Leaning into the Chaos

Words by Gemma Bastiani

Photographs by Megan Brewer

Coming into the sixth season of AFLW, all clubs were assured that a result would be achieved. There would be no repeating of the 2020 season whereby finals were abandoned and a premier was not awarded. In order to achieve this, however, compromises and uncertainty became the overarching theme of the season.

For those involved in AFLW the concept of compromise was far from new. Living ‘part time’ lives in footy means training, travel and games must fit around day jobs, study, family or all three. With an already delicately balanced schedule, being forced into repeated isolations and faced with an ever-changing and condensed fixture only added to the stress.

Defensive coach Melissa Hickey has an especially heavy workload. At her day job as an occupational therapist she’s in the office managing a team four days a week, while training sessions see her driving up and down the highway from her home in Geelong three times a week. 

“I’ve been a bit tired,” Hickey shared honestly.  “I get to Friday night and nearly fall asleep on the couch…  I guess the travel is getting a little tedious.”

“Your other work, you’re kind of like trying to make sure that while you’re there, you’re focused on that. And then you know, not think too much about footy and switch off whenever you can.”

There is managing the exhaustion of a packed schedule but other factors throw up challenges, too. Katie Lynch, who was managing injuries throughout the preseason, works a physical job as a freight handler. This is where the maturity of players once again comes to the fore, where the club needs to be able to trust its players to make the right decisions to best manage their return to footy, while also still making a living and retaining employment.

“It was hard with my shoulder actually earlier in the year. [The club] sort of just left that up to me to judge and I backed myself into to be the best person to judge that, but there were times where I said to them ‘I had work this morning, I’m a little bit sore in a shoulder’ and they were like ‘Okay, just take it easy’ kind of thing,” Lynch said of how she manages her body across footy and work. 

“But it’s such a difficult thing. The staff understand that you have to work. We’ve got two girls, Hannah Scott and Deanna Berry, who are working in civil construction, where it’s similar but probably worse, they spent all day doing proper labour stuff. So you’ve got to be careful with those girls in terms of injury and their loads and stuff. But yeah, it’s a really difficult thing to manage when you’re injured and doing that kind of work.”

Lynch does add with a wry smile that the physicality of her work has helped fast track her strength and conditioning.

“A little bit of an extra switch on of the muscles never hurt.”

Added to this was the endless shift changes and unavailabilities each time the club was thrown into periods of isolation, and then the resulting fixture adjustments. A tough ask for new recruit Amanda Ling who had just landed a part time job in retail.

“I’ve told my work to please cut my hours back because I’ve no idea what my weekends are going to look like. It’s just uncertain,” said Ling.

Different players manage the balance in their own way, and different workplaces offer varying levels of flexibility.

“I  don’t really feel the work versus footy pressure as much as others do, but in saying that I still have to factor it into my life, which I guess in itself is a burden. But yeah, not particularly strenuous on me which is great but that’s a real privilege that my work is really quite understanding,” explained Lynch.

“A lot of the girls, a lot of them are teachers so I see that struggle the most. I hear a lot of stories about the teaching balance, which is really tricky. Straight out of school, straight to training… They amaze me that some of those girls can do that.”

And while members of the program are there to improve and put in everything they can, acknowledging when the best choice to improve is actually missing a session to refresh becomes just as important.

“Ellyse Gamble, she’s been doing her uni placement teaching and trying to manage training, and at the moment is finding it a bit hard,” explained Melissa Hickey. 

Hickey was brought in not just for her footy nous—of which she has plenty—but for her ability to relate to players, given she herself is recently retired.

“I was reflecting and last night she probably could have just stayed home. I remember days [as a player], and there was one session, because we were the more mature players they got us to finish halfway through and I remember us losing our minds thinking we’re going to get so far behind and we’re missing out.”

The AFLW is a pressure cooker environment. The seasons are short. Contracts can only be a maximum of two years. There are endless amounts of young talent coming into the competition year on year thanks to improving junior pathway programs. All of this can make players think that one session missed will send the message that they lack dedication or are unwilling to put in the hard work.

“[I] can understand why she doesn’t want to go home, because she thinks she’ll get behind, but now that I’ve zoomed out and can see the bigger picture, you’re like, ‘Well, that’s just crazy’,” said Hickey.

Being able to identify the biggest priorities as a player and work with staff to craft a program that best serves oneself is the biggest step toward improvement, but identifying priorities became more vital than ever for the Bulldogs as they faced a condensed fixture for the remainder of the season.

What would end up being seven games in just 30 days forced the club to simplify. Everything became about recovery, diet and sleep just to get through.

