When you have a large amount of trouble selecting a best 22 for a team, it can mean one of two things. Either the team is sitting in a poor place and doesn’t possess 22 players who should be regularly playing at AFL level. Or, the club is in such a strong position that there are 30 players who could conceivably get into the best 22 at the majority of other teams. The Western Bulldogs find themselves in category two, which is a welcome sight for their supporters and also, internally, where competition for gametime should offset any potential premiership hangover.
The Bulldogs suffered from a lot of injuries last season, so much so, that multiple players who would’ve been considered first choice options in 2016 were unable to play on that historic day in October. The Bulldogs enter 2017 with just one player from their 2016 Grand Final team no longer at the club - Joel Hamling. Robert Murphy, Mitch Wallis, Jack Redpath, Matt Suckling, Marcus Adams, and Stewart Crameri all were unavailable for the Grand Final and could be considered first choice options, although Redpath perhaps doesn’t fit that bill. Add into that the addition of two-time All-Australian forward Travis Cloke, the 2016 draftees, and the inevitable growth of the talented youngsters on the list, and the Bulldogs seem likely to have a selection dilemma each week, if everyone remains healthy.
So, I tackled the question of who indeed is in the Bulldogs’ best 22. It was not an easy task, and I’m sure that there will be disagreements.
B: Robert Murphy, Dale Morris, Matthew Boyd
I don’t think anyone can argue that Dale Morris and Matthew Boyd are going to be picked every week, injury notwithstanding. Boyd, who could be in his final season, was an All-Australian last year and has thrived since moving down back and has curtailed his maddening habit of committing horrendous turnovers, an issue which plagued his time in the midfield.
Morris is almost as indispensable as they come, taking on whatever role is required of him, from guarding Eddie Betts to taking on Lance Franklin. He does every little thing that goes unnoticed by the casual fan, but not by the Bulldogs’ faithful, or the Bulldogs coaching staff.
Everyone knows the Bob Murphy story. He is the injured captain, who was forced to watch his team win the cup while he rehabbed a busted knee. He was an All-Australian in his last full season, 2015. It’s hard to find a way that Murphy won’t be in the team every week, but I’m not without concern. A 34 year old man returning from a torn ACL, playing a high speed sport in a position that requires speed and evasiveness is not the recipe for a brilliant season and if we are being honest, Murphy’s form in the first three rounds last season was not equivalent to what he had served up in 2015. I’m perhaps being a little too pessimistic, but I’m not as rock solid on Bob as I am on Boyd or Morris. He is without doubt in the Dogs’ best 22 at this point, though.
HB: Jason Johannisen, Fletcher Roberts, Easton Wood
Much like Morris and Boyd, no-one can argue having Easton Wood and 2016 Norm Smith medalist Jason Johannisen in the Bulldogs’ best 22. Wood had a down year, by his 2015 standards, but a lot of that was due to persistent hamstring injuries which cost him time throughout the early part of the season. But he is the premiership captain and was arguably the best player on the ground in the preliminary final victory over the Giants, especially with his tone-setting first quarter.
Johannisen filled the Murphy role last season, before Bob even went down and he was right up the top of the Brownlow Medal leaderboard before he tore his hamstring against Carlton. His disposal can be wonky, but he speed, anticipation and positioning make him the envy of all teams and someone that opposition teams need to gameplan for.
Fletcher Roberts is probably the weakest link in terms of overall ability in the whole 22. That may seem like I’m disparaging Roberts, but he is still a key part of what the Bulldogs want to do this year. With Joel Hamling heading back to Western Australia to play for Fremantle, the Bulldogs need another key defender to play with Morris in the defensive 50. Roberts was a member of the premiership winning team and had key moments in both the Grand Final and Preliminary Final and he is the Bulldogs’ one-percenter king, ranking 19th in the AFL in the often-underrated stat, the best at the club.
