15 games into the 2017 AFL premiership season and the defending premiers the Western Bulldogs are struggling and struggling badly. Sitting in 11th place, with a win-loss record of seven wins and eight losses with seven games to go in the 2017 home and away season, the Bulldogs are in prime position to be the first team since Hawthorn in 2009 to miss the finals altogether after winning the premiership the year before.
Since the beginning of the year, there's a lot in comparison between these two teams with some experts predicting the Bulldogs to fall in a simliar fashion to which the Hawks did back in 2009, but I think it's important that each and every Bulldog supporter need to know that the Western Bulldogs of today are every chance to be a dynasty in the AFL much like the Hawks were over the past decade, from winning the 2008 flag to working their way back up the ladder.
Let's start from the beginning of each side. The Hawks employed Alastair Clarkson as the coach of Hawthorn at the end of the 2004 AFL season. The 2004 season saw the Hawks finish 15th out of the 16 teams in the league at the time on the AFL ladder and the Hawks were seemingly going nowhere with then-coach Peter Schwab, sacking him following an 80-point loss to North Melbourne in round 17.
The Hawks needed to reset and they looked to a first-time AFL coach to take the Brown and Gold forward. Nobody would've guessed then that Clarkson would go on to be a four-time premiership coach and one of the greatest coaches we've seen in recent years. In his first off-season, Clarkson would pick up Jarryd Roughead, Lance Franklin and Jordan Lewis with the first three picks in the 2004 draft, all of them would play huge roles in the successes of the Hawks over the next decade.
Now over to the Bulldogs, who only hired Luke Beveridge for his first AFL head coach role back at the end of 2014 after the club had sacked Brendan McCartney after another unfulfilling season at Whitten Oval. Beveridge had served as an assistant coach to Clarkson from 2012-14 and was set to become the director of coaching at St. Kilda before he signed on with the Bulldogs.
The Dogs were already in the middle of a rebuild when McCartney began his tenure back in 2012, but after three seasons, the club realised that he was taking them nowhere and worse still, players began to leave and rid themselves of McCartney before the exodus of players could go on further. Despite seeing club veterans the likes of Cooney, Higgins, Giansiracusa and then captain Ryan Griffen move on, the Dogs had a lot of promising youngsters coming through and would rely on guys such as Bontempelli, Wallis, Macrae, Dahlhaus and many others to move the club forward.
Both men would go on to win premierships not too long after they were appointed as head coaches - with both men coaching underdog sides towards their respective flags. For Clarkson, he would go on to win the premiership in only his fourth season at the helm of Hawthorn who were arguably the second-best side all season long. They would defeat the red-hot favourites in Geelong, who finished the 2008 season with a win-loss record of 21-1 in a match that came with a bit of controversy. 11 of Geelong's 23 behinds were rushed behinds caused by the Hawks, and as a result, the AFL enforced the deliberate rushed behind free kick the following season.
This rule wasn't a major reason why the Hawks fell dramatically the next year. Injuries and a lack of experience proved to be the downfall of Hawthorn's 2009 season. From the Hawks' 2008 premiership team, only one man was over 30 years of age and that was a 34-year old Shane Crawford that had played his last game. The next two oldest players on that side were a 29-year old Stuart Dew who struggled with injury and form in 2009 and a 28-year old Trent Croad who also played his last game for the club, with a foot injury virtually ending Croad's 222-game career.
The players that would go on to play pivotal roles in Hawthorn's three-peat in 2013-15 were all still relatively young. Luke Hodge (24 years), Sam Mitchell (25 years), Brad Sewell (24 years) were yet to hit their peak, whilst Jordan Lewis (22 years), Jarryd Roughead (21 years), Lance Franklin (21 years), Grant Birchall (20 years) and Cyril Rioli (19 years) were all still extraordinarily young men, but it's easy to argue that it was the 2008 season that a 21-year old Franklin arrived as one of the AFL's elite after he became the last man to date to kick over 100 goals in a season.
For Beveridge and his Bulldogs, his appointment as senior coach of the Western Bulldogs breathed new life into these young Bulldogs as he brought them from 14th in 2014 to playing Finals football in 2015, bringing the club to 6th position at the end of the home and away season, only to bow out in the first week by the Crows. The following season - Beveridge's second season saw the Bulldogs finish in seventh position, but an inspirational Finals campaign saw the Bulldogs win the second ever VFL/AFL premiership in the club's history and became the first club in the league's history to win the premiership from seventh place.
In this miracle month of footy, the Bulldogs triumphed over West Coast in Perth, dethroned the three-time reigning premiers in Hawthorn, travelled up to Sydney to defeat the AFL's lovechild in Greater Western Sydney and then overcame the minor premiers in Sydney in the Grand Final in front of nearly 100,000 spectators, much like Hawthorn's premiership triumph eight years ago, the Dogs' premiership win was marred with a little bit of controversy. Their frantic movement of the ball by hand and their expertise of going third-man up in ruck contests prompted the AFL to crack down on the Dogs' handballing game and ban any third-man up in the ruck, both were two of many things instrumental to the Bulldogs' premiership success.
