Bontempelli, Dogs looking forward to playing with "scary" new forward line

For years, no discussion worth having about the Western Bulldogs was complete without immediately referencing the team's remarkable midfield depth. These days, however, the on-ballers at the kennel are almost the forgotten folk.

It's the stocks of tall timber the Dogs have assembled to populate their forward zone which are the talk of the town now.

And skipper Marcus Bontempelli was on well-worn turf when he broached the subject several times over at the AFL captains' day last week, singing the praises of Aaron Naughton, young guns Jamarra Ugle-Hagan and Sam Darcy, along with Fremantle trade-in Rory Lobb.

"Well, it's something different to what I've been used to," the skipper smiled. "It's hopefully a really scary prospect for other teams to try to combat."

It's certainly a far cry from late 2021, when the Dogs' premiership hopes appeared to collapse under the buckled knee of then-leading goalkicker Josh Bruce late in the season. Now Bruce can't even get a look-in near goal, a transformation into a key defender his only chance to continue his career.

It's meant changes for Bontempelli himself, too, and you sense they are alterations with which the champion on-baller is quietly pleased. First, there's the bevy of options presenting themselves when he streams forward, ball in hand.

"There's no doubt you've got the option to release the ball a bit sooner," he says.

"Something that's been a feature of our game is our ability to work the ball by handball from inside to outside and that will still be a pretty key feature, but we know now we don't have to change direction; that we can release the ball a bit sooner and longer to our players who want the ball in a one-on-one situation. So that's nice.

"I'm a longer kicker of the ball at times anyway, so I'm happier to send the ball down there to these bigger fellows and let them go to work."

But it's also about the amount Bontempelli will be the one targeting those forward options rather than one of them himself which is significant, his midfield smarts arguably even more important now with the departure of another experienced hand in Josh Dunkley for Brisbane.

Bontempelli says he'll still be spending some time forward "at different points". "But it's probably less of a necessity from a height and aerial perspective now than it used to be.

"It's going to depend on team balance and injury and what that creates for us. I could, you know, start at a centre bounce then drift up. Adam Treloar's another one. Bailey Smith. We've still got a pretty deep midfield, and there's only so many spots to go around. Guys like Caleb Daniel can spend a bit of time in there, Cody Weightman's had a bit of time there through the preseason. So there's still going to be some variability."

There's something pretty tantalising, however, about the prospect of Bontempelli bursting out of the middle ready to deliver as seamlessly as usual to the closest an AFL forward set-up has seen to "Land of the Giants" for some time.

Indeed, there's something tantalising about the Bulldogs as a whole in 2023, a hint of what could be still to come in last week's practice match drubbing of North Melbourne, the tall forward quartet responsible for 10 of the Dogs' monster 22-goal tally.

We've said that about the Bulldogs before, of course. But the acquisition of Lobb and former Dog Liam Jones down the other end is exactly the needs-based stiffening of the structural spine the team required.

There's a hint of "now or never" about this 2023 campaign for Luke Beveridge and his team. And Bontempelli agrees theirs is a list that since the 2016 premiership triumph should have made more of what it's had at its disposal.

"I think that's well and truly fair," he concedes. "I think we've expected more from ourselves internally, and the big thing I've probably been pushing from a club and definitely a player perspective is don't let the talent, you know, play the lead role.

"We can't just expect our talent to get it done for us. I think that's a bad mindset to be in. It won't be the main reason we win games. It's the talent that you get to start with, (but) it's how we elevate that to being a really challenging team for longer and longer."

You can read more of Rohan Connolly's work at FOOTYOLOGY.