28/02/2024

Western Bulldogs players celebrate after the win against Melbourne in the AAMI Community Series. Image: westernbulldogs.com.au

After consecutive seasons of bowing out in the first week of finals, with a star studded midfield, the pressure is on the Western Bulldogs to deliver and go further into September action

The Western Bulldogs stormed home strongly at the end of 2020, winning 5 of their last 6 home-and-away matches before a narrow Elimination Final loss to St Kilda put its finals campaign to a disappointing end.

Last year:

7th. 10 wins, 7 losses, 106.7%,

Elimination Final loss to St Kilda.

The season was highlighted by standout campaigns for Jack Macrae and Marcus Bontempelli, who polled 15 and 10 Brownlow votes respectively, while the emergence of Bailey Smith was also a notable feature. 

Defensive pair Caleb Daniel and Bailey Williams were also outstanding in 2020. Daniel finished atop the Dogs’ Best & Fairest count, while Williams was named Most Improved for the Dogs to go alongside his 5th-place Best & Fairest finish.

Track watch:

A pair of rookies have performed notably in practice games for the Dogs during pre-season, with a handful of impressive pre-season showings for rookie draftee Lachie McNeil and SSP signing Anthony Scott

A club report following the Dogs’ scratch match against Hawthorn suggested that McNeil has “fitted in seamlessly over the pre-season” and gained selection over “a number of more experienced players” in the scratch match.

Scott, meanwhile, recorded 14 disposals and 256 metres gained in the AAMI Community Series match against Melbourne, many suggesting he could be in line for a Round 1 debut. 

New recruit Stefan Martin took the first-choice ruck role in both the Dogs pre-season hitouts, recording 14 hitouts and 17 disposals against Melbourne, and looms as an important mentor and relief for the still-developing Tim English this season. 

Prized pick 1 draftee Jamarra Ugle-Hagan has also taken little time to impress, playing in the Dogs’ reserves scratch match, booting two goals, and taking a handful of impressive marks. Young defender Buku Khamis also performed admirably from limited game time in the Dogs’ AAMI Series hitout, collecting 4 marks in defence.  

In an unfortunate blow to the Dogs’ backline, defender Hayden Crozier is expected to miss up to eight weeks after suffering a shoulder injury in the AAMI Community Series match against Melbourne.

What to look forward to:

The Midfield

It’s no secret that the Dogs’ midfield is among the competition’s best. And not only has it been bolstered during the off-season with the acquisition of Adam Treloar. One of the game’s most prolific and consistent midfielders over the last few years. 

Then add to that the Dogs’ existing stars in ball magnet Jack Macrae, skipper Marcus Bontempelli and the ever-emerging star Bailey Smith. Alongside Josh Dunkley, Lachie Hunter, and Tom Liberatore. It’s a deep midfield that has Dogs fans licking their lips.

Bontempelli recently conceded that he’ll rotate between the midfield and forward line, and with others likely to do the same, each of these midfield cogs will get a chance to impress. Seeing this midfield in action is a mouth-watering prospect for fans, and will undoubtedly be what makes the Dogs tick in 2021.

It’s a big year for:

After a touted move to Essendon fell through in the off-season, Josh Dunkley is still an integral part of the Dogs’ midfield in 2021. Averaging 21.28 disposals across his career to date, including a standout 651-disposal season in 2019, in which he averaged 28.3 disposals, Dunkley is set to star for the Dogs again, with the season and matches both returning to their regular length.

2021 is shaping as a large year for Dunkley.

With the lure of Essendon still looming as a trade suitor come season’s end. Dunkley’s performance this year is likely to narrate what his future looks like – whether he’s squeezed out of the strong midfield and ends up elsewhere, or solidifies and enhances his rank in the pecking order at the Dogs. 

Biggest unanswered question: 

Do the Dogs have what it takes to go the next step and push for the top four?

Despite reaching the top eight in 2020, the Dogs’ season still had plenty of inconsistencies. A string of strong wins in the final 6 rounds of the season propelled them into the finals, but some heavy losses in the first half of the season exposed some of the side’s issues.

A notable feature of the Dogs’ 2020 fixture was that they only won one game against an eventual top eight-team. A 2-point win over West Coast in round 16 was the only time they prevailed over an eventual finalist.

This will certainly be an area in which the Dogs look to improve in 2021 – winning games they aren’t necessarily expected to win. 

Victories in the winnable games were sufficient due to the shortened season in 2020, but the return to a 23-round season in 2021 will mean there’s a greater need to perform well in the tough match-ups and a need to string together consistently successful performances. 

If the Dogs can succeed in this area, pushing up the ladder and towards the top four is undoubtedly achievable.

Coach pressure index:

Medium – High

The Dogs failed to reach the finals for two consecutive years after their drought-breaking 2016 premiership but finished seventh in both 2019 and 2020.

A return to the finals is evidently welcome, but with such midfield depth and prowess at his disposal, coach Luke Beveridge may be feeling the pressure should the Dogs perform inconsistently as they did in parts of 2020. 

The Dogs have every chance to push for the top four in 2021, but should they falter at key points and fail to win the difficult games as they did in 2020, Beveridge may begin to feel the heat, both externally and from within the club.

Ins: Dominic Bedendo (Draft – Murray Bushrangers), Mitch Hannan (Traded – Melbourne), Stefan Martin (Traded – Brisbane Lions), Lachlan McNeil (Rookie Draft – Woodville-West Torrens), Anthony Scott (SSP Signing – Footscray VFL) Adam Treloar (Traded – Collingwood) Jamarra Ugle-Hagan (Draft – Oakleigh Chargers/Vic Country)

Outs: Tory Dickson (retired), Billy Gowers (delisted), Fergus Greene (delisted), Sam Lloyd (retired), Brad Lynch (delisted), Callum Porter (delisted), Matt Suckling (delisted), Jackson Trengove (delisted), Lachie Young (Traded – North Melbourne)

Predicted Rd 1 lineup:

B: Bailey Williams, Easton Wood*, Caleb Daniel

HB: Taylor Duryea, Alex Keath, Jason Johannisen 

C: Jack Macrae, Marcus Bontempelli, Bailey Smith

HF: Josh Dunkley, Aaron Naughton, Lachie Hunter

F: Mitch Wallis, Josh Bruce, Tim English

Foll: Stefan Martin, Tom Liberatore, Adam Treloar

I/C: Patrick Lipinski, Bailey Dale, Rhylee West, Laitham Vandermeer

*Pending fitness

Ladder range:

4-7

The Dogs are a tricky team to place in terms of ladder range. Many believe they’re ready to further push towards the top of the ladder, while some say they can see the Dogs sliding to miss the finals. Expect them to feature in the finals again in 2021 though, with a chance to crack into the top 4.

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