24/05/2024

The West Coast Eagles want to put a horror start to life in the AFLW behind them. (Photo: West Coast Eagles; Design: Will Cuckson)

Ahead of the entry of four new teams into the AFLW competition, The Inner Sanctum is looking back at the stories of the entries of the six past expansion teams. This is The New Frontier, where players, coaches and staff broke new ground and created something from nothing.

Entering into their fourth season in the AFLW, the West Coast Eagles are putting a horror start to life in the competition behind them.

The club has had the highest turnover of any existing club this off-season. Including injury replacement players, 17 new Eagles will call the club home in season seven.

It’s been a long three years since their first game in February 2020. Constantly interrupted by the effects of the COVID pandemic, this will be the first ‘normal’ season that the last group of expansion teams will experience.

On paper, the Eagles looked set to build something strong in a two-team state.

They identified promising young prospects Mikayla Bowen and Ashton Hill in the open-age signing period, before bringing in elite experience from rivals Fremantle and elsewhere including Dana Hooker, Emma Swanson, Maddy Collier, Belinda Smith, Parris Laurie and more.

Dynamic cross-coders Grace and Niamh Kelly completed a strong core, with top draftees Imahra Cameron and Sophie McDonald rounding it out.

While there was a big focus on looking within the club’s home state, a few made the club their home from elsewhere.

Victorian Hayley Bullas, who hails from Dixons Creek in the Yarra Valley, was picked as an open-age signing.

Having played for Essendon in the VFLW, she was fresh off winning the club best and fairest in 2018 and being given the vice-captaincy in 2019.

Speaking to The Inner Sanctum, Bullas reflected on her introduction to the club.

“Not knowing anybody over here, the club was so great and really supportive, and so were all the girls,” she said.

“Everybody got around me and made sure it felt like home for me, and that’s definitely what it is.”

With 23 games of experience under her belt, Bullas is no longer looking up to the likes of Swanson and Hooker, now a leader herself.

The majority of the list has little to no AFLW experience under their belts after the turnover, and she’s clear on what needed to be established in the off-season.

“I feel like I’ve always shown some sort of leadership, and brought those younger girls under my wing,” Bullas said.

“That’s how I would have liked to have been brought into the club and welcomed, people bringing me under their wing and showing me round, setting those expectations and setting them early.

“Being more experienced and having the last few seasons under my belt, is what we’re doing at the moment. Setting those high expectations, and making sure those girls know that this is the standard, and we don’t drop below this standard this season.”

First season standards

2020 was a season that was ultimately doomed, failing to achieve a premier after the finals series was cancelled.

Across the six games that they played out, the Eagles managed just one victory, against the Western Bulldogs by four points at home.

Bullas kicked an unconventional first goal, helping her side through to their first win after leading all day, save for a minor blip in the second term.

The Kelly sisters demonstrated their promise in just their fourth AFLW games, while Swanson and Hooker led from the front as they still do today.

But it was tough goings for the rest of the year, as West Coast lost the rest of its games by an average of 36.8 points. This included massive 59 and 45 point losses to Melbourne and Fremantle respectively.

Even despite going down to Collingwood in the club’s inaugural game, the day will forever remain a highlight to Bullas and the rest of the squad.

It was especially meaningful for her, getting to play in front of her nearest and dearest.

“[Debuting] was bloody nerve-wracking, I tell you that much,” Bullas laughed.

“Especially because we had Round 1 over in Melbourne, I was able to have friends and family over there to be there for my debut round.

“It’s really special to have those people who helped you get where you are to be there on your big day of you debuting.

“It’s nerve-wracking hoping you’re going to make the side, but [you’re] then shifting that focus on making sure you’re getting a good result.”

While the promise in St Kilda and Gold Coast was clear, West Coast and Richmond looked well behind the rest of the pack.

The club would finish just one game ahead of the Tigers, last in their conference, and 13th in a combined ladder.

“It was definitely hard going at the start, and we’re not alone there,” captain Emma Swanson told The Inner Sanctum.

