05/03/2024

Jess Fitzgerald had a major impact on the Bulldogs' midfield last week. (Photo: AFL)

Western Bulldogs AFLW head coach Nathan Burke is trusting in the strong form of his midfielders against a Geelong group missing a key piece.

The Bulldogs and Cats enter the game in relatively different circumstances, but both are fighting for a potential spot in the top four come season’s end.

Dan Lowther’s Cats got the ball rolling again after two losses straight with a record victory over the Saints at home.

Their contested work was as important as always, with the group of Amy McDonald, Georgie Prespakis, Nina Morrison, Rebecca Webster and Zali Friswell all performing strongly.

But even against one of the highest contested ball winning teams in the competition, Burke has assured his midfielders are up for the task.

“I look at our midfield, and you’ve got [Ellie] Blackburn, and [Kirsty] Lamb, and [Jess] Fitzgerald, and [Elisabeth] Georgostathis, and I’m sitting in Geelong’s shoes and going, ‘jeez, how do we tackle that midfield?’ That’s a pretty formidable line-up there.

“Then you’ve got Alice Edmonds in the ruck and Celine Moody in the ruck. They’ve got some really good players, but we’ve got some really good ones too. Might be a who blinks first.”

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Geelong will have to take on the task without Prespakis however, who was suspended for a tackle which resulted in the concussion of St Kilda ruck Erin McKinnon.

She’ll miss the next two weeks, including the match against sister Maddy at Essendon, while McKinnon is said to be experiencing extreme symptoms and may miss up to four games.

This will see Prespakis miss a fifth of the home and away season, in just a short 10-game fixture.

While Burke does see the need for punishment for players who have been suspended, he also understands the impact of what is a lengthy time on the sidelines.

“When you put it like that, 20 per cent of the season, it is harsh,” the coach said.

“I know it’s been spoken about over the last couple of years, but they haven’t decided to do anything about it.

“I would be all for somebody sitting around AFL House now that the Grand Final’s finished to do a bit of research into [if] there’s a better way of doing this. Can we combine the two?

“Can we say… maybe you can get a week and a $500 fine. You get a double-whammy, but you only miss 10 per cent of the season instead of 20 per cent of the season.

“Can we get creative on how we punish our players so they don’t get over-punished considering the length of our season?”

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The coach is well aware, however, that not just one player makes a team.

Geelong has been performing strongly all across the ground, not just in the midfield. Last week’s match saw the club kick its record AFLW score.

Shelley Scott was swung into the forward line for the first time since her move to Kardinia Park, and kicked three goals accordingly. Meanwhile, Meg McDonald was as rock solid as ever defensively.

The likes of Annabel Johnson and Claudia Gunjaca continue to rise, while Chloe Scheer provides the option of a dynamic rotation between the midfield and forward lines.

“The Cats are playing really, really good footy,” Burke said.

“They’ve recruited well, players are having an impact. They’ve got their midfield really up and firing. Whilst they haven’t won every game, they’ve certainly been in good form.

“This is a really good test for us coming off a loss last week. Let’s see what happens. It’s certainly going to be a ripping game.”

50 games for AFLW stalwart

The occasion will also be a special one as 33-year-old Richelle Cranston runs out for her 50th game in the AFLW.

Originally drafted by Melbourne in the inaugural season, ‘Rocky’ made her way over to Geelong before being delisted at the end of 2021, joining the Bulldogs.

She was a staple of the old VWFL, and was one of Victoria’s premier players prior to the establishment of the national competition.

Burke believes she’ll be ready to lift coming against her old side.

“[Rocky’s] just been one of the pioneers of the AFLW,” the coach said.

“She’s been with the league since the start, since the inception. She came into it with a really high reputation as a great state league footballer. Some people don’t live up to those reputations, but she certainly has.

“We jumped at the chance last year when Geelong delisted her. They didn’t want her anymore, so we were straight on the phone.

“She’s just a mature person, she works extremely hard, she’s a great role model for our younger players.

“Knowing her, there’ll be a special fire in the belly come this weekend.”

Cranston has been a key part of a forward group that many thought would go completely backward this season.

The Bulldogs lost two of their most prolific goalkickers in Izzy Huntington and Bonnie Toogood to GWS and Essendon respectively in the off-season.

But Cranston has helped to pull it all together, kicking four goals across five games in what has been a very consistent campaign for the veteran.

With Celine Moody and Gabby Newton also playing important key forward posts at times alongside Nell Morris-Dalton, Burke lauded the impact Cranston has been able to have in a fluctuating group.

“I don’t care what age you are, there’s always the ability to learn,” the coach said.

“We’re asking her to play different roles this year. We don’t necessarily have the key forward that we hang our hat on.

“There’s times there where I wanted her to be the key forward and be the marking option, there’s times where I say ‘no Rock, now you’re a crumbing option, get up the ground and run back with the flight of the ball’.

“[We’re] really varying up her roles, and I think she’s really enjoying that. To probably be our most consistent goalkicker in that she’s kicked goals in four out of our five games, that’s great.

“She’s certainly not resting on her laurels. There’s big improvement in Rocky in the short space of five games to come.”

The Bulldogs and Cats go head-to-head at Mars Stadium on Saturday, October 1 from 2:10pm AEST.

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