It pictures the Bulldogs as a handball-happy side, winning five games of six in which they had at least 50 more effective handballs than the opposition against teams such as West Coast, Carlton and Adelaide late in the 2013 season. They also, on average, recorded 15% more inside 50s, 26% more marks per inside 50 and 20 more points when they reached that handball figure.
It all suggests the quick movement through the centre is as appealing to score from as it is to watch. And, as they have plenty of young, capable ball carriers well past the best 22, it should be a hallmark of the Bulldogs’ game for a while to come.
Hiccups On The Horizon
The Bulldogs in full flight are a joy to watch, both from a fan’s perspective and those in the coaches’ box, but a question remains over whether it can be done over a consistent basis. Fatigue does not seem to be an issue, one often present amongst younger sides, as they won more fourth quarters than any other and closed the season with four of six wins. In fact, the opposite seemed to occur, as the Dogs ranked last for first quarters won last season and, bar a thumping of Brisbane, were one of the most disappointing sides in the first third of last season. Head coach Brendan McCartney should have it near the top of his priorities to have the Bulldogs firing from the first bounce, allowing them to remain largely competitive throughout.
Their back six, despite appearing relatively settled, is also lacking. Jordan Roughead is their most notable key defender, though a little erratic – the 23-year-old conceded 49 goals last season, the most at the Bulldogs, including four bags of five or more. Having Matthew Scarlett at the club will help, but 2014 shapes as the year he needs to take the role of first key defender by the scruff of the neck. This is necessary, especially with old heads in Dale Morris, Bob Murphy and Brett Goodes on the wrong side of 30 and the likes of Tom Young, Michael Talia and Matt Fuller young and inexperienced.
Their defence needs to settle for this transition in 2014 as much as possible, as they were often exposed through their back half. Teams that won the effective kick count against the Dogs in 2013 won every game – 13 of them – by an average of 35 points. McCartney will think to limit the effects of this by implementing more sound structures down back and through the midfield, but of course he needs the personnel at his disposal to execute it. As such, the emphasis will be on trying to find as sound a back six as possible and working on the midfield’s defensive capabilities, and with it comes competitiveness in the short and long term.
Last year’s start to the season – bar the victory over Brisbane – will be at the front of McCartney’s mind, and to immediately put themselves behind the eight ball with a sluggish start two seasons in a row will be the last thing he wants. Their early weeks are challenging, travelling to play West Coast before games against likely finalists North Melbourne and Richmond. But following that is only one game against a 2013 finalist in their next six – Carlton – and an opportunity to build some momentum. If the Dogs can hit their clash with Fremantle in round 11 having won four or five games, they will sit in a favourable position to sit right among the logjam of sides set to sit within reach of finals. With 15 games at Etihad Stadium and no trips outside Melbourne to play Fremantle, Sydney or Adelaide, the Dogs must look forward to 2014 as a season of promise – perhaps not of finals, but of good things to come.
It will, of course, need them to follow up with their consistently improving form from yesteryear, a feat young sides have often been troubled by.
B: T.Young, D.Morris, B.Goodes
HB: R.Murphy, J.Roughead, M.Talia
C: M.Boyd, R.Griffen, A.Cooney
HF: L.Dahlhaus, S.Crameri, J.Stringer
F: D.Giansiracusa, T.Campbell, T.Dickson
Foll: W.Minson, T.Liberatore, M.Wallis
Int: K.Stevens, J.Macrae, J.Johannisen
You can follow Ethan on Twitter at @ethan_meldrum.