2021 VFLW season preview: Western Bulldogs

A BUNCH of Western Bulldogs VFLW players will finally get to pull on the red, white and blue jumper in a competitive match when they take on Hawthorn to kick off their 2021 campaign on Sunday. While 15 new players have entered the squad since 2019, there is a strong sense of continuity according to head coach, Sean Kavanagh after the lost 2020 season.

“It’s really interesting because quite a few of the girls who have been around, they came on board in that preseason before 2020, even as early as September of 2019,” Kavanagh said. “So some of the girls have been around for close to a year and a half, but have never had the opportunity to play.

“The age and experience profile has changed a little bit. We’ve gone for a certain type of player, a very similar methodology to our AFLW side and how we want to make the list up and play our footy. We’re really excited, it’ll take time and the girls will make mistakes… (but) we’ll learn from those areas and hopefully get some nice flow into our game as the season progresses.”

The Bulldogs have returned in “good condition” after a year away from group training and competitive play, testing their progress with dual practice games against Carlton during preseason. While pure results are not the entire focus of such hitouts, the ledger is squared at one win apiece. Kavanagh says his players “just went for it” in both outings.

“Over the course of the year off, we expected the girls to come back pretty rusty,” he said. “There was a little bit of work to do on skills but on the whole, our group came back in great condition and we’re looking forward to being competitive in Round 1.

“The first practice game we played at Ikon (Park) a couple of weeks ago… some girls hadn’t played since September 2019, so it’s a long, long time. It took a little while to adjust but we started to see some really good footy in the second half. We had quite a large bench that day so continuity in game time was a bit tough, but it was great to tick one off.

“We had an intraclub planned a week or so after that but obviously we went into lockdown then so we missed that opportunity and ended up playing Carlton again on the weekend. It was a similar type of game, Carlton jumped us early and played really good footy, then we changed some fundamental things which was great to see because we took great learnings out of it and that’s been a focus of this week.

“We came back in the second half and lost by a couple of goals so we’re pretty much even on the scoreboard with the Blues at the moment which is exciting. We’re 1-1 if we get to play them again through the course of the year.”

A six-person leadership group was announced last week, with Riley Christgoergl set to skipper the squad ahead of vice-captain Katelyn Betts. The pair featured among the names Kavanagh outlined when speaking on the core group of returning players set to head the side’s efforts. An “exciting blend of youth” will also play a part.

Nicole McMahon in the ruck has had another great preseason, Mary Sandral has also been incredible through the preseason, she’ll play at full forward. Riley Christgoergl and Katelyn Betts, our new captain and vice-captain, they’ve had wonderful preseasons and have been a huge support for the entire group during lockdown in 2020, so I’m expecting a lot from them to take that next step as mature and experienced players being around the system for a couple of years.

“Of our new girls, I think we’ve got some exciting under-22s; Brooke Hards, Eliza Vale, and Margie Purcell. Nikita Wright, who’s still eligible to play NAB League, so she’s played a couple of games with the (Western) Jets already and we were really keen to sign her.

“So we’ve got some young talent that’s come in and they’ll find their feet and adjust to the older and stronger bodies having come out of the NAB League only last year in a very shortened season. It’s a nice balance and we’ll see that progression in our returning players with our new, exciting blend of youth.”

With a strong group of young players coming into the Bulldogs’ system and access to even more as the NAB League season progresses, AFLW alignment is as important as ever for helping develop elite level hopefuls. Having that one-club kind of connection has seen many sides adjust their recruiting policies and style of play. The Bulldogs are no different.

“It’s wonderful for our young girls to see the level in conditioning and footy smarts that’s required to be identified as an elite player and to make and an AFLW list,” Kavanagh said. “It’s also nice to hear the feedback from the AFLW girls as well, these VFLW girls are really going in the right direction, they’re doing all the right things, and are really genuinely excited to get the opportunity to play together.

“With the change in the rules, we’ve changed from 18 on the ground to 16, which is the same as the AFLW program. Having the ability to run and cover the ground is really important so we’ve gone for those type of characteristics in our players. Obviously not only do we need to play the game well, but also have those physical and athletic attributes to cover more ground than they would normally have to because we’ve got less players on the ground.

“We’re looking to play a free-flowing game, but also it’s also been our mantra to be really tough to play against, to be strong and physical in the contest but also have the ability to spread hard and provide opportunities for our forwards to kick a winning score.”

Looking towards Round 1, the Bulldogs have a couple of lingering niggles but are “relatively healthy” according to Kavanagh. An accelerated and shortened preseason period has hardly helped in an injury sense, though just about the full list is there to select from.

A “wonderful” breakthrough was also made as Megan Chadwick made her return from an ACL injury during preseason. She came on for a minute against Carlton in the second practice game, which made cause for celebration amongst the tight-knit group.

In terms of expectations ahead of their opening game, Kavanagh says there is sure to be a heap of “pent-up energy” to be released once players cross the white line and attack the first bounce.

“It’s just going to be ‘let’s get out there and play’,” he said. “There’ll be mistakes made, but it’s going to be all about who can settle the quickest, who can get on top in regards to the arm-wrestle early on and  put scoreboard pressure on.

“We usually have so much longer to see where we’re at but it’s still a mystery, we’re hoping for a good result but it’s going to be a great game. I know both sides will be busting to get that first competitive four points in a long time.”

Image Credit: Western Bulldogs Media

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