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Was 2016 A Flash In The Pan? The Western Bulldogs 2017 Season In Review

  • Was 2016 A Flash In The Pan? The Western Bulldogs 2017 Season In Review

    MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 25: Matthew Boyd (L) and Robert Murphy of the Bulldogs waves to fans after losing their retirement match during round 23 AFL match between the Hawthorn Hawks and the Western Bulldogs at Etihad Stadium on August 25, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

Season 2016

Position: 1st (Premiers)
Wins: 19
Losses: 7
Percentage (After Round 23): 115.4%

Season 2017

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Position: 10th
Wins: 11
Losses: 11
Percentage: 97.1%

What a difference 12 months make. I know it sounds very cliche when I say that, but even the blindest of people can notice that the Western Bulldogs of this year are a stark contrast to the team that won the premiership from seventh on the ladder last year.

It must be said that it was always going to be a hard ask for this team to back up their fairytale finals campaign of last year, given that the nucleus of this side is still very young, but what I have found the most disappointing out of all of this is that when the times were tough this season, most of these young pups failed to even yelp, when the past two seasons saw them fight and scratch and claw their way back from just about everything.

They started strong enough, winning five of their first seven games and headed into their mid-season bye inside the top four and looking like they would be in contention at the end of the season. However it all came crumbling down when they returned, winning one of their next five games before going a four-game winning streak and reigniting the possibility of making finals for the third successive year, just to have that torn down with a comprehensive thumping from sworn rivals Greater Western Sydney - sparking a three-game losing streak to finish the season at 11-11

Some expected last year's premiership success as the first of many chapters of what they thought was the beginning of a very storied Western Bulldogs' dynasty, but instead it wasn't to be in 2017, with the club going a couple of steps backwards and with so much internally going wrong, it shouldn't really come as a shock that the Bulldogs didn't make the finals this year.

As the first team to not make the Finals after winning the premiership the year before since Hawthorn in 2009, Luke Beveridge and his men face a long and arduous Summer to get the Western Bulldogs back to the top of the mountain, and if anybody can bring the Doggies back to the promised land, it is Luke Beveridge.

What I Didn't Like

Where do we even begin here?

Firstly there was the club's despicably horrible effeciency going forward and that's the one thing that irked me all throughout the year. The Bulldogs were ranked fifth in the league for inside 50 entries, averaging just under 55 entries a game, yet were only 15th in the league for goals kicked, averaging just under 12 goals per game. How does this happen? The club lacks forward structure and they lacked the tools to kick a winning score, having to rely on midfielders to try and get the job done. Stewart Crameri missed all but two games, Tory Dickson struggled so much this season, Jake Stringer missed a large portion due to injury, whilst Tom Boyd and Travis Cloke both faced mental issues for a large part of the year.

Speaking of Cloke, the experiment to get him back to playing his best football failed miserably, with the former Pie playing just 10 games in 2017 for a return of 11 goals. Now it must be said that he did take time off of the game to focus on his mental issues, but this move was supposed to help him rediscover his passion for the game, and whilst it did looke like he was beginning to enjoy his footy again late in the season, there is still a lot of uncertainty about where his future lies.

After finishing in the top eight in the league for clearances in 2016, the Bulldogs thoroughly struggled in this stat this season, averaging 34.5 clearances a game to be ranked 16th in the league, just ahead of Carlton and Essendon. The lack of hunger for the contest from a few of the players has been openly questioned, none more so than Tom Liberatore, who played such a pivotal role in last year's Finals Series, was well down on form this season, averaging only 17 disposals per game, whe he has averaged 23 and 25 disposals per game in previous years.

Jason Johannisen's targeting midway through the year was also a huge talking point as he found himself on the recieving end of some pretty rough and physical niggling from some of the game's more annoying and low-profile players, causing him to have a massive form slump. However, after signing a new five-year deal, last year's Norm Smith medallist looked like he was regaining some of that form that made him so lethal in last year's premiership triumph.

What I Liked

I did the returns of both Mitch Wallis and Robert Murphy from their respective injuries last year. Mitch Wallis came back from a horrific broken leg in the round nine encounter against Geelong and made an instant impact with 26 disposals and two goals in their loss to the Cats. Murphy returned for the opening round of the 2017 season after missing most of last year with a ruptured ACL, causing him to miss the Bulldogs' 2016 premiership. Murphy would return and play 17 of 22 games this season, with hamstring injuries troubling him during the season.

