When a team’s won just the one game from seven to start their season, it’s often difficult to glare at their year to date and dig out more positives than negatives. This is the case with the Western Bulldogs, a side that has fallen from the heights of consecutive finals appearances to be rebuilding around a host of talented, but raw youngsters.
Naturally, too, given that their triumph over Brisbane in round one – and a large one – remains alone, seeing them tumble down the ladder to 16th, only sitting ahead of a club in a shambles in the Demons, and another two years younger and with half the experience of any other non-expansion club in the Giants.
The ruck is seemingly their only true strength, with Will Minson in awe-inspiring form rucking solo. Their forwards and defenders, on the contrary, suffer from a midfield that when it wins the ball can’t distribute it, and when it doesn’t can’t defend it.
They sit second-last in the AFL for converting both clearances and opposition turnovers into scores. Killing the opposition through turnovers has always been one of the most efficient ways to catch a team and score quickly. Additionally, the clearance stat finds a way to look more disheartening when factoring in that they’ve won less clearances than only Sydney and North Melbourne so far this season. Winning clearances, though they have the personnel to do so, is redundant if they don’t have the ability to follow it up, given that they also concede heavily from contested situations.
After a few years at the top, reaching three successive Preliminary Finals, the slow thud back down has seen the club evidently enter what’s often deemed as a rebuild. Perhaps too often. If I were rearranging football vernacular I’d likely go with ‘phase’ or ‘transition’, something that seems more meticulously planned than aggressive.
The side that came within seven points of a Grand Final in 2009 is much different to the one that will fly up to meet Gold Coast, of course. It remains arguably as talented, but much more youthful; their round seven team contained 11 more players under 50 games than that Preliminary Final side.
Coach Brendan McCartney is both clever and lucky, in a sense. These youngsters have been eased into AFL with the fortune of having fantastic on-field support from the remnants of their Rodney Eade-coached finalists.
Their captain Matthew Boyd alongside Daniel Cross, Adam Cooney and Ryan Griffen always provide a good contest. Daniel Giansiracusa still hits the scoreboard with regularity, Bob Murphy continues to impact and Dale Morris has made a successful return from a serious leg injury.
A fair majority of them are no doubt still some of their best players, as many of the Bulldogs’ younger contingent aren’t yet at that level to consistently influence games. Many of the before mentioned older players are strong contested midfielders which is why they as a side lack an ability to turn clearances into goals with frequency. The key is that the experienced heads are all performing, influencing and assisting the development of the next generation of Bulldogs.
Five of those players are on the wrong side of 30, so there’s no doubt that over the course of the next few seasons they will begin to hang up the boots, but as each of them retires, a young player having learned so much, fills the void. Murphy noted this new found role well in a recent article in The Age.
The hunger and desire to run and kick is there, too – players such as Christian Howard, Daniel Pearce, Jason Johannisen, Jackson Macrae and Jason Tutt, as well as the older Shaun Higgins, know how to play on the outside and have been effective players at some point.
There will be plenty of opportunity to do so as well, given the prowess of father-son duo Tom Liberatore and Mitch Wallis as contested players, alongside Griffen. Plenty of others will have their chance to join them, such as untried ball magnet Nathan Hrovat. Lachie Hunter is another talent who’d look to make the father-son weapon triple-pronged, having been picked up last year under the rule.
With Jordan Roughead and Liam Jones locking down key positions at either end for the next few years, as well as the promise of Ayce Cordy and the versatility of Tom Williams and Lukas Markovic, the talls will settle. Roughead and Jones almost look to have done so already. Many of the senior figures are in the latter stages of their careers, so the counterbalance needs to come from the improvement from those just beginning, and thankfully, it seems to be.
While the recipe for that elusive premiership is of course much more intricate than add players, develop players and enjoy success, the transition seen at the Bulldogs looks promising, if any forecast is going to be made. They’ll keep winning clearances, but at this rate the next few elements will fall into place. Their next few weeks should gauge where they’re at with some winnable games, but for now, one and six doesn’t look too bad.