AFL Rd 5 - Western Bulldogs v North Melbourne
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JULY 04: Josh Bruce of the Bulldogs celebrates a goal during the 2020 AFL Round 05 match between the Western Bulldogs and the North Melbourne Kangaroos at Marvel Stadium on July 04, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

One of the more significant and consequential team selections of the year took place during the week.

It wasn't the return of Sydney champion Lance Franklin or Richmond spearhead Tom Lynch, and it wasn't even the omission of Tigers superstar Dustin Martin due to illness or his heir apparent from the Bulldogs Bailey Smith due to suspension (first for the headbutt, and then for the drugs scandal).

No. This line-up change didn’t even occur at AFL level.

Doggies key forward Josh Bruce was included in Footscray’s VFL side on Friday night for his first hitout since rupturing his ACL in Round 21 last year, and cruelly being excluded from the Western Bulldogs’ grand final run right on the cusp of September.

The good news is he kicked three of Footscray’s eight goals against Carlton’s reserves at Princes Park and, more importantly, got through the game unscathed.

His return to the senior line-up cannot come soon enough.

As good as Aaron Naughton has been this year with 30.20 from 12 games, he has virtually played a lone hand in attack as the team's sole key forward. He really needs help.

And while Buku Khamis and Jamarra Ugle-Hagan have shown flashes as foils this year, they’re still raw and finding their feet in the big time.

Naughton is the focus of much of the attention when it comes to the Bulldogs’ forward delivery this year. He has taken 28 marks inside 50 - double the next best Bulldog Marcus Bontempelli on 14.

Compare that to last year when Naughton still led his club with 80, but Bruce registered 54 and still topped the Dogs’ goalkicking with 48 majors despite playing five fewer games than Naughton.

Indeed, Naughton was on 69 marks inside 50 at the time of Bruce’s injury, so the load was definitely being shared between the two up until the former Saint’s unfortunate mishap.

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While Bruce’s absence from the Dogs’ attack hasn’t been the sole reason for their struggles concerning their offensive potency, it certainly has been a major one.

You need look only at their drop-off in forward efficiency from last year to this year.

In 2021, the Dogs were ranked fourth both for percentage of inside-50s that led to scores (40.5) and goals (23.8).

This year, Luke Beveridge’s men are a middle-of-the-road 10th for scores per forward entry (39.0) and eighth for goals (23.1).

It's little wonder, then, that the Bulldogs are 6-6 and face a must-win clash against GWS on Saturday night at Giants Stadium.

A loss would see the Dogs slip two games adrift of the top eight with just nine rounds remaining - an unenviable position for a team with designs on a finals appearance, let alone a reigning runner-up.

You only have to look at the last time the Bulldogs played a couple of weeks ago when they lost to Geelong, before having their bye, to get a prime example of how wasteful they can be when entering their attacking zone.

After being jumped by the Cats and trailing by 40 points early in the second quarter, the Dogs actually got on top and enjoyed more of the play, even keeping Geelong goalless for 80 minutes.

But despite ultimately winning the territory battle, the Bulldogs finished with only 20 scoring shots from 56 inside 50s (36 per cent), compared to Geelong’s 23 from 48 (48 per cent).

Adding salt to the wound was the fact that the Cats not only lost important defender Jake Kolodjashnij to COVID prior to the game, but then had to sub out triple All-Australian backman Tom Stewart due to concussion early in the second quarter.

Yet despite that, the Cats still managed to hang on for a 13-point win with Jeremy Cameron doing exactly what the Bulldogs were crying out for down the other end of the ground – kicking a bag of six goals after being the beneficiary of slicker ball movement.
During the week Beveridge was keen to take a conservative approach when asked how far off Bruce would be from an AFL return.

"It'll just be form and a four-quarter consideration," Beveridge said.

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"I haven't got any firm outlook on the number of weeks.

"But (it was a) significant injury (for) ‘Brucey’, coming back from that could take a little while and it could take a month before he's really found his feet on the football field.”

But if Bruce keeps piling on the goals at an exponential rate in the second tier, that timeframe of one month is sure to keep shrinking as the Dogs desperately scramble to get their inconsistent season back on track.