Battle for the West – The HPN GWS v Western Bulldogs Elimination Final preview

HPN Team Ratings

The Bulldogs look somewhat similar to their 2016 premiership edition, being a dominant team in terms of midfield territory while less reliable at each end of the ground. Unlike their flag-winning team of 2016, it seems to be a porous defense rather than impotent forward line that has caused them problems.

Indeed, the Bulldogs have had a weaker per-inside 50 defense this year than any side other than St Kilda, Gold Coast and Melbourne. Much has been made of the Bulldogs’ lift in the second half of the season, and this has been seen in improved offensive rating (+8.8) and midfield rating (+5.5), so to an extent these season-long ratings may be underselling the Bulldogs’ newfound forward strength. Essentially the Bulldogs have gotten better at keeping the ball in their forward half, and have gotten a lot better at finding paths to goal using that preponderance of entries, but their defence is still pretty weak.

For GWS, it’s their forward strength that stands out, with only West Coast and Geelong more efficient at converting their entries to goals this year. They’re supported by a pretty break-even midfield and decent defense. Unlike almost any other finalist, it is hard to work out just how good GWS is, considering their considerable injury toll throughout the year.

Keys to the game


1.  Reintegrate the returning cavalry, especially up forward

The team the Giants are fielding is one of the stronger ones they’ve managed to field amidst their rolling injury crisis.

Player Games mPAV Playing?
Cameron, Jeremy 20 0.607 Y
Greene, Toby 16 0.508 Y
Kelly, Josh 14 0.495 Y
Ward, Callan 0 0.469
Coniglio, Stephen 15 0.435
Whitfield, Lachie 16 0.42 Y
Taranto, Tim 22 0.402 Y
Hopper, Jacob 19 0.401 Y
Finlayson, Jeremy 19 0.281 Y
Simpson, Dawson 9 0.273
Williams, Zac 20 0.238 Y
Patton, Jonathon 0 0.184
Himmelberg, Harry 21 0.157 Y
Mumford, Shane 16 0.135
Shaw, Heath 22 0.053 Y
Haynes, Nick 19 0.046 Y
Davis, Phil 19 0.029 Y
Deledio, Brett 13 -0.031 Y
Tomlinson, Adam 22 -0.086
Lloyd, Daniel 14 -0.15 Y

The Giants have 14 of their best 20 players on deck this weekend, which still isn’t great, but the Simpson absence is seemingly a structural choice and Patton and Ward have been out all year with injuries. The reason for Adam Tomlinson’s absence is shrouded in a little bit of mystery, given his status as a in demand free agent in the upcoming offseason, but the tall utility had struggled to find form and a consistent position through the second half of the year. This leaves Coniglio the only absence from the “working” best 22, and the one likely to come in next week if they win.

Unfortunately, many of these players have missed games even recently, which creates questions about form and cohesion levels.

Compared to round 23, Haynes, Hopper and Greene are all vital ins on their respective lines, with Deledio also playing a crucial role up forward. Jeremy Finlayson and Daniel Lloyd have recently returned to bolster the attack, while Sam Taylor returned to fill a structural hole down back. The ability of these players, who all missed footy in the last four rounds of the regular season, to slot in and help produce the Giants’ best footy, will be crucial.

2. Get ball, get forward

Last time the Giants played the Bulldogs, they did not have the Jeremys (Cameron and Finlayson), which hurt them a lot. However, even if Cameron had played, he probably would have been needed well up the ground to provide a marking target just to help the Giants even get the ball forward in the first place. The Giants had just 39 inside 50s to the Bulldogs’ 63, being smashed in the midfield. Greene, Taranto, Whitfield and de Boer were unable to generate enough forward movement to trouble the Dogs, while the Dogs swarming frontline midfield trio did what they liked.

A big indicator here is contested possessions, which for the Giants are an indicator of success, as they historically tend to use stoppages to generate run and movement. Giants games are the most stoppage-heavy among the finalists this year, featuring over 80 clearances between they and their opponents. That is consistent, win or lose.

In their four wins against finalists the Giants averaged about 14 more contested possessions while in losses they basically broke even. Interestingly, the Giants have a better clearance differential in losses (4.0) than wins (2.4) against the final 8, suggesting perhaps when they struggle they may over-commit at the coalface.

The Giants are still missing Coniglio and Ward (the latter of which has been absent all season), but the mix of Hopper, Greene, Taranto, Whitfield, Kelly, Williams, Kennedy and de Boer will need to contribute in contests or in space around the midfield, to ensure they actually give enough supply up forward much better than they did a month ago.

3. Ruck questions

The ruck may actually be the least important area in this contest as it plays out, and may not be a “key” factor, but these two teams have had some of the funkiest approaches to the role this season, so it’s a fascinating question worth discussing.

Shane Mumford is no longer a very good footballer and is coming off being beaten well by Jarrod Witts a fortnight ago. Last time GWS played the Bulldogs, Dawson Simpson dominated hitouts against Trengove/Naughton/Schache/Nobody, but since then, Simpson retired and Mumford has been left as last man standing, while Tim English has come in for the Bulldogs to increase their number of so-called rucks from 0 to 1.

English doesn’t get a lot of hitouts, and in recent matches he’s lost that count substantially against the likes of Zac Clarke, Sam Jacobs and Rowan Marshall. This ruck contest has “nil all draw” written all over it, and one has to wonder if one or both teams might have been better off playing zero rucks rather than one, something both sides have done this year. GWS dropped Keefe and Tomlinson to be emergencies this week, while the Bulldogs have kept Trengove in reserve, so it’s possible both clubs are playing “chicken” over late changes.

