The selection puzzle is far from solved for both Damien Hardwick and Leon Cameron ahead of Saturday’s AFL grand final.
So far in the AFLW, much like in the men’s game, we have largely seen the awards, attention and accolades go to the midfielders.
If you asked someone to list the top players in the game, you would expect to hear names such as Daisy Pearce, Karen Paxman, Erin Phillips and Jaimee Lambert – and rightfully so.
With the introduction of the last-touch out of bounds rule, along with playing 16-a-side, you would have expected football’s general drift towards aerobic beasts and smaller, more agile players to continue at perhaps an accelerated pace in the women’s game.
It may end up being the case but, so far, all the 16-a-side game has done is highlight just how important a good ruck-and-key-forward combination is in winning the competition.
Round 2 was the best example of this I’ve seen over the course of both seasons.
Melbourne, with Teigan Cunningham up forward and Erin Hoare in the ruck, were just phenomenal – Adelaide’s defence had no answers and, while the Demon midfield is the best in the competition, it was clear when Adelaide did get forward they simply had no targets to kick to.
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Collingwood clearly had the same idea, shifting 2017 All Australian ruck Emma King to the goal square and Eliza Hynes doing the bulk of the work in the middle. Although the Magpies lost to Fremantle in the end, the impact King had in the first quarter alone was enough to show this is going to be the position that separates teams at the top of the ladder from the bottom.
The ability to simply make a contest and bring the ball to ground generated multiple scoring opportunities for the Pies, as was the case for the Dees and Cunningham.
This is something else Melbourne have done well and while they appear to be the fittest team in the league across the board, they haven’t fallen victim to the idea of everyone needing to be an elite runner the way the other clubs have.
Richelle Cranston is a case in point. I can’t profess to know her 2km time or beep test score – and she may well be an excellent runner – but it’s clear she is a power athlete.
Melbourne seem to have accepted that while endurance may not be her strength, her power is a point of difference. Thus she is being used in a way that has just as big of an impact as her more heralded teammates in Lauren Pearce or Elise O’Dea.
No other team has a player like her and it’s one of the reasons Melbourne are one of the flag favourites, but it also makes sense in a long-term recruiting standpoint.
The initial AFLW was a free-for-all, where the clubs simply had to scramble to take the best talent available. As a result, midfielders were at a premium.
But going into the subsequent drafts, you were never going to be able to pick up players like a Daisy Pearce or Katie Brennan, so clubs needed to be more astute.
Is it worth taking an average midfielder with no real point of difference, when you can take a similarly talented player who stands at 180-plus centimetres? Not when there is such a dearth of tall players that simply their height causes nightmares for opposition coaches.
Especially when, because of this lack of tall players, they are all generally being used the same way; in the ruck, and rotating forward.
We are yet to see a tall defender develop in the same way and as quickly as we’ve seen a tall forward like Cunningham, a basketballer until recently, develop. Already this is a key match-up where the Demons will feel confident of coming out with a win. The same with Collingwood and King, should she stay up forward.
So while 16-a-side should have seen the bigger players have less of a role in the game, it’s actually had the opposite effect, especially when you consider that, with two fewer players in the 50, they have even more open space to lead into.
Teams with smaller setups have too similar a strategy and with all the other teams recruiting smaller, more agile players in bulk, it’s become easier to negate.
It will be interesting to see how teams change their setups from here, but unless you have a Katie Brennan up forward, it’s hard to see how a team is going to put enough points on the board to take down a side like the Demons or Bulldogs.