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Monday, March 29, 2021 - 1:15 AM by Chris Pike

THE biggest challenge for any premiership team is retaining that player group but not only is South Fremantle coach Todd Curley delighted to welcome most flag winning stars back, but with the additions to the group too.

On the back of being strong contenders the previous four years under his coaching with three preliminary final appearances and a Grand Final berth, South Fremantle broke through in 2020 to win the WAFL premiership in a year that was like no other.

On the back of that the first task is to try and retain the majority of that playing group and the Bulldogs have done a tremendous job of that. Now there have been a few casualties namely Chris Luff, Kade Stewart and Steve Verrier, but for the most part the premiership group is back.

That includes veterans Brock Higgins, Blayne Wilson and Nick Suban agreeing to return along with senior players Haiden Schloithe, Mason Shaw, Dylan Main, Jacob Dragovich and reigning fairest and best winner Zac Strom.

Defenders Ben Rioli, Chad Pearson, Zac Dent, Noah Strom and Jason Maskos, forwards Brandon Donaldson, Jimmy Miller and Cody Ninyette, and also Jarrad Doney, Caleb Datson and Tom Blechynden.

When you also consider Jake Florenca, missed the Grand Final through injury and Seaton Thompson, Kyle Hamersley, Glenn Byron and Kye Barker were among those in the selection hit, depth is a great strength of the Bulldogs coming into 2021.

To top things off as South Fremantle prepares to open its 2021 campaign this Saturday at Fremantle Community Bank Oval against West Perth, there are exciting new arrivals at the Bulldogs with Cam McCarthy, Matthew Parker and Steven Edwards returning, and Blake Schlensog from Geelong.

Premiership winning coach Todd Curley is happy with the way the group is shaping up now for the 2021 season.

"It's pleasing that we've kept most of our group together and I think when you win one and understand how good it feels, you want to feel that again so it wasn’t too hard to get them to come back," Curley said. 

"We are a pretty young group overall apart from probably Higgo and Subes who might be 30. We had six or seven players from the Grand Final on the day had played less than 10 games for the club so we are still pretty young so that helped bring everyone back. 

"The great thing was that the reserves boys that were there on the day probably got to experience and be involved a lot more post-game than they may have if you were at Optus. So seeing firsthand what is possible and how good it is probably helped those guys want to come back. 

"But like most years, we've had that underbelly of a young group who have been looking to fight into the team and last year we ended up with Doney, Blechynden, Datson, Ninyette and these sort of guys come in and play in a premiership.

"We think there's another group now coming through who will be trying to find a spot this year so obviously to have everyone fit and available is the first task, and we are pretty close to that. Then it's about having that real competition for spots and we think we'll have that. 

"There's a lot to be excited about and they are all ready to go for Round 1. While it's been a shorter pre-season than traditional, they are still eager to get into the season and get started."

There's understandably plenty of excitement surrounding the return to South Fremantle of Cam McCarthy after his 70-game AFL career at both the GWS Giants and Fremantle Dockers.

Curley is looking forward to seeing what he can produce and with the passion he shows for the Bulldogs.

"It's fantastic to have him down there and he's done most of the sessions with us and really coming out of an AFL system after six or seven years, the first pre-season can be quite a daunting one coming off an AFL list," Curley said.

"You're working full-time probably for the first time in your life as well as then having to go to training, and get organised whereas in the AFL system everything is so structured for you. 

"Nick Suban has been through it recently and we have a few guys from our club who have come out of AFL system and have been able to help Cam with the adjustment. 

"He's had a couple of little setbacks but he's been back in full training for a month or so now, he played some limited minutes in the scratch match last week against Subi and he has been building well. He will be pretty close to being available for Round 1."

Matthew Parker is another to return to South Fremantle in 2021 after his time in the AFL. He played 19 games at St Kilda the past two years, but has returned to the Bulldogs, has been voted into the leadership group and Curley can't wait to see what he is capable of.

"He has been fantastic from the moment he walked back in really. We kept a really close link of communication with him when he was away and that's just the type of kid he is," Curley said.

"He loves playing at Souths, he obviously has his own little family now and he has trained really hard and come back definitely a better player. He has certainly grown as a person as well and he has been voted in as one of our leaders so that's a pretty good effort after just the one summer back."

One completely new face for South Fremantle is Geelong key position recruit Blake Schlensog. He looks likely to at least start the season by slotting into a key defensive role and Curley couldn’t have been more impressed with him already.

"He was recommended to us initially from Tim Kelly from his time at Geelong, and he's only young and he was keen to get over here and move away from home," he said.

"He got over here as soon as he could before Christmas, went through his quarantine and he hasn’t been able to get back home. He has fitted in really well in our group and we are really excited with what he has been able to show on the track and on-field to this point. 

"With Luffy going out, he's almost the readymade replacement so he'll definitely play in Round 1 and we are rapt to have him."

While Cody Ninyette became a premiership player in 2020, he will virtually be like a new recruit given the only two games he did play were the preliminary final and Grand Final.

The usual small forward is even going to get some midfield time from Curley too.

"It's exciting what he can do. We got Cody over for a reason last year but with everything that went on, he had to work away which was unfortunate," Curley said.

"But off limited preparation he was still able to be really important for us in the two games that he did play last year so after a full summer we think he's in really good shape.

"We look forward to getting him to play and he'll play forward obviously, but he'll play in the midfield a bit for us and we look forward to releasing him up there because he is a good ball user and is a smart footballer."

Another player back to South Fremantle this season is Steven Edwards. He's a proven quality player both as an attacking defender and small forward, and Curley is looking forward to welcoming him back into the mix.

"Stevie Edwards is also over his foot injury. He was back with us last year but unfortunately hurt his foot a couple of weeks out from Round 1 and that ruled him out for the rest of the year," Curley said.

"But he has been training really well and he has played some match sim the last couple of weeks and spent some time in the scratch match against Subi, and we know he's an elite ball user. 

"The new rules are certainly going to suit him and he'll be close for Round 1 but we'll make a decision after our main session this week on what's best for the long-term view. If that's to play Round 1 then he'll and if not, it will be Round 2 or 3 I would say."

While there is a lot to juggle and a lot of players pushing for selection, the Bulldogs won't be rushing anyone to play in Round 1 just for the sake of being there for the season-opener.

"Another thing we learned last year with the short season was that we really weren’t prepared to risk anyone that we didn’t think was a realistic chance of getting through a game," Curley said.

"We couldn’t afford to lose them last season for a large chunk of a small season so that was another learning experience for us, and we are really confident that we've got the depth. I've never been a massive one about you having to get up for Round 1. 

"We have a couple of players who will be touch and go for whether they'll be available for the seniors in Round 1 or whether it's Round 2 or 3. But they'll certainly play some footy and we won't be rushing them in either and risk any injuries."