We’re now less than a month away from the AFL Women’s competition returning and with the squads set, it’s time to look at each team’s best 21 – yes, 21. The AFL has limited teams to five players on the bench to go with 16 on the field and that means we will be going through each side’s best 21.
The Western Bulldogs went into the 2017 season as one of the favourites to win it all, but ended up narrowly avoiding the wooden spoon. They lost key forward Katie Brennan after only two games and weren’t able to beat the teams above them.
They were exposed as a team that couldn’t score effectively without their maruqee star. Midfielders Ellie Blackburn (six) and Jaimee Lambert (five) were their leading goal kickers for the season and Kirsten McLeod was the only forward that looked dangerous inside 50 in the latter half of the season.
The mess that was the 2017 season passed and the Bulldogs got crafty in the trade period. They managed to pick up Melbourne Rising Star nominee Deanna Berry as well as the number one overall pick in the draft.
With that pick, they selected 18-year-old Isabel Huntington who many predict could be the next dominant player in the competition. The dynamic forward/midfielder hasn’t played a game of footy since 2016 after rupturing her ACL, but the Dogs will be hoping she gives them an immediate second avenue to goal as well as some class in the midfield.
The Bulldogs have an elite midfield duo with Blackburn and Emma Kearney, but struggled to find players beneath them to step up and share the load. Nicole Callinan was a steady hand, but they needed more and clearly went to the draft with that in mind. They picked up midfielders Monique Conti, Jenna Bruton, Daria Bannister and Emma Mackie with four successive picks and should find roles for them over the course of the season.
Mackie is the most interesting of the group. She was taken with their final selection in the draft and the 33-year-old was a former professional road cyclist before joining the Box Hill Hawks in the VFLW. She took out their best and fairest award should slot straight into their starting midfield alongside Kearney and Blackburn. The dynamic duo aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty, but their best assets are certainly on the outside of stoppages and Mackie will allow them to be more attacking as she is a stoppage winning bull.
What's clear is the Dogs realised they needed to make some significant changes and were proactive about reshaping their squad.
Their best 21 doesn’t read as well as some other teams, but they have plenty of young talent for them to develop over the next few seasons. Bulldogs fans should certainly be excited about what they have to work with.
How they structure their backline remains unclear. Versatile veterans Lauren Spark and Asta O’Connor could play key roles down back, but they don’t have a clear standout lockdown defender. Huntington could be used down back if required, but it seems more likely she'll be up the other end of the ground.
One thing’s for sure, teams will need to pay more attention to Hannah Scott coming off half back. Scott was the most effective rebounding defender in the competition by a wide margin in 2017, ranking number one for intercept possessions, spoils and meters gained among general defenders according to Champion Data. It remains a mystery how she missed out on All-Australian selection.
You’re going to read this a lot, but the upcoming AFLW season is shaping up as a ridiculously even competition. While a few teams appear to standout, working out where the teams in the middle of the pack will finish comes down to splitting hairs as much as anything. The Bulldogs have a lot of the pieces required to be a successful team, but those pieces are still young and other teams seem more immediately ready to take the next step.
Brennan’s brilliant VFLW form (competition leading goal kicker) paired with the general brilliance of Blackburn, Kearney and Scott could take this team a long way – especially when you put the raw talent of Huntington with them. However, they’re certainly shaping up more as a wildcard than anything at this stage.
Ladder prediction: 7th
Season MVP: Ellie Blackburn
Leading goal kicker: Katie Brennan
Surprise packet: Emma Mackie