AFTER three years of being ever so close to a Grand Final appearance, it's a new era at South Fremantle in 2019 after a spate of retirees but coach Todd Curley doesn’t see any reason why they can't continue to perform strongly.
Coming off a successful era between 2004-11 under coach John Dimmer where South Fremantle won two premiership and played in finals in each season bar one, it took some time to rebuild with four years out of finals.
But by the time 2016 came around in Curley's second season as coach, it was a South Fremantle group ready to perform and over the past three seasons, they have finished second at the end of each home and away season while reaching the preliminary final on every occasion.
The Bulldogs couldn’t quite advance to a Grand Final losing those preliminary finals to Peel Thunder, Subiaco and West Perth, and by the time they suffered their shock loss at Fremantle Community Bank Oval to the Falcons last year, it proved the end of an era in many ways.
Ashton Hams, Ryan Cook, Ben Saunders, Shane Hockey, Cory Dell'Olio and Jarrod Parry all retired at the end of the 2018 season on the back of Blaine Johnson departing mid-season and then Matthew Parker getting drafted.
That means that 820 games of WAFL experience departed with Hams and Dell'Olio their last two remaining premiership players while Cook is the club's longest-ever serving captain and Saunders has won three of the past seven Bernie Naylor Medals.
Rather than be concerned about the quality going out, Curley remains confident the Bulldogs can continue to be a strong performing team in 2019 with the players ready to grab their increased opportunities.
"Obviously when you go through those names we've lost there is a different dynamic in our group and those players have had great careers, and had a great impact on our footy club," Curley said on 91.3 SportFM.
"But over the last couple of years we've known this time was coming so we did a lot of work in behind them to develop the next generation of players. We have a pretty big core of 10 to 15 guys who have had a taste of senior footy and are itching for an opportunity to get a regular chance at that.
"The way that they've trained over summer, they have a fair idea there is a few spots up for grabs and training has been ultra-competitive.
"We are really looking forward to it, it will be a fresh group with a lot of youth and with that comes enthusiasm. We do also have a good core group of senior players so we fully expect to be right in the mix again."
It's going to be a significantly younger South Fremantle playing group in 2019 obviously with the group of departures of senior, experienced players.
Curley is now looking forward to players like Chris Ah Siu, Zac Dent, Josh Collard, Zac De San Miguel, Daniel Cabassi, Glenn Byron, Jake Florenca, Kyle Russell and Chad Pearson to continue their progression and grab the extra opportunities that will present with the spots that have opened up.
"When you take Hamsy, Cooky and Hocks who were all 30-plus, and Dell was late 20s and Saundo and Jarrod Parry were pushing that way, so if you take those guys off and obviously the list is significantly younger," Curley said.
"But you can see with the guys we've had come through the last couple of years like Brandon Donaldson and Noah Strom who jumped last year, that we have players ready to take the next step.
"We then have another group made up of Florenca, Russell, Byron, Pearson, Datson, De San Miguel, Ah Siu and others who have had a look and are desperate for more of a chance. Because of that, we haven’t gone out to bring in too many players because those guys deserve a chance."
Another potential positive that Curley sees in what is going to be a significantly new and fresh playing group this season will be an ability for there to greater flexibility to use players in a variety of roles.
He's looking forward to being able to use different players through the midfield and then either off half-forward or half-back, but perhaps more significantly having players that can play both forward and on the wing.
That should mean that the tried and true players like Haiden Schloithe, Marlion Pickett, Steve Verrier and Dylan Main can expect to play a number of different roles, but then newer players will also be of significantly more value if they can play a variety of spots as well.
"In my time, we have been pretty big on bringing guys in who can play in multiple areas and we've developed that area with the flexibility of our side. We've had some really good young players step up and earn spots in the senior group over the last couple of years," he said.
"We also get Kade Stewart back in and he's only a young man himself, and you put those guys around established players like Suban, Schloithe, Shaw, Main, Higgins and Zac Strom, along with Blayne Wilson, Jason Maskos and Shaun Bewick, so we think we're well balanced just with a bit more run and flexibility."
Perhaps the biggest impact with the losses from South Fremantle will be felt in the forward-line.
From 2018 alone, the players departing take 120 goals kicked with them but importantly key forward targets Mason Shaw and Zac Strom remain while Donaldson, Schloithe, Main and Jacob Dragovich are all proven goal scorers.
Curley sees no reason the Bulldogs can't continue to be a potent team up forward despite the absence of Saunders, Dell'Olio, Parker, Hams and Johnson.
"We want to share the load in terms of our goals but we didn’t have Johnno pretty much from the state game on last year, Saunders the same pretty much didn’t play after that through injury," Curley said.
"So we have had well over 12 months to prepare without lose two but we think Donaldson has really come along, then we have Schloithe, Dragovich, Kade Stewart, Main and Verrier who will all play forward at times.
"Then we have Zac Strom and Mason Shaw as the tall targets. As always there'll be a young player jump up too. We think we'll be able to share the load so we don't think a lot has changed, we just have to share it around to kick some scores and we think we can do that."