Easter is one of the best times of year. Chocolate eggs, hot cross buns, an overwhelming amount of food at family gatherings – and another chapter in the Geelong vs Hawthorn story.
I hadn’t planned to write match-by-match this season, because there’s ten teams now – but it’s the the first round, and there is so much to talk about.
Before we get to the games, a few broad observations from thr weekend.
General player fitness
Check out the tall girls — Ash Brazil’s sidestep, Eden Zanker’s demolition derby, Lauren Spark’s marking exhibition.
And check out the short girls — the biceps on Ellie Blackburn, Justine Mules looking buff as anything… no seriously!
Players you’d not taken much notice of are forcing their way into contention by sheer beefcake, putting in serious hours in the gym. It’s everywhere on the field now, and it’s awesome.
The Channel Seven commentators
It’s a television call, guys, not a podcast. You don’t take breaks from calling live action to discuss your thoughts about life, death and marginal taxation rates — call the friggin’ game!
Any broadcast where thirty seconds of irrelevant waffling are regularly interrupted with ‘that was a great passage of play that just happened twenty seconds ago’ is as much a hard fail as turning up to work drunk with your pants on your head.
The Fox Commentators
See above. I’ve had the last ten months to listen to interviews with players, so crossing to long interviews on the sideline when there’s actual live play going on is about the most stupid programming choice I can imagine.
We get a tiny amount of AFLW every year and they’re ruining it by talking over it, like those kids yapping on their iPhones during the movie.
Everyone knows it would never be allowed in the men’s comp, so why do it here? Because the channels have made a programming choice with women’s football to put ‘human interest’ stories ahead of actual football? Just asking.
Athleticism has clearly improved, players are fitter than ever, and ball handling is also improving.
The problem is that every time athleticism improves, congestion gets worse because defensive pressure increases with it.
Improved ball handling can offset congestion to some extent, but with a seven-week season, players just don’t get to play often enough to hit peak form.
It’s time for the AFL to realise that the biggest problem now causing congestion isn’t some rule that they can change — it’s their own insistence on a seven-week season.
Every season so far, we’ve seen terrible congestion in the opening few weeks, but then by game seven, skills are lifting enough that congestion starts to drop away – and then the season ends.
However, changing the season length appears to be the one thing the AFL won’t do to fix the problem.
Collingwood Magpies vs Geelong Cats
The Pies really should have won this one, especially considering Geelong were missing three of their biggest-name players in Richelle Cranston, Mel Hickey and Phoebe McWilliams.
For stretches of the game, the Pies were controlling it and looked dominant, but it’s very hard to stay consistently on top when your midfield’s getting clubbed like so many baby seals.
Geelong’s big four possession-winning midfielders were Nina Morrison, Olivia Purcell, Maddie Keryk and Renee Garing, who had 22, 17, 16 and 15 respectively.
For Collingwood it was Jaimee Lambert, Brit Bonicci, Kirsty Stratton and Steph Chiocci, who had 17, 10, 10 and 9 — a final tally of 70 to 38.
Moving star halfback Chiocci to the midfield is an experiment from Wayne Siekman, one Carlton tried last year with Nicola Stevens, and Melbourne with Mel Hickey. Neither worked, and the Chiocci experiment failed this time as well.
Some players are good at one position for a reason, and coaches attempting to impose new positions on them in the name of flexibility becomes an exercise in hammering round objects into square holes.
I hammer on about AFLW midfields all the time. The reason is that it’s the simplest way to figure which team’s going to win.
Collingwood’s midfield was severely shown up in this match, and when the players who are supposed to be controlling the play through the main part of the ground are getting out-possessed by their opponents nearly two-to-one, it’s always going to be trouble.
The Pies did surprisingly well in clearances, only losing 20-26, but elsewhere their mids simply weren’t getting enough of the ball, leaving players whose specialty it’s not to make much of the play.
