FRESH BULLDOGS READY TO FIRE

Thursday, February 20, 2020 - 9:29 AM by Chris Pike

PREPARATIONS are now ramping up for South Fremantle's crack at going one better in the 2020 WAFL season and after freshening up the playing group over summer, coach Todd Curley is looking forward to what the new campaign holds.

With three preliminary finals and a Grand Final appearance over the past four years on top of an impressive 57-19 win-loss record during the home and away season, you'd suggest Curley and the Bulldogs are doing plenty right so there's little reason for too much change.

But there's always a natural turnover in any playing group including the departure of 347 games of WAFL experience in the form of retiring trio Shaun Bewick (154 games overall, 124 with South Fremantle), Adam McIntosh (116) and Brendan Verier (77).

There are new arrivals at the Bulldogs in 2020, though, highlighted by former Northern Territory Thunder NEAFL star Ben Rioli along with former Perth leading goalkicker Cody Ninyette while another excitement machine, Steven Edwards, also returns.

When you factor in the remain core group of senior players including Haiden Schloithe (149), Brock Higgins (111), Steve Verrier (108), Zac Strom (106), Jason Maskos (102), Blayne Wilson (100), Mason Shaw (89), Jacob Dragovich (82), Dylan Main (77), Brandon Donaldson (52) and Nick Suban (42), then there's no shortage of quality experience.

Add in the emerging group too of Tom Blechynden, Glenn Byron, Caleb Datson, Zac De San Miguel, Zac Dent, Jake Florenca, Kyle Hamersley, Andrew Haydon, Chad Pearson, Kyle Russell, Noah Strom, Seaton Thompson and Matthew Ward, and once more depth is a strength of the Bulldogs.

A key part of pre-season for South Fremantle was freshening up the playing group too after four seasons of at least reaching a preliminary final. 

There's always a juggling act with that to ensuring they have got enough work in as well, and Curley is confident they've got the balance right now heading towards the 2020 season.

"We had a good break with about three weeks off and then got right back into it," Curley said.

"Obviously the players have their training that they need to tick over, but it's probably the mental break that's the biggest winner for us. 

"Having gone pretty deep the last four years, we probably came back and only did a three-week block pre-Christmas and then had another three weeks off. 

"We felt the group was overdue for a bit of a longer break and a refresh. They seem to be training really well so hopefully we see the benefits of that later in the season."

While South Fremantle did achieve a breakthrough in 2019 by reaching the Grand Final after three successive preliminary final exits, the day on Optus Stadium anything but went to plan with the eventual 96-point defeat at the hands of Subiaco.

Upon reflection, Curley just felt the Bulldogs threw everything into making the Grand Final that they had little left to give against such a strong and fresh Subiaco outfit. 

That doesn’t make anyone feel better about the performance or experience, but it does go a way to explaining it with the benefit of hindsight.

"I think the most disappointing thing is that we're no doubt we are better than what came out on Grand Final day," Curley said. 

"But at the start of the year, we had a huge transition in our list and our senior players did a fantastic job and so did the young ones coming in to be honest to get us in a position to play in a Grand Final.

"Unfortunately, those last six to eight weeks probably took a bit of a physical toll on us and we came up against a fresh and very good Subiaco team. They got on top early and we just didn’t have anything left in us to go. 

"I caught up with Leon Cameron before the AFL Grand Final and had a quick chat about how our game went, and he probably felt the Giants were in a similar state and within 15 minutes it was like watching a carbon copy when they couldn’t compete and run with Richmond in a physical sense. 

"It was a really disappointing end because it certainly doesn’t reflect on the great year we had."

Given South Fremantle lost Ashton Hams, Ryan Cook, Shane Hockey, Ben Saunders, Jarrod Parry, Cory Dell'Olio, and then Matthew Parker and Marlion Pickett for 2019, now seeing Bewick, Brendan Verrier and McIntosh depart sees further experience out of the line-up.

But depth is hardly a concern for the Bulldogs and with the young players making further natural progression and then the additions of Ninyette and Rioli along with the return of Edwards and potentially still others, Curley is more than content with the playing squad he has at his disposal.

"Obviously Bewick, Brendan Verrier and McIntosh have all retired at the end of last year so that's another huge chunk of experience going out for us, but the big thing for us was that in the previous 18 months to two years, we've lost Marlion Pickett, Tim Kelly, Matty Parker and Jarrod Garlett as well," he said. 

"So if you add in Bewick and Verrier in that, we've lost a fair bit of run and a bit of speed from our team so we've targeted a few with those strengths. We've got Steven Edwards back who had a year away last year, and he certainly brings that speed and skill and ball use. 

"Benny Rioli has moved down from Darwin which is great and he's training well, and we've had Cody Ninyette training with us and we've got that done to confirm him coming over from Perth. We think he can push up the ground and play a bit of wing as well as what he can do around goals. 

"We are pretty excited with the group we've got and we have a huge chunk of young players like Byron, Datson, Dent, Florenca, Blechynden, De San Miguel, Hamersley, Thompson and Ward who got a look last year that are ready to really step up. 

"Then there's Kyle Russell and Noah Strom so we think we have a heap of young blokes ready to become regular senior players and we still have a pretty quality core group senior guys. We think it's a well-balanced group and they're training well so it's a good place to be at the moment."

On the back of Parker, Pickett and Kelly having starred with South Fremantle and earned an AFL career, it heightened Rioli's desire to join the club on the back of his time in the NEAFL with the Thunder where he amassed 128 games and was 2019 runner-up fairest and best.

The 26-year-old is looking to make a significant impact in the WAFL this season and more importantly, is excited to get the chance to continue the Rioli legacy with South Fremantle.

Curley has no doubt he's going to have a significant impact.

"He's obviously a bit more mature than most recruits, he's played a lot of footy and obviously comes from a pretty good pedigree," Curley said.

"He is a great young fella and a good, mature kid so we think he'll really help us playing half-back/wing and give us a bit of dash. He likes to run and carry, and I like most of the highlights I've seen of him in recent times when he's running guys down from behind. 

"It's great for our club given his family has a long history here and it's great that we've got him to come down and be the next Rioli off the rank for us."