IF three premiership players can prove their fitness for South Fremantle this week coach Todd Curley will have some selection headaches to make, but no matter the final 22 he is bursting with pride with his Bulldogs for reaching a third straight WAFL Grand Final.
Curley certainly felt that the Bulldogs had been largely written off coming into Sunday's preliminary against Claremont at Fremantle Community Bank Oval on the back of the second semi-final loss to Subiaco, and injuries to Blake Schlensog, Blayne Wilson, Brandon Donaldson and Dylan Main.
That was on the back of losing another premiership player, Zac Dent, to a neck injury after the qualifying final win over Claremont and with the Tigers looking to make up for recent heartbreaks, Curley felt many outside the club thought the tide was right against South Fremantle.
However, the Bulldogs produced a preliminary final performance full of heart to lead by as much as 38 points on the back of holding the Tigers goalless for three quarters.
Claremont made a run with four quick goals to start the final term but South Fremantle held firm for the 11-point win in what was their sixth consecutive preliminary final appearance to now book a place in a third Grand Final in-a-row.
It was an unheralded foursome of Travis Abbott, Trent Newton, George Wessels and Glenn Byron who came into the South Fremantle team and they all played their role, and Curley certainly won't be in a rush to deny any of them a Grand Final berth on Saturday against Subiaco at Optus Stadium.
While Schlensog won't be any chance of getting up to play, Curley expects premiership trio Donaldson, Wilson and Main to throw everything at trying to get up to play on Saturday which would make selection for the Grand Final fascinating if any are successful.
"They just came in and played their role. It's an old cliché and simple and not exciting to talk about, but they came in and just did they were asked to do and what we expected. We wanted them to be themselves and be their best, and they were pretty close to that," Curley said.
"Generally when you make a Grand Final there's always some really tough decisions to make at selection and some hard luck stories.
"But the boys that played this week were pretty good so it will be tough to make changes, but if any of those guys are fit they are important for us too so we'll just see what happens as this week unfolds."
The way it worked last week was that the medical staff worked how who was and wasn’t available early in the week, so Curley is hoping for a similar approach leading into the Grand Final.
"We knew pretty early on most of them last week to be honest and they all happened during that game against Subi. Blake has now had surgery so he's done but the others are always hopeful of getting up this week," he said.
"Dono improved a lot during the week and was pretty close, Mainy depends on how it feels day to day and then Blayne is pretty keen to try and put his hand up to play as well.
"We'll recover early in the week and see who is available, and work out who is likely and who isn’t and then put a plan in place to get ready for the Saturday. The boys did that last week and they were fantastic."
Recent finals history might be against South Fremantle coming up against Subiaco after the second semi-final loss two weeks ago and even the 96-point Grand Final loss at Optus Stadium back in 2019.
Subiaco has won all six of the finals match ups between the two clubs dating back to 2016 but it's not something that Curley expects to be a factor this Saturday afternoon.
"Obviously there's only two clubs left now and we are one of them. We are as good a chance as they are we'd like to think and we look forward to the opportunity. It's an exciting week to be part of and it has been a good effort from the group obviously to be part of it," Curley said.
"A lot of the guys in this team haven’t played in any of those games against Subi in the finals previously or maybe only one so it doesn't really count for a lot. We'll see who is up and about and available for selection this week, we'll put a plan in place and we'll let them go."
South Fremantle might have made history last year by winning the premiership in the Grand Final against Claremont that was at Fremantle Community Bank Oval, but Curley is glad the big game is back at Optus Stadium in 2021.
It provides a potential once in a lifetime chance for some players to play at the venue and it feels like a reward for reaching the Grand Final to get to play there – especially considering it will be just seven days after the AFL Grand Final took place at the same stadium.
"I think it's a good reward to play there for the teams that make it, it's the best stadium in Australia and they get an opportunity to play there," he said.
"Some of them might not get the chance to ever play there aside from a WAFL Grand Final so I think it's a great reward for the teams that make it. We'll be trying to organise as many people in red and white to be there as we can to fill up the stands."
When Curley took over as South Fremantle coach in 2015, the Bulldogs hadn’t played finals since 2011 but by his second season he had them in a preliminary final.
There was the heartache of three straight preliminary final losses to deal with, though, before they broke through to reach the 2019 Grand Final only to be hammered by Subiaco on the big stage.
But the Bulldogs were rewarded for their fighting spirit last year by winning the premiership and it's that heart that his playing group continues to show that Curley takes most pride in.
"I'm really proud of the group to be honest for the heart they continue to show. There are probably half of them who have been with me since the start of this journey and not everything has worked well," Curley said.
"We had some tough prelim final losses, some tough Grand Final losses but they are just so resilient and honest.
"Every time they come up against a setback, which you get a lot more in football than you get success most of time, they just dust themselves and come back ready for another opportunity.
"They provide performance like this week when nobody outside expects it, but they find a way and I'm really proud of them."