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Can Injuries really cripple a premiership?

When Bob Murphy hobbled off the ground with a suspected ACL injury, Luke Beveridge’s face perfectly described how every spectator felt, regardless if they had an inner love for Bob as a Bulldogs supporter or not. Hurt, pain, not only for themselves, not only for the club, but for someone who was one of the genuine ‘good guys’ of the league.

While not being an elite of the game, Murphy was considered to be the heart and soul of the Bulldogs club, and when he went down, a line was unofficially put through the Doggies high aspirations for the year, after coming desperately close to a very good Adelaide team in a 2015 elimination final.

Murphy was truly the heart and soul of the club in the eyes of all that took part.

Next came a hit to the bulldogs at least as big, if not bigger, than Murphy’s injury. On a night where the Bulldogs eventually lost to the Saints by 15 points, Mitch Wallis broke his leg in a horrific incident that left the crowd at Etihad reeling after seeing the replays, and Jack Redpath, the man who was touted to have to be the Dogs most important man inside 50 during the season, suffered a suspected ACL injury similar to Murphy’s.

The team carried their hearts on their sleeves, and weren’t able to overcome the saints- a team they probably should have beaten comfortably-, knocking them out of the top four. However, after the match, Beveridge described his team’s ladder position as ‘secondary’ to what had happened that night, giving all fans a real, emotional insight into how a footy club is more than just a business, despite the professional front that is put up by media managers.

There were also other serious injuries to multiple team members, Marcus Adams missed more than half the season with persistent foot and finger injuries, Tom Liberatore suffered a syndesmosis injury in his ankle just a few weeks before the finals were to begin, Jack Macrae missed weeks before finals, as did Easton Wood, Jordan Roughead and Jake Stringer.

All this led to the Western Bulldogs being $67 to win the premiership after a miserable showing in Fremantle in round 23, where the Bulldogs were expected to go no further than West Coast at Domain stadium. They had five players returning from injury for that game, of which four were quite obviously underdone in their preparation for the match.

These injuries, combined with the long term complications suffered to three players who are certainly in their ten most important players, were expected to cripple the Bulldogs. But Beveridge was the first coach to coin the phrase ‘One man down, another one in’ and utilise it to perfection the whole season.

The depth and fringe players who replaced the injured in Zane Cordy, Bailey Williams and Fletcher Roberts, to name three highlights, were all outstanding and can be commended for the Dogs winning the premiership off the back of their work, as well as others, during the season to keep the Dogs at the pointy end of the ladder.

Even Tom Boyd, who mostly became the Bulldogs key point of focus during the season after Redpath went down, who struggled with the perception accompanying the number one draft pick all season, picked himself up in the finals to be one of the most influential players on the ground across the last two Bulldogs games.

Tom Boyd was unlucky to miss out on the Norm Smith medal this day

The Bulldogs should not have won the premiership. Too many injuries, too many form issues, no finals experience. But it was players like Boyd who proved the doubters wrong and delivered the Bulldogs their first premiership in many, many years something Bob Murphy could only describe as ‘Magic’.

This Premiership would probably lead most to believe that unless a team genuinely has their best five-ten players out, their contention for the premiership really shouldn’t be affected to a great degree. However, the depth players were very, very good and much better than those at other teams, with at least ten players constantly putting on a good show in the VFL and placing pressure on the Bulldogs selection committee to make changes. So how much were other premiers and their competitors affected by season ending injuries?

Looking back over all the premierships since 2012, many, if not most, have been benefited by a by all large lack of injuries. The swans, who beat the Hawks on the big stage in 2012, and as it turns out, prevented their famed four-peat, had game breaker Gary Rohan missing for the finals series and most of the home and away season, while Ben McGlynn missed most of the finals series after pulling a hamstring in the swans qualifying final.

There were no other players from the Swans best 22 that sat out the majority of the season, or even fringe players, giving the swans the perfect run into the premiership. Other major contenders that year in usual suspects Adelaide and Hawthorn, as well as Collingwood, only had a combined 2 season ending injuries to best 22 players that season, giving each term no excuses on the injury front to contend for the premiership.

The swans prevented a Hawthorn ‘Four-Peat’ with this win

Next came the Hawthorn era, where a terrific coach and an incredibly talented list came together to create one of the AFL’s greatest dynasties of the 50 years. In their first premiership of the series that were to follow, Hawthorn had season ending injuries to important players Ryan Schoenmakers and Matt Suckling.

