Surge or slump? Mental strength could decide Bulldogs' 2016 fate

It is often said it's harder to stay at the top than rise to the top, and I see that being a huge question mark for the Western Bulldogs ahead of their 2016 campaign.

Are they mentally strong enough to back up their immense improvement last year and possibly push into the AFL's top four? Or was last year just a flash-in-the-pan?

I would hate them to repeat what happened to Port last year, when they slid back down the ladder after a barnstorming 2014 season.

The Dogs boast an extremely strong young list - they've got so many talented midfielders, some players with real X-factor such as Jake Stringer and Marcus Bontempelli, and much of their step forward last year came via their team defence, rebound and run from half-back.

Their step forward was even more impressive when you consider their off-season from hell - losing their captain Ryan Griffen, coach Brendan McCartney, several senior players and then their best midfielder, Tom Liberatore, going down in the pre-season with an ACL injury.

But the sliding doors nature of footy can often offer a silver lining for other guys to step up, and that's what happened with the Bulldogs. The improvement of younger players such as Jason Johannisen, Lin Jong, Mitch Wallis, Shane Biggs, Joel Hamling, Fletcher Roberts, Toby McLean, Bailey Dale and Caleb Daniel was extraordinary.

This year for them, it's all about the mental side of the game. Everyone is expecting them to at least hold their position this year, if not improve. I can see them finishing anywhere 4th-10th, and it comes down to winning the clutch moments and being mentally strong.

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The start to the season could be an incredible launching pad for the Bulldogs. They play their first seven games at Etihad Stadium, and they play that ground better than anyone in the competition. Admittedly they come up against Fremantle and Hawthorn in rounds one and three but they need to cash in before the grind of mid-year sets in.

They should be setting the bar high - they have to make sure they're not satisfied with one big year. You'd hate for them to slip back, assuming there was a natural improvement on the way.

They do boast some strong leaders at the club, and they are the people who need to drive standards at training and in games week-in, week-out.

They also need to be prepared for when things go wrong. There might be a period when they lose a few games - how is their self-talk? Are they remaining positive, and are they controlling their emotions and anxieties? Positive self-talk is so important - they didn't have to worry about it too much last year because everyone was pumping them up, but if they lose a few matches in a row, can they maintain their positivity?

What Luke Beveridge achieved in his first season as coach was astronomical. From round 17 onwards last year, they averaged 114 points for and 89 points against, so they've got the attack and defence sorted, but the only thing is the mental side. They got beaten in three of their last four games, all away from Etihad, which tells me it's between the ears a little bit.

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So, on the field, where can the Dogs improve?

The ruck is certainly an issue. In those clutch moments, you need first-use to get that next clearance. If you're having to be reactive at ground level or attempt to read it off the opposition ruckman, it's a big disadvantage. There are question marks over Will Minson, Tom Campbell, and Jordan Roughead. Maybe Tom Boyd will have to compete at times in the ruck, but that might not be a bad thing. It would have lit up every Bulldogs fan when he took those two strong pack marks against Collingwood in the NAB Challenge - that's the sort of thing that showcases his prodigious talent, and hopefully he takes that confidence into the season.

The loss of Stewart Crameri due to his year-long supplements ban, is a big one. He was really influential taking the footy inside 50 last year and hitting the scoreboard himself a lot. That will be counterbalanced by the acquisition of Matt Suckling, who has played a bit at half-forward in the NAB Challenge, and has that elite kicking ability going inside 50.

The Bulldogs' team defence was such a springboard last season, which was created through their inside pressure and tackling. However, their rivals will be much better prepared for it this year and that starts in round one- Fremantle coach Ross Lyon would have spent all summer working out ways to limit their ball movement.

That match, at Etihad Stadium on Sunday, could give us an early insight into what lies ahead for the Dogs this year.