Marcus Bontempelli is just one reason to be excited about the Bulldogs' future
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It's easy to forget about the Bulldogs sometimes. Victorian teams dominate the AFL competition to such an extent that one or two can slip through the cracks of public perception. For the better part of three seasons, it seems as though Dogs have gone about their business largely undisturbed.
This isn't a negative – quite the contrary, the Dogs haven't had to deal with messy break-ups with coaches like St Kilda and Melbourne, or the blowtorch now being applied to Richmond and North, or the constant rumour and speculation that haunts Essendon.
So we'd understand if rusted-on fans are feeling a little leery of the sudden dose of good cheer being poured out at Whitten Oval. For a club not used to the spotlight, effusive praise of players still in their teens and proclamations of coming greatness must be slightly disorientating.
Both major Victorian newspapers ran positive articles about the Dogs over the weekend. During Monday night's broadcast of On The Couch, Gerard Healy announced that he was more impressed with the Bulldogs than any of the weekend winners and suggested newcomers to the sport should be jumping on the bandwagon. Wayne Carey added his two cents on radio, salivating over the young talent now coming to the fore.
Supporters have a right to be wary of the good news. For one thing, more than a few false dawns have arrived and receded into the distance in the 60 years since the club won their only premiership. That sort of long-term famine tends to test faith and bind fans against outsiders. Plus, it wasn't so long ago that some of the same people now praising the Dogs were wondering how much more goodwill Brendan McCartney should be afforded.
McCartney has his critics as a match-day coach, but his reputation for working with youth and moulding young men into footballers and model citizens is almost without equal in the AFL. If the Bulldogs have flown under the radar, some of this might be explained by the commonly held assumption that all they really needed was time. Time and a good key forward.
It bears remembering that we're still yet to cross the halfway mark in McCartney's rebuild. The coach has previously urged that the Dogs need to be judged on their consistency within games and their ability to play the way they want, not in individual (or overall) wins and losses. The club may have lost 11 games so far this year but five of those have been by fewer than 14 points. The improvement is there for those who look for it, and the glimpses of hope the Bulldogs betrayed in 2013 are beginning to materialise. Fans might hate to hear it, but the groundswell of affection for the Dogs is becoming contagious.
It's hard not to admire the club from a distance. They've had to do it the hard way after three straight preliminary finals exits, bottoming out at an inopportune time with the expansion clubs still clogging up the drafts and hogging the top picks. They were forced to draw from the well again with picks they received for Brian Lake and Callan Ward, two players who'd still be in entrenched in their best 22 today. They haven't wallowed in the depths or tried to prolong the inevitable with silly spending. And they've made the hard calls when needed – like telling Daniel Cross that his spot needed to go to someone with a bigger part to play in the club's future.
Mostly though, they've recruited beautifully. In hindsight, the 2012 draft might as well be dubbed 'the time the Dogs schooled everybody'. Jake Stringer, Jack Macrae, Nathan Hrovat and Lachie Hunter in four moves – they couldn't have done any more with their opportunities. Add to that rookie list finds Luke Dalhaus and Jason Johannisen, a dose of good fortune in Tom Liberatore and the bold choice of raw 192cm midfielder Marcus Bontempelli over James Aish last November. Sharp recruiting is the only way to accelerate a rebuild and the Dogs haven't erred at the draft table for four years.
Plus, the Dogs have to be among the most likeable sides in the competition. Their list is as talented as it is inoffensive. They're not laden with divers, or head-duckers, or whingers or huge egos. They have an attractive game-plan, a working-class ethos and they play the game in a good spirit. At the top, McCartney is approachable, affable and respectful of his players, the opposition and the media.
Still, it's just as foolish now to pump up the Dogs as it was to knock them after the loss to Brisbane in round 12. Words don't matter, only actions, and the Dogs will be lucky to do better than equalling last year's 8-14 record with games against Hawthorn, North Melbourne and Sydney still to come. Defeating an opponent the calibre of North or Hawthorn would certainly crank the hype machine up a gear, but in the short term it would be meaningless at best and harmful at worst.
The media are often in a rush to declare the next big thing (some of the commentary regarding Port Adelaide earlier this year seems a tad hasty now) and many young sides have come undone after being subject to prematurely raised expectations. The Bulldogs still need time – another two years, realistically – before they start to peak. Until then, who could blame fans for wanting the club to remain under the radar?
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