The growth of Caleb Daniel from a young, talented midfielder and forward to one of the best defenders in the AFL, with a prodigious right boot in open field play, has been visible to all.
- The Western Bulldogs are chasing their second flag in six years when they take on Melbourne on Saturday
- Caleb Daniel says he’s “quietly confident” the Bulldogs can take out this year’s grand final
- Daniel has played a key role in the Bulldogs success this season, with 594 disposals
Since making the positional switch permanently in 2019 his stats — be it disposals, handballs, kicks or marks — have rocketed.
But his growth as a leader at his beloved Western Bulldogs has been more subtle.
Those closest to him and the playing group have been given a front-row seat to his development on and off the field.
But media, supporters and even rival teams are only just cottoning on.
At 25 years of age, Daniel is preparing for his second AFL grand final with the Western Bulldogs — a team that is as arguably as unpredictable as the bounce of the football.
The Bulldogs have sat on top of the AFL ladder — alongside their grand final opponents Melbourne — for most of the year.
They had all but cemented a top-two finish but a disastrous run into the finals, including three straight losses, scuttled that opportunity. They were relegated to fifth.
No team has ever won the AFL flag from fifth. Just like, no team had won from seventh, until 2016.
They have regrouped and tackled an upgraded travel schedule (the Dogs have been in four different states during the finals series) to earn the right to fight for the flag.
“It’s been a challenge,” Daniel said.
“We’ve been thrown in different lockdown situations from being in a resort where we can walk around — albeit not able to leave or interact with anyone — then we get thrown into a hotel where we can’t leave our floor.
“It’s probably united us a bit more.”
And that is the thing about this Bulldogs team. They’re a mix of ages and experience but they are undeniably in sync.
“We’re bringing in new faces, new energy. [We’ve] grown up from being that young developing team to that really strong team,” Daniel said.
“I’m 130-odd games in now, there are guys 200 games in and there are guys who are 20 games in. So, there’s a real different mix of players. It’s really exciting.
“I enjoy getting around the young fellas. You’re always going to be a little bit nervous, I think that happens every game let alone a grand final.
And for Daniel, his Bulldogs coach has been a huge factor in his personal growth as a leader.
Luke Beveridge has led by example and grown himself.
“[His ability to] be in tune with the younger guys has developed a fair bit and the way he’s able to motivate us,” Daniel said.
“He’s a little bit of an old soul and he loves bringing that out but still brings it back to guys who are 20 years old and really resonating with them. That’s huge.
“He’s one of the greatest storytellers that I’ve been involved with.”
It is obvious this group cares about each other. So much so, that the players that cannot be a part of the grand final are always front of their minds.
In Round 21, Josh Bruce went down with an ACL injury in the dying stages of their clash with Essendon. Before that, he had been one of the frontrunners for the Coleman Medal.
“As a playing group, we try and wrap our arms around him as much as possible. As well as Lin Jong, who retired from the game. It’s very bittersweet,” said Daniel.
“We’ve got Brucey on Facetime after every win. We’ll be celebrating with them.”
Standing in their way is fellow competition heavyweights, the Demons.
Melbourne started the season with nine straight wins and cemented its dominance by sealing the minor premiership with a heart-stopping after the siren win against Geelong in round 23.
Unlike the Bulldogs, who have played every week of this finals series, the Dees have played two games in the last month. Most recently, they thumped last year’s runners-up, Geelong, by 83 points.
“Obviously their stoppage work is pretty spot on. They’ve got a couple of the best mids running around as well as arguably the best ruckman.
“They set up really well, defensively. They work hard for each other.
“As long as our ball movement’s on top, it will be a really good challenge. I’m quietly confident.”
If the Bulldogs do win on Saturday and seal their second flag in six years, Daniel has already committed to one thing.
“I was young (in 2016). I was a bit naïve and it was all a blur,” he said.
“I’ll be making sure I take more in if it comes true.
“It would be extremely special. There are so many guys at our footy club that didn’t experience 2016.
“You’ll look around and see their faces, the joy. It’s something that you can’t really put into words because it’s just a feeling of pure ecstasy.”