As season 2016 is nearing it's end, I think it's fair to say that the Western Bulldogs have established themselves as a genuine premiership contender, regardless on how far the Dogs go in this year's finals series. Because when you look at the list of injuries this club's endured this year, the Dogs could've been a serious threat if they had a much better run.Skipper Robert Murphy went down with an ACL in round 3, guys that are regulars in the Western Bulldogs' 22 such as Jason Johannisen, Matthew Suckling, Easton Wood and Koby Stevens, have missed fair portions of the year, and then there's the late season injuries to the likes of Jack Redpath, Tom Liberatore, Jack Macrae and Mitch Wallis that could've seriously derailed the Bulldogs season, and probably would have if we went back five years ago.
But another ongoing problem for the Dogs this season is the lack of goal-scoring fire power, and history shows that sides that have a hard time scoring, don't really win the premiership. A huge case in point is the Fremantle Dockers over the last few years before their stunning fall from grace this season. In 2015, they finished first on the AFL ladder at the conclusion of the home and away season, but averaged only 84 points per game, which sat them 12th in the AFL for average points scored. In 2013, where the Dockers managed their first Grand Final in the clubs history, they averaged 92.5 points a game, but they were still the 12th best offence in the AFL that year. However, In both years, they were amongst the top two defensive teams in the AFL.
Defensively, the Western Bulldogs are an outstanding unit, they sit third in the AFL for the least amount of points conceded per game this season, only conceding an average of 73 points per game, behind only Geelong and Sydney. Dale Morris has been in good of form as he's ever been, Matthew Boyd is again in serious All-Australian considerations, the trio of Jason Johannisen, Shane Biggs and Fletcher Roberts have all taken their games to another level, and Marcus Adams has been one of the greatest finds of the year.
But their forward line structure is the biggest question mark dangling over their head at the moment. Not a lot has gone right for the forwards this year, and it all comes back to one man who's missed all year long. Whether you want to believe this or not, Stewart Crameri is a huge cog in the Western Bulldogs' forward line machine, and without him there this season, it's painfully obvious that the goals have dried up a little bit this season.
Last year the Dogs were the fourth-best forward team in the AFL, averaging 95.5 points per game after 22 rounds of the home and away season. Jake Stringer kicked 56 goals and emerged as one of the star forwards of the game, Dickson kicked 50 goals and had been renowned for his accuracy, only registering 12 behinds all season long, whilst Crameri had bagged himself 32 goals in 18 games, which included a spell in the Footscray VFL team and a bag of seven against his old mob in Essendon upon his return from the twos.
This year, with Crameri serving a 12-month suspension for his involvement with the 2012 Essendon supplements program, It's forced coach Luke Beveridge to alter the Western Bulldogs' forward line a fair bit, and his partners-in-crime have, in a way, suffered from it. The Dogs have dropped from fourth to tenth in the AFL for points per game, only averaging 86 points a game, with only GWS and Adelaide averaging 100 points or more per game this season.
Stringer's become more of a marked man, and has only kicked 37 goals in 19 games, but has had far too many games where he hasn't been sighted, to the point of Luke Beveridge sending him back to the VFL in the lead-up to the Essendon game. Stringer's shoulder injury from the round 17 win has been well documented, but he had stinkers leading up to that injury as well.
Dickson's form had also tapered off massively this year, but had missed the start of the year due to an adductor injury in the pre-season, but this year he has only brought in a return of 27 goals in 17 games. With Crameri out, it's clear as day that the Bulldogs' forward line becomes just a little more predictable. The next best goal-scorer is midfield ace Marcus Bontempelli with 22, with Jack Redpath the only other Bulldog to have snagged 20 goals or more, and he's not playing for the rest of the season.
And then we have the predicament that Tom Boyd is in. Recruited from Greater Western Sydney as a key forward, he made steps last year, kicking 16 goals in 14 games predominantly as a forward. This season he's being trialled as a secondary ruckman with stints in the forward 50. He'd missed a large chunk of footy with a shoulder injury early on in the year, and then came the physical altercation with team mate Zaine Cordy in late June, which would mean his return to senior footy was on hold for another few weeks.
People are often quick to criticise the move of Boyd to the ruck, but this actually helps Boyd out in terms of being able to cover the ground and with this, he's got more of a chance of getting his hands on the leather ball as opposed to staying at home as the full-forward. He gets to the ball enough and attacks it, but he drops too many marks, and now 21 years of age, he'll be getting towards the age where he's expected to do better, but the way he's going,I can definitely see him reap the benefits of this in a few years time, for when Luke Beveridge decides to opt to use Boyd as just the spearhead the Bulldogs paid big money for. They need to keep on persisting with him, and Doggies' fans need to be a little bit more patient with him.
However, Crameri is still a chance to play in the red,white and blue this year, as he and the other 33 Bombers, past and present await what happens next as they lodge their appeal in a Switzerland court for their ban to be uplifted.
2016 might not be the year of the Bulldog, but you can definitely see the want of that first premiership in the eyes of every player who has donned the red, white and blue. But they'll need to sort out their forward line before they push for their first flag since 1954. Recent history suggests that the Dogs will need to average well over 100 points a game and try to maintain their points against average if they are to succeed.
During their three-straight premierships run, Hawthorn's averages for points per game were 111 last year, over 111.5 in 2014 and 114.6 in 2013. However, Sydney, when they took the premiership from the highly-fancied Hawks in 2012 didn't have the number one forward line in the comp, but they still averaged a little over 100 points per game, but were still the best defensive team that year, having only conceded 74 points per year.
This young and talented Western Bulldogs team have a huge number of upsides, but the biggest upside for me is that the bulk of their star players are all still very young. Lachie Hunter is 21, Marcus Bontempelli isn't even 21 yet, Jake Stringer is only 22 but already cops so much from the fans and the media alike, whilst the likes of Jack Macrae, Luke Dahlhaus, Mitch Wallis and Tom Liberatore haven't hit 25 years of age yet. I could go on and on, it won't surprise me the slightest if this mob of youngsters again improve their games in 2017.