Bonnie Toogood celebrates a goal during the round four AFLW match between Essendon and Fremantle at Windy Hill, September 24, 2023. Picture: Getty Images

THE STUDENT of the game. The trainer and elite athlete. The nurturer and leader.

The three elements that make up Essendon co-captain Bonnie Toogood, who at 25, is in career-best form, helping her side qualify for its first AFLW finals series in its second season.

Essendon's elimination final on Sunday will be Toogood's second ever AFLW final, having played in the Western Bulldogs' 2018 Grand Final triumph which occurred before a full finals series was introduced.

(L-R): Aisling Utri, Bonnie Toogood and Monique Conti celebrate the Western Bulldogs' premiership win in 2018. Picture: AFL Photos

"First-year Bonnie came in and won a premiership and thought, this thing is easy. Wow, did I have a rude awakening," Toogood told afl.com.au with a laugh.

"I definitely feel like I'm a very different person to that year. I haven't lost my enthusiasm and excitement, I definitely still get all hyped up, however, I think I'm genuinely just more curious and confident.

"Curious about what I can learn about the game, but then confident in my ability. I think that's been a huge journey for me, knowing that I can achieve what I can and play at this level.

"They're two very different people, but I'm very proud of everything that I've gone through and the fact I'm here now and about to walk into another finals series in an 18-team competition. It's wild."

The student of the game

For someone who spent more of their teenage years on the netball court than the football field, Toogood has one of the sharpest footy minds around.

There's an insatiable desire to break her own game down and improve on various elements, but there's also a fascination with the sport itself.

"I think football is the greatest game on earth, because it is wildly overcomplicated, but it should be so simple," Toogood said.

"The unpredictability of the game excites me so much, and there's so much to learn – you could watch a passage of play and be like, 'you could have done that five different ways, but you chose that, and it worked or it didn't.'

"I'm genuinely curious about the game we play, and identifying what my strengths are and really honing them and making them better, getting reps and reps and reps under my belt, whether that's goalkicking, ground balls at speed, marking craft, body work, all of that pays off.

"I watch our games back and our coaching staff clip so many videos for us to watch.

"I tend to do a fair bit of oppo analysis as well, particularly the backline that I'm coming up against. I don't necessarily watch a heap of games throughout a weekend, because otherwise I'm too consumed by football, but I'll do a fair bit of vision so I'm not going in blind. Knowledge is power."

Bonnie Toogood (left) and Mikayla Western in action during round eight, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Essendon forwards coach Peta Searle has seen first-hand just how Toogood attacks her preparation on a week-to-week basis.

"She comes to me with her feedback, and not just her feedback, but solutions on how she could get better," Searle said.

"That's a great trait to have, and that's because of her attention to detail but also her knowledge of the game.

"It doesn’t happen overnight. I would say Bonnie's been on this journey for a very long time. There have been a lot more things that have clicked in terms of the development of her game as a whole; her ability to mark the ball, her bodywork is of a high standard, but her timing of her bodywork – she's hard to play on.

"Her forward craft is exceptional. Do you play back shoulder, do you play in front of her? She's makes it very hard for people to play on her because she's got a lot of tools in her forward craft that enable her to compete and succeed in the face of different types of defences."

Peta Searle is seen at an Essendon training session on July 14, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

The trainer and elite athlete

Over the long AFLW off-season – which for Toogood, lasted from November 2022 to June 2023 – the Bomber decided to get as much work under her belt as possible, to ensure she could devote more of her attention to football skills and knowledge during pre-season.

She's quick to pay credit to the improvement of the entire playing list when talking about her own form this year, saying as a key forward, she's reaping the rewards of work done further afield.

That team-first mentality was the carrot for Toogood during her seven months off, driving her running and strength sessions.

"I want this team to be as successful as possible, and I need to pull my weight in that. That's what I kept focusing on," she said.

"We have such a long off-season, that your motivation can vary at points. It's hard, I'm not going to lie to you. It's a lot of self-talk, motivation – whether that's connecting with teammates to do sessions together, checking in – I also read a lot of books and listen to podcasts about elite athlete mentality."

Essendon players walk out onto the ground ahead of round six, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Toogood generally eschews alcohol, soft drink and hot chips over pre-season, with Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan two of the athletes she has drawn inspiration from.

"I didn't want it to be an intention, I wanted to actually do the actions required, to put myself in the best place to be successful," Toogood said.

"Learning how to be an elite athlete doesn't come easily to many. You have to learn the intricacies of what works for your body – from a recovery perspective, nutrition, sleep – and you get guidance from the club. If you lean into the resources, they're there to help you.

"You have to learn it when you learn it. I have definitely tapped into different athletes in different sports.

"I've never done CrossFit in my life, never want to do it, but they are the elite of the elite. How they look after and prepare their bodies is impressive. Tia-Clair Toomey is a six-time fittest woman on earth, I've watched her vlogs to see what she does from a recovery point of view and nutrition. It's an individual journey, you have to want to be engaged in it."

Steph Wales and Bonnie Toogood celebrate a goal during round seven, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

The leader and nurturer

Essendon co-captain Steph Cain has seen first-hand what impact Toogood has had on the playing group over the past two years, the pair working closely to set standards for the fledgling side.

It's not an easy task, bringing together a disparate group of players from a variety of AFLW clubs, state leagues and the under-18 system for a brand new team.

"One of the big things about Bon, that I've particularly seen this year, is the way she can flip a switch when it comes to game day. It's ridiculous, it's probably the best I've ever seen," Cain said.

Bonnie Toogood and the mascot lead Essendon out onto the field ahead of round eight, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

"It doesn't matter the lead-up to, or things could have been bad or good – and I guess I see more of what goes on behind the scenes in Bon's life sometimes, working closely with her.

"There can be things that aren't perfect, but as soon as we hit game-day, you wouldn't ever know about it, and she's just fully clued in to being the best she can for her teammates.

"She has taken Maddy Prespakis under her wing, is looking out for her and helping her grow her leadership. Someone like Paige Scott as well, she's always trying to push her to become the best person she can be."

Steph Cain (left) and Bonnie Toogood lead Essendon out of the race during round three, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos/Getty Images

Searle said Toogood's success as a leader was multi-faceted, but just like the driving force behind her training, it all came down to personal improvement for the benefit of the team.

"Her leadership's on a lot of different levels. First of all, there's Bonnie the pro, or elite athlete. She has elite preparation in terms of taking care of her body. Her ability to role model elite behaviours is outstanding," Searle said.

"Then there's the way she goes about her training. She trains with a real focus and intensity, game-like intensity. She's ferocious on the track. She's extremely driven and the ultimate competitor as well.

"She definitely leads by action, but then there's her ability to connect to players.

"She has a real care for others, she has great empathy. She's this fierce competitor, but then she's got this huge heart where she just wants to nurture and take care of her tribe, so to speak."

14:08

Toogood said her second season as co-captain hasn't necessarily been easier, but she's sensed a growing connection between the group which has helped on the field.

"Another year knowing each other on a deeper level for me is really important. When I know the people next to me and a bit more of their life story or what they're going through, I'm more inclined to put my body on the line for them and do whatever they need from me in the moment," Toogood said.

"It's something I want to be known for, creating an environment where people feel safe and accepted and can thrive, but also can be challenged, that we're creating standards that we want to live by and can help us succeed and achieve what we need to."