The Western Bulldogs have made a happy homecoming to the site of its 2018 AFLW premiership in defeating Greater Western Sydney by seven points at Ikon Park.
But the Dogs were made to work hard for it, with Cora Staunton (three goals) and Alyce Parker (26 disposals) leading the individual stats for the day, and ensuring the away side was never without a sniff.
New coach Cameron Bernasconi lamented a few mistakes in preventing them from causing an early statement with a first-up win.
“It’s disappointing to lose Round One, but there were a lot of positives throughout that game,” he said.
“A 10-week lead into pre-season, new players, new coach, new game plan, it’s not probably going to click straight away.
“It sells the belief that what we are trying to do will work, but we’ve just gotta execute for longer, and it was pretty disappointing not to see that at the end.
“No player tries to make a mistake or turn the ball over, so we’ve just got to help coach the decision-making and the fundamentals. They’re the easy things to fix, which is a positive sign.”
Parker’s game-high disposal figures were critical in keeping the Giants in touch, and it was her leadership, having been named sole vice-captain in the off-season that Bernasconi singled out for praise.
“What I loved about Parker’s pre-season was, being vice-captain of the group now, she’s made the younger girls feel included,” he said.
“But at the end of the day, it’s the two hours of the week that we want those leaders to stand up, not just the last quarter but the whole game. Parker was so important for us to just try and win contested footy where we lacked today.
Cora Staunton’s three goals also included her 50th in AFLW, making her the third player after Darcy Vescio and Erin Phillips to achieve the milestone.
Bernasconi noted how Staunton was still her usual prolific self despite a change in GWS’s game style.
“It’s a big change for Cora too, us playing a different way, behind the ball for her, so what she does, she’s adapted to the new game style and still been able to hit the scoreboard, which she always will and does.
“Once this new game plan starts to hum, it’ll only help Cora as well.”
The Winners Circle
Meanwhile, in the winning camp, Bulldogs coach Nathan Burke was overjoyed at how his new look-forward line connected, with Gabby Newton and Celine Moody kicking two goals apiece, and both looking ready to tear the game open at points.
“I’m not fussed about our forward line,” he said.
“I think the inside 50 tackles were 14 to three. That pressure they can apply, they had an excellent game, all of them.
“Gabby’s coming off two shoulder reconstructions, [and] didn’t play at all last year. Still didn’t join pre-season until halfway-two thirds of the way through so the nerves for her were just immense.
“She’s playing against some really good defenders as well, so for her to do what she did was just a huge sigh of relief. When she goes out next week without that burden of ‘my first game back,’ I think there’s great things ahead.
“Celine, the biggest thing for her, is the change in attitude of ‘hey I want to play forward.’ Three years ago, it was ‘don’t put me forward, I might mark it and miss.’ Now it’s ‘Hey Moods, you want to go forward? Absolutely. Next week I’ll probably not get her out of there.”
But when the chips were down, Burke highlighted the courageous and tough Ellie Blackburn, critical in keeping the surging Giants at bay in the last quarter.
“Ellie was amazing. She didn’t come off in that last quarter,” he said.
“To play the way that she did, and run the way that she did, I just left it in her hands.
“I said ‘you can swap forward and have a rest and go back into the middle and come off if you need to.
“She’s a warrior, a skipper that just wants to carry this team forward.”
With the loss of 190 games of AFLW experience in the off-season, Burke also highlighted the players who are beginning to step up and fill big shoes on the field.
“There’s a whole bunch of them, in general. Jess Fitzgerald was good. Issy Pritchard, in her third season, was good at that. Sarah Hartwig and Issy Grant.
“It’s that level of second/third-year player, it’s not necessarily the Naomi Ferres’ or the Bailey Hunts. The players in their second or third season are making a big difference.”
Debutant Cambridge McCormack was also among the Giants best, with 18 hitouts on debut as the sole ruck.
This time last week, McCormack was merely supporting Giants’ number one ruckman, Fleur Davies. So when Davies went in for surgery, ruling her out of AFLW Season Seven, a big responsibility suddenly fell on McCormick’s shoulders.
“It was pretty hard for all of us because Fleur’s moved down from the Gold Coast to chase her dream, and it was quite sad for all of us when we found out she was getting surgery and would be out for the season,” McCormick told The Inner Sanctum.
“She’s been really good to have around the club, and it was a really big opportunity to be the sole ruck, with Stacky (Brid Stack) helping out as well. It was a big opportunity and I just had to work hard across the field.”
With McCormick essentially thrown into the role, it fell to head coach Bernasconi and midfield coach Lloyd Perris to give her the confidence to go it alone in the ruck.
“Having the belief from Berna, and Lloyd, our midfield coach as well, has been really good to show that it’s something that I can achieve, and it’s something I can keep working towards throughout the season as the ruck for the Giants,” she said.
Bernasconi had plenty of praise for his charge on her debut.
“She did a fantastic job on debut, being a sole ruck for us. We drafted her with the hope that she would play Round One anyway, it wasn’t like we didn’t see Cambridge coming in and assisting Fleur, we wanted to play both rucks anyway.
“Cambos had a terrific pre-season, and I was rapt with how she played today, and also [there can be] a lot of anxious nerves and nervous energy leading into your debut. For her to come out and crack in for us, we’re proud of how she played today.
“She relishes the challenge, and we have full trust in her.”
McCormick is looking toward next week’s game against Brisbane to continue her development.
“Going back to Canberra and having all my friends down there that will come to support, [I’m looking to] sorta use my speed a little bit more and get into the game a little bit earlier. [also] working on those sorts of hitouts to hit it out to where our midfield can get to work.”
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At the Kennel, Isabel Pritchard was full of joy over the Dogs’ first-round victory and their first win at Ikon Park since the 2018 Grand Final.
“It’s awesome, it’s a really good ground to play at,” she said.
The growth of the side with the loss of Isabel Huntington, Bonnie Toogood and Brooke Lochland was what especially impressed Pritchard first up.
“I think we did well, I think this off-season, the number of dogs who have stepped up into leadership roles, and on the field, a lot are gaining confidence,” she said.
“We’re recovering well from the holes, and creating our new way to play.”
Pritchard is not as quick to single herself as one of them yet, however.
“In certain aspects of [leadership] I think so, I’ve gained a bit more confidence in myself this pre-season, and I feel more confident in terms of what I’m doing and what my role is, I’m more confident in terms of helping younger players so it’s been good.
The Dogs next travel to Alberton to face Port Adelaide, and Pritchard and the team will have their work cut out to silence a likely passionate Port Adelaide crowd.
“Our team relies heavily on the connection that we have with each other, and I think we can provide our energy and have a lot of fun, even if the crowds’ favoring the other side.
“So I think we’ll bring our excitement.”
Western Bulldogs next take on Port Adelaide at Alberton Oval on Saturday afternoon while the Giants are home to Brisbane on Sunday.
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