If you were a Western Bulldog supporter, consider 2019 a rollercoaster ride of sorts. Started off well enough, dipped towards the midway mark of the year and then exploded into a rich vein of form that was well enough to propel them back into the Finals for the first time since their 2016 premiership. The celebrations didn’t last long as they fell at the first week in September to a Greater Western Sydney outfit that is on their way to their first Grand Final in their short history – regardless of what you think of them.
The 2019 season was one that installed optimism back in the Bulldogs’ faithful – this one included – after a premiership hangover that lasted over two years. This is the 2019 season that was for the Western Bulldogs.
The Pre-Season Expectation
After a 2018 that I would prefer to forget altogether, I didn’t have a lot of expectations for the Bulldogs, other than for them to build on their final four games last season – which saw them win three of those and lose the other to minor premiers Richmond by less than a kick. I had them finishing in 13th in my AFL season preview, but there was no doubt that they could’ve finished higher - anywhere from the bottom echelon of the top eight right down to where I had them. This year was probably more about the development of their younger brigade of players than anything else.
With the exception of two gentlemen who I will mention a bit further down this piece, let’s talk about a few of the players that stood up towards the end of the season. Tim English played 20 of a possible 23 games this year and whilst the hitout averages won’t speak so favourably, it’s his work around the ground that excites me the most. He averaged 13.2 disposals, 4.1 marks, 3.4 clearances, 2.2 inside 50s and 2.1 clearances per game. He is still only 22 and it took the likes of Brodie Grundy and Max Gawn a considerable number of seasons to breakout as the top guys in the ruck division. Watch him grow in 2020.
Bailey Smith was the Western Bulldogs’ number one draft choice in last year’s draft – picked seventh overall. And whilst the rave has been about the likes of Sam Walsh and Connor Rozee. The Dogs have themselves a beauty of a player here. He played all 23 games this year and has improved as the weeks went by and finished averaging 17.6 disposals, 4 tackles, 2.8 inside 50s and 2.5 clearances per game, as well as kicking 11 goals in a fine first year.
Bailey Dale and Patrick Lipinski were brought into the side at the midway mark of the season and played 10 and 14 games respectively. Lipinski didn’t miss a game from there on out and had a good year playing more up the ground than he did last year, averaging career-highs in disposals, tackles, inside 50s, marks and clearances. Dale was dropped after a few games and came back in round 18, where he kicked 20 goals in the final six games of the home and away season and whilst he was unsighted in the Elimination Final, those six weeks showed plenty to suggest he’ll be a mainstay up forward for years to come.
With the emergences of players, there also comes some that had to make way. So far we have farewelled three premiership heroes in 2019 Is it perhaps a signal of change? Unfortunately we never got to see Liam Picken back on the park again after he was knocked out in that pre-season game last year. You knew what you were going to get out of him every week and his transformation from dire tagger to a presence in the midfield and up forward was fascinating to watch over the last four years or so.
Tom Boyd had battled with mental health over the past few years and called time on his career mid-year. There have been a few that have been quick to criticize his career, but for what it was worth, he was a key figure in delivering the one thing most Bulldog supporters thought they’d never see in their life time.
Perhaps the one that hurts me the most Is the retirement of Dale Morris. There will be an article on him soon I promise. I have appreciated, loved and cherished every moment he stepped onto the arena, because you threw his body in most – if not every – contest that there was up for grabs in defence. He was courageous as it got and to see him return from a second partially torn Anterior Cruciate Ligament injury in as many off-seasons only for him to tear it on his return game against Fremantle was completely is heartbreaking to see.
There was a bit about what both Sam Lloyd and Taylor Duryea were going to bring to the club in 2019. Both men were brought in for literally peanuts – Lloyd for a pick in the 60s and Duryea for a 2019 fourth round selection. I would argue both men have been the most important players in both forward and defence respectively.
