Western Bulldogs coach Paul Groves has plenty to be excited about this weekend.
His team of reigning premiers will return to their home fortress, Whitten Oval, where under lights and a brand new scoreboard, the Doggies will unfurl the 2018 AFLW flag; just the third senior premiership for the club and first for the women’s side. He’s rightfully looking forward to the moment.
“I’m on record as saying that’s why we play footy… why we coach footy. We’ll unfurl it, we’ll fire the new scoreboard up – not sure there’ll be any power left around Footscray – it’s just going to be an amazing venue going forward for women’s footy," Groves said
“[We’ll] welcome Aasta [O’Connor] back who’s now at Geelong. It’ll be great to have her here, just for that little bit of a [joint] celebration, then we’ll go to battle with her.”
And we're live!— Western Bulldogs (@westernbulldogs) February 7, 2019
The new scoreboard at VU Whitten Oval is up, firing & looking 👌 pic.twitter.com/JH2i0CgmEp
After accounting for 2017 winners Adelaide by just a point at Norwood last week, the Bulldogs have a prime opportunity to climb to a top-two spot in Conference A, paramount to any potential premiership defence.
If they are to do so, key to their fortunes this year will be superstar spearhead Katie Brennan. Groves revealed that Brennan – who controversially missed the grand final last year due to suspension – didn’t have the pre-game buildup her ice-cold goal kicking would have suggested.
“She was particularly nervous, she mentioned to me it’s probably the most nervous she’s ever been before a game of footy," he said.
“Off the back of an ankle injury, not having played and going back to Adelaide...she kicked a couple and contributed massively to the result.
“I’m just really excited by where she’s at both physically and mentally. Can’t wait to see her influencing games very strongly, very soon.”
They will now face league newcomers Geelong, a side packed full of young talent and fresh off an inspirational win over an improved Collingwood outfit. Groves will certainly not be taking them lightly.
“Gee they were impressive, down at Kardinia Park.
“Phoebe [McWilliams] and Mel [Hickey] probably coming back in will give them a bit of a kick along...and maybe Georgia Clarke.
“They’ve got talent across the park: Olivia Purcell, Nina Morrison, Becky Webster, Denby Taylor, the top end of young players, we’ve seen the influence they can have on a game.”
A new player in the Dogs’ lineup hoping to influence their next game will be Aisling McCarthy. An Irish cross-coder from a Gaelic football background, her debut comes hot on the heels of countrywoman Yvonne Bonner at GWS; but it’s another Giants star from Ireland who Groves thinks plays a similar game to McCarthy.
“She plays pretty similarly to Cora [Staunton]; low to the ground, clean off both feet...there’s no pressure on her, she just has to get out there and enjoy her footy.”
While GWS has had the most success with their recruiting of Gaelic athletes, in Groves’ view, many other teams will be hoping to tap into the luck of the Irish in the future.
“A few of those Irish girls have shown they can really adapt to our game and we’re going to need them in the next couple of years.”
A cross-coder of different sorts in champion basketballer and grand final best on ground medallist Monique Conti was also on hand. Having rushed back to Adelaide at the last minute after her Melbourne Boomers’ WNBL season ended in the City of Churches only two days earlier, Conti played a small but effective role in the Round 1 win.
“I pulled up quite sore, it’s challenging not playing or fully training for a while, but it was good to get out there and run around.”
The Western Bulldogs have both lost premiership players to trades and picked up a new crop of draftees, but despite the changes, Conti only has praise for the team dynamic.
“It’s always different having a few new girls come in, but they’ve settled in really well...I think we’ve had a really good preseason, everyone’s really comfortable with each other on and off the field, which I think makes a big difference.”
Even though she is still only a teenager herself, Conti plays with the maturity of a veteran. Entering her second season of the AFLW & having played three in the WNBL, she feels well placed to help bridge between the established players and her debutant teammates.
“I’m settling into the league quite well; it’s good to have my first season under my belt, I do feel a bit like a veteran now.
“I think being in a professional league [for basketball] has helped me fit into this kind of league with the elite nature of it – being professional on and off the field. I think I’ve just got to keep improving my game and set up a pathway for those younger players as well.”
Finally, Groves shared some positive news about injured forward, Brooke Lochland.
“She was walking and kicking the footy last night. Because it’s a fibula, it’s not weight bearing. Best case scenario is potentially Round 5, more realistic is Round 6. It depends on the wound and where she sits with it, but she had a real kick along last night, out of the [moon] boot.
“She’s an exceptional athlete, but her mental strength to deal with it in a seven-game season – that’s promising.”