Dawes earmarks 2023 as “learning” year for West

DESPITE winning both trial games and having the belief that the his side can compete for a finals spot, new West Adelaide coach Bruce Dawes admitted this season was as much about “learning” as anything else. The Bloods knocked off eventual premiers North Adelaide in Round 1 last year, before injuries and retirements took their toll and Westies sunk to an 11-game losing streak – and the wooden spoon – in the 2022 South Australian National Football League (SANFL) Women’s.

West Adelaide had a change of coach over the offseason with Dawes replacing the outgoing Mark Moody, and the former Sturt leader described the last six months as “excellent”.

“Obviously coming from another club there is always that worry about how you’ll be received, but the girls have been fantastic, the club’s been fantastic, (I’ve) certainly been welcomed with open arms,” Dawes said. “The girls have been really responsive to the structures that we want to put in place. So far, a couple of trials for a couple of good rewards, they’re seeing the benefit of it so it’s been great.”

While West Adelaide was sinking to the wooden spoon, Dawes was watching his old team Sturt head into the opposite direction with the perennial battlers soaring all the way to the grand final under coach Michael O’Connor. Having helped set the foundations over the past few years, Dawes said he had nothing but admiration for the Double Blues.

“I was till rapt to see them go well, there’s no doubt about that,” Dawes said. “I feel I’ve got a lot of great relationships at Sturt which I still have. Michael O’Connor the coach and I are great mates so I wanted them to do well, absolutely. Of course one of my daughters is still playing there. My ultimate dream would see West and Sturt in a grand final this year and West win of course.”

In the first two competitive matches under his watch, Dawes has overseen the Bloods defeat Sturt and then Central District, giving the playing group confidence that it can get back to the peaks of the 2021 grand final appearance.

“It gives them that bit of confidence that our structures can actually work, so that’s probably the biggest thing,” Dawes said. “Really for us, it’s seeing Lauren (Young) get a couple of games under her belt after 12 months off. Bec Hansen who’s been away and had a baby, she’s come back and you can just see she’s getting better. A lot of the girls who have been injured last year are getting better each game and that’s a massive positive for us.”

Speaking of Young – who is returning from an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear – when asked where the potential top AFL Women’s draft prospect could play, Dawes said inside 50.

“Let’s be honest she could play forward, mid or defence, she could play every role, but at the moment we’re choosing to play her as a forward,” he said. “For her it’s a matter of getting her confidence back with her body so that she can keep jumping into packs, taking marks and all of that stuff and hitting contests.

“You can see the last two weeks that’s really starting to come back so it’s been excellent in that regard. It’s a credit to herself because her rehab she did while she was off with her knee was outstanding. It was such a professional level for such a young kid, it was great so she deserves a reward.”

Alongside Young, the Bloods have also welcomed ex-Tiger and Magpie Iilish Ross into the fold to add extra AFL Women’s talent to the program. Dawes said Ross’ signing was “huge” as was her tackle pressure which was on display in the win over the Bulldogs.

“Not only is her tackle pressure huge, but her skills to back it up are fantastic as well,” he said. “She’s a real leader amongst the group, she’s quiet, she leads by actions, but she’s been a really valuable member coming into the club.”

Coming into 2023, Dawes said he was quietly optimistic of what West Adelaide could produce, and other than his own structures and setups to introduce to the playing group, he had not needed to do much else in terms of change.

“I think to a degree everyone forgets West played off in a grand final two years ago, so clearly something had gone on in that 12 months,” he said. “Obviously losing Lauren, they had a number of retirements, so they lost a lot very quickly and to their credit they’ve had a significant amount of girls get drafted, so that impacted on their team as well.

“There was nothing specific that I thought I’ve got to change that, because the girls are a great bunch of girls and if you lose 11 games straight as they did, but they still had positive mindsets, they’re still at training every session, they want to be there. You can see they’re having fun. It’s just a really nice environment to be involved in.”

But just how far can the reigning wooden spooners rise up the ladder? The potential is limitless, but Dawes brought it back to “learning”.

“We spoke with the coaches, we spoke with the players, we said this is a real learning year for us,” Dawes said. “It’s us learning about the players, the players learning about us, players learning the structures. If we can do that and do that well, then we’ll improve on where we were last year.

“Let’s be honest, if there’s a club that’s not aiming for the four, why are you even bothering? If we can put pressure on to make the finals, man that would be a dream, but at the same time for us right now, we don’t know where we sit so it’s going to be an interesting year for sure.”

West Adelaide opens its season against Glenelg at Hisense Stadium on February 18 from 12:30pm.

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