Saturday afternoon looms as one of the most interesting games of the round, with the Western Bulldogs and St. Kilda - both sitting at 5-4 and occupying 8th and 9th on the ladder respectively - set to renew hostilities at Etihad Stadium.
Both sides have faced form in the first nine rounds of the season, that could be described as horribly inconsistent. Last week the Bulldogs ran into a fired-up Geelong side who had just faced a week of scrutiny by the media. The insurmountable pressure applied by the Cats caused the Dogs to lose their second game in a row and their third match in a month.
The reigning champs have been able to display some of their form that captured that premiership last season throughout 2017, but they've also managed to display some horrendous footy this season. Last week's second quarter was the first time since Round 18 last year that the Dogs were held scoreless in a quarter by any side, ironically it was against this week's opposition in St. Kilda.
After surprising everyone in the AFL community by finishing 9th in 2016, a lot of experts and pundits expected St. Kilda to contend for finals this year, and whilst there have been some brilliant performances this year from the Saints, there is still a massive gap between their best and their worst brand of footy.
Last week's 50-point loss against Sydney looked like they went a step backwards in their development after winning three matches on the trot, including an upset win over Greater Western Sydney. The Saints' skills looked sub-par and some of the decision-making skills were questionable to say the least, but if there is one thing I can say in the Saints' defence, it is that they were against a Swans' team that looked like they have groove back.
St. Kilda lead the Western Bulldogs 7-4 in head-to-heads since 2010, but these two sides over the past few years have provided some thrilling contests, with three of their past six games decided by single digits. Judging from where both these sides sit on the ladder, I can only imagine that we will be in for another thrilling contest between these two teams come Saturday.
IN: Tim English, Jake Stringer, Shane Biggs
OUT: Travis Cloke, Jack Redpath, Lukas Webb (All Omitted)
B: Dale Morris, Marcus Adams, Jason Johannisen
HB: Robert Murphy, Easton Wood, Bailey Williams
C: Lachie Hunter, Luke Dahlhaus, Jack Macrae
HF: Caleb Daniel, Tim English, Clay Smith
F: Lin Jong, Jake Stringer, Liam Picken
FOL: Tom Boyd, Marcus Bontempelli, Mitch Wallis
INT: Matthew Suckling, Shane Biggs, Tory Dickson, Bailey Dale
EMG: Toby McLean, Fletcher Roberts, Jordan Roughead
The Dogs have made three unforced changes to the team who lost to Geelong, dropping Travis Cloke after only one match in the AFL after returning from broken ribs, his form was very ordinary last week, so it shouldn't come as a shock. Also facing the axe include key forward Jack Redpath and Lukas Webb, both of which I thought were very unlucky to get dropped, but the Dogs have made three massive ins.
Two players that were in the premiership team last year come in to the team. Jake Stringer comes back into the side after missing the past fortnight with a knee injury and given that the Bulldogs need as many avenues to goal as possible, this is an inclusion they needed. The Bulldogs have averaged only 73 points over the past month. Shane Biggs also is back into the team after serving a lengthy stint in the VFL in which he averaged over 30 disposals over the past three weeks.
The Dogs have also named their first draft pick from last year Tim English for his debut. English was taken 19th overall in the 2017 AFL draft by the Bulldogs after an impressive year for WAFL club South Fremantle, but has had a delayed start to the 2017 season due to shin complaints. But his form in the VFL over the past month suggests that he was due for a senior debut, averaging 15 disposals, 18 hitouts and five marks per game, and it will be interesting to see if he can co-exist with Tom Boyd in the ruck.
IN: Shane Savage, Darren Minchington
OUT: Luke Dunstan (Omitted), Nick Riewoldt (Knee)
B: Jarryn Geary, Nathan Brown, Daniel McKenzie
HB: Jack Newnes, Jake Carlisle, Dylan Roberton
C: Jack Billings, Jack Steele, Leigh Montagna
HF: Jade Gresham, Paddy McCartin, Maverick Weller
F: Jack Sinclair, Tim Membrey, Blake Acres
FOL: Billy Longer, Seb Ross, Jack Steven
INT: Shane Savage, Sam Gilbert, Koby Stevens, Darren Minchington
EMG: Luke Dunstan, Jack Lonie, Josh Bruce
St. Kilda have made two changes to the side that went down to Sydney last week, with Nick Riewoldt's omission due to knee soreness the big talking point out of the Saints' changes. Riewoldt injured his knee back in round one in the loss to Melbourne, but since his return, he hasn't looked to much out of place, averaging 19 disposals and 7.5 marks per game as well as kicking 17 goals, leading all Saints in scoring. I consider this a massive blow for the Saints, given how he has always enjoyed playing against the Bulldogs, he kicked four goals from 19 disposals and 10 marks the last time these two sides met.