However, as named, Mumford is experienced and a strong body, and if he’s able to bully English and help out his midfielders, it may well help the Giants break even in the middle in a way they didn’t in round 22.


1. Forward targets

The big change for the Bulldogs in their late 2019 resurgence has been that they’ve been able to find targets up forward and convert their inside 50s at an above average rate, where previously they were all midfield dominance, pinging the ball endlessly and fruitlessly into and back out of their forward 50. Two changes explain this improved output: marking power, and shot accuracy.

The Bulldogs have taken more marks inside 50 than any other side. They’re 4th for marks inside 50 per inside 50 across the year, taking roughly one mark every four entries. That’s a year long change on previous years, with the signs of that shift first emerging last year.

During their late season charge to finals, the Dogs’ offensive output has improved through changing how they shoot at goal. Up to round 14, they averaged 11.5 goals a game and 12.2 behinds. Since then it’s gone to 14.3 goals and 11.4 behinds a game.

According to shot location data at StatsInsider, the Bulldogs have gone from shooting at 6% below expectations up to round 14, to 5% above expectations since then. Part of this is personnel. Noted terrible goalkicker Marcus Bontempelli (who shoots at over 20% below expectations) has been taking less shots while upping his inside 50 counts in the later part of the season.

In Bontempelli’s stead, sharper shooters like Schache, Lipinski, Dale and McLean have stepped up. That’s seen accuracy lift for all shots taken from beyond 25 metres. A big factor has been the Bulldogs’ taste for shots from outside 50. They take more from long range than any other team, and since round 15 have been converting at 44%. Since a long range shot is an inside 50, that means their bomb goal attempts in recent weeks have been worth an average of nearly three points per inside 50. HPN has written about the slowly shifting trend towards long range shots before, and it appears that the Dogs are leaning into the potential efficiency gain.

They’re also taking a lot more shots in general play, having taken 57% of their shots that way since round 15, up from 44% before round 14. Those general play shots have come from all over the forward 50, spreading the sources of threat and stretching defences:

Source: Stats Insider

If the Bulldogs can keep producing this new more potent mix of general play shots, accurate long range bombs, and getting the ball into the hands of their more accurate scorers, they should be able to keep scoring at a reasonable enough efficiency to keep up with GWS.

2. Ball security

Against the top 8, the Bulldogs have the largest positive uncontested possession differential of any side in finals (+59 in wins, +20 in losses). Like the Giants they tended to win contested possessions (+14) and marks (+19) in wins and lose them in losses (-8 and -6), Unlike the high-stoppage Giants, they’re a low-stoppage team, with the Bulldogs’ games featuring less total game clearances than any other side, 71 vs the Giants 80, suggesting about one eighth less stoppages occur in their games. They are also one of the most handball-happy teams in the league, with only North and Collingwood having a lower kick to handball ratio.

That uncontested ball surplus, the low stoppage count, the penchant for handballs suggests a strong midfield identity for the Bulldogs. They are going to find free players by hand. They’re going to share it around within a loose rolling cluster of players, they’re going to run aggressively out of congestion to make space and provide options. They’ll do this even to the extent that they sometimes get punished the other way for overly aggressive running and positioning. The extent to which they’re allowed to move the ball around freely by hand in wins compared to losses suggests that this is an area they prioritise and their path to success.

3. Upfield defence

Simply put, the Bulldogs will almost certainly not win if they do not restrict GWS to substantially fewer inside 50s than they get themselves. In their five wins against fellow finalists, the Dogs average 14 more inside 50s than their opponents, in losses breaking roughly even on that front.

The Bulldogs field a number of players in the defensive half of the ground who lose a lot of 1 v 1 contests. Three of their five players who have had over 20 contested defensive 1 v 1 situations have lost around 40% of them (Wood 42%, the absent Daniel 41% and Cordy 38%).

Some of this defensive frailty is probably a consequence of the risky way the Bulldogs attack and run out of contests, leaving space and isolated defenders behind them. Regardless of whether it’s tactics or talent, this is a lot of players who can’t be relied on under a barrage of opposition inside 50 entries, including two of the three key defenders in the selected side.

With GWS fielding a pretty potent forward group, featuring both tall and small threats, the Dogs will want to replicate the 63-39 inside 50 differential in their round 22 win. This fragile, risk-taking defense must be protected by strong play around stoppages and around groundball scramble situations, and with good ball retention, to prevent as many GWS possession chains as possible, which would otherwise end in an inside 50 entry.

Player Breakdowns

Below, HPN has arranged its marginal Player Approximate Value (mPAV) based player valuations for the two selected teams.

The big point of discussion for GWS is in attack, this is a significantly more potent side in terms of kicking inside 50 and scoring goals than featured against the Bulldogs in round 22. At peak, they have the better offence but nearly all their players named this week with positive mPAV ratings didn’t play against the Bulldogs. That’s Cameron, Finlayson, Deledio, Lloyd, Mumford, and Hopper. Greene also mostly played in the midfield that game.

For the Bulldogs, the three prime movers in the midfield, Bontempelli, Macrae and Dunkley, look to be significantly more valuable than what the Giants are able to field, but there’s a huge dearth when comparing their defenders to the Giants’ available forward potency.


Note: the HPN tipping model this year was bad. Don’t gamble, especially not with this information. Look at the work of Squiggle for a variety of better performing models.

GWS by 6.

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