The Western Bulldogs’ Eleanor Brown has been tasked with some huge jobs in an injury-riddled backline.
And beyond all expectations, she’s tackling her new key defensive role with all the poise and experience of a player 10 years her senior.
But this year, she’s giving more of the same, and better, with less support around her.
The youngster already stood up in place of the now retired Lauren Spark, last season. Now, she’s doing it again without Ellyse Gamble alongside her.
Gamble played all but one game for the Bulldogs last year, forming a dynamic partnership with new addition Katie Lynch. While Gamble would often take the most dangerous opposition forward, Lynch would roll off hers and be the primary interceptor, averaging three marks a game.
Brown was then given leeway to play the looser aerial role, averaging 11 disposals and three marks. She was dangerous both aerially and at ground level, also averaging 4.6 tackles.
Her ball use by foot really started to show later in the season, picking up 19 disposals for 336 metres gained against Richmond in a Round 9 clash.
She’s improved on those strengths, while also picking up Gamble’s role, in 2022.
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Round 1 was a trial by fire, with a season-opening date with Melbourne’s Tayla Harris in her first match for her new club. While Brown would pick up just six disposals while Harris went on to kick her first goal in red and blue, it wasn’t a bad first up showing.
This was perhaps her truest key defender game of the season, being the tallest defender in the Bulldogs backline. With no Gamble or Lynch, she was supported aerially by Ashleigh Guest.
Despite her goal, Harris’ impact was largely minor. Brown played her well when behind, forcing the ball to ground level, while cutting off her leading patterns when playing in front. Her ground level work was similarly strong, with six tackles.Embed from Getty Images
But something changed after the Bulldogs returned from COVID isolation, and Brown found her freedom once again.
With Lynch back in the side, the Dogs defensive structure, and Brown, benefitted massively – giving up just 21 inside 50s.
GWS’ penchant for shallow entries played right into Brown’s hands, and she had possibly her best game in Bulldogs colours. Five marks to go with her 18 disposals kickstarted a sharp increase in output.
At times in 2021, Brown could be easily forced into errors. When placed under pressure from opposition forwards when exiting the backline, her usage by foot could let her down.
But she’s shaking off those issues in 2022. Befitting of the extra experience she’s gaining as a first choice key defender, her composure is improving every week, and she’s showing a greater willingness to run and carry the football.
Brown’s attack when moving out of the backline is particularly noticeable for a player of her height. She’s not a stagnant, marking tall – she’ll take her extra 15 metres before disposing.
This was on show once again in a difficult night against Fremantle. The game was contested and scrappy, with the Bulldogs defenders having to weather a lot of ball coming in.
Despite 37 inside 50s, star Dockers forward Gemma Houghton was kept goalless. And you may have guessed it, but by who else than ‘Elsa’?
Against the Tigers, Brown took on the daunting task of locking down skipper Katie Brennan. The picture of consistency, Brennan hasn’t gone scoreless in a game yet this season.
And despite kicking a goal, from that point onwards, Brown had the wood entirely over the former Bulldog, while picking up another 15 disposals, and most importantly, the win.
What stands out about the Bulldogs’ current defensive structure is how different players are stepping up week by week.
While Lynch has been once again relentlessly consistent since returning, Guest and Naomi Ferres upped their ground level game against the Tigers.
Coach Nathan Burke would have no doubt identified getting the ball into the hands of the best users in the team to be the best way to nullify Richmond’s fast moving style, not even giving them the chance.
Brown has launched herself into the top 25 in the competition for intercept possessions (5.5), and has kept three of the league’s most dangerous forwards to their lowest output of any game this season.
If she keeps improving on this trajectory, she is primed to become one of the league’s best defenders.
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