IT was a tough year down at Whitten Oval to mark the start of the Western Bulldogs’ regeneration, with incoming coach Nathan Burke leading his side to a 1-5 record across the shortened season. Coming into the campaign boasting a raft of high-quality draftees plucked from the NAB League – including number one pick Gabby Newton – there seemed to be a new lease on life at the kennel. While the pure results may not suggest as much, there were some real bright spots produced by the developing group which will only get better in time. In the third of our club-by-club 2020 AFL Women’s season reviews, we look back on the highs and lows of the Dogs’ season, and highlight their top performers.
R1: defeated St Kilda by 25 points
R2: lost to Melbourne by 20 points
R3: lost to Carlton by 21 points
R4: lost to West Coast by 4 points
R5: lost to Collingwood by 32 points
R6: lost to Fremantle by 15 points
With doubt swirling about just how good the Bulldogs would be in 2020, they started on exactly the right note with a big win over expansion side, St Kilda to stamp their authority as an inaugural club. But that was where the winning form both began and ceased for the Dogs, with fixtures against four fellow inaugural teams making for a tough initiation for many of the young pups. Thrown in a shock loss to West Coast in Round 4 and the list of results do not look pretty, but narrow Round 6 loss to Fremantle very nearly saw that turn ever so slightly as we got to see arguably the very best of the Bulldogs right at the close of the season.
SEASON HIGH: Getting off on the right foot
There was a slight split in opinion regarding how the Bulldogs would fare in 2020, and those buoyant on their chances of finals football were justified as the season got off to a perfect start. The Dogs were able to post their second-greatest total for the year (39) while also restricting St Kilda better than they had done to any other side, and won on the back of a hot start with four goals to one in the opening term. A raft of debutants made an impact on the big stage, with mature guns Ellie Blackburn (17 disposals) and Bonnie Toogood (two goals) playing key roles in the triumph.
SEASON LOW: Going down to struggling newcomer, West Coast
The Bulldogs’ loss to West Coast stands out among their five defeats, which is ironic given it is also yielded their smallest margin of defeat (four points). Burke’s side was on top at half time, but was outrun on the road as the Eagles held on to secure an unlikely win after previously returning pretty uninspiring results. There is no shame in losing to four eventual finalists within a six-round competition, but this one will have hurt the Bulldogs as they languished near the bottom of Conference B.
FIVE KEY PERFORMERS:
Ellie Blackburn (17.3 disposals, 2.2 marks, 4.2 tackles, 1.3 rebound 50s, 2.7 inside 50s, 2 goals)
The heartbeat of this side is the skipper, who was reliable as ever in her fourth AFL Women’s campaign. Blackburn played in all six games for the Dogs and was often the main source of inspiration going forward as she provided that run from midfield and the class to find targets inside 50. Leading the club in disposals, metres gained, contested possessions, clearances, and inside 50s, Blackburn was again far and away her side’s most valuable player.
Kirsty Lamb (13.7 disposals, 3.2 marks, 4.3 tackles, 1.5 inside 50s, 3 goals)
Often a key cog in the Dogs’ engine room, Lamb’s hard edge in the midfield helped her play a very important second fiddle to Blackburn. Second only to her skipper in disposals and second at the club for tackles, Lamb’s two-way work rate from midfield was key in settling the otherwise inexperienced side. The 25-year-old’s ability to find the big sticks with three goals across six games was also handy.
Isabel Huntington (13 disposals, 4.8 marks, 2.6 tackles, 3.4 rebound 50s, 1.4 inside 50s)
It shocked many that the 21-year-old former number one draft pick was still eligible for a Rising Star nomination, but she earned one in Round 6 to cap off an outstanding third year in the competition. Utilised mostly as a key defender but able to swing up the other end, Huntington was a reliable figure for the Dogs and a force in the air. Huntington led the club for marks (contested), disposal efficiency (74 per cent) and intercept possessions, only missing Round 2 in her most consistent campaign to date.
Aisling McCarthy (13.5 disposals, 3.3 marks, 4 tackles, 1.5 rebound 50s, 1.8 inside 50s, 2 goals)
Having staked her claim as one of the more successful Irish Aussie rules converts as a forward in previous years, McCarthy enjoyed some time further afield this season while still arcing back to that familiar position close to goal. McCarthy’s disposal average of 13.5 was her best effort yet, despite only finding the big sticks twice throughout her six games. Taking on more responsibility as each season passes, the 24-year-old’s development has been exciting to watch.
Kirsten McLeod (7.2 disposals, 2.2 marks, 1.8 tackles, 1 inside 50, 5 goals)
The Bulldogs’ most effective forward this season in terms of goal output was McLeod, who put through a club-best five majors in her six outings. The 25-year-old was a mainstay inside forward 50 and while she may not have won bucketloads of the ball, was a viable target for those up the ground having booted two bags of two goals to finish the year, and having an ‘almost’ game of 0.3 against West Coast. Gave it her all.
Gabby Newton (13.2 disposals, 1.7 marks, 7 tackles, 0.7 rebound 50s, 0.8 inside 50s)
Arguably one of the Bulldogs’ top five performers, the 2019 number one draft pick will also go down as her side’s most influential first-year player. The Northern Knights graduate built steadily into her maiden AFL Women’s campaign, and had her form recognised in Round 4 with a Rising Star nomination. Mixing her time up forward and through midfield, Newton led the club for tackles by averaging almost three more than her next-best teammate, while also ranking second for contested possessions and marks.
The nature of the business is that it is largely results-based, but remove that lens in viewing the Bulldogs’ season and plenty of positives begin to appear. The young pups could very well have finished the season with three wins and snuck into finals had they beaten West Coast and held on against the rampaging Dockers, but the greatest silver lining is the experience pumped into the wealth of young talent at Burke’s disposal. All, bar one of their 2019 draftees earned debuts and had their moments, while the usual, more experienced suspects built on already-established careers. The Bulldogs will only get better with time, and may be a scary prospect in just a few years.