 

Sarah Hartwig found the benefit of a proper recovery. Image: Megan Brewer

 

“The aspect of recovery is so much more involved in my life at the moment,” admitted second-year player Sarah Hartwig in late February. 

And while acknowledging a shift in priorities allowed the Dogs to navigate so many games over the space of a month, for a developing side it took away any chance to improve as the season went on. This was something head coach Nathan Burke was strong on throughout the season, avoiding making excuses but sharing the reality of such a season.

“In terms of actually training the players and working on the things that we need to improve and keep getting better, it’s virtually impossible,” Burke said. 

“We just don’t get to train and get better.”

 

Finally Up and Running

Seven games in 30 days began with a home fixture against the undefeated Fremantle Dockers on the traditional footy timeslot of Tuesday evening. 

Few gave the Bulldogs a chance. They were coming off a loss to a depleted Giants side and were yet to register a win for the season. Meanwhile Fremantle was 4-0 with an average winning margin of more than 30 points.

A clever Bulldogs outfit held the Dockers goalless in the first quarter for the first time all season, and forced an arm wrestle for a side that was yet to be truly challenged. The game would go down to the wire, ultimately falling Fremantle’s way thanks to a spectacular match winning goal from Ebony Antonio.

 

 

Despite a valiant performance, the Dogs were still winless three games into the season.

They backed up a heartbreaking Tuesday evening loss with a Sunday afternoon game against Richmond. After a solid round one win, the Tigers had hit a three game losing streak and were desperate to register their second win of the season.

With most of the team back on the park for the first time in 2022, the Dogs took control and came away with the four points. Starring was midfielder Kirsty Lamb, who was on the receiving end of an illegal Kiara Bowers bump just five days earlier.

In a performance that would earn Lamb the maximum ten AFL Coaches Association and three W Award votes, she had 27 disposals and took a whopping nine marks. But this was not a surprise for injured teammate Isabel Huntington.

“Lamby does not drop the ball. If you kick it to her and your kick could be like, five metres out of the way and there’s another player there… another player that you’d kick it to you’d be like ‘Oh, shit, that’s gonna hit the ground’, but Lamby just somehow puts her body up and just takes it and is so protective of it,” Huntington said of Lamb’s technique.

“Honestly, I have so much confidence kicking to her.”

While the consensus was that Lamb was undoubtedly best on ground, for coach Nathan Burke it was another of his charges who stood out.

“Lynchy was sensational,” he said of defender Katie Lynch post game.

“Don’t forget, Lynchy played against GWS she hadn’t played a practice match, she hadn’t done any match sim for five weeks because we haven’t been able to do any, she came straight in and played. So she’s taken a couple of games to get into the way that she plays. The way that she reads the play, takes the contested mark and then just settles everything down. Yeah, she was fantastic.”

Breaking through for their first win allowed the Dogs to take a fresh look at the rest of the season, and the timing could not have been more perfect given the challenge they were about to face.

 

Game 250

Heading to Norwood Oval to take on the Adelaide Crows is just about the toughest task in AFLW footy. When the Western Bulldogs jumped on a plane to Adelaide in February for the 250th AFLW match, the Crows had an almost 70 percent win rate at their home ground of Norwood, with an average score of 44—nearly double that of their opponents.

“We’re playing them at Norwood and that’s a real fortress ground for them, they’re really hard to beat there as well,” captain Ellie Blackburn said on womens.afl’s The W Show.

The Dogs had beaten Adelaide just once from four starts since the competition began, and even then it was by a solitary point in round one of 2019. Memories of their last matchup, where Adelaide handed the Bulldogs a 56 point loss, the biggest loss in club history, was still vivid in Jess Fitzgerald’s mind.

“I was having a shocking game that game, and Burkey told me to just lock on to whoever, like Anne Hatchard or Erin Phillips, they’re stacked so I could have gone on anyone and I would have been brought to the ball,” Fitzgerald said. 

“I just tried to match up on Erin and she just didn’t even try. She just shoved me out the way and I watched back the vision and I was like ‘That is so embarrassing’. I was trying my hardest and she was like yeah this little kid needs to get off me. 

“I’d watch them on TV all the time and they look strong and whatnot. But I got next to them and I literally looked like a little twig branch and they were so bulky and just, oh my god. I mean, they’ve been in the competition for six years but I wasn’t expecting it. They’re so much bigger and stronger than what they look.”

The match up was also one that Lynch had an eye on from the moment the initial fixture was released.

“Last year when we played them it was a rough game for us. So it’s a redemption kind of excitement playing them.”

