Celebrating Rhali Dobson's career, Natasha Prior's return and some #PeakDub areas

The W-League weekend in 280 characters or less

Melbourne City give Rhali Dobson the perfect send-off with 2-1 win over Perth, Canberra qualify for the semifinals after a 0-0 draw with Sydney FC, Victory pump Perth 6-0 to keep their Premiership hopes alive, and Brisbane secure second spot and a home semifinal with 3-0 win over Newcastle.



A few weeks ago, before anyone knew that she would be retiring from the W-League, I wrote about Rhali Dobson for this column. I wanted to acknowledge her quiet, decade-long contributions to Australian football with both Newcastle Jets and Melbourne City, and draw attention to the group of women players that don't attract the same kinds of column inches as senior Matildas or emerging national team stars.

The universe, it seems, read my little ramble about Dobson and decided, "You know what? Let's make her go viral, as a treat."

In case you missed it, Dobson attracted headlines around the world this week for what happened in her final game for City against Perth on Thursday night. Not only did Dobson score one of City's two goals, but minutes after the final whistle, her partner Matt Stonham -- for whom she's retiring from the league to care for after his second diagnosis with brain cancer -- got down on one knee to propose to her.

- Lynch: Dobson's W-League retirement 'bigger than the sport'
- Stream LIVE games, replays on ESPN+: A-League | W-League

I was already a mess watching Dobson be substituted for the final time -- watching her face slowly breaking as she recognised the enormity of what she was doing and what she'd be leaving behind. But when the broadcast cameras captured Matt hurriedly fishing around in his jacket pocket for a ring, watching Rhali's face when she realised what was happening, and seeing the two of them laugh and embrace after she said yes, I -- like you, I'm guessing -- lost it.

It's not just that this moment was one of those beautiful fairytale endings for a woman who is beloved by all who know her. It's that the kind of love and sacrifice that Dobson is showing to her partner in her decision to retire is exactly the same as that which she -- and so many players just like her -- have given to the W-League for its entire existence.

She never did it for the money or the exposure or the climb up the career ladder. She did it, ultimately, for love -- love for the game, love for the community, love for her teammates, love for the moments that can occur when a group of people work towards a shared goal.

It's that same love that brought players like Michelle Heyman and Marianna Tabain back to the league this year; that same love that has driven 30 players (including Dobson) to record 100 or more appearances in a league whose seasons are just 12-14 games long. It's that same love that, at its core, drives everybody who works and plays and writes about and supports the W-League.

So I'm glad that it was this moment that made Dobson a global star. I'm glad it was this illustration of love and devotion and sacrifice that she will be remembered for. It is, after all, what women athletes everywhere have and will continue to be driven by.

Rhali Dobson, for me, is the W-League. It -- and we -- have been so lucky to have her.

Natasha Prior

Natasha Prior probably had PTSD-esque flashbacks on the bus to Canberra on Friday. The last time she set foot on a W-League ground was when she played for Canberra United in 2018, where she sustained a concussion that ultimately kept her out of the game for two years.

She, like many women athletes who sustain serious, long-term injuries, probably thought she would never play again. But little by little, she made her way back to fitness. She dipped her toe into the NSW NPLW with Macarthur Rams in 2020, perhaps just wanting to see if she'd feel comfortable and confident playing a sport that has only recently begun to reckon with its own culpability in the severe brain damage sustained by hundreds of players through unsafe, repetitive heading practices.

- Mitchell: The reality of women's concussions - a personal story

I wonder how she felt when she got the call from Sydney FC to sign as an emergency replacement for Ellie Brush. Frightened? Thrilled? Hesitant? All of the above? Whatever she felt, her return to the league on Friday -- against Canberra, no less -- was remarkable considering all she has been through, both physically and psychologically.

Indeed, Prior didn't look out of place given the amount of time she's spent away from top-flight football. Setting aside Sydney's lacklustre performance elsewhere (see below), the return of a player after a potential career-ending injury is always worth celebrating.

Melbourne Victory

There's a reason why Steven Bradbury is one of Australian sport's cult heroes -- to the point where "doing a Bradbury" has become a common colloquialism to describe teams that appear from absolutely nowhere to achieve glory.

Melbourne Victory are currently the W-League's Steven Bradbury. Before the start of this final regular-season round, Victory were sitting in fifth spot, two points outside the top four. But this coming Wednesday night, at roughly 9:30 p.m. AEST, they could hoist the Premiers Plate.

Just like the famous speed-skating incident, it was a series of calamities ahead of Victory that got them to this point. First, Sydney FC drew with Canberra United on Friday, meaning that the Sky Blues were denied the Premiership then and there. That draw also meant that Canberra overtook Adelaide United to secure fourth spot, bumping the Reds out of finals contention.

