There was a lot of angst at the kennel among supporters following the last few years of player losses after the team’s grand final win in 2018.
‘How can we be expected to get attached to a team when all our stars keep leaving?’ some were heard asking.
Well firstly, the Victorian part of the AFLW’s expansion is almost done — the next three seasons look to be expansion-free, meaning there won’t be nearly so much player movement in the off-season, and even once expansion resumes, there’s only Hawthorn and Essendon to come.
And secondly, when your team has four of the Victorian draft’s top seven picks, given the strength of young talent coming through, you can bet that your team is actually about to improve in all ways save experience.
Let’s look at who the Dogs have lost. The highest-profile loss was Katie Brennan from the forward line, but Gabby Newton and Nell Morris-Dalton have now been added to that line. There’s some question of whether Newton will play forward or mid — my guess, given the Dogs’ midfield just improved a lot too, is that she’ll do an Erin Phillips and play both.
Phillips is a nightmare because the mids who match up on her can’t defend her up forward, and the specialist defenders who match up on her when she’s forward can’t go with her in the middle.
So will it be with Newton, who is nearly six-foot — far taller than most AFLW mids — and is a great athlete and strong mark, in addition to being a good midfielder with a great handball under pressure. In fact, I’ll happily predict that Gabby Newton will be a better player in the future than Katie Brennan, maybe even as early as this season, and demonstrate why AFLW fans shouldn’t get despondent when star players leave provided the compensation is adequate.
And then there’s Nell Morris-Dalton, a star mid-sized forward in the NAB League with a big mark and a long, straight kick. She gives the Bulldogs a stay-at-home forward in contrast to the two high-roaming, mobile targets in Newton and Izzy Huntington.
Bear in mind, too, that Huntington has barely had a chance to show what she’s capable of due to injury and will be a star in her own right when fully fit.
Add to this the likely forward position of the talented Izzy Grant — daughter of Chris — and of star small forward Brooke Lochland, and for pure ability the Dogs have one of the best forward lines in the country.
On the downside, it’s also probably the youngest, and while youngsters have had a huge impact in their first AFLW seasons, that’s been mostly in the midfield. It can take longer up forward or down back where physical strength and maturity is so important.
In the middle, the Dogs suffered their biggest loss (as opposed to their highest-profile loss) with Monique Conti. But although the Dogs chose to spend the number one draft pick they received as compensation for Conti on a forward/midfielder, they still managed to grab two of the country’s best young mids elsewhere in the draft in Gemma Lagioia and Elizabeth Georgostathis.
Both are small, but they’re very fast and have the kind of top skills that separate many of today’s best juniors from the seniors, and if that weren’t enough, the Dogs grabbed Britney Gutknecht, another highly-rated young player equally adept in the midfield or the forward line, as well.
Added to the star power of Ellie Blackburn, the physicality of Kirsty Lamb and the gut running of Eleanor Brown and hard-running Irishwoman Katy Herron, the Dogs look to have a solid midfield this year, and potentially an excellent one.
In the backline, the Dogs have chosen not to recruit a direct replacement for the loss of Libby Birch and may struggle by comparison. But I have confidence that new coach Nathan Burke knows what he’s doing, and I strongly suspect the Dogs’ new playing style will be considerably faster and more dynamic than last year.
In addition to his AFL and VFLW experience, Burke coached Vic Metro in this year’s U18 championships, and is intimately familiar with his new junior recruits and the way in which women’s football is moving.
All up I’m tipping the Dogs, having been mugged and thrown out of the fifth-floor window by the other teams in the offseason, to somehow land on the roof. I can’t tip them to finish higher than ninth this season because of the inexperience of so many of their stars, plus their backline might need a few more big names.
But if all the Dogs’ youngsters find their feet quickly, this team will almost certainly prove me wrong and they appear to have laid the foundation to become serious contenders for the flag in 2021 and beyond.