From a strategic perspective, Burke had plenty of time to analyse just where they went wrong.

“Adelaide uses the ball better than anyone else. Adelaide kicked seven goals on turnovers against us last year over there,” Burke said, recalling his mindset during the loss. 

“People from the box were sending me messages going ‘We’ve got to push people back behind the ball, we’ve got to close up’. We were never gonna win the grand final last year, so I made the decision there. Yeah, we could do that and we’d lose by three goals instead of six. But what would we learn out of that? Nothing. 

“We’ve learned more by every mistake that they kicked a goal from, than just playing shitty footy for a half because we clog it up.” 

As it turns out, the Dogs learned plenty from that tough loss. 

The visitors piled on four first quarter goals, the most ever kicked against the Crows in a first quarter. They added another two before half time, doubling the number of goals Adelaide had conceded in first halves for the year to date. In short, they had the home side on the back foot and uncomfortable for the first time all year.

As Adelaide started to get the game back on its terms in the second half, what clicked in for the Dogs was a tenacity that was representative of their season as a whole. Adding to the challenge, in that impressive first quarter debutant Aurora Smith ruptured her ACL and vice captain Brooke Lochland sustained a concussion, which saw the Bulldogs play out the game with a bench of just three.

Under pressure, the group stood strong, and up by a solitary point in the dying minutes, repeated smothers on the goalline protected the narrowest of leads and handed Adelaide’s its sole loss of the season.

 

“They were amazing today,” Burke said of his team after the celebrations had died down.

“We come over here on a quick turnaround flight. The hot conditions on their home turf, an undefeated team, we lose two players in the first three minutes of the game so it’s 19 versus 21 for the rest of it against the best team and they not only gutsed it out, but they played some really good footy.”

“They were coming to the bench and they were just absolutely cooked and I just kept asking them to give more and more and they just did. We put players in different positions that they hadn’t played before and they didn’t whinge and moan, they just went ‘Yep, I need to do it for the team’.” 

“I haven’t been a part of a win that’s been as special as that one”

Katie Lynch is insistent that she knew something special was going to happen that day. 

“I just had this weird feeling all day that we were going to win.” 

“I took a moment and was like ‘We fucking can, we can do what we want’… We just played four quarters of brilliant football against the top team and we had so many excuses to be shit. It was unreal to come out on top but also just the nature of the game, the fact that there was a point difference, it was in their goal square for two minutes and it was just like rugby scrums after rugby scrums,” Lynch recalled.

And she wasn’t the only one who enjoyed reflecting back on that game. In the coaches box Mel Hickey remembers celebrating with fellow assistant coaches Natalie Wood and Kirby Bentley when that fourth quarter siren finally sounded.

“We were just jumping up and hugging each other and then sprinting down to the oval and hugging all the girls. It was a really, really awesome moment. Once you’ve retired, you don’t get a lot of those exhilarating feelings I don’t find, but that was a genuine, exhilarating moment.”

 

Belief

That win on paper might have just netted the Bulldogs four premiership points just like any other win, but the impact of it reached far wider than that. It represented a resilience the team possessed, and was a constant reminder that at their best, the Dogs could beat anyone.

“We beat Adelaide, we can do anything. That’s our mindset,” said Sarah Hartwig when asked what spurred them through a demanding fixture.

They had to back up arguably the best win in club history the following Friday evening. Back at home against Geelong, it was a bit of a slog, but at the Bulldogs do, they toughed it out and finished with an eight point win to make it three in a row. 

 

The Dogs made it three wins in a row against Geelong. Image: Megan Brewer

 

After a difficult start to the year, they were finally hitting their straps.

The next hill for them to climb was another Tuesday game, this time heading north to Carrara Stadium to take on a Gold Coast outfit that boasted plenty of firepower and a will to win.

It was a less than ideal start, however, as the Suns got out to a 24 point lead at three quarter time, running rings around the Dogs who were playing their fifth game in 21 days. But they didn’t let the fact that no team had won after being down by four goals in the last quarter spook them.

The Dogs methodically chipped away at Gold Coast’s lead, first with a Nell Morris-Dalton goal, then Kirsty Lamb. Morris-Dalton hit the scoreboard again, and Britney Gutknecht followed soon after to dramatically even up the ledger. That ruthless, giant killing Bulldogs side was back.

A behind to both sides to close out the heartstopper saw the siren sound with scores even. A draw.

“Oh my god, I hate draws!” Eleanor Brown said emphatically. 

“I don’t get the point. Surely we can just do extra time or something… it just feels like a loss.”

