If the concept of the draft brings renewal to a sporting team, then having the number one pick provides immediate hope.
In the history of the AFLW to date, the Western Bulldogs have lived at the top end of the draft more than any club, selecting two players at number one (and one more at pick two).
Unlike in other sports, where drafted talents generally take a while to impact the game, the AFLW has seen young faces dominate the game from the outset.
One of those is Bulldogs star, and former number one draft pick, Isabel Huntington.
The missing years
It’s easy to forget just how little footy Isabel Huntington has played since she was drafted with the number one pick by the Bulldogs at the end of the inaugural AFLW season. Even before she was drafted, Huntington suffered a broken leg and a torn ACL in her teenage years. Despite these enforced layoffs, the promise of her talent was clear.
Prior to her ACL injury in 2018, the young Dog looked to be having an instant breakout with two goals against the Lions before the injury, then a further knee scare limited her to three games in in 2019.
As such, it wasn’t until last season that she took a key regular role, albeit a less glamourous defensive one. With the positional move, she stormed the 2020 season to claim the Rising Star award and an All-Australian spot.
Finally, in 2021, Huntington is back up forward, no doubt with some defensive lessons learned. Finally, she looks to be producing the form she was clearly capable of from her very first game in 2018.
After three games this year, Huntington is on easily the best marking pace we’ve yet seen in the AFLW. So far this season she has pulled in four contested grabs a game when nobody currently or previously, including herself last year, has ever taken even three a game.
A number of those marks are also inside 50, and are turning into scoring opportunities with Huntington kicking four goals from eight shots so far, and 13 score involvements over all.
Can Huntington drag the Dogs into contention?
Maybe not yet.
With Huntington moved from defence to attack, the Dogs are now looking pretty thoroughly mid-pack in terms of offensive and defensive efficiency, despite a slightly soft draw featuring a struggling Geelong and one of their near peers in the plucky St Kilda.
The match this afternoon against the flying Demons looms as a crucial litmus test for the Dogs. Melbourne are potent offensively, and may be a matchup where the absence of Huntington from the defensive end leaves them more exposed than they otherwise would be.
Given the tightness of this AFLW season, this week shapes as a critical match in terms of the Dogs finals hopes. If they lose, they will drop to 2-2, and firmly on the fringes of finals contention.
Huntington has taken a little longer than players with a cleaner injury run, but her big impact once match-fit is a testament to the benefits younger players are bringing with them into the league. The new AFLW generation have a level of experience unmatched by previous generations, who were generally unable to play football in their teenage years due to entrenched sexism in football.
They’re also the products of years of elite development and coaching through talent pathways that did not exist prior. While some in the male pathways are decrying the pushes for equality in the junior pipelines, the changes will significantly help the development of women’s footy at a minimal cost to the men’s side.
High draft picks like Huntington, Molloy, Prespakis and Parker are the most obvious examples of this early impact, but other young players also benefit, and we should really start to see them take over the league more than we already have. Huntington is high profile, but she’s not a lone hand.