It may only be the NAB Cup but the Western Bulldogs’ win over Hawthorn symbolised much more than a pre-season victory.
For coach Brendan McCartney, or “Macca” as he is affectionately known, it was a long time between wins, having not registered a victory since the Bulldogs defeated Port Adelaide in June last year.
For some teams, the NAB Cup is essentially a series of practice matches to give younger players a chance to adapt to the highest level and assimilate with the rest of the team. For the Western Bulldogs, it is a chance to blood the players who will be lining up in the 2013 premiership season. If last night was a dress rehearsal, the Western Bulldogs can expect to be more competitive and build on their lowly five wins in 2012, four of which came against the other sides in the bottom five.
Opposition supporters will argue that it was a weakened Hawthorn outfit, fielding just 10 of its starting line-up so a Bulldogs win is nothing to get excited about. Whilst that’s true, the likes of Lance Franklin, Jarryd Roughead and Sam Mitchell all took part in the clash making them no pushovers.
The Dogs also showed great resilience against a stronger overall side. Hawthorn had numerous chances to finish off a young Bulldogs side that substituted elder statesmen Daniel Giansiracusa and Nick Lower in the second half to bring on the fresh legs of Jackson Macrae and Jake Stringer. Both players were taken in the top 10 of last year’s National Draft and within the space of five minutes; it was obvious to all that they belong at the top level.
Macrae ran off a wing and within a matter of seconds had his first disposal. He finished with eight disposals and two clearances in just over a shortened quarter. Stringer only had one disposal and three tackles but made it one of the most memorable one-disposal games of all time. Running to a contest deep in the Bulldogs’ forward pocket, he tackled two players, scooped up the ball, fended off Hawthorn hard man Sam Mitchell and slotted home a classic goal. His third tackle saw him land awkwardly and he limped off the ground, taking no further part.
Whilst it was only a glimpse of what they could offer, both Macrae and Stringer will strengthen the Bulldogs for the future. Combine the two freshmen with Mitch Wallis and Tom Liberatore and you have a starting midfield that could be very dangerous within five years. Matthew Boyd and Daniel Cross are great warriors but as they finish off their careers, it will be up to them to help mentor these prestigious talents to ensure the Bulldogs are a force to be reckoned with.
With the midfield looking set for the future, the Bulldogs just have to find a settled forward line to kick a winning score. Robert Murphy will accompany Giansiracusa in the attacking 50 this year but McCartney will want a higher contribution from the talls: Liam Jones, Ayce Cordy and Jarrad Grant. None of the three are hulking monsters, but if they can contribute a couple of a goals per game each, it’s a starting point.
Jordan Roughead looks likely to be given first shot at Brian Lake’s old position and will no doubt be given a chance to settle down back there in what will be a very different-looking defence for the Bulldogs. With Lake at Hawthorn and both Lindsay Gilbee and Ryan Hargrave retired, they look a little vulnerable. Dale Morris’ fitness will be the key because he is now the senior defender who will be looked upon to command the backline. The addition of the mature-aged Brett Goodes will help too as the Bulldogs aim to be more stringent than in 2012.
Western Bulldogs fans can’t expect McCartney to work miracles. With no choice but to rebuild an ageing Bulldogs list, he has done well to recruit undervalued players such as Lower and Koby Stevens whilst stockpiling high draftees such as Stringer and Macrae.
This year will be a year of transition for the young Dogs but they will be a much more competitive beast than last season. A successful year should see the Dogs celebrate seven to eight wins with a look towards 10 in season 2014. There is a lot to like about this Bulldogs side and the supporters will begin to see results over the coming years.