Immediately after the Western Bulldogs’ loss to Geelong in round 12, it was apparent to their coach Luke Beveridge that the face of the team’s forward line had to change in the back half of the year.
The Cats had focused on stopping Aaron Naughton in the air and restricted him to just one goal as the Bulldogs won the inside-50 count but only converted 10 goals from 57 entries.
Aaron Naughton at training this week.Credit:Getty Images
This was a poor return for a team who, despite their over-reliance on the high-leaping 21-year-old as a marking target, are the third most prolific scorer on average in the competition, behind Brisbane and Richmond.
But that average can mislead, too, as the Bulldogs racked up big scores against the league’s battlers but could not score more than 71 points against Melbourne, Richmond, Sydney, or the Cats.
“Overall, we’re not over the moon with our output as far as the scoreboard goes,” Beveridge said.
Aaron Naughton is an exceptional player, but he needs support up forward.Credit:Getty Images
Their over-reliance on Naughton has been clear with the precocious headband-wearer the target 26.8 per cent of the time they go forward, with youthful Jamarra Ugle-Hagan the next best at 13.3 per cent in the six games he has played. Naughton is not the game’s most accurate set shot with his tally of 77.60 since the start of last season indicating he can let goals go begging.
The debate about whether Naughton could go back to shore up their defence while leaving the remaining forwards simmers away on a low heat, but it’s an option Beveridge has shown no inclination to revisit.
Former Footscray goalkicking great Simon Beasley won’t buy into the argument that the Bulldogs won’t lose much if they move Naughton into defence. (Drafted as a defender, he finished third in the club best and fairest in his first season before being moved forward.)
He concurs with Beveridge that for “The Astronaut”, as Naughton has been known, to take off, he needs some jets firing around him.
“Naughton is still the Bulldogs’ standout forward, there is no question about that,” Beasley said.
Jamarra Ugle-Hagan is a developing forward who gets another chance for the Bulldogs against the Giants.Credit:AFL Photos
But there is a question whether he can find the support most players need to consistently dominate games.
The club has been forced to use everyone up forward, from an injury-restricted Marcus Bontempelli to an inexperienced Ugle-Hagan. Mitch Hannan, Buku Khamis, Laitham Vandermeer, Mitch Wallis, Rhylee West, Lachie McNeil, Robbie McComb, Anthony Scott, and Zaine Cordy have rotated past the stars like extras on a movie set. But the hope is something can settle in the back half of the season.
On Friday, Josh Bruce was making tentative steps in the VFL as Ugle-Hagan and Josh Schache (who was good up forward in last year’s finals series) were named to play against the Giants.
Bruce will take at least a month to find his footy legs after a knee reconstruction, but his return can’t come quickly enough for Naughton.
The Bulldogs are looking forward to Josh Bruce’s return.Credit:Getty Images
“Jamarra will be a good player, but he is definitely a work in progress,” Beasley said.
“When Bruce played, it took the pressure off Naughton. Aaron has had to shoulder the load a lot this year. There is plenty to look forward to but [we] have to get our act together quickly this year.”
Bruce was the perfect foil for Naughton in 2021 when Naughton was the main target inside 50 24.6 per cent of the time and Bruce 21.8 per cent of the time, while Weightman buzzed around in their shadows.
If Ugle-Hagan gets going, Beveridge could surprise everyone by pushing Naughton behind the ball occasionally to support Alex Keath, who has battled to win one-on-ones this season.
Having watched the Giants’ successful experiment with Harry Himmelberg playing the ball since Leon Cameron left, the thought could come alive at a club that always carries a high tolerance of risk under Beveridge. Himmelberg will get the job on Naughton on Saturday night.
With a team that relies so heavily on getting the ball forward and keeping it there, the forward line must function. At the moment it is not despite Naughton’s best efforts and it’s been costly.
Beasley has been watching closely and can’t wait for Naughton to have teammates nearby who worry the opposition, so his midfielders only target him when the potential for him to win the contest is at least breakeven.
He is confident when that becomes the case, Naughton, who is yet to win a club goalkicking award, will do the rest.
“If you are one-out as a forward you are a big chance to win the contest. He is very, very quick, and he is flexible,” Beasley said.
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