The Western Bulldogs’ unlikely run to the 2016 AFL Premiership is one of the league’s great feel-good stories in recent memory.
After more than half a century of frustration, long-suffering fans from Footscray and the western suburbs of Melbourne were finally rewarded for their patience.
Leading the way for the Bulldogs was Marcus Bontempelli, the former number four draft pick who was living up to the hype. A few days after claiming his first premiership medallion, the 21-year-old won the club’s best and fairest award.
Five years on, and Bontempelli is now the Dogs’ captain and talisman. His team has had mixed fortunes since that breakthrough flag, twice missing the top eight before losing two consecutive elimination finals.
Heading into Saturday night’s semi-final against the Brisbane Lions, they find themselves in an unusual position: They’re the only club left in it that’s won a premiership since 2012.
The footballer of the future?
There’s been something of a changing of the guard in the ranks of the AFL’s superstars this season. With some of the league’s biggest names hobbled by injury, younger players have taken the opportunity to make their mark. Now 25, Bontempelli is no longer the pup of 2016, but his star is shining brighter than ever.
If you were to build a prototype of the modern footballer, Bontempelli would be the ideal model. Early in his career Bontempelli was dubbed “literally the perfect human” by his former teammate Jake Stringer. That’s a hard reputation to live up to, but Bontempelli makes it look easy.
It might be hard to quantify, but what stands out most when watching Bontempelli on the field is his poise. He has the ability to sum up a situation and react quicker than anyone else.
He can seemingly slow time and create space.
In a frenetic sport where so much is hurried and rushed, the Bont plays to his own rhythm. His peripheral awareness is unmatched, with his tall stature enabling him to look over players in tight contests.
His formidable size also helps when he’s tackled. Bontempelli often raises his arms up high to ensure he avoids being pinned with the ball. Few have the strength to stop this, which means he’s able to keep the ball moving in situations that might otherwise end in a free kick or a stoppage. The Dogs feast on such broken play opportunities.
At 193 centimetres, Bontempelli is the size of the great key position forwards of yesteryear. In fact, he’s taller than either Tony Lockett or Gordon Coventry were.
Bontempelli has a superb all-round game, which affords Bulldogs coach Luke Beverage the ability to deploy him in different ways. He attends fewer stoppages around the ground than other top-level inside midfielders, drifting elsewhere to cover holes. He’s also almost impossible to tag.
Sometimes he floats into attack, acting as a temporary key forward. Occasionally he’ll drop back to shore up the defence behind the ball. At other times he’ll sit outside the main ring of midfielders at secondary stoppages, looking to capitalise on the Bulldogs’ clearance wins.
In a side rich with midfield talent, Bontempelli often acts as the conduit between the inside and the outside of the contest. He sits second in the league for inside 50s, driving forceful attacks with his dangerous boot. He also features among the game’s top players for metres gained per game, which is a statistic usually dominated by outside midfielders and rebounding half backs.
Bontempelli works equally hard when his side doesn’t have the ball, and is a crucial cog in the Dogs’ defensive system. His positioning in their press is usually flawless, regularly getting to spots where he is able to neutralise high bailout kicks.
He’s a true two-way player, willing to defend or attack. He ranks near the top of all AFL midfielders for both tackles and pressure acts.
Coming into this season, arguably Bontempelli’s biggest weakness was his ability to convert his inside 50 marks into goals. But in 2021 he has consistently hit the scoreboard, registering an equal career-best 26 goals so far, including a contender for goal of the year.
All up, it amounts to a formidable package. He may be the most complete player in the AFL today — and a worthy successor to the likes of Adam Goodes, Matthew Pavlich and Anthony Koutoufides.
The Bulldogs path
Of course, one player alone can’t win you a flag. As the Bulldogs know well, the key to a premiership is having a team firing on all cylinders at the right time of the year.
Going into the bye, the Bulldogs were arguably the hottest team in the league with 10 wins and just two losses. After the week off, they recorded just five victories from their next 10 games, losing the top four spot they’d previously held a firm grip on.
A large part of their decline has been due to injuries. They’ve also been grappling with how best to utilise the sheer amount of talent they have in the middle. Whereas in the first half of the season they dominated from stoppages, the second half has seen them slip to the middle of the pack.
The Lions, and their dominant on-ball group, present a strong challenge to the Dogs, regardless of form. Last week’s victory over the Bombers saw the Bulldogs flash some of their absolute best form, keeping the Dons goalless in the second half.
More importantly, they seemed to click as a side as the match progressed, led by their inspirational captain.
Winning the next three straight will be tough, but it’s not as if they haven’t done it before.