Can Tim O’Brien Fix The Chip In The Bulldogs' Windscreen?

Few people in Bulldog history conjure more warm and fuzzy feelings among the fan base than Dale Morris. 

From the rookie list to a 15 season, 253 game career patrolling the Bulldog backline, Morris was the glue that held the defence together and a chief reason why this success-starved club was finally able to gorge on glory.

On Grand final day in 2016 Morris was beyond exceptional registering a team-high 10 intercept disposals while keeping the legendary Lance Franklin to a single goal. Weeks later he’d run second to a 20-year old Marcus Bontempelli in a famous Charlie Sutton medal count. 

And we’re evoking Morris’ defensive feats on the biggest stage because frankly, since he’s retired, the Doggies have struggled desperately to replace him with this Achilles heel of theirs haunting them as they capitulated against the Demons in the grand final.

It’s also why their relatively tranquil off-season did at least make the point of making Hawthorn’s Tim O’Brien their sole acquisition. 

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For the most part the Dogs were exceptional in 2021, occupying a top-2 spot for 19 of the league’s 23 rounds, smashing their way through finals and booking just their fourth grand final appearance in club history. 

Yet despite a 19-point lead in the third quarter the Dogs ultimately succumbed to a Demon tsunami, with Melbourne breaking their own 57-year premiership drought finishing with a jaw-dropping 100-7 run. 

Within minutes, a solid premiership bid by the Dogs had turned to dust.

While there were a litany of factors contributing to the loss what didn’t help was a defensive set-up that was worrisome for most of the year and which fell to pieces on the biggest stage

Against Melbourne the Dogs conceded a season-high 17 marks inside-50 while the Demons were able to convert an extraordinary 32.8% of their inside-50 forays into goals. 

When the Dogs saluted in 2016 the Swans converted at just 24.4% with that number helped out by a massive 80 Bulldog intercept possessions. Against Melbourne, the Dogs registered just 67 intercept disposals on the night which was the second lowest tally by any team on grand final day over the last seven seasons.

At this point, and despite the gloom, it’s important to note that personnel-wise the Dogs aren’t entirely lacking in defence, rather it’s their deficiencies back there which tend to stand out like a sore thumb.

Bailey Dale just earned his first All-Australian blazer while Caleb Daniel did the year prior. Both play a pivotal role in what the Dogs do further down the field with the duo using their speed and precision to cut through opponents, peppering their forward line with opportunities. Each averaged more than 4 score involvements per game in 2021 while both ranked top-5 at the Dogs where metres gained per game was concerned.

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Instead, it’s the Dogs inability to stifle marauding opponents, particularly through the air which threatens to undermine a largely excellent, premiership worthy squad. 

This year, when the dogs were able to mitigate bigger forward lines they were unstoppable winning all 12 matches when they kept opponents to less than 10 marks inside-50. 

Unfortunately, when they weren’t able to curtail the opposition they were eminently beatable, going just 7-7 against teams who mustered at least 10 marks inside-50.

While Alex Keith has been a tremendous addition since the Dogs traded for him in the 2019 off-season, easily prevailing as the Dog’s best post-Morris defender, he’s a player who constantly has his hands full owing to the lack of an elite running-mate and one whose deficiencies can be exploited by good teams.

While Keath is excellent, finishing 6th at the Bulldogs best and fairest for a second-straight year, the Dogs would be keenly aware that Melbourne and Richmond have proven in recent years that multiple, high-calibre options are a premiership pre-requisite down back.

The Demons mightn’t have won the 2021 flag without its Steven May-Jake Lever partnership while the Tigers wouldn’t have been such an impenetrable force without having the likes of Alex Rance, Dylan Grimes and David Astbury to call upon. 

And for the dogs, this is where Tim O’Brien enters the chat.

While the move to call O’Brien is far less noisier than recent off-season moves such as hauling in the likes of Adam Treloar, Josh Bruce, Stef Martin and Keath from the trade period waters, O’Brien does have the capacity to greatly improve a pronounced Bulldog weakness while costing the club virtually nothing outside of salary space.

Unlike Dale Morris, O’Brien never inspired particularly joyous feelings among the Hawthorn fanbase over the nine seasons he was employed at the club. While he was a highly-touted prospect who flashed incredible athleticism for his size, the South Australian was only able cobble together 97 games over his Hawk journey while never truly finding his niche within the team. 

For a variety of reasons the Hawks deployed him all over the park, finally achieving his best and most consistent patch of footy at the end of 2021 when solidifying a spot in the Hawks backline. Here he was able to maximise his primary traits such as marking and intercepting and which the Dogs will be hoping they can harness and enhance at his new club.

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While this was a largely forgettable year for the Hawks, O’Brien quietly made some massive strides playing a career-high 18 games and produced career-highs in marks, contested marks and intercept possessions and whose improvements flourished in front of the Dogs very eyes in a Round 22 loss where he dominated with a massive 14 intercept possessions, 20 effective disposals and 329 metres gained. 

While a swallow of course doesn’t make a spring, and there’s little indication that O’Brien is set to become one of the game’s elite key defenders, the Bulldogs will be hoping he’s an upgrade on their current options outside of Keath and one who can perhaps help them bridge the 11 intercept disposals per game gap the Demons had on them throughout the season.

At just 27 and with little wear on the tyres O’Brien could well be ready to entrench himself at AFL level. 

Most importantly, he’ll have every opportunity to grow his biggest skill-set in the very area of the park the Dogs are most lacking.

If he can perform at his best, and consistently, this particular transaction could wind up being the trade period's most important and help fix that unsightly chip in the Doggie's windscreen. 

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James Rosewarne

James is a writer and Managing Editor at Stats Insider. He likes fiction and music. He is a stingray attack survivor. He lives in Wollongong.

Email- james@thehypometer.com for story ideas or opportunities.

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