This time last year, the Western Bulldogs just avoided the wooden spoon with a win over Greater Western Sydney. Now they are the champions of AFLW.
On a day where torrential rain ruined the chance of a sell-out crowd at Ikon Park and forced the match into more of an old-fashioned scrap rather than what the AFL wanted in fast-paced and free-flowing footy, it was the Western Bulldogs that triumphed in the wet conditions and in turn, denied the Brisbane Lions a premiership for the second-straight year.
12 months ago, the Brisbane Lions lost the decider by a straight kick. Ironically, it was a six-point margin that separated the two sides in this year's decider as well.
The horrid conditions made it a struggle to not just get scores on the board, but also to gather possession of the footy, particularly in the first quarter. Only 44 disposals were recorded in the opening term alone with Brisbane controlling the play 31-13. Brisbane finally got an upper-hand on the scoreboard with Jess Wuetschner finding an unmarked Sophie Conway, who kicked truly from close range for the only goal of the first half.
Defensively, the Lions were brilliant, keeping the Bulldogs goal-less in the first half – the first time any side has manage to do that against the Bulldogs this season. With Kate Lutkins leading a stifling Brisbane defence, the Bulldogs had no answers for a Brisbane back-line that looked like a well-oiled machine and proved exactly why they have been the best defensive side in the two seasons of AFLW.
However, the Bulldogs kept themselves in it with an equally impressive defence, keeping the Lions goal-less in the second quarter and only six-points down at half-time, with a number of ladies playing exceptional defence against a very dangerous Brisbane forward line. Don't let the rugby-like score-line fool you. Both sides threw everything on the line in the final game of the AFLW home and away season. It was just a shame that the wet-weather meant that it wasn't going to show a more exciting score-line.
The Western Bulldogs came to life after half-time and established the proverbial 'Premiership Quarter' with a three-goal burst in the third term. It started with Deanna Berry's long bomb, which ended up skidding through from the goal-square, giving the Bulldogs' first of the day. It was shortly followed by Kirsten McLeod, who capitalised on the ball falling to the back of a pack and converted from close range to make it a seven-point Bulldog lead.
That lead would extend just before the three-quarter time siren by rising gun Monique Conti, who broke clear and kicked long towards goal, and bounced through an unguarded goal-square to give them a 13-point margin. Conti was one of a few Bulldog ladies that sparked the third-quarter resurgence that would prove to be decisive in the contest.
Brisbane made sure they weren't a spent force in the last quarter, as Jess Wuetschner kicked a goal that brought the margin back down to a single-figure deficit. After a Sabrina Frederick-Traub miss shortly afterwards, both teams were at a stalemate with the Dogs ahead by goal for the majority of the last quarter. Stoppages were vital for the Dogs and they stifled Brisbane's run for most of that quarter.
Emma Kearney's tackle of Kaitlyn Ashmore in the Bulldogs' attacking 50 was a critical turning point in this match, with Ashmore unable to out-run one of the stars in the Bulldogs' midfield – resulting in a holding the ball call. Kearney went back with five minutes left on the clock and converted in a moment where the Dogs needed to stand up.
12 points up with less than five minutes to go, the Brisbane Lions refused to lie down as Wuetschner, much like the last time these two sides met, did everything she could to will her Brisbane team back into the contest, kicking a second goal of the term to make it a five-point margin late in the game.
But the Dogs held on until the final seconds. The ball was thrusted inside Brisbane's forward 50, and unfortunately for Lions' fans, Sophie Conway was surrounded by three Bulldogs' players and the final mark from Rising Star nominee Naomi Ferres sealed the AFLW Premiership. One straight kick separating the two sides by the final siren.
The Bulldogs – without any bias here – have been the best side all-year round. Stand-in captain Ellie Blackburn said it best in a post-match interview on Channel Seven: saying 'the team is like a family'. From watching them throughout this season, they do play with such passion, such drive and they love getting around one another when they kick a goal. That's a team.
Another wonderful moment in the post-game celebrations was when Ellie Blackburn called up suspended captain Katie Brennan to help her lift the premiership cup.
“I can't lift that cup up alone...KB get up here!”. The quote drawing comparisons to Luke Beveridge calling up injured captain Robert Murphy and awarding him his premiership medallion when the men's side won the flag in 2016. The comparison that people have made since the win has been fitting. Both individuals huge parts in their respective teams, not just in terms of their skill, but in terms of their leadership and their love for the game.
Given that they had to deal with the whole Katie Brennan suspension fiasco during the week, in addition to the fact that their captain didn't play and that young gun Izzy Huntington has been out for virtually all season long, it's made this premiership victory all the more sweeter.
Monique Conti capped off a wonderful debut season, taking home the best-on-ground medal after a stunning second-half surge that saw her kick a goal and finish with 13 disposals. I've seen it all season long, but Conti has a Marcus Bontempelli-type presence about her when she has the ball in her hands. She finds space when there is hardly any and can make a huge impact with her disposals, whether that be setting team mates up for goal or kicking goals herself. She's proven in eight games how valuable she is worth in the side.
Emma Kearney and Ellie Blackburn were at their usual best in the midfield. Kearney's goal in the final quarter proved to be the killer blow in the contest. She ended up with 15 disposals and four tackles, whilst Blackburn led all Bulldogs in disposals, with 17 along with three tackles. Jenna Bruton (13 disposals and seven tackles), Kirsty Lamb (12 disposals and eight tackles) and Angelica Gogos (10 disposals and nine tackles) were all industrious contributors in the midfield as well.
Lauren Spark contained Sabrina Frederick-Traub for the second time this season, keeping the dangerous Brisbane forward to just one behind, whilst Libby Birch and Hannah Scott were defensively brilliant at times throughout the game.
I do feel for the Brisbane Lions team and their supporters. Beaten on the big stage by a straight kick for the second-straight year? I can't imagine how much pain the players and the coaches would be going through. They worked just as hard as the Doggies did, but in the end, there had to be a winner and a loser, and unfortunately for Brisbane fans it was Lions that were second best.
Kate Lutkins could've been and maybe in the eyes of some – should've won the best-on-ground medal for a remarkable game in defence. Someone from Triple M said that Lutkins was the female version of Alex Rance with the way she reads the play and takes numerous intercept possessions. She had 21 disposals, six marks and four tackles in an incredible effort in defence.
In the midfield, Jamie Stanton (20 disposals), Nat Exon (16 disposals, four marks and nine tackles) and Ally Anderson (16 disposals) were leading the way for the Lions, whilst Jess Wuetschner capped off a great year, kicking two goals in the last quarter and finishing up with 11 disposals and four tackles. Kaitlyn Ashmore (14 disposals and three marks), Sophie Conway (10 disposals and a goal) and Emily Bates (15 disposals and five tackles) also stood out for the Lions.