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Analyse this. Bulldogs just haven’t been hungry enough

Dejected Dogs: Marcus Bontempelli, Dale Morris, Lewis Young and Matt Suckling trudge off after defeat against Port Adelaide. Photo: GETTY IMAGES

Analyse this. Bulldogs just haven’t been hungry enough

Rohan Connolly    

In the complex world of modern-day AFL football, there’s always going to be plenty of analysis into different team’s failures. But sometimes there’s a more fundamental explanation.

Unless a series of unlikely cards fall the way of the Western Bulldogs this weekend in the last home and away round of the season, they will become only the second reigning premier in nearly 20 years to miss the following year’s finals.

There’s various explanations regarding injuries, structure and game plan, but none as significant as this. In 2017, the Bulldogs simply haven’t had the same hunger.

Since 1999, only Hawthorn in 2009 has failed to back up a flag with at least some finals action the following year. And the parallels between those Hawks and the Bulldogs this season are strong, namely youth and inexperience.

Indeed, the Dogs’ successful 22 of 2016 was even younger and less seasoned than Hawthorn in 2008, with an average age of 24 and average games’ experience of just 82, significantly less than either the Hawks then, or another very young premiership team, Collingwood of 2010.

What did that mean? That after one of the most famous of premiership wins, the young Bulldogs, having achieved earlier than expected and unseasoned in the ways of dealing with sudden top-dog status, failed to deal with the psychological pressure that entailed.

In retrospect, the signs weren’t good even shortly after the grand final win, when the likes of Tom Liberatore, it’s fair to say, let their hair down so to speak on various overseas adventures.

Perhaps the Bulldogs stuttering early-season form masked the extent of the malaise as well. While they never managed to reach anything like the heights of last September, they still managed to win four of their first five games, occasionally, like in the round two victory over Sydney, getting closer to the required standard.

But from there, it’s been a real struggle, just seven wins and nine losses. Even a recent run of four wins in a row came with an asterisk, three of those victories against teams all in the bottom four on the ladder.

They’ve consistently come up short against the best, their record against current top eight teams a miserable 3-7. And the unmistakeable signs of a diminishing appetite for achievement are everywhere.

There was an obvious hunger for the contest about the Dogs in 2016 which gave them a differential ranking of No.1 for contested possession and No.2 for clearances. Their equivalent rankings right now are eighth for contested ball and 12th for clearances.

Last year, the Dogs didn’t score much, but had even less scored against them with a ranking of third for fewest points conceded. This season, seven other teams concede fewer points per game than they do.

On a purely individual level, the picture is even more bleak. Indeed, it’s hard to think of any of the most important parts of the Bulldog machine who are playing even as well as, let alone better, than last year. Maybe, at a pinch, Marcus Bontempelli has maintained his level.

But of the top 10 in last year’s best and fairest, just one player – Caleb Daniel – is getting his hands to the football more than he did in 2016, and even that’s only fractionally more.

Liberatore, fourth in the best and fairest last season, is arguably the biggest disappointment, averaging four fewer disposals per game this year. He’s been nigh on invisible in some big games, and in 17 appearances, has only three times managed more than 20 touches, a very poor return for a senior midfielder.

Liam Picken, so critical last September, is also down four possessions per game. So is Lachie Hunter. Luke Dahlhaus and Jack Macrae have at least managed around the same amount of football, but are both winning less contested football.

And Jason Johannisen’s struggles to deal with tight checking as opponents zero in on the importance of his rebound from half-back have already been well-documented.

Injuries certainly haven’t helped, particularly those to two of the Dogs’ three most experienced hands in Matthew Boyd and Dale Morris. Skipper Bob Murphy has missed time, too, while in a largely undersized defence, the loss of Marcus Adams with a foot injury took a greater toll than many might have expected.

There’s been further complications in the mental health battles fought by key forward pair Tom Boyd and Travis Cloke, both of whom have required extended spells out of the game.

All are legitimate explanations for the struggle that 2017 has been. But the Bulldogs had more than their share of injuries and absentees last season, too, and somehow still managed to find a way over the obstacles. This season, they simply haven’t been able to dig deep enough into their reserves of both physical and psychological energy.

Which is the bottom line here. For all the number-crunching, discussion of the impact of the loss of key defender Joel Hamling to Fremantle, the injuries, the Bulldogs in 2017 simply haven’t been up for the fight to anything like the same level.

The good news is that the Dogs still have time, and youth on their side. If nothing else, the Dogs now know through bitter experience just how difficult it is to be the hunted rather than the hunter.

And the case of Hawthorn in 2009 is also a very handy measuring stick. There’s certainly no better example than the Hawks’ three flags in a row between 2013-15 of a club turning a premiership hangover into something a lot more fruitful in subsequent years. That, rather than a fleeting finals appearance, is the Western Bulldogs’ bigger challenge now.

  1. Don’t get me wrong, great story last year with all the injuries & a fairy-tale ending. But had a charmed run against the odds in September, not a dominant team by any stretch. Shown up this year. Not good enough.

  2. Good Analysis Rohan. Last years 15 wins 7th place was the highest wins for that position in a very tight final 8. Got key players back for that finals series and played like a group on a mission. Lack of goals from Stringer & Dickson this year have been ciritical 106 (2015), 82 (2016), under 40 this year.

  3. Rohan, a good article, but you missed one key thing. The Doggies cant kick straight. The kicking for goal, both set shots and on the run has been woeful this year. So it has to be back to basics and do 200 shots every training session. Forget the fancy crap. It has worked for a key Richmond Foward so the Doggies HAVE TO DO IT.

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