Secondly, a study in contrasts between Collingwood’s kids and Geelong’s. For Geelong, Sophie Van De Heuvel was a little quiet but still useful, while Denby Taylor, Bec Webster and Olivia Purcell were excellent, and Nina Morrison showed why she’ll shortly be regarded as one of the elite players in the game.
On the other side, Collingwood’s kids were much less visible — Jordyn Allen had some nice moments, while Mikala Cann and Lauren Butler were rarely noticed, and Katie Lynch didn’t even make the emergencies. It’s possible Lynch was injured, though if so, it wasn’t reported.
If not, you have to wonder why she’s not there, given she was as highly regarded as Allen in the juniors, and is plainly more talented than many of those who played.
Could it be that Geelong reaped the rewards of throwing their kids in the deep end and trusting them with big jobs from the beginning?
Morrison and Purcell were a great combination in the TAC Cup Geelong Falcons, and carried the Cats’ midfield to victory in their first-ever AFLW game.
I’d say it was an extraordinary achievement, except that it’s not that extraordinary if you know the AFLW, and you know Morrison and Purcell.
By contrast, the Collingwood kids played like they knew they were second-fiddle to their seniors, and were waiting for leadership rather than taking it on themselves.
If Collingwood can change that in the next few weeks, we could see a completely different team.
Otherwise, Geelong have a lot to be excited about. When their excluded senior players come back, they’ll only get better, and their kids are already terrific.
Some of the VFLW players showed they can not only cut it at this level, but can be leaders — Renee Garing and defender Meg McDonald in particular.
Next weekend’s match against the Bulldogs will be instructive.
Western Bulldogs vs Adelaide Crows
Don’t you hate it when you have the rare chance to be proven right about something in a game of footy, only for the players to muff it by kicking one-goal-11?
I said in my season preview that the Dogs’ midfield, if not joined by current-forward Monique Conti, would get smashed by the better teams like the Crows… and they did get smashed, 24 clearances to 10, so I guess I got that right.
But the point was supposed to be that the Dogs would lose such contests pretty handily, because you can’t win AFLW games when your midfield’s getting steamrolled – but the Crows ruined my beautiful prediction by going cross-eyed in front of goal.
Maybe there’s some kind of moral law that says a team that kicks 1.11 deserves to lose, but if so there should also be a moral law that a team losing clearances 10-24 deserves to lose even more.
Adelaide’s top four midfielders got 72 possessions, while the Bulldogs’ had 44, just to drive the point home — and special mention to Ebony Marinoff, who this season looks to have lifted her offensive game to match her defensive efforts, a prospect to terrify her opponents.
It goes in the book as a win, but the Dogs coaching staff really need to treat that game as a loss, and fix it, or it could get real ugly against other teams with strong midfields who can actually put it through the sticks.
This happened even without Erin Phillips spending all that much time in the middle — her teammates were killing the Dogs without her, so she spent a lot of time up forward, being obviously flexible about such things and going where she’s needed.
In truth, the Crows should have won that game by at least 20 points, particularly considering one of the Dogs’ two goals was a late Christmas present turnover on a kick-out that should never have happened.
But the inability of the Crows forwards to reward their midfield’s dominance kept the Bulldogs in it, and their hard pressure in the final quarter shut down the game.
Could having Conti in the midfield have fixed it for the Dogs? Maybe, maybe not, she’s just one player – but it would have given them a chance, and not have seen the Dogs’ most dynamic onballer after Blackburn wasted up the far end for a grand total of seven possessions and not much else.
The point isn’t Conti, it’s what the midfield’s like without her. Against this competition’s better midfields, it’s in trouble. If Ellie Blackburn doesn’t get some help, from Conti or someone else, the Dogs are no chance at the title this year.
As for the Crows, what’s a coach to do? They looked great in their first quarter under Mathew Clarke before the congestion set in — their game style looked far more mature than under Bec Goddard, a good mix of possession football and aggressive movement.
