18/04/2024

The Western Bulldogs have been on a recruiting tear for the 2022 AFLW season. (Photos: Richmond FC; NAB League/Twitter; Western Bulldogs FC)

Undertaking efficient and directed list changes for 2022, the Western Bulldogs come into their Saturday night season opener with a squad that was quietly tailored to perfection.

The Western Bulldogs had one of the most understatedly active off-seasons of any AFLW club coming into 2022, and we may see the fruits of this come their Saturday night season opener.

Coming up against rivals Melbourne under lights at Whitten Oval, the Dogs could unveil as many as six new recruits after a well-formulated list turnover.

The Bulldogs were aggressive with their pick trading, on-trading selections with Carlton and St Kilda to enter draft night with a huge second round hand, where they picked up three players.

First selection Amanda Ling is just one of the 2022 season’s great stories.

Overlooked in the 2020 draft, instead of trying her luck at breaking through with a VFLW side, the hard-nosed teenager put her head down and returned to the Oakleigh Chargers as an overager.

It was a decision that paid off, upstaging even number one pick and teammate Charlie Rowbottom in the NAB League Grand Final. Her 20 disposals, 10 tackles and three inside 50s earned Ling the best on ground medal.

Ling proudly holds her medals. (Photo: AFL Women’s)

In hindsight, it’s now a genius selection on the Bulldogs’ part.

One thing the side was lacking was extra grunt in the contest to take some pressure off midfield star Ellie Blackburn, outside of veteran Brooke Lochland.

With a shoulder injury to youngster Gabby Newton, who’s averaged 10.5 disposals (six contested) and five tackles so far and looked set for a move to a full-time midfield role, Ling now has an opportunity to grasp with both hands come Round 1.

“Already watching her I kind of sometimes stand to the side and watch her go to work, I’m just so impressed and pleased that she was able to slip through to us in the draft,” captain Blackburn told media last month at the AFLW fixture launch.

“Just a natural, raw talent, similar to Jess Fitzgerald when she came in for us last year. Jess has a great knowledge around football.

“[Ling’s] ability on the field, and just how agile she is, and just her game sense, I’m really excited for her.”

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But the skipper stressed that “she’s not the only young player on our list”, pointing towards fellow draftees Aurora Smith and Elizabeth Snell as players that could similarly have an early impact.

A Murray Bushrangers product, Smith exploded into draft calculations as her ability to not only dash off half-back and down the wing, but win significantly more of her own ball, came to life.

She jumped from 5.5 disposals and 1.5 marks in 2020 to a staggering 20.7 disposals and 3.2 marks in 2021, while also playing a couple of games for Port Melbourne in the VFLW.

While there’s plenty of other young talent to battle with, Smith has runs under her belt as an effective speedy winger at under 18s level.

Snell meanwhile is a versatile defensive talent who can be deployed across the midfield or forward lines. Her strength lies in her persistence and tackling pressure, averaging 8.8 tackles in her four games for the Bendigo Pioneers and 8.0 tackles in her four games with the Essendon VFLW side.

She held her own in a finals team, and against grown women and current AFLW players.

But the young talent would be nothing without their leaders to show them the way, and the Dogs have picked up one of the best in the competition in Richelle ‘Rocky’ Cranston.

After being delisted by Geelong, the 32-year-old was extended a lifeline by her third AFLW club, and one that she clearly isn’t planning on taking for granted.

Cranston has kicked 17 goals across her 34 AFLW games, and with strong delivery from a potent Bulldogs midfield group and better support around her, she could significantly add to that total in 2022.

Izzy Huntington and Bonnie Toogood provide quality marking options to crumb off, while the ever consistent Kirsten McLeod is the perfect partner in crime.

But it’s the intangibles off field and what Cranston has added culturally that will change the club more than anything. Before the AFLW began, she was one of the mainstays of the storied Victorian Women’s Football League.

“On the exterior, she’s rocky, she’s this tough, really hard at it footballer,” Blackburn said.

“Once you get the conversations flowing a little bit more and get to understand who she is as a person, she’s unreal. She’s such a great character to have around the place, she’s taught us so much.

“She has so much knowledge especially around football. Her experience has been a really long journey and a really interesting journey in that.”

Bulldogs at the trade table

While the Dogs were busy flipping draft picks, they also made a key trade with the Giants.

Giving up pick 28, the club secured the services of versatile and athletic tall Elle Bennetts, who has been earmarked for a role on the wing.

The 32-year-old netball convert started life in various roles in the backline for GWS, before coming into her own as a running and marking winger who links up play.

Bennetts averaged 14.7 disposals in 2021, including a career high 24 disposals in the Round 1 loss to Fremantle.

She’ll provide an additional burst option by foot that compliments what Blackburn can do when running and driving the ball out of stoppages.

“I think Elle’s an exciting prospect for us in the midfield,” Blackburn told The Inner Sanctum.

“She brings… similar to Rocky, she’s got a wealth of knowledge and experience. She comes from such a professional sporting background as it is.

“To have her in the midfield with me and our midfield group as a whole, I’ve been enjoying working with her over the last little bit. I’m excited to play some games with her through the middle.

“Her ability to cover the ground, her skill level, her leadership, it’s top notch. She adds so much value to our side.”

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Bennetts evades Eleanor Brown in a training drill. (Photo: Western Bulldogs/Twitter)

Back inside the centre bounce, Dogs fans have been calling for extra ruck stocks for years.

With Kim Rennie delisted and departing for North Melbourne, the Bulldogs were largely left with just Celine Moody as the only capable ruck.

Which is exactly why the signing of former Richmond ruck Alice Edmonds as a replacement player was another stroke of genius.

Despite playing every game for the Tigers in 2020, Edmonds fell out of favour as Gabby Seymour transformed herself from a key defender to a ruck. With the recruitment of Poppy Kelly from St Kilda, the writing was on the wall.

This was despite a game where she racked up a massive 32 hit-outs against Geelong, with four tackles to go with it. As what happens with many rucks, she found herself a player displaced.

The 23-year-old played seven games as Port Melbourne’s first choice ruck in the VFLW in 2021, showing off a much improved athleticism, increasing her disposal (from five to 11.6) and hit out (13.6 to 27.3) averages drastically.

While this is comparing at a level down, the pure confidence this would provide to Edmonds that she could have games like that Geelong domination again will be key.

The Bulldogs have typically run a two-ruck set up under Nathan Burke, meaning she’ll likely share the field with Moody throughout the season. And the captain believes it’s a task she’s up for.

“Alice, she’s a really crafty ruck,” Blackburn said.

“Her and Moods in comparison are kind of different in the way they go about it. Both are really strong in their areas… but Alice is really crafty with her hands.

“[They] can [both] cover the ground really well, and we’re looking forward to what she can add in the upcoming season.”

All of these acquisitions have addressed areas the Bulldogs have desperately needed to add to. Having come cheaply and intelligently, it could be the boost they need to return to the top six.

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