“All the expansion clubs will feel the same over time, and the ones that have come before us felt the same.”

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Turmoil at the top

With just two goals and as West Coast’s only multiple goalkicker, Bullas would take out the club’s inaugural leading goalkicker award, while Hooker won the club best and fairest.

Seven players were delisted, but there were better days on the horizon. Aisling McCarthy and Tayla Bresland joined in the trade period, bringing more top end talent to the list.

But on the eve of the 2020 draft, coach Luke Dwyer stepped down after just one season in charge of the side, in a sign of things to come.

Bella Lewis and Shanae Davison were the next big pick-ups in the draft, as the list slowly came together even more. Though there were still noticeable gaps, it was clear where the next step was.

After just two rounds however, COVID once again threw another spanner in the works. Fixtures were chopped and changed, and the Eagles were playing an early season Derby.

They would end up playing the Dockers two times in nine rounds, as the AFL struggled to work around Western Australia’s strict border restrictions.

Unable to leave the state across the two-year period, Bullas felt it more than most.

“It’s been really tough throughout COVID, not being able to have my family come over and visit, and not being able to at the drop of a hat go and visit,” she said.

“That was really tough. [But] knowing you’ve got the support of the club, having the distraction of the girls, being able to go out for coffee with them [has helped].

“I’m solidifying a home here with my partner and work outside footy… it’s really important to me too. I’m also studying over here too.

“I’ve got a great base and a great support network around me, who are my family over here.”

The Eagles would limp over the line again, with a 2-7 record after the nine game season. One of their wins was just a one-point victory over the Suns.

But in Round 7, the club had a record victory over the Cats, who finished one spot below them in 13th.

Imahra Cameron had a breakout game, kicking three goals in 10 minutes to tear out Geelong hearts in a struggling season for both sides.

It was a case of deja vu however, as new coach Daniel Pratt also stepped down after just one season.

After just three wins in their first two seasons, the Eagles’ coaching job didn’t appear to be an enviable one. The stability required to lead the team higher up the ladder wasn’t anywhere near the level it needed to be.

The playing list got put under a microscope, and 10 players were delisted at season’s end. Evie Gooch and Aimee Schmidt joined the club to add leadership in defence and attack, and another strong crop of draftees followed.

It was another turbulent and difficult off-season at West Coast.

Finding stability

Michael Prior has become the first West Coast AFLW coach to hold the role for more than one season, set to lead the side out against Port Adelaide on Saturday.

The results in season six were, once again, nothing of note. In fact, the club slumped all the way to the bottom of the ladder, winning the ill-desired wooden spoon with just one win.

Season’s end hurt the worst, losing by 60 points to the Western Bulldogs, and a record-setting 74 points against reigning premier Brisbane.

With another half-list turnover, it was clear something had to change, and quickly.

The majority of the old guard has either retired or been delisted, with a handful of leaders supporting a predominantly young list full of talent ready to explode.

Through it all, the skipper is still working hard to keep developing the group.

“We started talking pretty early on last year about our professionalism, and taking it to the next level,” Swanson said.

“There’s a lot of different things that go into that, and part of that is the pay that comes with it. We obviously got that really big deal a couple of months that led into this season, which definitely helped the professionalism.

“We’ve really pushed the lifestyle choices we make that can make us better athletes, and also the choices we make around the footy club. Hopefully off the back of that, the footy stuff starts to come.

“We’ve got a really young group, with about eight 18-year-olds. Over the next three, four, five years, hopefully that begins to show.”

Finally finding stability, with a full set of five home games and a promising young list that will get to play a ‘normal’ season, Bullas echoed her captain’s sentiments.

“It’ll make a big difference [the uninterrupted season],” she said.

“Especially with the support staff we’ll have too, which have been consistent coming into this season as well, plays a big part in that also. We’ve worked really hard and tirelessly over the pre-season.

“The team’s in a good place, and we’re really confident we can improve on last season.”

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