Cult figure: Luke Dahlhaus under the statue of Bulldogs icon Ted Whitten.AS HE takes a seat in the bubbling cafeteria at the Whitten Oval, recovering from another summer ”smashing” on the track, it’s clear Luke Dahlhaus is a favourite of the Bulldogs’ faithful. Eyes around the room peer at him, and there’s a request for a photo and autograph.
Dahlhaus, 20, obliges without fuss and has a few words with the young lad, demonstrating in an instant why he continues to take impressive steps as a player and is respected enough to have a junior membership squad named after him.
He also fronts the Bulldogs’ membership information brochure, complete with those flowing dreadlocks that have given him something of a cult following.
”That’s one of the big things for me, you can never get too ahead of yourself. You remember where you come from and how you got here,” Dahlhaus said.
”Just because you are getting games in the senior team, it doesn’t mean you slow down. You do what you have always done. I keep doing the same amount of work.”
The boy from Leopold is doing just that, on and off the field.
This year the robust rover will complete the second year of a business course, will move into his own house in Williamstown but still share with teammate Christian Howard, all the while seeking to improve his own game and the fortunes of the Bulldogs.
In a difficult 2012 campaign when only five wins were notched, Dahlhaus carried his fair share of the load before his season was ended by an ankle injury at training after the round-18 loss to St Kilda.
He still finished No. 1 at the club for forward pressure – no surprise considering his reputation as a master tackler during his TAC Cup days – and was branded elite by Champion Data as a general forward in disposals, tackles, contested and uncontested possessions.
He lifted his average disposals from 14.1 to 17.5 a game but was given somewhat of a reality check against the top teams. He had 12 disposals against Collingwood in round six, 12 against Sydney in round 10 and 14 against Hawthorn in round 16.
Opponents, it seemed, were putting more thought into stopping him.
”It comes down to me getting fitter and stronger to work that off,” he said.
”They are obviously the teams that are so good defensively and they lock down on all opposition players.
”I want to play my best in the big games. Hopefully, this year I get a few more kicks off them.”
What coach Brendan McCartney and his coaching crew have been working on is ensuring more of these kicks from every player are more accurate.
The Bulldogs did well to be ranked seventh for contested possession last season, with a positive 3.8 differential per game, but this didn’t convert to the scoreboard. This was because of poor ball use and movement.
Champion Data statistics show the Dogs hit a target four per cent less than their opponent through the season, and ranked 17th.
But in the eight games when their percentage was better than their opponent, they won four times. In the 14 matches they had a lower percentage, they won just once.
What was a major concern was they finished last for kicking efficiency in their forward half, finding a target just 54 per cent of the time.
”I think it was our kicking that was down and our finishing,” Dahlhaus said.
”We are very good at contested ball, we have been continuing to practice that, but we have been working on our outside skills and finishing. Hopefully it can all come together.”
The defensive mindset of the group must improve as well.
This was perhaps best summed up last year – when they won the Bulldogs averaged 19 more tackles than they did in losses. Still, that was to be expected of a team that had anywhere up to 14 players with 40 matches or less experience.
”We have been doing a lot of defensive drills and a lot of tackling drills,” Dahlhaus said.
Having overcome his ankle injury, he has since enjoyed working with part-time coaches Brad Johnson – he will wear the former captain’s No. 6 this season – and Geelong premiership pair Matthew Scarlett and Cam Mooney.
Away from the club, he spends time with Shaun Higgins and Ryan Griffen, learning about life and football off the pair, while Tom Liberatore, having regained the faith of his teammates after last year’s drug indiscretion, is another good mate.
”He will have a very good year is my prediction – not to put too much on pressure on him,” Dahlhaus said with a cheeky grin.
Bulldogs’ strategic football operations manager Ben Graham, a master kick during his days with Geelong and as a punter in the NFL, has paid particular attention to Dahlhaus, filming his technique and helping him straighten his run up when having set shots at goal.
He had struggled for accuracy last season, booting 13 goals at 42 per cent.
It was his kicking and ball use that prompted several teams to overlook him in the 2010 national draft, but the Bulldogs took somewhat of a gamble through the rookie draft – and have emerged the winner.
”Where I have been working this pre-season has been on my disposal and my kicking,” Dahlhaus said.
It’s not long now until the season starts, ending a summer of torture and allowing Dahlhaus to resume his weekly Monday lunches with teammate Bob Murphy and Liberatore at a local Asian eatery.
”It’s my third year now – it’s just finally starting to sink in I am an AFL player now,” Dahlhaus said.
”You have just got to put your head down and never give up, which I said to myself I never would.”
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.