Loyal sons of the west are allowing themselves to dream again as the Bulldogs look to build on their fast-finishing 2013.
Brendan McCartney’s men won seven of their last 14 in a flourish and begin 2014 with a new key forward in Stewart Crameri.
In luring Crameri, a three-time club leading goalkicker at Essendon, McCartney has pulled off Whitten Oval’s best recruiting coup since Barry Hall and given the team a much-needed avenue to goal.
But no-one at the club is talking finals, despite their late-season wins over Port Adelaide, West Coast and Carlton.
“We showed we can match it with the best,” new captain Ryan Griffen told AAP.
“But for 2014, we’re really just focussing on developing the group and going on from those last seven wins.”
Truthfully, the Bulldogs’ late surge only tells half the story, with seven straight losses from rounds two to eight showing the distance they have to earn the 12 wins required to play finals.
But compared to St Kilda – the Bulldogs’ conquerors in two preliminary finals from the not-too-distant past – it’s impossible to argue their rebuild has been less successful.
Perhaps that’s to be expected from a coach in Brendan McCartney, who played a key role under Mark Thompson at Geelong helping turn the Cats from also-rans into the best side of the decade.
The Bulldogs have six players in the crucial 50-100 game window, including stars Luke Dahlhaus and Tom Liberatore.
A formidable midfield pack led by Griffen and Liberatore has been bolstered by the emergence of second-year stars Jackson Macrae and Lachie Hunter.
The forward line has a good age balance, with Crameri joining Dahlhaus, Jake Stringer and veteran Daniel Giansiracusa in a best 22 that will stretch many sides.
While an inexperienced defence could be tested by Robert Murphy’s elbow injury, McCartney suggested the rebuild was well underway.
“There’s probably just one or two positions in defence and one or two positions in our forward line, and we’re really confident people will grow into these roles,” he said.
In his third season as senior coach, McCartney has two new wing-men at his side.
His two most important lieutenants are new to their jobs in 2014: former Port Adelaide premiership player Brett Montgomery has assumed senior assistant duties, while Griffen has replaced Boyd as the club’s on-field leader.
Griffen is seen by his teammates as a leader by example, an inspiration through deeds rather than words.
He’s bought into McCartney’s “culture of success” strategy that’s seen the coaching staff filled with premiership-winning players.
“We’ve brought a lot of guys into the footy club with a heap of knowledge like Cam Mooney and Matthew Scarlett to be around the young guys and nurture them through,” Griffen said.
He nominated Hunter, Macrae and Stringer as three teenagers likely to feature in the Bulldogs’ best 22 more often than not.
“Lachie’s been brilliant this pre-season, he understands how hard you’ve got to work. He’s a pretty exciting prospect,” he said.
Furthering the case for a Bulldog resurgence is their draw, ranked as the softest in the competition.
With no double match-ups against last season’s finalists and 14 matches at Etihad Stadium, the Western Bulldogs could be the season’s bolters.
But finals? Montgomery – and everyone else at the Bulldogs – have just one aim on their mind.
“To improve. Watching the young guys coming through is very exciting,” he said.
Coach: Brendan McCartney
Captain: Ryan Griffen
Last five years: 3-4-10-15-15
Premierships: 1 (1954)
Key five: Ryan Griffen, Will Minson, Stewart Crameri, Tom Liberatore, Dale Morris
One to watch: Jake Stringer. Battled injuries in his debut year of 2013, but the high draft pick still showed enough in the midfield and up forward to suggest he will be a key plank of Brendan McCartney’s rebuilding program.
Ins: Marcus Bontempelli (Northern U18), Stewart Crameri (Essendon), Sam Darley (Greater Western Sydney), Matthew Fuller (Norwood, SANFL), Mitch Honeychurch (Eastern Ranges U18).
Outs: Dylan Addison (Greater Western Sydney), Daniel Cross (Melbourne), Nick Lower (delisted), Lukas Markovic (delisted), Patrick Veszpremi (delisted).
Best 22: B: Brett Goodes, Dale Morris, Michael Talia
HB: Liam Picken, Jordan Roughead, Jason Johanissen
C: Mitch Wallis, Matthew Boyd, Koby Stevens
HF: Robert Murphy, Liam Jones, Adam Cooney
F: Luke Dahlhaus, Stewart Crameri, Jake Stringer
R: Will Minson, Ryan Griffen, Tom Liberatore
I: Lachie Hunter, Shaun Higgins, Jack Macrae, Daniel Giansiracusa
Predicted finish: 15th
To win the flag: $101
To make the top eight: $4