Dogs “fully expect” to be better in Season 7
FOLLOWING his side’s hard-fought seven-point win over GWS GIANTS, Western Bulldogs coach Nathan Burke said his young team was determined to improve on last season despite off-season departures. The Bulldogs lost Bonnie Toogood, Isabel Huntington, Brooke Lochland and Ellyse Gamble to other AFLW clubs, and had a number of retirements, but Burke said the playing group was determined to not let those losses define the team.
“We fully expect to be better than we were last season,” Burke said. “We’ve lost 190 games worth of experience from the team with the players that have left. “Four members of our leadership group. “But the way that the younger players, the senior players have just gelled this group together. “They’re just so determined that none of this expansion we go down and we build up again. “We want to be better and we should be better than we were last year.”
Unsurprisingly leading from the front was inspirational skipper Ellie Blackburn, who was the subject of an unsuspecting bump from GWS GIANTS’ Tait Mackrill after moments earlier laying a strong tackle on Mackrill but giving away a free kick. While Burke said he did not see the exact incident at the time of the post-match press conference, he said that Blackburn just kept her head in the game.
“Ellie was amazing, she didn’t come off in that last quarter,” Burke said. “To play the way that she did, and to run the way that she did, I just left it in her hands and said ‘you can swap forward and have a rest and go back in the middle and come off if you need to but she’s a warrior, she’s a skipper who just wants to carry this team forward.”
While Blackburn has long been admired as one of the stars of the game, Burke believed she was constantly improving, and elevating her game to another level. She finished the match with 21 disposals, four marks, seven clearances, seven tackles, five inside 50s and 388 metres gained in a heroic effort.
“She’s such a superstar now, but the ball use, the outcome from her outstanding effort will just keep going up and up and up so she’s just working so hard and she will because she works so hard she will get better and better,” Burke said.
When asked which players had been stepping up to fill the leadership void of those off-season departures, the Western Bulldogs coach said there had been a “whole bunch of them”, largely in their second or third seasons.
“Jess Fitzgerald was really good in that area today, Issy Pritchard in her third season, she was really good at that,” Burke said. “Down back you’ve got Sarah Hartwig and Issy Grant, it’s that level of second, third-year player that has really lifted. It’s not necessarily the Naomi Ferres‘ and Bailey Hunts. It’s the players in their second and third season that is making the big difference.”
One of the big changes for the Bulldogs forced by the off-season departures is the new-look forwardline of Gabby Newton and Celine Moody. Both players were defying various expectations to be crucial targets, slotting two goals apiece in the narrow victory.
“Gabby’s coming off two shoulder reconstruction, didn’t play at all last year,” Burke said. “Still didn’t really join in full preseason until at least two thirds of the way through, so the nerves for her were just immense coming out here. She’s playing against some really good defenders as well, so for her to do what she did, I think there’s just a huge sigh of relief from her. When she goes out next week without that burden of my first game back, then there’s great things ahead.
“Celine the biggest thing about her is that the change of attitude, ‘hey I want to change forward’. When I first arrived three years ago, it was ‘don’t put me forward just in case I mark it and I miss, I’m probably going to miss so don’t put me forward’. Now it’s ‘hey Moods do you want to go forward? and it’s absolutely, put me up there’ and next week I probably can’t get her out of there.”
Not only were the key targets impressing Burke, but the defensive pressure of the forward group proved that the Bulldogs were far from in trouble despite losing the likes of Toogood, Huntington and Lochland from that front five.
“You chuck in young Heidi (Woodley) in her first game did some really important tough stuff for us,” Burke said. “Dee Berry had been in bed the last three days with a bit of gastro. For her to do what she did coming off the back of that was amazing. I’m not fussed about our forwardline. I have full faith in our forwardline. I think the inside 50 tackles were 14-3, which that pressure they can all apply, they had a really good game all of them.”
The Western Bulldogs will now head west to take on Port Adelaide in the Power’s first home match of the year at Alberton Oval on Saturday, September 3, before a six-day turnaround to host Fremantle at Ikon Park on Friday, September 9.