Connection is key: How the Bombers are building a team like no other

CONNECTION is key for Essendon as it stares down the barrel of its very first AFLW season. With limited time to put together a program from scratch – no different to any of the other three expansion sides – the Bombers have an extra layer to navigate: the success of their VFLW program. 

In making that decision, and by recruiting ten players directly from their state league affiliate, head coach Natalie Wood has had limited player availability during preseason training sessions to date. 

"It's like, 'Okay, well we've got 10 players for two sessions a week… So, two sessions with 20 people, and then two sessions with 10. So, on Saturday morning, I trained with seven players," Wood told womens.afl

Essendon AFLW coach Natalie Wood and men's coach Ben Rutten. Picture: supplied

But the internal perspective is that there is no value in becoming bogged down in the time pressure and instead, find the positives. 

"There's no point getting stuck in the energy and the emotion of it not being ideal," Wood said.  

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"I'm learning to allow certain things to wash over me, but then to go, 'Okay, what are the facts?' Well, the facts are, I've got 20 players on Monday and Tuesday, and I've got 10 at best on Thursday and Saturday. So, what can I do with the 20 when I've got them? And what do I do with the 10 when I've got them? And then what do the first three weeks look like? And then what do the seven weeks look like?" 

Essendon general manager of football Josh Mahoney also points out the way the club has turned some of its challenges into assets. 

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"We still haven't had a training session with 30 players yet, and it's nearly week four, so there's a few challenges there by bringing the season forward, but again, it's just being able to adapt to that situation," Mahoney said.  

"It's a bit of a luxury having our VFLW players been able to play in a final series, they're playing really high standard footy, they're going to play in the Grand Final. So again, that's just a terrific development for them and we think that it's really important for them to find that highest standard. The cost of that is that they don't miss a couple of training sessions." 

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To make the most of this, developing a genuine chemistry between the players is a high priority. Among the VFLW contingent who have been playing together for some time, that connection is already evident.  

Essendon VFLW players celebrate a goal during the qualifying final win over Hawthorn on June 11, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

"I think that that's obviously the difficulty with expansion, when you're drawing people from all these different teams, to be able to have that a little bit of consistency, I think, can only be a good thing," Essendon recruit and VFLW co-captain Georgia Nanscawen said. 

After a year on North Melbourne's inaugural list, Nanscawen was delisted and arrived at the Bombers' VFLW team to rediscover her love for footy. Three years on, she is on the verge of a VFLW Grand Final and in the throes of another AFLW preseason. 

"I'd always enjoyed football growing up, like just kicking in for football with Dad and with friends at school, but never had the opportunity to take it anywhere. And when I stopped playing hockey, I went to play for a club in Perth. And then North came out of the blue and said, 'Hey, do you want to give this a go?' Well, why not take that opportunity?" Nanscawen explained. 

"So, then I put everything into that, as I hope I do with with everything is give everything. At the end of the season, I got delisted and accept that that's fine and then it was literally going back to well, why did I start playing football? It was because I want to have a run around and have fun and enjoy myself." 

With fellow West Australian Courtney Ugle already at Essendon, Nanscawen turned to the Bombers and took the final spot on the VFLW list for season 2019. Four years on, Nanscawen became the very first player signed to the club's AFLW list. 

The other key component of Essendon's list is experienced players drawn from existing AFLW clubs. One of those players is former Western Bulldogs forward Bonnie Toogood, who notes that a want to follow Natalie Wood to the club played a big part in her decision. Existing relationships are helping to authentically fast track connections at the club.

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 "'Woody' was a part of the decision as well, obviously seeing firsthand how she operates, as the midfields coach at Bulldogs. But when I heard that she got the head coaching role, I was so excited for her and I was like, I think she's going to really thrive in that environment. I was really excited to the prospect of what she could come up with and how she could develop my football," Toogood said. 

"I felt comfortable with the head coach straightaway, because of the previous knowing of each other. So that's been really handy and ease the nerves a lot more and means I'm able to, at times get a bit more of an insight of like, what does she want to do? How can I help with that? And because we are new, and we're learning on the fly a little bit with how this new group operates, we can have good conversations about gelling everyone as quick as possible in an authentic way."  

But now, with a one club philosophy, all eyes are on Sunday's VFLW Grand Final, after which preseason ratchets up to ten with the full list available and the weeks counting down to August.