Make some room on the Western Bulldogs bandwagon, already bulging with bodies and spilling over the sides. I'm coming on board.
The Bulldogs are certainly in contention for the flag and, at a pinch, can win it. Why? Two reasons: for one, they have the belief; and two, they have added a grunt to their game that gives them the perfect mix, the two-way game that everyone preaches about.
We already knew the Bulldogs could cut you to pieces with outside speed. Witness Jason Johannisen intercepting a handball from a St Kilda player at Etihad Stadium on Saturday night, tucking the ball in the crook of his right arm and bolting away to set up a goal for the dynamic Jake Stringer. Easton Wood and Bob Murphy are just as likely to hurt you from the back half. It's a fast game and it's an attractive game, utterly breathtaking.\
But there is another element to it that is less glamorous yet just as important. Luke Beveridge's team has developed an ability to monster the opposition in the traffic, on the inside. This has been evident in rounds one and two, with the Bulldogs are plus-79 in the contested ball count from the games against Fremantle and St Kilda. These are the numbers of a brutish team.
Two things have happened around the football for Beveridge. One is that Tom Liberatore, one of the best extractors in the business, has come back from a knee reconstruction. Libba is a Hoover below his knees and when you add him to a group of stoppage players who have all developed physically with age -- Lachie Hunter, Marcus Bomtempelli, Luke Dahlhaus, Jack Macrae, Mitch Wallis -- it is formidable.
So we now know the Dogs can compete extremely well on the inside and we already knew they had pace to burn on the outside. They are defending exceptionally well, conceding the lowest scores in the competition so far, albeit from a small sample. The question is: how do you beat them?
This weekend will tell a tale on that score, with Al Clarkson's Hawthorn before them. The Hawks are like an audit for other clubs, because everyone knows that you have to beat them if you are to win a flag. Beveridge knows better than most; he worked under Clarkson for a couple of years.
The Hawks were awesome against West Coast on Sunday, responding as they always seem to do after the Round 1 defeat by Geelong. Even without Luke Hodge, Brad Hill, Liam Shiels and Jarryd Roughead, they are hungry and they are tough to beat; but the Bulldogs, back on their favorite fast deck at the Docklands, have a chance.
The Bulldogs have come a long way, and this is worth pondering. In 2010, they played St Kilda in a preliminary final at the MCG. St Kilda won, moving forward to within a straight bounce into the path of Stephen Milne of winning a premiership under Ross Lyon.
But both clubs were approaching the end of a cycle of success. St Kilda lost Lyon to Fremantle at the end of the following season, and the Saints have changed coach twice since that game against the Bulldogs, So have the Bulldogs. The clubs have played just two finals in the four years since.
Yet they played against each other last Saturday and they seemed worlds apart. The Bulldogs, through recruiter Simon Dalrymple and list manager Jason McCartney, have hit the bull's-eye with the likes of Stringer (pick No. 5, 2012) and Bontempelli (pick No. 4, 2013), two of the most exciting young players in the competition, with rookie listers such as Dahlhaus and Johannisen, and with late picks such as mature-age West Australian defender Marcus Adams. St Kilda are still waiting for Paddy McCartin (pick No. 1, 2014), Jack Billings (pick No. 3, 2013), Blake Acres (pick No. 19, 2013) and Hugh Goddard (pick No. 21, 2014) to flourish.
The Bulldogs have surged ahead, and they look ready. This Sunday, it may be that that Hawks will come to beat them up as the school bully. I suspect the little, shy kid is about to stand up for himself. -