Their midfield setup was crushingly good, the players look in superb shape, and some of last season’s lesser names, like Anne Hatchard or Justine Mules, have lifted to the point where they’re serious contributors.
Maybe Clarke could carry a couple of the big goalposts into the rooms in the debrief, and just have the players stare at them until they remember what they look like.
But seriously, it’s probably just composure under pressure, a reasonable dose of luck, and tweaking the forward line setups a bit.
Certainly the Bulldogs’ defence is top notch, with Lauren Spark hoovering up everything that came her way, but blaming the Dogs’ D for kicking 1-11 won’t help the Crows — this season there’s plenty of defences as tough as the Bulldogs, and it won’t get any easier.
North Melbourne Kangaroos vs Carlton Blues
Okay, North are going to be way better than I’d guessed – but I’m not yet convinced that Carlton are way worse.
Teams in the AFLW that rob their midfield and backline to stack their forward line almost always lose, but coaches keep doing it.
There is occasionally a team that does it well, like Fremantle’s move of Ebony Antonio to the forward line against Melbourne, but Freo’s midfield were league leaders in clearances last year, believe it or not, and with some offseason skill improvements they were always a chance to transition the ball from defence into the forward line without Antonio’s help from behind.
But you take Bri Davey, the best halfback in the country, out of Carlton’s backline and deprive their already-thin midfield of that link-up assistance in moving the ball forward, then you’re asking for trouble.
In the AFLW’s current incarnation it takes far longer for the women to move the ball from end to end than the men because they don’t kick as far or run as fast.
There are therefore more contests along the way, and each of those contests has to be won for an end-to-end transition to be successful.
If you don’t have good players all along the spine who can win those contests, you might not reach the forward line at all, so getting your backlines and midfields strong has to take priority over forward lines.
The men’s game tactic of stacking your forward line simply won’t work for the women — a men’s team can get inside 50 with two kicks, even a team with a poor midfield can sometimes bomb it long and let the forwards take over.
But two kicks might not get the women across halfway, and if the midfield’s poor, the third will be a turnover.
You’d think Carlton would know this by now, but evidently not. The only question is whether the season will be over by the time they figure it out.
For all North’s dominance, it took me until the fourth quarter until I was truly sold. Then, in one glorious passage of play, the Roos did something I’ve been waiting years to see an AFLW team do successfully and look comfortable doing — they kicked backwards, then manoeuvred the ball around the backline and switched play across the ground.
Very standard, dull stuff in the AFL, but very rare for the women, and a primary reason for all the congestion on the wings.
Better yet, the Roos made it look easy.
Sure, it was the final quarter, they had a big lead and Carlton were hanging back and putting little pressure on – but I’ve long thought that the first AFLW team to confidently switch play to the unoccupied side of the ground will win championship after championship until others start doing it too.
Right now it’s risky, because most of the women don’t kick it that far, and lateral kicks can be intercepted – but nearly every other time I saw someone do it successfully in this round of AFLW, a fast shot on goal resulted.
All of those other attempts were heart-in-the-mouth stuff. Only the Roos made it look simple.
If you want to read the stats for this game about who did what, you can find it elsewhere. For now, I’ll just say that North Melbourne looked like one of the only AFLW teams I’ve seen who could potentially learn to switch play at will, and turn grinding slogs up the wing into fast dashes toward open goals. That’s huge.
Melbourne Demons vs Fremantle Dockers
The most entertaining game of the weekend, both teams playing relatively open structures with players left ahead of the ball and little flooding. In fact, one of the most entertaining games of women’s footy yet played in Australia.
Melbourne’s midfield got more of the ball, as always, but while overall disposals were close at 190 to 172, Melbourne handballed 80 times, and Fremantle only 55.
Better yet for the Dockers, their effective disposals were 61.8 per cet to Melbourne’s 57.9. Last year, the Dockers were only at 53.6 per cent in effective disposals, the worst in the competition, leading Coach Trent Cooper to state that improving disposal efficiency was his main priority.
If this game is any indication, he’s doing exactly that.