A rousing address from Burke at three quarter time spurred the comeback. Asking his players how willing they were to fight back. If you are willing to dig in, it will work.

“Just ask yourself, do you want this?”

It was just another lesson notched up by the young Dogs. 

Don’t give up such a big early lead and you won’t have to dig yourselves back out of the hole, but if you do find yourselves there, don’t count yourselves out.

“It’s flattening,” Burke said earnestly, but went on to qualify. “It all depends on how you look at it. You can say we wasted the game in that first half and bit of the third in particular, and started playing footy in the last, or you can say we’ve come off three games in eight days, two of them travel days coming up here in the completely different weather to what we’ve got at home, slippery conditions against a team who, they have a crack. 

“You can look at that side of the coin and go ‘Geez I’m extremely proud of them’.”

The Comedown

Five days later they were backing it up again in what would ultimately shape the finals. Against Collingwood at Victoria Park, a win would have put the Bulldogs squarely in the mix for the top six, but it wasn’t to be.

They looked flat from the outset, undoubtedly the result of their unprecedented seven games in 30 days, and allowed the Pies to kick their highest ever score.

Burke pointed to pure exhaustion after the game as the cause for the loss.

“Not making excuses here, but when you’re playing a team who gets the ball on the outside and runs and you’re a little bit fatigued generally as a team, they took advantage of that and that really hurt us today. 

 

Ellie Blackburn and Kirsty Lamb catch their breath against Collingwood. Image: Megan Brewer

 

“I’ve got no question about their effort whatsoever. They came to the bench and you could just see in their faces, a lot of their faces were just blank.”

When looking back on her season, it was this game that Katie Lynch most wants to atone for.

“The Collingwood game let me down. That’s the only game that I feel like I’d probably let myself down.”

Although they were still a narrow chance for finals, the last two games of the season were about pride. Improvement was still to be made. Lessons were still to be learned.

“I think it’s really easy to get sucked into the attitude of ‘Well, they’re just junk games now’ like it doesn’t really matter and just go to full fun mode or whatever. But I think equally, we probably had that in the past and I think it’s really important to still finish hard and finish strong,” Huntington said of the final fortnight.

They showed off their strengths with a trip to Perth where they defeated West Coast by 60 points, before falling to reigning premiers Brisbane by 32 points in Ballarat.

For the duration of the season, Huntington had to watch from afar. Not something new to the forward, but not easy nonetheless. Watching games from the sidelines hasn’t always spurred jealousy, but those pangs do sporadically hit her.

“I love watching them. I have had very few moments where I’ve been like, you know, fuck this. I really want to be out there,” she said.

But it’s the in between moments that are hardest. Not being out there on the track for training. Not travelling with the team interstate. That feeling of detachment when you’re part of the team, but not taking to the field.

“I think that’s probably been one of the harder elements post-surgery. I’ve definitely struggled more mentally post-surgery than between doing my knee and then having surgery.”

“I felt pretty isolated.”

“I see them at the start for the team meeting, and then maybe a little bit for the gym at the end, but like they’re out on the track so you don’t really have a whole heap of social interaction. I think that’s certainly something that a lot of injured players struggle with, I guess that isolation and that you’re trying your best to ride the journey with them, but because you’re not flying out with them and all that stuff it’s a bit difficult. And yeah, I think you feel the distance. I feel like I’ve sort of  distanced myself in a way.”

Travelling Emergency

Amanda Ling faced that uncertainty in a different way to Huntington, but it was equally difficult. After the club’s round two loss, the midfielder was omitted from the side and tasked with some key areas to develop. This saw her often listed as an emergency for games which throws up another element of stress, but an opportunity to learn patience.

“I think this season’s been a big learning curve for me in terms of patience just with being an emergency for so many weeks and then you know, sometimes not even playing.”

The life of an emergency is the extreme unknown. You are on deck until the opening siren of the senior game just in case you are needed, which means foregoing an opportunity to play VFLW footy if that game is fixtured prior. If you’re ultimately not needed at AFLW level, you’ve completely missed out on a footy match for that week.

Ling is able to look at the way her first season played out as a series of lessons. Patience. Dealing with countless things being thrown at you. Asking for help when you need it. Her ability to take on disappointments and challenges did not go unnoticed.

“When I talked to Burkey it was a lot about, you know, ‘Look, we’re really we’re really proud of how you’ve handled everything this season’. At the start he was talking about the phone calls that we had, because he would call me every Wednesday just to tell me what was going on and whether I’m an emergency or not playing or whatever it might be. And he was like, ‘Look, the first couple times I called, you sounded a little disappointed, and you just kind of copped it on the chin’. 