C: Jackson Macrae, Tom Liberatore, Lachie Hunter
No-one is leaving Jack Macrae, Libba, or Lachie out of their best 22 for the reigning premiers. Liberatore is the heart and soul of the Bulldogs midfield - a tackling dynamo like his father, with the ability to split open a pack with an incisive handball or kick a running goal from 50, something Tony couldn’t do. Liberatore was the third-highest tackler on the team, along with averaging over 20 touches per game.
Jackson Macrae is going to be picked in everyone’s best 22. His importance to the team is often understated, but his role as a hard running, link man, with precise vision is key in the Bulldogs’ ball movement. He is harder at the ball than he is given credit for, too. He averaged just under 28 disposals per game game including 39 touches in the semi-final win over Hawthorn. He needs to get more confident in his goal kicking, nailing just the two majors last season. Although, one of them will go down in Bulldogs folklore.
Hunter was a fringe AFL player at the beginning of 2015, when a gambling scandal embroiled him before the year kicked off. By halfway through the season, he had transformed himself into a super hard running ball accumulator and took that form into 2016. He had a 44 disposal game and led the entire AFL in uncontested possessions, showing how important he is in terms of linking up and providing persistent running through the back half and midfield. He is getting picked every week.
HF: Stewart Crameri, Tom Boyd, Jake Stringer
Jake Stringer had his issues last season. When he hurt his shoulder against Gold Coast, he was never really the same and that resulted in him being dropped down to Footscray at the end of the season before being recalled for the Elimination Final. But, he is clearly in the best 22 and has looked extremely explosive through the JLT series. With the arrival of Travis Cloke and the return of Stewart Crameri, Stringer will be able to play in his more natural position - that of an explosive, pack-busting midfielder. Stringer kicked 14 less goals in 2016 compared his All-Australian 2015 campaign, but averaged the same amount of disposals and marks per game, but played a more distributive role, seeing his kicks:handball ratio go from 3:1 in 2015 to 1.3:1 in 2016. That’s a big change in style of play. Expect to see him in the midfield more this season.
It may be hard for Crameri to get back into the game, especially early after missing all of 2016 due to suspension. His hard running game, as well as his goal sense and lead marking ability will enable Stringer to be freer and add an extra dimension to the Bulldogs’ forward line. He is by no means a lock every week and could find himself battling for a spot throughout the year, but at this point, it’s hard not to have Crameri in.
Plenty of criticisms were leveled at Tom Boyd, and they were all basically unfounded. He battled a serious shoulder injury for the entire season and always had the look of someone who would develop into a monster. He is a player who always seemed to know where to go, who has clean hands off the ground and who draws multiple defenders his way every time he attacks the ball. Yes, his marking needed a lot of work, but after we saw his evolution in the finals series, not just the Grand Final, it feels like the narrative on Boyd has turned. His play in the ruck is another string to his bow and his running capacity is very good for a big man. He is getting picked each week.
F: Liam Picken, Travis Cloke, Tory Dickson
Every team wants a Liam Picken. The Bulldogs have THE Liam Picken. The Bulldogs’ player of the finals has been transformed in the last two seasons, playing on the wing, up forward and in a negating role when necessary, Picken is a no brainer each week. The Bulldogs are blessed with a number of hard nuts - Libba, Morris, Clay Smith, but no-one is harder at the ball than Liam Picken.
Travis Cloke is a big question mark. He is in the best 22 at this stage, but after kicking only 17 goals in 13 games for Collingwood last season, there are some doubts. In the Bulldogs system, he doesn’t need to be the man. Boyd, Stringer, and to a lesser degree, Tory Dickson, and Stewart Crameri will handle big chunks of the goal kicking. The Dogs averaged the sixth most inside 50s, but only the 13th most marks inside 50, an area that Cloke should be able to help with. He won’t have multiple defenders going to him every game and if he does, he is doing his job, opening things up for the other forwards.
At this point, Tory Dickson’s fitness and availability for Round 1 are unknowns. He had groin surgery in the offseason, making this the second consecutive season in which he has entered Round 1 with a less than ideal preparation. If he’s healthy, he is in. Dickson averaged three goals a game throughout the finals series and knows what his role is - kick goals.
