RARELY does a team remain in premiership contention while getting younger and blooding new talent, but that's exactly what South Fremantle accomplished in 2021 despite the disappointment of a Grand Final loss.
South Fremantle broke through to win the premiership in 2020 in remarkable circumstances on their home turf at Fremantle Community Bank Oval, and they weren’t too far away from going back-to-back for the first time since 1954.
The Bulldogs started the season well enough winning six of the first eight games before a surprise loss to East Perth in Round 10. But they built some form impressively in the back end of the season.
They did only narrowly secure second position, though, and a subsequent home qualifying final and double chance come finals time which ended up seeing them play at home in the preliminary final.
A 45-point win in Round 22 over the West Coast Eagles was just enough for them to stay ahead of Claremont in second position before then hosting the Tigers in an incredible qualifying final at Fremantle Community Bank Oval.
South Fremantle prevailed when Jared Hardisty couldn’t kick truly after the siren for Claremont. The Bulldogs then regrouped from a rough second semi-final loss to Subiaco to hold Claremont goalless for three quarters in the preliminary final on the way to an 11-point win.
The Grand Final didn’t go to plan against Subiaco with a 44-point loss, but South Fremantle will feel they would have been more competitive had captain Dylan Main, Blayne Wilson, Brandon Donaldson, Blake Schlensog, Zac Dent and Ben Rioli not been unavailable through injury.
Not only did South Fremantle's leaders Haiden Schloithe, Mason Shaw, Nick Suban, Zac Strom, Jacob Dragovich and Jason Maskos continue to shine in 2021, but Chad Pearson, Noah Strom, Jimmy Miller, Tom Blechynden and Donaldson all continued to grow.
Then there was the chances taken by young players Manfred Kelly, Toby McQuilkin, Aiden Hall, George Wessels and Trent Newton to suggest the future remains bright despite the retirements of Brock Higgins and Blayne Wilson, and departure to Richmond of Matthew Parker.
COACH: Todd Curley (Seventh season, 94-48 record)
CAPTAIN: Dylan Main
FINISHING POSITION: Second, 13-5, 129.9% (Lost Grand Final)
BEST TEAM PERFORMANCE: South Fremantle's full firepower was on show in the 116-point hammering of Peel in Round 17, but it's hard to go past the preliminary final win over Claremont despite it being the lowest ever winning score to move into a Grand Final in WAFL history. The Bulldogs were down on manpower with the absence of a host of key players, Claremont surely couldn’t keep losing at Fremantle Community Bank Oval. But the Bulldogs held the Tigers goalless for three quarters and then did enough to hold on in a dramatic fourth term to reach a third consecutive Grand Final.
Haiden Schloithe's position in history as one of the best and most decorated players to ever pull on a South Fremantle jumper was cemented in 2021. As he nears the 200-game mark in his WAFL career with South Fremantle that started in 2011 on the back of a successful colts premiership winning stint, Schloithe delivered another outstanding 2021 season that was capped off by claiming the Bulldogs' fairest and best award for a fourth time. The 181-game superstar produced one of the best seasons of his career in 2021 and that saw him finish third in Sandover Medal voting, named to the WAFL Team of the Year for a sixth straight time and winning the WJ Hughes Medal. He kicked 24 goals in 22 games in 2021 splitting his time between playing as a forward and midfielder while averaging 24.1 possessions along the way while often copping close attention from the opposition.
BEST INDIVIDUAL PERFORMANCE
What a return it was for Jake Florenca after the horror 12 months he'd been through rupturing his Achilles in last year's preliminary final, missing the premiership and then going through the arduous rehab. He made his return in the reserves in the Round 18. He got through that game impressively with 19 disposals and nine tackles, and then made a stunning return to league ranks kicking a brilliant goal in the first quarter to go along with 11 possessions on his way to 29 disposals, eight marks and eight tackles for the afternoon. Florenca backed up that form the last in the win against the West Coast Eagles, he finished with 28 possessions, five marks, five tackles and four entries inside the forward 50.
Cam McCarthy – Round 1 v West Perth
Blake Schlensog – Round 1 v West Perth
George Wessels – Round 1 v West Perth
Hamish Free – Round 3 v Peel Thunder
Manfred Kelly – Round 8 v West Coast Eagles
Toby McQuilkin – Round 8 v West Coast Eagles
Jarrod Salmeri – Round 8 v West Coast Eagles
Aiden Hall – Round 12 v Perth
Trent Newton – Round 12 v Perth
Jesse Motlop – Round 15 v Swan Districts
Jaxon Bellchambers – Round 16 v Subiaco
For someone who has 156 AFL games, in an AFL Grand Final and won four WAFL premierships, Nick Suban's impact on South Fremantle and his dedication to the Bulldogs continues to be a big part of their success. It's easy for someone coming off an AFL career to take life a little easy coming back to the WAFL, but not Suban. He has settled into largely being a midfielder with South Fremantle and is often the barometer of the team. When he plays well, so does the team and he has an ability to step up in big moments with a crucial clearance, kick forward, crunching tackle, smother or indeed a goal on that left boot. He's now played 73 games since joining South Fremantle after his time at Fremantle and continues to be an outstanding contributor.
Tom Blechynden was already a premiership player coming into 2021 at South Fremantle, but he took his game up another level on the back of increased opportunities in the midfield.
South Fremantle finished the season as the third best attacking team in the competition averaging 85.3 points a game, but the second best defensively conceding 65.7. Highlighting their defence, the Bulldogs only gave up 12 goals or more twice. The Bulldogs averaged 329.3 possessions a game this season while their opponents are picking up just 304.6. South Fremantle was also the most accurate team in the competition kicking 230.131 when you don't factor in rushed behinds at 64 per cent. Even with rushed behinds, they have gone 230.155 at 60 per cent. The Bulldogs were the best first quarter team this season, outscoring their opponents by 160 points across the 18 matches. They were ranked second in second quarters, third in third quarters and then only ninth in last terms where they have been outscored by a total of 58 points.
WHAT NEEDS IMPROVEMENT
Replacing Brock Higgins in the ruck, Blayne Wilson down back and Matthew Parker's explosiveness won't be easy, although the trio were really only available for half of 2021. The great bonus is that captain Dylan Main only played eight games, Zac Dent six, Jake Florenca seven and Ben Rioli 11 so they instantly come back in for the start of 2021. Really for South Fremantle it's more about maintaining their edge and drive because the talent is there to work with. Having now played in three straight Grand Finals, and finishing top two for six straight years, you'd be crazy to think there's a need to change too much.
OUTLOOK FOR 2022
The outlook is bright for the Bulldogs in 2022. When you add back in the players they were missing in the Grand Final, including captain Dylan Main, Brandon Donaldson, Zac Dent, Blake Schlensog and Ben Rioli, and it makes the world of difference. Their young players should continue to grow and they've already made a recruiting splash by bringing back Brendon Ah Chee from the AFL. It's Todd Curley's eighth season as coach, they have finished top two the last six years and there's every sign for them to remain around the mark in 2022.