TIPPED by many coaches pre-season as a team set to rise, the Western Bulldogs certainly lived up to expectations.
After recording just one win (in round one) in 2020, the Dogs were a comfortable top-six side for much of the season, before tiring and finishing in eighth.
Over the next few weeks, womens.afl will look at each of the seasons of the 14 AFLW teams in reverse ladder order.
WHO'S HANGING UP THE BOOTS? Your club's retiring players
Coach: Nathan Burke
Leadership group: Ellie Blackburn (captain), Brooke Lochland (vice-captain), Ash Guest, Bailey Hunt, Izzy Huntington, Kirsty Lamb, Bonnie Toogood
2021 finishing position: Eighth, five wins and four losses, 88.2 per cent
Best team performance: Western Bulldogs 6.6 (42) defeated Carlton 5.6 (36) in round two.
The Dogs broke through for their first win in a year in style, knocking off the much more fancied Carlton, which cut the margin to six on the siren. It was a complete team buy-in by the hosts, choking the Blues' run and causing turnover after turnover. Skipper Ellie Blackburn kicked two fourth-quarter goals in the win.
Best individual performance: Ellie Blackburn led the AFLW best and fairest count after round four following a scintillating start to the year. In a crowded field, her best performance arguably came against the Blues in round two, leading from the front with 22 disposals, 412m gained, five marks, three clearances and two goals.
NAB AFLW Rising Star nominations: Jess Fitzgerald, Eleanor Brown
Debutants: Jess Fitzgerald, Issy Grant, Sarah Hartwig, Isabelle Pritchard (AFLW debuts); Katie Lynch (club debut)
Most improved: The Bulldogs' top draft pick in 2018, Eleanor Brown came into her own in her third season of AFLW footy. Noted for her elite endurance as a junior, she initially spent some stints on the wing, but took greater responsibility with higher-quality forwards in her second season behind the ball. Her confidence in coming off her player for effective intercepts grew as the year progressed.
Star recruit: Just the one recruit in Katie Lynch over the winter trade period, but the Bulldogs reinvented the young former Pie, swinging her from the forward line to a key defensive post. It took a few weeks to find her feet, but Lynch became a "lynch-pin" of the Dogs' backline, holding out Lauren Spark before the veteran's ankle injury.
Unsung hero: One of only a few sides to play two genuine rucks, Kim Rennie's importance to the Western Bulldogs was emphasised when injuring her ankle in round six. The Dogs seriously struggled in the following two weeks against strong sides, with her tap-work and marking around the ground missed.
- A multitude of first-round draft picks over the past few years are starting to have an impact on the Dogs' side. While they obviously tired as the season progressed, the team has a good spread of young talent across the ground – Katie Lynch, Sarah Hartwig and Eleanor Brown in defence, Jess Fitzgerald and Gabby Newton in the middle and Izzy Huntington and Bonnie Toogood (albeit via the rookie list) up forward.
- Given her All-Australian form in defence in 2020, there were question marks over Izzy Huntington's return to the forward line this year, but for the most part, the Dogs covered the switch well. Huntington – the best contested mark in the competition – kicked 12 goals for the season, although added just three to her tally in the final four games as supply dried up.
What needs improvement:
- The Western Bulldogs averaged the fewest number of disposals in the competition, just below Geelong and Gold Coast, who recorded one win between them. While there's something to be said for not over-possessing the ball and being efficient in your usage, it's not sustainable when trying to compete with the top end of the ladder.
- Frustratingly, it will just take time for the young Bulldogs to build the endurance (both physical and mental) to ride out a full, ever-lengthening AFLW season. The cancelled 2020 VFLW season would have hurt the players in their late teens/early twenties, and the more inexperienced players struggled against the bigger bodies of Collingwood and Adelaide.
BEST AND FAIREST WRAP Who was your club champion?
Early call for 2022: The Bulldogs won't catch quite so many teams off guard in 2022, and having moved into the middle bank of sides, may end up with a more difficult draw. They'll need to find a few more paths to goal in order to compete with this year's finalists, with a lot relying on the rate of improvement from the young players.
Season rating: 6/10