R: Jordan Roughead, Marcus Bontempelli, Luke Dahlhaus
Some may have had doubts about Jordan Roughead becoming a number one ruckman. Surely, those doubts have gone now. Roughead fought the battle against time to play a key role in the Grand Final, and took a mark which Luke Beveridge likened to Leo Barry’s game saving mark in 2005 when he marked the Swans’ kickout after the disallowed Johannisen goal. But it wasn’t just that game that Roughead excelled in. He became a more assured contested marker, setting a career high in that area as well as taking the most marks inside forward 50 in his career. Unfortunately, he will miss the beginning of the season due to surgery on his hamstring tendons, but he is back training and shouldn’t miss a massive chunk of the season.
Marcus Bontempelli is the youngest captain to win a game in the AFL and is the best and fairest winner on a premiership team at the age of 21. He is getting picked in every team. The sky's the limit for the Bont and you have to watch him to really appreciate what he does as it isn’t reflected in the traditional statistics of ball accumulation. Every touch he gets is thought out, he delivers handballs out of areas and to areas that others wouldn’t dare dream of executing, mainly because they wouldn’t foresee things unfolding the way the Bont does. He is a cult hero and is poised to take over the competition and is one of the favourites for this season’s Brownlow medal.
Luke Dahlhaus is extremely underrated. If he hadn’t hurt his knee against Port Adelaide in the middle of last season, Dahl would’ve been in contention for the All-Australian squad. He has taken his game from being a rookie-listed goal sneak, to a hard nose, running midfielder, who never, ever gives up. I’d be hard pressed to find a bad thing to say about Dahlhaus’ game, which isn’t always the most aesthetically pleasing, but you can’t ignore the results and the sheer determination with which he plays.
INT: Caleb Daniel, Clay Smith, Mitch Wallis, Toby McLean
Caleb Daniel should’ve won the NAB Rising Star last season in my opinion, and despite a couple of quiet finals, he put his stamp on the series with a first up belter against the Eagles. His vision is second to none (okay, maybe second to the Bont) and his clean hands and disposal skills are probably number one at the club. He will get picked every week.
We all know the Clay Smith story. He has recovered from three ACL tears. He played the preliminary final after his best mate had just died and he’d flown out to the funeral and he responded with four first half goals. He led the team in tackles per game after coming in mid season and along with Dahlhaus and Liberatore puts fear into the opposition with just how hard they go at the ball without caring for their own body. His disposal isn’t pretty, but it is effective and he seems to have found a role in the forward line, even if I’m sure he sees himself as more of a midfielder.
Mitch Wallis is an interesting one. He was fantastic early in the season, working hard in the midfield and developing a role as a reliable mark and shot at goal when he switched into the forward line. But his place in the best 22 may be debated by some, with others perhaps preferring Grand Final heroes like Josh Dunkley, Shane Biggs, or Zaine Cordy, or the incisive Matt Suckling. The Bulldogs won’t have to make a decision on playing Wallis for a least a month, probably longer, but I believe he belongs in the best 22 players.
This is Toby McLean’s third season. It’s time for him to break out. After replacing Lin Jong after the first final, McLean was a key contributor, that often goes unnoticed and I think he’ll see a lot more time in the midfield this season. He can take a strong, contested pack mark, he kicks well on the run and when he has a set shot, and has the terrific handball vision, common to so many of his teammates. This season feels like it’s time for McLean to take the Dahlhaus leap and become a key component of the team, week in and week out.
Unlucky to miss: Shane Biggs, Zaine Cordy, Josh Dunkley, Matt Suckling, Lin Jong, Marcus Adams
It’s pretty tough to leave out Biggs, Cordy, and Dunkley, who all played such gallant roles in the Grand Final, but such is the nature of having such a strong list. It was down to Biggs and Wallis for the last spot in my best 22, but all of these players will play during the season, and play significant roles. The other player who I wouldn’t be surprised to see take a big leap forward is Bailey Dale. Watch for him to have a breakout campaign.