Lloyd kicked led all Bulldogs in goals kicked with 38.31 this season and averaging 15.3 disposals, 5.1 marks, 2.3 tackles and 2.6 inside 50s per game. Along with Josh Schache, Bailey Dale, Aaron Naughton and Tory Dickson, this gives the Bulldogs something that they have been missing for a few years – forward structure. Big forwards to kick to and smalls that can provide a menacing presence as well.
Duryea has been simply magnificent whenever he has been on the park. He missed a fair bit of footy during the year due to a hip complaint, but averaged nearly 19 disposals, 5.9 marks, 4.1 rebound 50s and two tackles per game this year. Not just that, but I think whenever he plays, he brings the experience from such a successful era at Hawthorn and it showed in his games this year. I can’t wait to see him play a full season next year – I think he can have his best year personally in 2020.
The First Half
Wins against Sydney and Hawthorn to start the year were great for a side that needed to win early to be some chance in 2019, but then the wheels began to fall off a fair bit. 4-7 before their bye. This included a shock loss to the Gold Coast in round three at Marvel Stadium, an embarrassing performance against Carlton two weeks later and losses in winnable situations against Fremantle and North Melbourne.
The wins against Richmond and Brisbane in rounds seven and eight respectively were also good wins considering both of them were in the top eight at that point of the season, but then it was undone by losses to Geelong, North and West Coast before the bye. The loss to the Eagles in round 11 showed how much the Dogs needed the bye to regroup. Following that, they won eight of the next 11 games, including wins against Geelong, Port Adelaide in Adelaide, a 100-plus point belting of Essendon and GWS in Sydney.
We can’t breakdown the Bulldogs’ 2019 season without highlighting a couple of players that broke out. One being a midfielder in Josh Dunkley and the other a Key defender-turned-forward in Aaron Naughton.
Naughton finished fourth in the Doggies best and fairest in his first year in the AFL system and that was playing as a key defender. There was something about this boy, he could take a grab or two in defence. I have been a skeptic about Luke Beveridge’s versatility mantra for a couple of years now and this one had it’s questions – his ability by foot the big one. By season’s end he led the league in contested marks and kicked 32.27 in 23 games this year – which is a pretty nice return for someone who is a) played primarily as a key defender and b) is only 19 years of age. That’s beyond crazy to imagine what he can be in seven years time – providing he stays fit and healthy.
Dunkley showed some signs as a midfielder towards the end of 2018, posting big disposal numbers and tackling numbers. This year on a podcast I share with two other AFL aficionados that Josh Dunkley was going to average 30 disposals per game this year. He played the first six games as a forward. From round seven onwards he absolutely dominated in the middle and by the end of the year, averaged 28.3 disposals, 6.1 tackles and 5.2 clearances per game to establish himself as an elite inside midfielder.
I’ll conclude this piece by recognizing two players that have thoroughly deserved their spots in the All Australian team and deserve whatever other awards that may come their way at the conclusion of the season.
Jack Macrae should have got his first AA jacket last year for a breakout season last year and also his first Charles Sutton Medal for a year that yielded averages of 32.8 disposals, 5.3 tackles and 6.1 clearances per game. This year saw his tackle clearance averages dip slightly, but he still averaged 33.3 disposals across 23 games. This included 17 of them where he recorded over 30 disposals or more which is a bloody healthy picture of consistency, if he didn’t get in the All-Australian team this year – I feared that the Western Suburbs would have started a riot.
And finally, it brings me to Marcus Bontempelli. It amazes me how this man is only 23 years of age, the way he roams around the ground, you’d think he’d be into his late 20s. It was a career-best year for him, averaging 26.3 disposals, five tackles, six clearances, and 5.3 inside 50s per game in what was an almost perfect season. It was rewarded with a second All-Australian selection – the first one being in 2016.
It would be hard to pick out either Bontempelli or Macrae who takes home the Charles Sutton Medal this year, but either way, they would’ve earned it.