Sturt keep it “simple”; focus on finals

STURT has no intentions of being a one-hit wonder when it comes to premiership contention in the South Australian National Football League (SANFL) Women’s competition. The 2022 season bolters had a remarkable year, winning five games on the trot to start the season, and then finish with a wet sail to reach the decider. Though ultimately falling short on grand final day, the league battlers had transformed into a genuine title chance and that mindset is no different nine months later.

Sturt coach Michael O’Connor said 2022 was an “interesting one” with an interrupted preseason featuring a head coach change and then personnel losses mid-season, but the belief within the group was strong. From early in the preseason, the Double Blues players were determined to no longer just talk the talk, but walk the walk.

“The backend of preseason as we came back after Christmas just refocusing the group in regards to just sticking what our expectations was of ourselves and the reality of the external belief would have been probably that we would have won maybe a couple of games like previous seasons,” O’Connor said.

“But certainly the intel and expectations that we had driven is we wanted to challenge for a finals position so the group were pretty comfortable in that in regards we’d seen us develop over the last few years in getting the younger girls to keep playing. We had an expectation at some stage we had to see some reward for that.”

If there were any doubts over Sturt’s credentials, they were snuffed out quick as the Double Blues rolled the last two reigning premiers in Glenelg and North Adelaide en route to a 5-0 start to the season. Though a mid-season drop-off – largely due to injuries or AFL Women’s Under 18 Championships unavailabilities – did see the Double Blues drop back to the pack, Sturt finished strong and qualified for its first finals series in its women’s program history.

“Early on we got away to five and zip early which was pretty handy in regards to the girls getting some confidence that we could actually win a few games,” O’Connor said. “That was probably more games than a lot of them had won throughout their careers so after that it was probably just making sure that they rode the wave a little bit and stayed up and about.

“Through the middle of the year, we had some injuries and some under 18’s state commitments and obviously some Covid things were going on along the league. We certainly had a quieter patch through the middle section but managed to regain some form heading into finals which again was really pleasing that the girls could feel comfortable and somewhat confident going into the backend of the year that we might be able to achieve something.”

Though they were “touched up” in the first final against the Roosters, Sturt bounced back in front of home fans at Unley Oval to defeat reigning premiers Glenelg and book its place in the 2022 SANFL Women’s Grand Final.

“For the girls themselves and for the club as a whole, it was really important that we qualified for finals for the first time in the women’s program and managed to pick up a win in a final in the prelim against Glenelg at Unley Oval,” O’Connor said. “Really pleasing from those fronts to embed into the girls that if we commit to it and we play at the level we have the expectation of ourselves, then we’re able to compete against the good sides.”

Though grand final day did not go to plan, O’Connor was proud of how his side was able to storm out of the blocks and be up for the fight against the more experienced North Adelaide outfit. Unfortunately the younger side ran out of legs and was unable to sustain the pressure applied early in the game, and compiled with missed opportunities, saw them having to settle for second.

“There was no pressuring put on in terms of the girls, it was just go about and we play the style of footy that got us there to try and continue to replicate that,” O’Connor said. “Getting out of the blocks early was nice to see. But we certainly obviously couldn’t sustain that momentum throughout the game and North were a quality side and they were always going to have their moments and everyone on the league has been on the end when North get their time to shine, they can put some scoreboard pressure on.

“We probably missed a few opportunities second and third quarter in particular where we could have put another couple of goals on the board that certainly would have made it a little bit more challenging for North. All credit goes to them, a quality side and they managed to get the job done on grand final day.”

One player missing that day was inside midfiedler and 2021 best and fairest winner Isobel Kuiper who injured her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) the week before. Though many would automatically put a line through her 2023 season, O’Connor said that she was training well and that they had “certainly left that door open” and it was a “possibility” she could return at some stage during the 2023 season.

Sturt has kept a relatively stable squad for the 2023 season, with mostly local players of youth coming into the squad, as well as Glenelg tall Lucy Earl. O’Connor said having some continuity in the squad was nice, but he knew that the team was still young and undersized compared to others, so would be working on ways to beat opponents the Sturt way.

“The girls got to work pretty early, came back in good condition and just trying to build on that fitness,” O’Connor said. “We’re still a young side, we’re not a tall side, we’re not a physically strong side, so just continually working on getting better each year and making sure the program develops each year.

“They’ve had a pretty good preseason, couple of trial games to let them blow the cobwebs out of playing an actual game against another side and get used to the intensity of the game and the physicality of the game when you’re not pairing up against your teammate at training. We’re pretty comfortable.”

Though the Double Blues are coming off a loss to South Adelaide in the opening trial game and then a great escape against Woodville-West Torrens, the Sturt coach believed the match against the Panthers would be largely different on the smaller Unley Oval compared to the large expanses of Noarlunga.

“We played them in the first trial game, probably fair to say from our end and they no doubt would say the same, that it certainly looked like a first trial game,” O’Connor said. “Everyone starting to get used to a proper intensity of a game which will no doubt step up once you hit Round 1 so big deck down at Noarlunga, so definitely a little different to running around at Unley Oval, so definitely not a bad thing for us to play a trial game down there as well just to get used to the big spaces and work out some of structures and what that looks like on a bigger deck.

“We go down to Noarlunga knowing it will be a challenging game, they’re a quality outfit and especially on their home deck. A Saturday night game, will be a challenge for us, but a really important one to get the season up and running in a positive fashion.”

As for 2023 expectations, O’Connor said he was keeping it “relatively simple”. Despite natural tendencies for the talk to be whether or not Sturt could go one better in 2023, the coach was just keen on getting back to the final four and giving the Double Blues the best chance of competing for a premiership.

“The external noise is no doubt we should have a successful year again, but the reality is that the quality of the competition’s certainly going to step up again this year and the sides that finished in the bottom half have certainly either recruited or changed some things and have started to turn the tide of the positive sides,” O’Connor said.

“Even in the trial games Westies won both their trial games, Central went one and one, there were some positive turns for the comp overall. Throwing in the Crows and Port players coming back at various stages throughout the season, that’s going to have an impact on the quality of the competition as well.”

Though he is keeping the expectations simple, O’Connor admitted the club was hungry to get back to the post-season series, and had no intention of being that one-hit wonder.

“We got to nine and three last year, but around most seasons that six or seven wins will get you in, so the reality is that’s our expectations, we want to play finals,” O’Connor said. “We don’t want to yo-yo up and down in and out of contention. We’ve got a similar squad, we’ve been working on some things over the preseason, I think as much as there’s eight teams who want to qualify for finals, we’re really looking to bank those seven wins and have another crack at the finals series again.”

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