Leigh Harding admits that less than a year ago, he didn’t know if his side could contest for another premiership.
Coming off his first flag as coach and third in four years as a player, the South Launceston midfielder watched as a handful of his side’s old guard took up retirement and names like Jake Laskey departed for new clubs.
A brutal opening seven rounds where his side managed an average winning margin of 95 points must have not only quashed all fears, but replaced them with a belief that the Bulldogs could go through the season undefeated.
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Which is exactly what they achieved on Saturday with a 52-point grand final win over Bracknell.
“We had 10 players that were out of our side from last year and that’s a big part of the side, some really key, influential players,” Harding said.
“It’s fair to say 10 months ago we were a bit worried about the direction we might have gone in - we’ve got some really good juniors coming through but (it’s tough) to lose so many experienced players in one bulk.
“But the players we were able to add to our group – who weren’t big names but have now made a name for themselves - have fitted in beautifully, it’s tremendous.”
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The Bulldogs had winners all over the ground against Bracknell – Cody Linger led the way in the middle by winning the ruck battle against experienced pair Craig Burling and Matt Lang, while Brad Etchell enjoyed his biggest haul for the season.
Unheralded defender Ben Webb picked off opposition forward entries expertly and was Harding’s pick for best on ground, with medal winner Josh Harris also impressing.
“He’s got a really good future and I hope he takes it by the scruff of the neck,” Harding said of his teenage forward.
Having overseen one of the Bulldogs’ most successful eras to date – winning two flags as captain and two as coach – Harding is weighing up his future as the helm.
But first, he’ll be celebrating a perfectly-executed season with his teammates.
“I’m going to really enjoy it with the boys for the next three days and then it’ll be back to the drawing board,” he said.
“I’m not exactly sure what I’ll be doing in terms of whether I’ll be coaching or not at this point, but I’d really like to continue to be a part of the group.
“I’m getting on a bit at 32 but I still feel like I might be able to offer a little bit.”
Harding said recruiting new blood would play a key role in South’s charge for a three-peat in 2019.
“It’s really crucial that you continue to add a little bit to the group.
“Two or three recruits to the group provides a bit of fresh air and a bit of motivation and things like that, but I’m just going to tell the guys to celebrate it because it’s a long season and they’ve really deserved to celebrate and we’ll look at that a bit further down the track.”
‘The boys never gave up’: Shipton
If he was hurting from a third-straight grand final loss, Bracknell coach Gary Shipton didn’t show it.
Leading the Redlegs for the last time, the veteran forward cut an optimistic figure after his side’s 52-point loss and took the chance to congratulate his players on another long finals campaign.
“I’m proud of our boys - we never stopped trying and never gave up,” he said.
“(We’ve played) the last three grand finals and had a crack at all of them so we can hold our heads up high.
“Losing three grand finals in a row isn’t great, but from where we were five years ago to where we are now is a mammoth thing for the club.”
Midfielders Trent Page, Richard Howe and Clinton Burn all played good games in a losing effort, as did defender Charlie Archer.
Shipton said his side had put pressure on the reigning premiers in the first half.
“The first quarter we came out pretty hard and kicked 2.9 - if we’d kicked 9.2 it could have been a different story for the day,” he said.
“Our second quarter was really good as well - we kept them to a few goals into that strong breeze.
“South are a brilliant well-drilled side, Spreader (Leigh Harding) has got them going in the right direction so for them to win four flags in five years, it’s a mammoth effort.”
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