I also love watching the Doggies continue to develop their younger players. Young forward Bailey Dale has stamped his spot in the Bulldogs' 22 beyond this season with a breakout year, playing 16 games with a return of 17 goals, including a career-best four goals against Port Adelaide in round 22 in just his third season, whilst premiership player Toby McLean announced himself as a midfielder of the future, exploding his stats in the second half of the season. McLean averaged 25.4 disposals, five tackles, four clearances and four inside 50s between rounds 14-23.

As well as the much-improved seasons from that pair of Bulldogs, I've also enjoyed seeing last year's draft class get some senior experience already in such a short span. Lewis Young killed on debut against Carlton, and looms as a key defender for the future, Patrick Lipinski showed enough promise from his one and only game this season that he'll be a good forward option and Tim English showed in glimpses why the Bulldogs were so delighted to snap him up late in the first round and with a couple of pre-seasons in the gym, he could be that ruckman that the Western Bulldogs need.

The best part about all of this is that every one of these young pups are committed and ready to propel their side back up the ladder.

Best Performance Of 2017

There were two performances that I couldn't separate as the Bulldogs' best performances of the season.

The first one came in round seven against Richmond, when they found themselves on the ropes early, with a five goal to one opening quarter and were down by as much as 32 points early in the second quarter against an impressive Tigers' outfit, but the Bulldogs found a way to get back into the match, cutting the deficit from 32 to just two points at the final break. Down to just two men on the bench in the final quarter, the Bulldogs found themselves ahead midway through the final term and led by 11 points, but withstood one last spirited charge from the Tigers, winning by five points.

The second one came at the latter part of the season, as the Bulldogs played host to fellow finals contenders Essendon under the roof of Etihad Stadium. In a game that ebbed and flowed all afternoon, the Bulldogs responded from a sluggish start to which saw the Bombers kick the opening three goals, with five of the next six to take a five-point lead at quarter time. A seven-goal third term lifted the Dogs to a 19-point three-quarter time lead, but the Bombers threatened to take the win away from them, but not even a six-goal effort from Joe Daniher was enough for the Bombers as the Dogs fought off a massive Essendon challenge in the fourth quarter to win by 30 points.

Worst Performance Of 2017

There have been numerous mediocre performances from the Western Bulldogs in 2017, but there is one that stands out beyond the rest. Special mentions go out to the Bulldogs' round 12 loss to Sydney, the round 16 loss to Adelaide and the Round 21 loss to Greater Western Sydney.

But to me, the Western Bulldogs' worst peformance of this season goes out to their meeting against the Melbourne Football Club in Round 13. What made this game all the more disappointing was that this was a game that the Bulldogs needed to step up following a humbling defeat to Sydney the previous week, but they simply didn't turn up. 

The Bulldogs had not lost to the Demons at Etihad Stadium in 10 years, but on this occasion it was the Demons that jumped out of the blocks with a four goal to nil opening term and it just got worse from there. Antagonist Tomas Bugg got in the face of Jason Johannisen from the outset and it also got the better of Johannisen's team mates, who were looking to put Bugg on his backside at any opportunity. The Demons led at every change as the margin also grew at every break, with the Demons going on to win by 57 points.

The MVP

Whilst there is a case to have Marcus Bontempelli winning back-to-back Charlie Sutton Medals, I can't look past Jack Macrae as my MVP this season. Whereas the Bont's form fluctuates week in and week out, Macrae's form has been ultra consistent and the sad thing about this is that he doesn't get recognised as much as he should be.

In his five seasons at the Western Bulldogs, Macrae has averaged 26-27 disposals a game in the past four years, but his 2017 season has him standing out in a Bulldogs side that has lacked consistency. Averaging just over 27 disposals per game this year, Macrae has not had a game in which he has racked up under 20 disposals this year, which speaks more about his ability to accumulate disposals than anything else, he also averages six tackles, four clearances and three inside 50s per game and whilst he isn't a goal-kicking midfielder, he's still as hard-working as they come and he does it with little to no fuss.

