It might seem like good news and the AFL rarely go hand-in-hand, as controversy has dipped its toe in nearly every AFL club and administration over the past 12 months. At the moment, Essendon and Melbourne are absorbing the scatter fire and moral condemnation.
Yet, here’s the good news that you might have missed behind the doomsday headlines. The Western Bulldogs are turning into the feel-good story of the 2013 season.
The preseason predictions weren’t very flattering for the Bulldogs. Most pundits had them reeling in the bottom three and I had them floundering behind Melbourne, can you believe?
Sure, the Bullies won’t press for September action this year and will likely endure a few heavy-handed defeats along the way but Brendan McCartney’s men sure play with renewed commitment and focused effort. The Bulldogs’ rebuild is not yet complete but the on and off field foundations are evidently strong and well intentioned.
Even before the NAB Cup, the Dogs and the Demons were tossed into the same basket. However, the two clubs have taken startling different turns. Sometimes complacent attitudes can be spawned due to players accepting mediocrity as the theme while the club undergoes a drawn-out rebuild.
Yet, Bulldog leaders in Captain Matthew Boyd, revitalised Will Minson and veterans Rob Murphy and Daniel Giansiracusa have accepted that the premiership window is shut and have embraced their mentoring role as pacesetters for the younger players.
The Bulldogs’ commitment to the contest and trust in McCartney’s preaching is clear. They have adopted a philosophy where commitment is an act, not a word (a concept that the Dees are sadly still fumbling with).
After two rounds, the Bullies swiftly disposed of the Lions and were competitive against the surgically methodical Dockers.
The Bulldogs’ ball movement sometimes resembles the Harlem Shake instead of the Berlin Orchestra but the players have bought into McCartney’s system of fundamentals, contested ball and strict preparation.
Over the first two weeks, they averaged 66 tackles and put a high price on maintaining possession and tempo by amassing 98 marks per game (fourth in the league). Undefeated teams in Essendon, Port Adelaide and Fremantle are the only teams ranked higher than the Doggies in marks per game. In such an even and competitive season, dictating the speed of the game is crucial to obtaining the four points.
The Dogs’ forward line is still raw and very dependent on the cleverness of roaming smalls like Luke Dahlhaus and Giansiracusa. In the long-term, Liam Jones’ development will be the key to a more rounded forward line. Retired Geelong power forward Cameron Mooney who now works with the Bulldogs forwards, believes Jones with a greater tank will develop into a strong and reliable key forward.
No doubt McCartney, whose credentials are often underrated or even dismissed in the wider public due to his lack of AFL playing experience, must become an enduring figure at the dog kennel. His ability to turn Minson from a journeyman ruckman into an early All-Australian contender and develop Tom Liberatore into a dogged clearance king puts paid to the myth that “you can’t coach in the AFL if you weren’t a league footballer”.
McCartney’s capacity to build relationships and become, in the words of legendary basketball coach John Wooden, a teacher-coach to the young players should comfort Doggies supporters.
The Dogs have certainly come out snarling and the rebuild might be swifter than first realised.