THE WESTERN Bulldogs reached just their second finals series since the competition began, and while losing their first elimination final, they certainly didn't go down without a fight.
Elsewhere, it was a season of returns and big improvements with Alice Edmonds named in the All-Australian squad and young winger/midfielder Isabelle Pritchard took her game up a notch. But, as we have come to expect, it was Ellie Blackburn who ultimately saved the day.
Over the next few weeks, womens.afl will look at each of the 18 AFLW teams' season's in reverse ladder order.
Head coach: Nathan Burke
Leadership group: Ellie Blackburn (captain), Kirsty Lamb, Bailey Hunt, Katie Lynch
Ladder position after home and away season: 7th, seven wins and three losses, 109.8%
Ladder position after finals: 8th, seven wins and four losses, 107.1%
Debutants: Keely Coyne, Rylie Wilcox, Heidi Woodley (AFLW debut), Daisy Bateman, Millie Brown (club debut)
Milestones: Ellie Blackburn, Richelle Cranston, Naomi Ferres, Kirsty Lamb (50 games), Alice Edmonds, Jess Fitzgerald, Sarah Hartwig, Gabby Newton, Isabelle Pritchard (25 games)
Rising Star nominations: Rylie Wilcox (round three)
CLASS OF 2022 Your club's retiring players
Best team performance
While it was a loss, the Dogs' elimination final against Collingwood exuded the side's DNA more than any other game this season. Last season we saw the grit and determination against Adelaide and Gold Coast, and their finals fightback to come agonisingly close to knocking the Pies out was this season's edition.
The Dogs played a slow, careful game in the first half that didn't quite work against Collingwood's defence, and things were looking fraught. But halfway through the third quarter they were able to change it up.
With run and speed the Bulldogs went direct, breaking down the brick wall that is the Pies' backline and kicking four impressive final-quarter goals to come within a kick of progressing to a semi-final. And it is that strength of character upon which the Dogs are building their young list, and for that reason it was their best full team performance.
Best individual performance
In the wet, slippery conditions of Box Hill City Oval in round four against the Hawks, it was Kirsty Lamb who looked as if she was playing with a dry ball. At stoppages around the ground Lamb was unstoppable, leading her Dogs to an important 20-point win.
Lamb gained 325 metres from her 25 disposals, won seven clearances, laid five tackles, and kicked an impressive goal out of congestion, all in her 50th career game.
Alice Edmonds was delisted by a struggling Richmond side after the 2021 season and caught a lifeline when the Bulldogs called on her as a replacement signing for the injured Gabby Newton. After one year - and two seasons - with the Dogs, she has been named in the All-Australian squad, finished second in the club's best and fairest count, and led the competition for hitouts.
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Edmonds' 270 hitouts across the home and away season is the most in competition history, while also averaging career-high disposals (8.9), tackles (4.6) and score involvements (2.3). Her neat tap work set up the Western Bulldogs' midfield beautifully, and at just 24, there is still plenty of potential for Edmonds to continue improving.
While not technically a new recruit, the return of Gabby Newton was just as good. The No.1 pick ahead of the 2020 season, Newton spent two seasons working hard through the midfield, offering plenty of defensive pressure to support Ellie Blackburn and Kirsty Lamb.
After missing last season because of dual shoulder reconstructions, Newton returned to the side as a key forward and ended up as the Dogs' leading goalkicker. Despite her serious shoulder injuries, her strength in the air which saw her take 10 contested marks, combined with her physicality at ground level was a revelation for the Dogs.
Deanna Berry's impact this season certainly went under the radar, but was crucial to the Bulldogs' push into their second ever finals series.
Berry played just three games in season six as she returned from an ACL injury, but last season emerged as a strong, reliable conduit between the midfield and forward lines. Her intelligence, strength and speed make her so dangerous across that half-forward line, able to take contested marks, or run into any space afforded to her closer to goal.
What went well
Rebuilding a forward line that lost Bonnie Toogood and Isabel Huntington in one fell swoop is not an easy task, but it is something the Bulldogs did well. Gabby Newton's shift forward upon her return and Alice Edmonds' improvement, which released Celine Moody into attack, were deft moves by the Dogs coaching staff, and they paid off.
Added to those magnet shifts, the Dogs did well to fold their three draftees - Rylie Wilcox, Heidi Woodley and Keely Coyne - into the team, with each having a significant impact when on the field. Wilcox's impressive running capacity on the wing helped to replace the loss of Brooke Lochland, Woodley's forward pressure was valuable in creating repeat scoring opportunities and Coyne's two-way running was a valuable addition.
Ultimately, reaching finals with such a young list was an impressive feat, and while they were unable to progress any further, the side will no doubt be better for it heading into 2023.
What needs improvement
In many situations, there is still a heavy reliance on captain Ellie Blackburn to pull them over the line, with her round 10 stunner just one example. Blackburn led the Western Bulldogs for disposals, contested possessions, inside 50s, clearances, score involvements and metres gained this season. She is a star, no question, but it is vital they establish more matchwinners.
Outside of this, there are times where the Dogs get caught making repetitive, unproductive decisions due to some players lacking game awareness. Often these in-game ruts are only broken by quarter or half-time breaks. Finding ways to work through those issues during quarters and not needing to wait for the siren to address any problems in play will elevate the Dogs from good to great.
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Establishing midfield strength without Ellie Blackburn or Kirsty Lamb carrying the group would be an ideal situation for the Dogs, and is something that can be worked on with the longer off-season at the club's disposal now.
If they can work it so that Blackburn or Lamb are more of a cherry on top, rather than carrying the group, the club's versatility within games will be far greater, which will make them much harder to beat.