ONE of only three Victorian Football League (VFL) Women’s listed talents in black and white who could become dual premiership players, captain Caitlin Bunker is excited for Collingwood’s grand final clash with Geelong. Having suffered defeat to the Cats three years ago to bow out of the race in straight sets after finishing minor premiers, Collingwood bounced back the following year to win a flag in 2019. After a global pandemic cancelled the hopes of going back-to-back immediately in 2020, the Magpies returned to the field in 2021 as hungry as ever, and have this time gone through undefeated.
“It’s very different,” Bunker said of comparing the 2019 and 2021 seasons. “It was a very different group in 2019. “You know with new people, a new coach and with a season which was cancelled in between, it actually feels like it’s a whole new level of exciting for me.
“But also as I said with this group there’s so many new girls who haven’t actually had the chance to experience finals footy at the VFLW level and we’re all so excited this new group to come together last year and we weren’t given that chance to play, so we’re just so excited, a real opportunity and we get to finish off this season.”
Whilst it is true that the Magpies and Cats both have an opportunity to finish off their seasons, Collingwood heads into the 2021 VFL Women’s decider after a unique 29-day rest since their semi-final victory over Essendon. The Cats have only played the one game in that month-long period as well – also defeating Essendon – but that was last Saturday, giving them a nice touch-up ahead of the big game. For Bunker, the wait has made it challenging, but she is looking on the bright side.
“I think it’s mainly just excitement,” Bunker said of how she was feeling ahead of the weekend. “I mean it’s been a month building up waiting for this moment, the game was meant to be in early July. But the anticipation is really exciting. “We’ve been working hard even though we’ve had a break. “It’s just a really good opportunity that we get to play out the grand final. “Obviously last year the whole season was cancelled so I think we’re all feeling pretty grateful and excited about the chance.
“We’ve still got together on Zoom, and we’ve still met up with each other and been able to have that discussion about our game. “But also we’ve been challenging each other on Strava and going for kicks in our radius with each other and just making that connection as teammates, but also keeping our footy skills up.”
The Magpies and Cats have faced off three times, with Collingwood winning all three, and going through the season without a blemish. Twice, Geelong has got within a kick of the top ranked offensive and defensive side, with Geelong ranked second overall for defence, and finishing second on the ladder. Can the Magpies ensure they finish the Cats off for a fourth time?
“Yeah absolutely, I have to back our group in,” Bunker said. “We’ve played some phenomenal footy all year, but not too much will change for us. “I think we’ve had a process and it’s worked for us every game this year. “I actually don’t think we’ve seen our best footy this year so I’m looking forward to watching our group put that together this weekend.”
Since their last game, three VFLW-listed Magpies have been drafted into the AFL Women’s. Jasmine Ferguson was picked up by North Melbourne, with competition leading goalkicker Imogen Barnett, and livewire forward-midfielder Eliza James remaining in the black and white stripes. When asked about James and the impact she has had on the group since stepping up from the Oakleigh Chargers, Bunker said it was impressive what she has been able to do.
“‘EJs’ an absolute superstar. She played a couple of games with us earlier this year and I mean she was exciting to watch,” Bunker said. “I’m sure you’ve seen her run, her attack on the footy, her ability to finish goals. “She’s someone who’s going to make a huge impact at AFLW level when she’s given that opportunity, but the thing I’m most excited about with the girls who were drafted in the last week were whether they’re playing or not, they’ve just got around the group and they’re just excited to be there.
“I think that’s because of the strong culture and bonds we have at Collingwood and I think you can see that with the AFLW girls who come through to play with us at the VFLW level. “We all play together, we train together, and it’s just exciting to hear the excitement from the AFLW group not just the VFLW group. “But yeah, I can’t wait to see what EJ brings this weekend. She’s a confident kid who’s got an elite kick and she’s going to be exciting to watch this weekend.”
As for a player to watch, Bunker said there was a midfield teammate flying under the radar who had produced an outstanding regular season, who could be a huge key to the Magpies’ success.
“I mean Jazzy, Imo and EJ all got drafted and I think they’ll all play their roles this weekend, but someone that stood out for me this season and someone who has maybe who has been overlooked is Marla Neal,” Bunker said. “She’s one of our midfielders, she’s one of the hardest working players I’ve ever played with. “She’s tenacious, she’s a team person, she plays her role week-in, week-out she’s been building to this moment so I can’t wait to see her this weekend.”
Collingwood locks horns with Geelong at ETU Stadium from 1:15pm on Sunday to determine the 2021 VFL Women’s premier.