Friday, June 19, 2020 - 1:38 PM by Chris Pike

STEVEN Edwards had a tremendous three-year stint at South Fremantle up until taking a break in 2019, but the pull to return to the Bulldogs was there the whole time and now after a delayed start, he can't wait to get things rolling in 2020.

Having initially moved to Perth from Albany, Edwards began his WAFL journey at Claremont but joined South Fremantle ahead of the 2016 season and went on to produce three terrific seasons.

In teams that reached preliminary finals in each of the 2016, 2017 and 2018 WAFL campaigns, Edwards was a key cog in the wheel at the Bulldogs largely settling into a role as a small defender who was creative, and capable of setting up play coming out of the back-line.

Edwards was also thrown forward at times and proved himself capable of kicking goals or he could even have brief stints into the midfield so he had become an important player for South Fremantle.

He was even named in the back pocket of the 2017 WAFL Team of the Year, but he was constantly battling the pull of being closer to family and friends back home in Albany.

In the end that desire to head back home won out and that's where Edwards was for much of 2019, both to live and play football where he even managed to star in a premiership triumph for Royals.

However, he kept a close eye on South Fremantle's progress in the WAFL and found himself increasingly jealous that he wasn’t part of it when they broke that preliminary final hoodoo and qualified for the 2019 Grand Final against Subiaco at Optus Stadium.

That was enough for Edwards to make the decision to return to South Fremantle in 2020 and while he certainly expected to be playing again by now had it not been for COVID-19, he couldn’t be happier with his decision to be back at the Bulldogs.

"It certainly didn’t give me that hunger back to play in the WAFL. Country footy is obviously a bit more laid back from that side of things, but it has definitely given me that hunger back," Edwards said.

"Then seeing the boys get into a Grand Final really drove that even further and I wanted to come back to Souths. It was good to watch them play again last year. They played a really good brand of footy and it's always good to get over any hurdle, which was the prelim for us. 

"They got to the Grand Final and even though the result was a bit unfortunate, hopefully this year we can build on that and bring it home."

Like most of his teammates at South Fremantle, Edwards had done the hard yards of pre-season after returning to the club and was ready to get stuck into the practice matches when things were called off thanks to coronavirus.

There wasn’t any guarantee for a while that there even would be a WAFL season at all, but Edwards' excitement grew for what was to come when August 1 was confirmed as the starting date as he could begin to look ahead after the challenges of isolation and the COVID-19 restrictions.

"I was over the moon when I heard we'd still be having a season this year. Obviously we would have liked to have started a bit earlier, but due to the circumstances obviously we can't do that. To hear that August 1st is the date is just awesome," Edwards said.

"It has been tough I can't lie. I've grown up playing footy my whole life and I obviously love it, so it's a bit tough to not have been able to watch it or even play it during all of this. 

"It's certainly had a pretty big effect training-wise as well. We were given programs to do on our own which kept us kind of in good nick, but there's nothing better than getting to start training as a full group now to get around the boys and build that camaraderie."

It has always been something Edwards has struggled to get the balance right with in terms of living in Perth and the pull of back home in Albany, but he feels in the right place to fully embrace being away from the comforts of home now.

"I guess it's only four hours away sort of thing so I try to remember that. Having the year off last year made me realise that a lot of the people back home aren't really going anywhere," he said.

"All of my family are still down there but at the end of the day it's just a four-hour trip. Living up in Perth just offers a lot more variety for whatever area you want to excel in so I am happy to be up here."

South Fremantle certainly never gave up on Edwards returning to the club when he did decide to leave for 2019.

Coach Todd Curley stayed in touch with him and was eventually able to get Edwards to agree to return with everyone now working to that same goal of winning an elusive premiership having been so close over the past four years.

"Towards the end of last year Todd started to talk to me about the possibility of coming back, and seeing them in the Grand Final and actually winning a Grand Final of my own for the club I grew up playing with really gave me that fire to come back up here," Edwards said.

"To win the premiership with the red-and-white is now the dream. I think all the boys are real keen and hungry to try to go that one step better this year. 

"You can sense the energy around training and stuff already, everyone is up and about. Even though it's going to be a shortened season, we just want to make the most of it and go from there."

What Edwards does provide for the Bulldogs on his return in 2020 is a proven quality player with tremendous versatility, but if he had to pick where to play himself it would be as part of the defensive unit once more.

"I'd probably have to say I like playing at half-back best just because of the run it lets me give and it can really open the game up," he said. 

"It is good to know, though, that the team can rely on me to be able to play forward or back so I think that's a pretty handy thing to have these days with the way the game is played."

There has been great change, though, at South Fremantle from when Edwards played in that 2018 preliminary final loss to West Perth in terms of the playing group.

The likes of Ashton Hams, Ryan Cook, Shane Hockey, Cory Dell'Olio, Jarrod Parry, Ben Saunders, Matthew Parker, Marlion Pickett, Shaun Bewick and Adam McIntosh are no longer there, but still Edwards is looking forward to building up similar chemistry with the players that do remain.

"It has been a big change obviously and towards my last season there losing Cooky and Hamsy, that's just like 500 games of experience lost there with those two," Edwards said.

"Then there's also Saundo, Dell'Olio and it just goes on so it's very different now back at the club with all those guys. But every year you get a few players that will change it up so you do come to expect that and now we're looking to really gel with this group that we've got and we'll take it from there I guess."

Two players Edwards is looking forward to building a bond with is Cody Ninyette and Ben Rioli who are new arrivals at the Bulldogs in 2020.

Ninyette has come across from Perth as a goal sneak while Rioli joins from the Northern Territory to continue his family's rich tradition with South Fremantle.

"I haven’t really had to do anything special to help them fit in because they've done a pretty good job of that themselves," Edwards said.

"When I came back for the first time, it already looked like they were getting along with everyone and like they'd known the other players for years.

"Ben has fitted in especially well and he's getting along really well with all the boys. I'd watch him play on NITV for a few games when he was with St Mary's and the NT Thunder so I already knew he was a really exciting player. 

"His run off half-back is just amazing and now I can't wait to see what he can do for the red-and-white."