Injuries cannot be used as an excuse for the Doggies downfall this year. In 2016 they were very much the walking wounded, having lost Tom Boyd, Jason Johannisen, Mitch Wallis, Luke Dahlhaus, Jack Macrae, Tom Liberatore, Easton Wood and captain Robert Murphy to injuries all throughout 2016, but the club still stuck to task with extraordinary resolve and belief.
It's easy to point out that the Bulldogs have suffered the premiership hangover, over this past month in particular, they have hardly been playing team footy and the passion that won them the premiership has virtually been non-existant over the past five weeks, and personally, I think the title of being the champs has got into quite a few of their heads. But I think it's important to point out that the Bulldogs' premiership side was relatively young. Nine of the 22 Bulldogs players that took the field that first day of October were 22 years or younger.
Add to the fact that if we took away the three oldest players on the Bulldogs' team - Matthew Boyd (34 years), Dale Morris (33 years) and Liam Picken (30 years) - three men that played crucial roles in that Grand Final - that Grand Final team's average age drops from 24 years to only 22 years of age, which for a premiership team is a incredibly young team, and you would certainly believe that this team achieved the childhood dream way ahead of schedule.
You look at the team that won the Grand Final and there is still so much room for improvement. Marcus Bontempelli won the club best and fairest last year at the age of only 20 and also won a spot in the league's All-Australian team. Can you tell me how many 20 year olds have achieved such feats? I'll tell you, the answer won't be many if there is any. Forwards Jake Stringer and Tom Boyd have copped their fair share of criticism but are still 23 and 21 years old respectively and still have mountains of time to be top-tier players and someone who hardly gets recognised like a 20-year old Zaine Cordy can certainly mix it with the competition's best forwards in a few years and was highly touted in the under-18s league.
And then we have all these ball-winners who have yet to reach their prime. On top of a 21-year old Bontempelli, the Dogs have a 24-year old Luke Dahlhaus, a 22-year old Lachie Hunter, a 22-year old Jack Macrae, a 25-year old Tom Liberatore, a 21-year old Caleb Daniel, a 20-year old Josh Dunkley, a 21-year old Toby McLean, a 24-year old Clay Smith and a 24-year old Jason Johannisen, who despite his recent slump, did win the Norm Smith medal last year.
All of these men I have mentioned above had won a premiership, and I certainly still believe still have time to develop this Western Bulldogs team into a dynasty. I recall Beveridge saying a couple of weeks ago in a post-game loss to West Coast that this club had taken a step backwards in order to go two steps forward, the Hawks had to do something similar in the 2009 season and steadily progressed up the ladder in the following seasons. The Hawks were bundled out in the first week of Finals in 2010, made the preliminary finals in 2011 and then made the Grand Final in 2012 - the rest is history.
Watching the Bulldogs' performance on Friday night against the Crows, the second half in particular, I saw shades of the round 14 clash in 2009 between the Dogs and the Hawks - it was a case of the reigning champs showed up a much hungrier contender and confirmed the title of a side that has been suffering the dreaded 'premiership hangover'.
For those that can't remember what happened in this game, the Bulldogs kicked the first 14 goals of the match between the first bounce and the start of the third quarter and lead by 90 points early in the third quarter. On that night, the Hawks showed the same brand of inept and inexplicable footy that the Bulldogs unfortunately showed us in that second half on Friday night, and if the conditions weren't as greasy and wet, the margin could've been much worse.
There is one more comparison I want to draw between the Hawks and the Bulldogs, and that is their recruitment post-premiership. By the time the Hawks completed their premiership 'three-peat', they had recruited players from several other AFL clubs. In the 2015 Grand Final, the Hawks had seven players that were acquired from other clubs in recent years in Hawthorn's bid to rise back up the ladder. As we all well and truly know, these moves provided to be successful. Names such as Josh Gibson, Shaun Burgoyne, Jack Gunston and even former Bulldog Brian Lake were instrumental in Hawthorn three-straight premierships.
The Dogs over the past number of years have been recruiting players from other clubs to try and emulate that of the Hawks, trading for Shane Biggs, Stewart Crameri, Travis Cloke and Tom Boyd, signing Matt Suckling as a free agent, picking up a discarded Joel Hamling from Geelong. Crameri and Suckling have been hits without somewhat starring for the club, whilst Biggs, Boyd and Hamling all played pivotal roles in the Grand Final last year, and with promising young Adelaide defender Jake Lever a chance to come to his home state to Victoria next year in the red, white and blue, there should be plenty of optimism in the future if his performance against the Doggies on Friday was anything to go by.
This season might be spiralling out of control for the Western Bulldogs and I can sense the hostility and despair amongst the supporters, but I still have the faith that in time, this team can rebound and become a dynasty in a similar way the Hawks became over the past decade. I'm not saying this club will win three premierships in a row, but I can sense that the Bulldogs, with the cattle that is currently at the club, will be adding another few flags to add to the trophy cabinet the not-so-distant future.