Geelong and Fremantle were also at low odds to claim the leagues greatest achievement entering the finals campaign, while Geelong’s main woe was first choice ruckman Hamish Mcintosh sitting out suffering an ankle injury, as well as Dan Menzel with one of four knee reconstructions keeping him in the grandstand for a longer period of time than most would have seen coming.

Sights like these became all too familiar to Menzel and Geelong supporters

Fremantle may have been slightly under full strength as well, with 3 best 22 players on the sidelines from season ending injuries when their teammates took on the Hawks in the Grand Final, which may have costed them, as the Hawks overran the Dockers in the last quarter despite there being less than two straight kicks in it at 3 quarter time.

2014 left most premiership contenders in a relatively injury free shape towards the point end of the season, where Jed Anderson was the only player that missed the majority of the season for the Hawks. However, Hawthorn had some serious issues during the home and away season, with plenty of experience being missed throughout the season including Cyril Rioli doing a Hamstring twice within 10 rounds, Josh Gibson tearing a Pec, and others like Brian Lake at Matt Suckling plus several more all going down at some point in the year.

Injuries and suspension threatened to derail Brian Lake’s 2014 finals campaign

This didn’t interrupt the team however, as they marched to their 3rd Grand final in as many years, and emerging triumphantly with their second premiership from this period.

Although lacking some quality players throughout the season, the Hawks were still able to finish second of the ladder and claim the premiership, through depth players playing their role when called upon and a lack of many permanent injuries for the team, going to show that for the great teams, many injuries to senior players shouldn’t matter unless they are season ending.

Again in 2016, the Hawks had another terrific run with long term injuries, with only rookie defender Kaiden Brand missing the season through a sustained shoulder injury. Challengers in Sydney, West Coast and Fremantle, who completed the rest of the top 4, were a little less lucky however, with a combined total of 10 season ending injuries to the lists of these three clubs.

All these scenarios seem to suggest that experience lost in patches throughout the season should not, and has not affected the great teams in the past in the long run of the season. Neither has season ending injuries, although there have been much fewer of those, with no more than three suffered by a team that was seriously contending for the premiership.

This can be related back to GWS this year, with the Giants copping criticism left, right and centre from all the AFL related radio shows, programs, podcasts, videos, articles and more who are desperately trying to fill up space with claims that the giants are no chance to make finals due to their injuries. If the Giants want to prove they are on one the great teams, not just a good one, their depth players need to be able to stand up to this scrutiny and carry this side to a finals berth.

However, while Leon Cameron would have hoped from more from his depth players, he still has one eye on the rest of the season to run, and if the Giants can keep battling hard until their stars come back, there’s still a strong chance they can bat deep into September this year.

GWS have been ravaged by injuries this year

One premiership not mentioned yet is that of Richmond’s, which was one where injuries really took a hold of the footy club during the season, and threatened to strangle it out of September action for a second consecutive year.

The Tigers were forced to play a much smaller forward line due to the absence of Ben Griffths and Shaun Hampson, who would have counted on at least one of these players to be fit and firing for the majority to the season, to partner Jack Riewoldt in the tall forwards department.

And, as we know this turned out to be a masterstroke driven purely out of luck for Richmond, and teams were unable to adapt to cover Richmond’s ‘mosquito fleet’ of forwards, who ended up having one of the highest scoring offences in the league.

Through necessity, greatness was created

While they only ended up with one man on their season long injury list, with a Nathan Drummond knee injury keeping him out for the season, Griffths and Hampson could not force their way into the senior team despite returning through the VFL in the weeks leading up to the finals. Being one of the great teams, Richmond were able to cover their injurie losses with some impressive depth players and smaller forwards that led them to a breakthrough premiership.

Overall, we are yet to see a premiership campaign that has been severely impacted due to long term injuries. The Western Bulldogs were perhaps one of the unluckiest teams in this regard, but were still able overcome their losses to win when it counted. Shorter term injuries crippled Hawthorn’s 2014 premiership list during the season, but, like Richmond, Hawthorn during this period really were one of the great teams, and were able to stay in contention and finish in the top 4 for the season, and then push on to a premiership when senior players returned.

What can be seen here is that good teams are not affected by a reasonable amount of long term injuries. Any team would be extremely unlucky to have more than three or four players out long term, but with a reasonable number such as this, the depth players in great teams should be able to step up to cover season ending injuries, and challenge players returning from injuries to earn their spots back.

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