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Stomachs full, Dogs don’t have the appetite for September

A dejected Western Bulldogs team leaves Etihad Stadium after their 49-point loss to Melbourne last Saturday. Photo: GETTY IMAGES

Stomachs full, Dogs don’t have the appetite for September

Rohan Connolly    

When the Western Bulldogs won the 2016 AFL premiership, not only was it the club’s second-only flag and their first for 62 years, but the first won from seventh position on the ladder.

Now the Dogs are poised for another historical rarity, but far from the sort they’d want or would rightfully have expected less than two years ago.

With just four wins, sitting two games outside the eight (and eighth-placed Port Adelaide having a game in hand), the Bulldogs seem certain to miss out on finals for a second year in a row. And that will make them only the second club in 40 years to miss September for two straight years after triumphing in it.

Adelaide was the last example, missing out in 1999-2000. But at least the Crows could claim after back-to-back flags in 1997-98 a better rationale for having had their appetite sated. Before that, you have to go all the way back to 1980, when Hawthorn missed out for a second year having taken out the 1978 flag.

It’s been a spectacular demise. And while the Dogs’ flag will always remain a win for the ages, subsequent events have only strengthened the perception that theirs was perhaps the ultimate case of a team which simply played out of its skin at the perfect moment, failing to approach anything like the same heights either before or since.

The Dogs certainly weren’t your garden variety seventh-placed finalist two years ago, their 15 wins the most recorded by any team and only one win off a top four spot.

But even then, before they launched their incredible finals campaign, bowling over West Coast, Hawthorn, GWS and Sydney in successive weeks, only four of those 15 victories had come against teams who would play off in September.

Since that month, the numbers have been even more stark. The Dogs have played 33 games and won only 15, a strike rate of 45 per cent. And just two of the 15 wins have come against top eight teams.

It isn’t the profile of a great side which for various reasons has stumbled but still has the capacity to return to the dizzy heights. More one of a team which for a month pulled arguably the biggest rabbit out of the hat finals football has seen.

It was a team which needed – and got – all guns blazing and an even contribution across the board. That hasn’t happened since, all the time with the names changing and the playing field shifting beneath coach Luke Beveridge’s feet.

Last Saturday’s line-up which lost to Melbourne contained only 12 premiership players. Important leaders like Matthew Boyd and Bob Murphy (who famously missed out on the flag) have retired, that void yet to be filled. Jake Stringer and Joel Hamling are now at Essendon and Fremantle respectively.

Tom Liberatore’s knee injury and Liam Picken’s continued absence with concussion issues have been massive blows both.

But 19 of that premiership 22 are still on the Bulldogs’ list. And of those who remain and haven’t been knocked about by injury, it’s arguably only Toby McLean who can unequivocally now claim to be a better player than he was 20 or so months ago.

Big men Tom Boyd and Jordan Roughead are patently struggling. Important players in the mix of 2016 like Shane Biggs, Josh Dunkley and Fletcher Roberts at the weekend were playing in the VFL. Even stars the calibre of Marcus Bontempelli, Jack Macrae and Jason Johannisen aren’t necessarily better than they were in the premiership year.

The Bulldogs’ forward set-up struggled for efficiency even in 2016, the Dogs then only 16th for percentage of goals from inside 50 entries. But with the second-most entries on the differentials, they at least had plenty of opportunities.

Now ranked only ninth for inside 50 differentials, there’s fewer chances. And the Dogs’ forward set-up is more dysfunctional.

They’re currently ranked last for goals per inside 50 at a miserable 17.6 per cent. Over the last three games, they’ve had a total of 155 inside 50 entries for the less-than-grand total of 17 goals. That’s under an 11 per cent return. Ordinary to say the least.

The even bigger problem, however, remains hunger, or lack of it, something to which Beveridge again alluded after the Melbourne loss when he noted “players not being able to quite handle themselves after the heights of winning (a premiership)”.

Statistics back him up. The best measure of player hunger is contested ball. In 2016, on the differentials, the Bulldogs were a clear No.1. That ranking slipped to eighth last year. And currently, the Dogs are last in the competition, behind even the likes of Carlton, Brisbane and St Kilda.

Even in a premiership year, the Bulldogs were a side which needed all parts and all players functioning to their optimum to have a chance. Without that, they have slipped to something below even run-of-the-mill status.

Of course that doesn’t lessen the triumph of 2016, nor the status of those Bulldogs who played their part in it. But it does suggest that a famous premiership wasn’t the start of something big for a traditionally downtrodden club, more a glorious one-off.

*This article first appeared at SPORTING NEWS

  1. Good summary of where Bulldogs are falling down but leaves unexplained why they have lost their hunger and purpose. Even if 2016 was an aberration, why have they gone from a pretty good side to one that is barely competitive? Why have players not improved? Has Beveridge been over-rated?

  2. Rohan Connolly

    Suspect only the players themselves can really answer that question, Phil. Perhaps the unexpectedness of the flag didn’t help. Compared, say, to Hawthorn, which played finals in 2010 then just missed out in the 2011 prelim, then lost a grand final before winning three. Had been through a bit of pain first. Maybe the Dogs doing it as they did, and from seventh, plants the unconscious belief, to which Beveridge also alluded, that anyone can win a flag if things go right.

  3. Great article! I think the doggies struggled with being the hunted. 2016 they were huge underdogs in every final and played unbelievably well. Are they at the point where they need to move on some players and head back to the draf or attract a big name free agent?

  4. I would say macrae is a better player now then before

  5. Great article. Adding fuel to the fire of “right place right time”

    It must also be remembered that West Coast won 8 of their last 9 matches in the home and away season of 2016 and finished 6th with the last 3 wins against GWS (Away) Hawks (home), and Adel (Away, and after loosing Nic Nat) and were on some kind of role. the week off before finals stopped West Coasts momentum in its tracks, and at the same time allowed the Dog players with niggles a refresh. Jumping West Coast in Perth then gave them a firm belief they could do it and they did.

    I loved the Dogs win in 2018, but their Premiership Hangover has turned into Hangover Alcoholics.

  6. Rohan Connolly

    Yep, fair call Craig.

  7. Rohan Connolly

    Hi James, I reckon they give the under-performers another season to get back to where they were. But time marches on pretty quickly in today’s AFL.

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