I would've thought that Josh Bruce would get the recall, despite playing a very quiet game in the VFL, but the Saints feel a different way, having opted to go a little smaller, naming fringe player Darren Minchington into the side for what is only his 28th game in five seasons. Shane Savage will also come back into the team after consistently performing well for Sandringham in the VFL, replacing Luke Dunstan who has been omitted. Savage has averaged 28 disposals in his past month of footy, but can he replicate it at AFL level? The former Hawk has only averaged 12 disposals a match in three outings so far in 2017, after averaging over 20 disposals in 21 games in 2016.
Recent History (Past 10 Meetings)
Round 18, 2016 - Etihad Stadium: Western Bulldogs 9.6.60 def by St. Kilda 11.9.75
Round 2, 2016 - Etihad Stadium: St. Kilda 5.6.36 def by Western Bulldogs 13.15.93
Round 13, 2015 - Etihad Stadium: St. Kilda 7.14.56 def by Western Bulldogs 9.8.62
Round 6, 2015 - Etihad Stadium: Western Bulldogs 13.9.87 def by St. Kilda 14.10.94
Round 20, 2014 - Etihad Stadium: St. Kilda 15.9.99 def by Western Bulldogs 18.14.122
Round 9, 2013 - Etihad Stadium: St. Kilda 15.11.101 def by Western Bulldogs 17.8.110
Round 18, 2012 - Etihad Stadium: St. Kilda 16.22.118 def Western Bulldogs 6.6.42
Round 3, 2012 - Etihad Stadium: Western Bulldogs 5.10.40 def by St. Kilda 15.13.103
Round 12, 2011 - Etihad Stadium: St. Kilda 12.9.81 def Western Bulldogs 8.9.57
Preliminary Final, 2010 - MCG: St. Kilda 13.10.88 def Western Bulldogs 8.16.64
Players To Watch
I've been very impressed with how Bailey Williams has performed lately, and he looms one to watch on Saturday. The second-year player was taken with the 48th pick in the 2015 AFL Draft, and broke into the side in his debut season, playing six games last year, showing signs of promise. This year, he has already played four of a possible nine games, and after a shaky start to the year against GWS, has averaged over 18 disposals in his past three games. I think he'll be an adequate replacement when the likes of Murphy and Boyd eventually call time on their illustrious careers.
I could be wrong about this, but I strongly believe that Lin Jong is amongst one of the Bulldogs' most improved players so far this year. He has played every game this season after numerous seasons in which he has been drifting in and out of the side, and is averaging career-highs in disposals (21 per game), inside 50s (three per game) and clearances (3.5 per game). He recorded 19 disposals, eight tackles and a goal the last time he played the Saints, could we expect another solid performance from Jong?
After playing every game last year for the Saints for the first time in his career, Seb Ross is going a step further in 2017, averaging just under 30 disposals, six clearances, four tackles and four inside 50s per game. Some are debating whether or not he is in All-Australian form - I definitely believe he is. How can you argue it? Ross has recorded 30 disposals or more every game over the past six weeks, He's a player the Bulldogs will need to watch.
Another Saint who is in undeniably career-best form. With Jake Carlisle and Nathan Brown manning the key defensive posts, it's enabled Roberton to play more of a running game, and will allow him to float in and be that intercept-marking player that most good sides will have. Roberton is averaging 25 disposals, 19 kicks, seven marks and five rebound 50s per game - all of those statistics being career highs. I wonder if he'll match up on the returning Jake Stringer?
Every week's a real hard game to predict when it comes to the Bulldogs. There's no doubt this contest is going to be a real close one here, and a contest I'm personally looking forward to, with both sides expecting to show an exciting fast-paced brand of footy, and given that the Bulldogs - who are the best tackling team in the comp - were bested in this area last weekend, they will want to put in a very good showing.
I think Luke Dahlhaus vs Seb Ross will be the most exciting match-up in the midfield. I'm also keen to see whether Jack Billings or Marcus Bontempelli - who were taken by these two sides at picks three and four in the 2013 AFL draft - will provide a match-winning effort.
The Saints would want to make amends for such a bad showing last week against the Swans, and the Bulldogs need to start winning games as soon as possible if they want to even show up for the Finals this year, and given that Essendon, Melbourne and a resurgent Sydney outfit also looking to make a tilt for the Finals, they must win this game on Saturday. I'm going to back the Bulldogs here to win this game, they simply need this win, they can't afford to drop many more games if they want to contend for the finals this year and defend their crown.
Western Bulldogs By 6 Points
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