“But then, as the season went on, I often asked him, ‘What do I have to do? What do I need to work on to get myself in that position?’ and he’d tell me certain things, like to work on my kicking efficiency and accuracy and he could see that I was working on it during training. So he was pretty happy with all that.”

That method of development, albeit frustrating for the player—in this case, Ling—has proven fruitful for the Bulldogs in the past. Two Dogs who played every game of season six, Issy Grant and Izzy Pritchard, had worked their way through this process in their first few years at the club.

As someone who had been at the club to observe the rise of Grant and Pritchard, finally seeing them break through to become regular members of the senior side was a relief for Huntington.

“This year it was good to see both of them, because it’s hard as well, they didn’t get much of a chance. If you’re not playing in the senior side in your first few years, you’re not really getting much of a chance to actually play.”

 

Ling watches on from the sidelines. Image: Megan Brewer

 

Ling has acknowledged she is treading that path worn by Grant and Pritchard, so seeing the pair succeed throughout the season was somewhat of a beacon. A light at the end of the tunnel. This includes developing flexibility in your role. Ling, drafted as a midfielder, has spent time growing her forward craft and learning the discipline of a winger.

“There are so many girls that took a couple of years to actually build, and now they’re pretty solid in the team, so it’s nice to know that the club actually invests in you and wants you to develop as a player,” Ling explained. 

“So I think, knowing that those girls had a couple of years to build and look at where they are now, I’m pretty hopeful that that’s probably the path that I’ll go down as well. Not saying that it’s gonna be easy to do that over the next few years, but I know that hard work that they put in.”

“Burkey brought up so many examples, like Granty was one of them, and he was like, ‘Look, Granty was drafted as a midfielder/wing and now she’s playing backline. Solid backline as well.’ So that shows why they’re training girls in different positions and you know, who knows, they might actually excel in that position. So that gives me good signs, good vibes. Good vibes.”

Counting the Toll

Once the season was complete, the players and staff were able to acknowledge the toll so many games in a short period of time took. Not just the physical exhaustion, but the mental aspect of being unable to plan ahead, rarely being able to switch off, and the fact that routine was near on impossible. 

“Personally, I think [my biggest challenge was] just staying engaged for the whole season. Obviously it was a pretty whack season, it wasn’t normal by any means. So when you rock up on a Tuesday game, your mind’s not like, ‘Oh, it’s game day,’ your mind’s like ‘It’s Tuesday, we shouldn’t be playing’,” said Jess Fitzgerald.

Even the seemingly simple task of  catching up with friends for coffee became a complicated task.

“All my mates have been like ‘Where have you been? What have you been doing? What, you can’t do any day?’ because I was like, I don’t know what’s happening next week. I reckon I went for about a month where they were like, ‘Hey, can we do something next week?’ And I was like, ‘Look, I can’t book this in because our fixture can change anytime’,” said Ling.

Ultimately, it was a season of mixed feelings for the Dogs. Immense pride in what was achieved, frustration in the obstacles hit, excitement in what the youth showed, and disappointment in missing finals.

“Now that I can reflect, I feel like it was a really strong season for the team. But I still believe that we got thrown everything at us compared to other teams. The only other team I might put on our page is potentially Freo or West Coast—that’s tough coming over here for a number of weeks. But in terms of just the uncertainty that we were going through week to week was a lot, and obviously the numbers about how many games we’re playing in how many days and rah rah rah, that was pretty hectic. 

“So in hindsight, I think we performed really well for what was thrown at us. And I think that we took a step forward and felt more comfortable in our style, and in our connectedness with each other. But at the end of the day, we didn’t get what we wanted, and I think we’re very capable of getting what we want.” Lynch said of the Bulldogs’ season.

In the end, this season can only make the Dogs better. 

“Burkey’s been saying how he just wants us to remember this year and keep it in the back of our minds to come back to when stuff gets tough in seasons to come. Just think about this hectic year, and it was absolute chaos from the start,” said Fitzgerald.

And this was something Burke was strong on publicly, speaking to the media after his side’s final game of season six.

“I want them to not dismiss this year, I want them to remember this year and use that as belief for next year.”

This is part THREE of a three-part series on the Western Bulldogs’ sixth AFLW season. With thanks to Melissa Hickey, Jess Fitzgerald, Katie Lynch, Amanda Ling, Isabel Huntington, Eleanor Brown and the Western Bulldogs. Additional words by Felicity Smith. PART ONE AND TWO ARE AVAILABLE TO READ NOW.