THE WESTERN Bulldogs were a top-two team and looked like a genuine premiership contender for most of the year until losses in the last three rounds cost them a top-four finish.
They bounced back with three stirring finals wins in three different states but were unable to claim the crucial fourth victory when overrun by a rampant Melbourne in the Toyota AFL Grand Final.
The 74-point margin was a painful ending to a season of such great promise but also exposed weaknesses the Dogs will want to address to set the team up to take the final step.
Outstanding seasons from Marcus Bontempelli, Jack Macrae and Tom Liberatore, the addition of Adam Treloar and emergence of Bailey Smith gave the Dogs enviable midfield depth and they topped the League for clearance differential (averaging +5.3).
The strength in midfield helped the Dogs drive the ball forward more than their opponents with an inside 50 differential (ave +7.3) second only to the premiers, while a better spread of firepower ensured they made the most of their chances. Josh Bruce (48 goals), Aaron Naughton (47), Cody Weightman (26) and Tim English (19) were especially dangerous, while Jamarra Ugle-Hagan (seven) remains one for the future.
It was hoped Stefan Martin could fill a gap in the ruck and give Tim English more time to develop as a forward but the 34-year-old had two lengthy stints on the sidelines and only played nine matches after eight last year at Brisbane. The lack of mature rucks dragged English out of the forward line and left the Dogs ranked 17th for hit-out differential (-15.1).
The Dogs conceded more scores per inside 50 than most other contenders and need more support and back-up for key defender Alex Keath especially with former captain Easton Wood entering the twilight of his career
Marcus Bontempelli was on track for a second premiership and a likely Norm Smith medal when he kicked his third goal and stretched the lead to 19 points in the third term of the Grand Final. But with the Demon demolition that followed, the Dogs skipper will have to settle for a fourth best and fairest award, fourth Therabody AFL All-Australian blazer and second place in the Brownlow Medal this year. The 25-year-old had career-highs for disposals (ave 26.7) and goals (31) in perhaps his best individual season yet.
Bailey Dale was a fringe player in his first six seasons at the Bulldogs as he played only 59 matches and struggled to nail down a half-forward or wing role. The 25-year-old is now a Therabody AFL All-Australian after a pre-season switch to half-back allowed Dale to make the most of his dash and sublime skills to move the ball at speed.
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Mitch Wallis topped the club goalkicking with 25 majors last year and was voted into the vice-captaincy heading into this season. But the 28-year-old played only six matches as the Dogs preferred a triple tall forward set up with Cody Weightman buzzing around as a small forward. Wallis is out of contract and might benefit from a move to another club.
The Bulldogs’ gripping semi-final against Brisbane at the Gabba was arguably the game of the season. Scores were level for much of the final term and a late goal to each team had the contest headed for extra-time until Laitham Vandermeer scrambled a behind in the 33rd minute to give the Dogs an incredible one-point victory.
Just a week later the Bulldogs stunned Port Adelaide with a burst of five goals in 15 minutes to open their preliminary final at Adelaide Oval. Emerging star Bailey Smith kicked seven goals across the two finals.
The Bulldogs looked bound for Grand Final glory when they held a 19-point lead at the 16-minute mark of the third term in the decider. But in an extraordinary turnaround the Dogs only scored seven more points in the next 45 minutes while the Demons slammed on 100 points to seize the flag.
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How should they approach list management?
The Dogs have pick No.17 and little else so need to bank more draft points to match a likely top-three bid on father-son prospect Sam Darcy. An additional pick and some of those points should come from Collingwood after Patrick Lipinski nominated the Pies as his club of choice. Stefan Martin wants to play on but the Dogs need to decide whether the veteran is durable enough to be the robust ruckman they need, while they might also consider bringing in another tall to bolster the defence.
Early call for 2022
The Bulldogs have the depth of talent and age demographic to contend again. A group of young guns should improve further and provide plenty of forward firepower, but the Dogs need to address other concerns to put themselves in the best position to take the final step.
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9 out of 10. The Dogs were worthy runners-up but lapses in the last three rounds then the final 45 minutes of their season ultimately cost them a grander prize.