THE Western Bulldogs lay claim to one of the competition’s most promising young lists and after two dour seasons, will be eager to accelerate their return to the AFL Women’s summit. With head coach Nathan Burke at the helm for his second year in charge, the sky is the limit for these young pups in 2021.
A 1-5 record and sixth-place finish among the stronger Conference B makes for quite harsh reading, but does not tell the full story of the Bulldogs’ season. Expectations were not overly high on the rebuilding side heading into 2020, especially given the amount of inexperienced players yet to truly cut their teeth in the bigtime, with ups and downs abundant along the way.
The campaign began brightly with a 25-point win over expansion side, St Kilda, putting the Dogs right on track. Two losses by just over three goals followed, but were somewhat expected against hardened Melbourne and Carlton teams. A four-point loss to West Coast would have really hurt though, with Collingwood taking full advantage the next week but green shoots emerging in a 15-point loss to the undefeated Fremantle.
Overall, the Bulldogs averaged a losing margin of 18.4 points and remained relatively consistent throughout a tough campaign in terms of results. The five-game losing run will only have them more keen to hit the ground running in Round 1 this time around and turn their potential into marked improvement.
The Bulldogs have had access to some of the best Metropolitan talent, particularly in the last two years, and were faced with an embarrassment of riches at the top end at last year’s draft. Northern Knights co-captain Jess Fitzgerald was their choice at pick two, a balanced midfielder who was labelled her side’s most valuable player by now-assistant coach, Marcus Abney-Hastings in 2019. She should slot strait into the engine room and can also rotate forward, joining a formidable group of Knights graduates at the Kennel.
Marking defender Sarah Hartwig was a steal at pick 11, instantly boosting her new side’s backline with a blend of aerial ability and poise on the ball. The Sandringham Dragons product also has the potential to move further afield or swing forward, such is her versatility. Isabelle Pritchard (pick 16) was another bargain and in a similar vein to Hartwig, is a tall prospect who can play defence while providing another positional threat in her midfield craft.
Katie Lynch proved the Bulldogs’ big trade coup as she switches from Collingwood to help bolster the Bulldogs’ midfield stocks. She is a former first round pick who lies in a good age bracket for her new side and should take some pressure off the Dogs’ established midfielders. Annabel Strahan is the other fresh face, a surprise selection as replacement for Katy Herron, who will be inactive in 2021.
ONE TO WATCH IN 2021
Isabella Grant is one to watch in red, white, and blue this season; a player who could well act as a completely fresh recruit given she missed her entire maiden season through injury. The versatile tall may take some time to find her feet at senior level given her lack of experience, but has already attracted plenty of hype given her family connection to Whitten Oval as the club’s first father-daughter selection. With Izzy Huntington set to switch ends, Grant could be one to provide relief and will only add to the Bulldogs’ dynamism.
WHY THEY CAN WIN IT
The Bulldogs may better be known as pups as it stands, but once those youngsters click at senior level, watch out. Burke has already coached a wealth of players in his squad at junior level and knows how to extract quality from young footballers, meaning his team’s development could be accelerated drastically as the next generation takes hold. Under strong leaders in Ellie Blackburn, Brooke Lochland, Kirsty Lamb, Huntington, and co., the Bulldogs’ rate of improvement will strike fear in many an opposition coach.
There’s two sides to every coin and while the Bulldogs’ youthful exuberance makes them highly promising, it can also be perceived as inexperience depending on the context. The rebuilding list is coming along nicely but suffered from some lapses in concentration last season and did not have the depth to regularly compete with top sides across four quarters. It is a factor which will only be ironed out over time, but the Dogs will give plenty of sides a good run throughout 2021 on raw talent and intent.
The future is bright for these Bulldogs but as it stands, they may have to put some more runs on the board before becoming a true finals threat. One win should be a very beatable tally this time around, with every side now wary of the Dogs’ growing depth and undeniable young talent. Expect some sharp improvement with even more to come down the line.
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