2021 VFLW season preview: Essendon

ESSENDON’S Victorian Football League (VFL) Women’s side is now bearing the fruits of extended work over a tough 2020, according to VFLW operations manager, Charlotte Miller. The tight-knit team is set to maintain much of its core despite last year’s lost season, with plenty of hard work during the most recent off-season seeing the Bombers gel together nicely heading into Round 1.

Miller says the Bombers have built “a feeling of continuity” with so many players recommitting, while some fresh faces and exciting young talent prepare to add another dimension to the building standalone squad.

“It’s a pretty similar squad to 2020 with just a few new faces added in and not too many losses, so there’s a feeling of continuity from then,” Miller said. “We had Ruby Svarc picked up in the AFLW so we’ve lost her, but a lot of the players who were intending to play for us in 2020 are still here and we’ve picked up a few new players.

“It’s starting to feel like we’ve had a squad that maybe was a bit inexperienced in 2019 but even without a lot of games in between now and then, they’ve had that time and training together to connect really well as a team, there’s a really good energy amongst the group. “I think that’s really going to pay off for us.”

Essendon’s 2019 best and fairest Georgia Nanscawen was announced as captain earlier this month and will head a five-player leadership group ahead of former skipper, Courtney Ugle. Along with the handful of players officially at the helm, Miller outlined an extended core of leaders which will work to drive the Bombers forward in 2021.

“(Nanscawen) joined us in 2019 as she was delisted from the North Melbourne AFLW team, but was previously a Hockeyroo with 200-plus games for Australia,” she said. “She’s a quiet leader but she’s super professional. “She’s been playing professional sport since she was 16 and she knows how to manage herself on the ground, she knows how to prepare, she knows how to speak to people and how to get through games without letting things get to her.

“So she’s a really cool head out there which I think is going to be a great thing for the team. (Ugle) has been voted in as vice-captain. “They’ve very different people, very different players, very different ages, and (from) very different backgrounds, but they’re a really nice combination.

“In the rest of the leadership group, there’s Mia-Rae Clifford who’s been around in AFLW teams for a long time; she’s played at Freo, Geelong, and Melbourne in her time. “She’s come back into the VFLW with us this year and is a huge voice out on the field, she really gets the girls going and keeps them moving.

“Then we’ve got Kendra Heil who’s our Canadian player who was our runner-up best and fairest in 2019 as well, and Eloise Ashley-Cooper who’s an up-and-coming leader. “She was our young player of 2019, she came through the Murray Bushrangers NAB League program.

“‘C-Bomb’ Cecilia McIntosh is still around as well as Simone Nalder our ruck, who was in our leadership group in 2019. “She didn’t run for leadership this year because she has a few other things going on, but she’s always an outstanding leader whether she’s in that group or not.”

Along with the established stars of the squad comes a new batch of talent ready to take the competition by storm. With ties to a particularly strong talent region in the Calder Cannons, Essendon will have access to some of the finest young talent in the country through different points of the season.

While under 18 prospects are yet to enter the Bombers’ program as the NAB League season continues, top-age 19-year-olds have been training at The Hangar and will feature even more prominently throughout the VFLW competition. Among the most prominent words Miller used to assess such talent was “exciting”, and AFLW recruiters would arguably agree with that sentiment.

“We’ve signed quite a few from the 18th and 19th-year Calder group and a couple of Bendigo Pioneers players,” Miller said. “Georgie Prespakis from Calder Cannons, that’s a pretty exciting one there. “She’ll come through as the NAB League finishes up for the rest of the season and I imagine she’ll go pretty high in the AFLW Draft this year.

“Also from Calder, Emelia Yassir is a pretty exciting little player and Tahlia Gillard we’re quite excited about as well, so we’ll see a few of them start to flow through as we can across the season – we’ve had the top-age 19-year-old flow come through, not the 18s yet.

“We’ve got two girls from Bendigo who have been training with us quite a lot as well, Elizabeth Snell and Jemma Finning, they’re both 19th-year players with Bendigo. “They’re playing in the NAB League season but we’re going to try and get them in games down here as soon as we can. “They’ve been training really well, their attitude is great and they’re bringing everything they can to the sessions.”

While the Bombers have come away from preseason with a relatively clean slate on the injury front, Miller says a couple of promising returnees could also make an impact shortly into the early rounds.

“We haven’t really had any significant injuries during our preseason,” she said. “We’ve had a few concussions and niggles here and there for different players, but overall everyone is pretty fit and ready to go.

“We’ve potentially got Gloria Elarmaly coming through, she played at Calder a couple of years ago and I think pretty much in her last game she (suffered) a really severe foot injury – it was a Lisfranc (foot injury) but she also dislocated all her toes. “She was told she’d never run again, never play football again but it looks like we’ll have her back out there by about Round 4, we’re pretty keen to see her out there.

Nicole Julian as well just started with us, she was at North Melbourne previously but comes from more of a kickboxing background. She came over and in one of her very first training sessions with us she did a knee injury, so she’s kind of been in rehab since the start of November but we’ve been working through that with her and we’re hoping she’ll be ready by about Round 2.”

With a mountain of off-season work under their belts and team cohesion backed by a bed of experience, the Bombers are set to “play fast” in 2021 and impress with their pressure game. There may only be one practice game to go off thus far, but Miller says she “saw a lot of good things” from the 28 players trialled in their 60-point win over Darebin on Thursday night.

“What we’ve been working really hard on is to get that ball movement happening,” she said. “I think in 2019 we had players who could play really well but they were rushing and maybe making decisions too quickly and they weren’t coming off. What we saw last (Thursday) night was a much calmer frame of mind, girls who were able to take that pause before making a decision and keep moving.

“They’re not doing anything they couldn’t do a while ago, but they’re just executing it much better now. We’re going for a fast game, lots of pressure, we’re a tackling team and we’re hoping our fitness is actually going to pull us through and give us the edge this year.”

Plenty is happening at The Hangar with new women’s facilities finally finished ahead of season proper and an AFLW license for 2022 in the Bombers’ sights. Miller wished to shoutout the work of head coach Brendan Major, as well as the physio and high performance staff who stuck with the team purely out of care during last year. With the fruits of that work now coming to the fore, it is fair to say the commitment is paying off.

No official fixture has been released, but the Bombers are set to commence their VFLW campaign next weekend and play out of The Hangar until April due to ongoing developments at Windy Hill.

Image Credit: Kate Heath/Essendon FC

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