How Melbourne's training restrictions helped young Bulldogs shine

WHILE all planning "went out the window", training in groups of 10 due to COVID-19 restrictions wasn't the worst thing for the young Western Bulldogs squad.

The Dogs have brought in 14 new players over the past two years, just two of whom – Ash Guest and Dani Marshall – are over the age of 20.

"We'd spent pretty much the whole winter with nothing much to do than get ready for pre-season," Bulldogs coach Nathan Burke told womens.afl.

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"Then once we started pre-season, we had small groups that weren't able to cross or meet, so pretty much all of those plans went out the window. We had to think on our feet a fair bit.

"In some ways, that was really tough, but you look for positives to come out from it. We've got a lot of young girls and if they're training in the whole group of 30, it's tough for them to come out and say what they want to say.

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"Because they spent weeks on end in a small group, it allows them to come out of their shell a bit more, a bit more comfortable with the players they were in the group with. I saw some real growth, some sunshine that came out of a lot of gloom."

The rebuilding Dogs won just one of their six games in 2020, and Burke is keen to see a "30 per cent" improvement across all areas of the field.

"You can sit back and go 'yeah, we're a young team and we lost a lot of good senior players' and all that sort of stuff, they're reasons or excuses, I suppose," he said.

Nathan Burke celebrates his team's victory over St Kilda in the opening round of the 2020 season. Picture: AFL Photos

"But if that was all we concentrated on, then we'd probably have the same result this year. I challenged the girls over the whole winter that we need a 30 per cent improvement, because the other teams, they're all going to improve 10, 15, 20 per cent.

"Last year was a lot about building the confidence of the group, that they deserved to be at that level, even girls who had been there for several years and were in-and-out players, and didn't necessarily see themselves as very good AFLW players.

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"Now they've come back for pre-season, and every single one of them is thinking they deserve to be at this level, so now it's about doing things better than last year. The structures and how we're going to play the game need to be far more defined."

Defender Katy Herron was unable to make the trip from Ireland this year, with the Bulldogs releasing a statement saying: "She has elected not to return due to family reasons."

Herron later told Irish sports publication The 42 "it probably wasn't entirely my choice".

Katy Herron in action for the Bulldogs last season. Picture: AFL Photos

"I know the year has been pretty crazy, but I was hoping with (seven-year-old son) Joshua not able to come out and then with everything going on, that there might have been a wee bit of leniency with regards [to the] Irish players," Herron said.

"I knew the Dublin girls (Melbourne players Sinead Goldrick, Niamh McEvoy and Lauren Magee, currently in quarantine) were travelling out after Christmas, so I just spoke to the club and asked them was there a chance of me staying at home for Christmas with Joshua. I had offered to travel out on Boxing Day, just so I could spend it with him because he wasn't going to get over [to Melbourne]."

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In response, Burke said due to limited flights, the club was concerned with when Herron would be able to arrive in Melbourne.

"There were no guarantees at the time that she could actually get here, and the AFL had done a power of work to get that December 9 flight and quarantine organised. We'd booked her on that particular flight to get her here," he said.

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"For Katy's development, she needed as long a pre-season as possible. Where the game is now, we're past bringing in talented athletes from other sports and throwing them into the competition.

"You need to be here, learning how to play, learning the structures and how it works."

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"The way that we moved the ball, our attack on the ball was far closer to what we wanted to work towards.

"I was disappointed the season ended, mainly because we had Giants and North Melbourne in the last two weeks. I really wanted our girls to have a crack against good teams and give them a real understanding of how good you have to be and what teams could do."

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"Second time round is a little bit easier. There was a little bit of a novelty factor last time because it was their first game. Now it isn't so much of a novelty, they'll be wanting to go out there and win the game.

"It might be a little bit different depending on selection if (Burke's daughter) Alice gets a game. Then it might be a little bit strange, but we'll see what happens there. They're all good people down there, so I still wish all them well, mainly from round two onwards."