Victory weren't necessarily guaranteed three points against Perth after their slim 1-0 win over them earlier this month, but they knew three points were necessary if they had any chance of getting their hands on that plate. So they got that job done in style on Sunday, demolishing a resigned Glory side 6-0 and putting themselves three points away from the club's namesake.

Anything except a win against Sydney on Wednesday will see Victory finish third and miss out on a home semifinal, travelling instead to Brisbane on Saturday. But three points will see them win the plate, host Canberra in the first semifinal, and be turned into Bradbury memes faster than a Lisa De Vanna sprint. I think we all know, deep down, which scenario we'd prefer.


Sydney FC

What'd I tell you? The Sky Blues had recorded their best-ever start to a W-League season before their 4-1 loss to Brisbane in February, and since that semi-traumatic experience, the side has never quite played with the same kind of swagger that had people talking like they were a lock for the Premiership barely half-way through their campaign.

The wheels really began to fall off after the loss of Brush to an ACL injury in late February, forcing the team to reshuffle its defensive unit and do without another crucial leader in a young, inexperienced side. The past month has seen Sydney have to weather more than just a once-in-a-lifetime monsoon; two long away trips to Perth and Adelaide followed by a bye has also put an unexpected amount of strain on the players' minds and bodies.

Coming into their second-last game against Canberra on Friday night, Sydney hadn't played a competitive match in three weeks -- and the rust was visible. Passes didn't connect, reactions were a half-second off, and players dropped to the turf with cramp more than they had all season.

Setting aside the tight offside call that denied Clare Wheeler a goal in the 11th minute, Sydney didn't seem particularly convincing going forward for most of the game against United -- particularly not after the loss of Cortnee Vine in the first half to a knee issue.

So the Sky Blues have left their potential Premiership win -- their first in 10 years -- to the final game: their rescheduled match against Victory on Wednesday, which is the best possible conclusion if you're a neutral fan, but not great for the nerves of those who are fans of either club (me).

It all comes down to 90 minutes at Cromer Park on Wednesday. Gird your loins, friends. We could be about to reach #PeakDub.

Here's the tea

As a friend said to me after Victory's win over Perth on Sunday afternoon: "Adelaide United have 'Adelaided' it more than anyone has ever 'Adelaided' it before."

I suppose, like "doing a Bradbury," we can add "doing an Adelaide" to our Australian football vocabularies -- just not in the same fun, whimsical way.

At the conclusion of the regular season, Adelaide's finals aspirations remain just that -- aspirations -- after they were bumped out of the top four thanks to Canberra and Melbourne Victory both earning points this past weekend. In fact, the Reds missed their first-ever finals spot by a single goal difference point behind Canberra, which somehow feels worse. You can imagine the players cycling through all those golden, missed opportunities throughout the season that they had to score an extra goal here or there that might have made all the difference down the road.

I hope they don't linger on those missed opportunities for long, though, because Adelaide United have still made history in so many other (arguably more important) ways. The fact that so many people in the W-League community are devastated that they missed the top four is a testament to the work the club has done and the performances the players have put in all season. They were, I'd say, everybody's second-favourite team -- the team we all wanted to see do well.

They didn't quite get there this time around, but the various changes that have occurred behind the scenes at Adelaide United to get them here are the kinds of changes that will set them up with a firm foundation for future success.

Appointing Ivan Karlovic to the club's newly-created role of head of women's football -- the only A-League-affiliated club to have such a position -- was one of them. Players have spoken glowingly of what this role has done for them and how much more supported they've felt now that they have someone in the club's upper echelons whose sole job is to advocate for them and see their needs are met.

Investing more into the marketing and promotion of the W-League side, resulting in attracting a record crowd for a stand-alone regular-season match, was another fantastic move by the club. And finally, the development of players like Dylan Holmes, who has now kicked on in Sweden and will likely be called into future Matildas camps, is another emerging benefit of the kind of long-term commitments and decisions Adelaide has been making in the women's space. Other players like Emily Condon, Charlotte Grant, Matilda McNamara, Chelsie Dawber and Isabel Hodgson have also thrown their hat into various national team rings as a result of their sensational performances this season.

So don't despair, Adelaide fans. You know as well as I do that this season was very different to the ones that have made "doing an Adelaide" a regularly-used phrase. And if the past four months have been anything to go by, next season could see that saying turned into something positive; where "doing an Adelaide" is something that all other clubs actually want to do.

Is there a gif of that?

Scoring a goal and getting engaged all in your final W-League game.

Rhali Dobson, congratulations; you're a treasure and deserve all the happiness in the world. How bloody good.