Scoreboard impact the key for Sturt

INCONSISTENCY was the theme of the 2023 season for Sturt, with the Double Blues not able to avenge their 2022 SANFL Women’s Grand Final loss to North Adelaide. However while the first half of the season was a “yo-yo” for the Double Blues, coach Michael O’Connor said the team got better towards the backend, and essentially kicked themselves out of progressing further in the finals.

“We couldn’t really string consistent performances together over consecutive weeks,” O’Connor said. “Six and six at the end of the year, we probably played our best game of the year in the final round against to Glenelg to qualify for finals.

“That was our best game, I think like most teams in the league, we lost a few games by inside a kick but our inability to kick goals consistently was the bit that cost us and some inaccurate kicking, exactly the same the final against Norwood. We kicked ourselves out of it by not making the most of our opportunities.”

In 2024, Sturt is promoting 11 players up from its junior program to the senior ranks as the Double Blues look to impact on the scoreboard more consistently. The Double Blues will be minus a host of experience players this season with Maya Rigter (retired mid-season), Georgia Bevan and Ally Ladas all farewelling the SANFLW, and Elsie Dawes travelling overseas.

It has allowed the Double Blues to look within and promote those juniors up to the senior side who have been in and around the Development League level or earning a spot after impressive local performances.

“The likes of Sophie Thredgold who played Development League last year, didn’t make her debut last year, probably a little bit unlucky in some respects not to,” O’Connor said. “But she’s had another stellar off-season in terms of her running capacity and agility which is exceptional. She’s still a kid and was involved in the 17s this year.

Summer Ross is someone we’ve brought up from the 17s program so new to the senior program, and similarly has exceptional preseason, really gone from strength to strength in terms of how she’s not only running capacity but certainly how she played in the trial games when we gave her some exposure at senior footy.

“Certainly we’ve got players pushing for those open spots it’s safe to say. Not only the open spots that got left, but the senior players have played in those positions for many years, there’s a lot of competition coming through internally which is fantastic from a squad point of view.”

One positive for the Double Blues has been the ever-changing ladder which even last season saw previous non-finalists Central District win the flag, while reigning premiers North Adelaide slipped outside the top four.

“We were probably the one in the previous year, we came from winning 10 games of footy in four seasons to qualify for finals two seasons ago,” O’Connor said. “If you’re not switched on and you don’t play good footy there’s seven other teams that are trying to achieve the same thing so the league as a whole is really good which is exciting because we’ve had all the teams bar the Eagles play in grand finals and make finals now which is exceptional from the SANFL point of view.

“They’d be super happy with some variance year on year rather than clubs having a strong hold over the comp.”

O’Connor said while from an individual point of view would prefer to have it a “little easier” he said that the quality of the competition made it better for everyone.

“We’re fully aware you can look at the table from last year and a lot of people just copy and paste it, but there’s certainly no team you can write off,” O’Connor said. “There’s a lot of player movement gone through the off-season, there’s seniors players coming up at other SANFL clubs.

“The quality of the comp gets better every year, not only in personnel, but the style of footy that’s getting played as well so certainly under no illusions that if we’re not getting better than we’ll get left behind.”

The Sturt coach admitted with every team improving if his side did not do the same then they would be “not a chance” of playing finals. Even looking ahead to Round 1 against the Eagles, he said that the side could not take last year’s seventh placed side lightly.

“We’ve got the Eagles in Round 1 down in Ottoway so smaller oval, than the big grounds down there, but something that the Eagles have trained consistently on so they’ll know exactly how that plays,” O’Connor said. “As much as they finished just ahead of Westies, if we take them lightly, then we’ll get done over so really important for us as a squad to get off the season on a good start and hopefully take away the points and work from there.”

The preseason results might not paint a proper picture of where Sturt is at, with the Double Blues having a few “niggling injuries” that will clear up by Round 1, and the team equally affected by the recent Taylor Swift concerts.

“You can have a look at trial games and results and things like that, but reality is the first few weeks of actual minor round season will really decide where teams are at I think, so first five games with the balance of AFLW players coming back through the system will become important,” O’Connor said.

In terms of personnel, Sturt has one of the top AFLW Draft prospects this season in the classy forward-midfielder India Rasheed. Her coach said she was likely to continue to play both roles, and was particularly excited about her impact this season given she was coming off a full off-season with the club.

“We’re keen to keep building her as a footballer so giving her some exposure through the mids as we did last year,” O’Connor said. “But there’s certainly no taking away that she can be a very dangerous half-forward, so for us it will be trying to get a balance of both where she can really impact in the contest through the midfield.

“Obviously she has an exceptional kick in terms of distance as well as accuracy, so distribution coming from the midfield will be important but don’t want to get away from the fact she can hurt on the scoreboard when she plays as a forward so she’ll play a combination of those two roles.”

Fast forward 12 months later, and bottom-ager Monique Bessen is one who will progress in a similar vein having impressed through the underage state carnivals and showing her wares for the future with her ball use and decision making.

“She’s probably pretty similar to India just 12 months down the track in terms of age group, but as a kid playing senior footy last year, she was really exceptional in her cleanness skills,” O’Connor said. “As a kid coming up she made really good decisions when she had the ball and looked like she had a lot of time.

“We see her playing a bit of both, bit of midfield, bit of forward. Pound for pound a really good contested mark, athletic capacity is exceptional. Her ability to run all day is really good, so we’ll find her a combination of both getting through the midfield again developing her as a player, but also she has the ability to impact on the scoreboard as well.”

Aside from the two young stars, O’Connor said experienced utility Georgia Swan who earned Team of the Year honours off half-back last year, will play on-ball and up forward in 2024. She along with Thredgold and former forward/midfielder Tahlia Walker have also been turning it on over the off-season, with the pair set to place in defence.

O’Connor said the goal for 2024 as always is finals. After achieving back-to-back finals appearances – including a grand final – in the past two season, the Double Blues wanted to win enough to get through to the post-season series. While reaching the last game of the year is the ultimate goal, O’Connor said the side would need to earn it.

“You’d be silly not to say, in a perfect world we’d be love to be having a crack at the main game at the end of the year, but there’s seven other teams who will be in the same boat working their arse off to get themselves in a position,” he said.

“We’re fully aware it’s going to be a challenging year in terms of the quality of the comp, but certainly the squad we’ve got and the history where we’ve performed in the last couple of years, we’re certainly keen to prove that we can be around the mark again. “Ideally if we can post enough wins on the board in the minor rounds and get ourselves in the top four and give us the best chance to compete at the end of the season.”

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