Going? Going? Going?
Jake Stringer, Mitch Honeychurch, Stewart Crameri, Declan Hamilton

The big story from earlier in the week is about Jake Stringer and how he is reportedly disgruntled at Whitten Oval and could seek a trade out of the Western Bulldogs this upcoming off-season. I will be writing an article about that so stay tuned for that, but to have Stringer exit the Whitten Oval would definitely be a massive blow to the club after what Stringer has done in such a short amount of time. Stringer is contracted until the end of the 2018 season, so it will be difficult for clubs to facilitate a trade.

Mitch Honeychurch and Stewart Crameri remain out-of-contract beyond 2017 and both look unlikely they will be at the Whitten Oval in 2018. For Crameri, his first season back from a 12 month suspension hasn't been as amazing as his former Essendon team mates Michael Hurley and Michael Hibberd, with a hip injury forcing Crameri to miss all but two AFL games in 2017. Crameri came to Whitten Oval at the end of 2014 on a lucrative four-year deal, but with rival clubs enquiring about his services, it looks more likely that Crameri will play elsewhere in 2018.

Honeychurch has had little opportunity since the 2015 Elimination Final, playing only two games in 2016, but finally got his opportunity in round 13 and played every game until the Dogs' round 18 win over the Gold Coast, which saw Honeychurch diagnosed with a facial infection, causing him to miss the rest of the season. Eight games in two seasons, it wouldn't shock me to see if Honeychurch explored his options elsewhere, and it also won't shock me to see the Bulldogs delist Declan Hamilton after spending three seasons on the senior list without playing a single senior game.

Gone
Robert Murphy, Matthew Boyd

The club bid farewell to two modern-day legends of the Western Bulldogs in Robert Murphy and Matthew Boyd. The pair combined for over 600 games and multiple All-Australians and have both captained the club at one point or another. Boyd will be remembered as one of the greatest ever AFL players to have been drafted off the rookie-list, and he played such a vital part of the Bulldogs' historic premiership last year, also earning a spot in the All-Australian team last year.

Murphy will be remembered as a champion player and one of only seven Bulldogs to have reached the 300-game mark. Whilst he won't have a premiership medallion around his neck like Boyd will, Murphy's excellent decision-making, sublime skills and extraordinary leadership will make him one of the favourite sons of the West.

Who Will The Club Target In The Off-Season?

For a team that finished in the midfield this year, the Dogs should have their sights set on a few players, and just a few weeks into the off-season, several names have been linked to a move from the Kennel.

The Dogs have to look at players who can kick goals as inaccuracy was a constant theme in the Bulldogs' 2017 season. Geelong forward Daniel Menzel has been a name that has been tossed up as trade bait for the Cats, but the risk of Menzel having to go through another knee reconstruction will be there, but the upside is worth it. Menzel booted 38.17 in 2017 and out-of contract at the end of the season. It would make sense, seeing that Jake Stringer and Stewart Crameri could be potentially shown the door, and sharpshooter Tory Dickson isn't going to be around forever - the Dogs must get Menzel if the Cats decide to part ways.

A player that has been recently linked to the Bulldogs is free agent Jackson Trengove from Port Adelaide, with Channel Seven reporter and Western Bulldogs fan Mark Stevens stating that Trengove's move from Alberton to Whitten Oval is 'Just about over the line' to secure the 153-game swingman. Trengove's ability to play as a key defender and a ruckman has been well documented throughout his career, but he has shown this season that he can play forward as well - kicking 17.12 - could be  a very handy recruit if he wants to return to Victoria.

The Dogs have also been linked to both Adelaide's Jake Lever and North Melbourne ruckman Todd Goldstein throughout the year, but both look like they won't be heading to the Kennel, with Lever strongly linked to a move to Melbourne and Goldstein still contracted for two years.

The Conclusion

2017 might've been a case of going two steps backwards, but the majority of this list is still relatively young and faces an eerily similar road to the Hawks of 2009 - They'll have to slowly build themselves back up, but just imagine guys like Tom Boyd, Luke Dahlhaus, Jack Macrae, Marcus Bontempelli and even Jake Stringer - should he opt to stay - in five years. These guys will be battle-hardened and would have to be one of the more impossible teams to stop.

Luke Beveridge is extremely optimistic that he can get his team back into the top eight next year, but it starts with a pre-season of hard work and they must rediscover their lust and hunger for the contest, and if the Dogs can continue to recruit the right players, there is no reason why the Western Bulldogs can't challenge for the premiership again sooner rather than later. To all those pessimistic Bulldogs fans - You'll see them rise again.

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