Freo’s more direct gamestyle led to them getting 28 inside 50s to 24, and their ferocious tackling saw them physically dominate the Dees by 77 tackles to 45, helping them to hold the ball inside Melbourne’s forward half for longer.
It’s always been a puzzle why Freo’s bevy of tall, strong, fast runners have done so poorly in the AFLW, but whatever the problem, Cooper seems to be on his way to fixing it.
Having Kiara Bowers back didn’t hurt either — she was terrific with 13 possessions and 12 tackles, showing she might be finally back to full health.
Also inspired was the move of Ebony Antonio into the forward line. Antonio was always going to be wasted against the twin Melbourne towers of Tegan Cunningham and Eden Zanker anyway, and while depriving some backlines of their best halfback deprives a midfield of that all-important linkup player (Bri Davey at Carlton), the Dockers’ midfield is already tall, fast and agile — also Antonio’s strengths, so they didn’t miss her as much.
With a relatively open forward line, and fast movement through the middle, the Dockers found Antonio numerous times one-out in the 50 or high on the wing, and Antonio ran riot, kicking one-goal-one while setting up a number of others as Melbourne’s defenders struggled to contain her.
Gemma Houghton was also huge for Freo, giving them a twin-towers similar to Melbourne’s — Houghton is a serious power athlete, tall, strong and fast, and seems to have finally found her role in the forward line, kicking two-goals-one and taking four marks.
There’s still a lot to like about the Dees this season — Lilly Mithen reminded everyone that she’s a top midfielder with 18 disposals, while Karen Paxman and Elise O’Dea had 21 and 17, but between the three of them they only laid 14 tackles, 9 of them from O’Dea.
Meanwhile, Dana Hooker and Kiara Bowers had 24 tackles between them. Freo went straight and tackled hard, while the Dees fiddled.
If they can straighten up, stop overusing the ball, and chase and tackle harder, Melbourne still have a terrific forward line to target — Zanker has gone from being a skinny kid last year to a powerhouse, and Cunningham looks dangerous as ever.
A few adjustments and we haven’t seen the last of the Dees in 2019.
Greater Western Sydney vs Brisbane Lions
Let’s admit what everyone’s thought but hasn’t said out loud — the reason people don’t get excited about the Lions isn’t that they’re from Queensland, it’s that they can be really dull to watch.
Yes, they win heaps, and have lots of terrific players who one-on-one are some of the most exciting talents in the competition.
And yes, Craig Starcevich has proven time and again he’s one of the best coaches in the competition, and knows the women’s game better than nearly anyone.
But Starcevich’s style is defensive, most of his team’s games are low scoring, and frankly, they’ve made an art of winning ugly.
In sports, an ugly win counts just as much as a pretty one, but the fact remains that if you had to watch another hard slog Brisbane game, or Freo and Melbourne zooming end-to-end, most people who aren’t Queenslanders will pick the latter.
GWS and Alan McConnell aren’t much different. Alan McConnell is awesome. He seems a great coach and a terrific guy, and all his players appear to love him. But he’d rather grind in the mud than fly to the stars. Just saying.
No surprises here, then, that the scores were low and the flowing passages of play few. The Lions’ effective disposal was enormous at 69 per cent to the Giants 61, they kicked twice as often as they handballed while the Giants went at about 60-40, and they tackled harder with 63 to 42.
Like Fremantle against Melbourne, the Lions kicked longer, played straighter and chased harder. In the end, though, it was still only enough to get a two-point victory — always the problem with a defensive style of game.
When you take few chances to score, you’ll rarely get a big lead and always be vulnerable on the scoreboard.
GWS’s midfield was disappointing, especially when it came to tackles, with none of them collecting more than four.
Rebecca Beeson had 18 possessions, but only laid one tackle for the game, while last season’s hard-tackling monster Courtney Gum spent less time on the ball, ending with 15 and 4.
First-gamer Alyce Parker was strong with 18 possessions, three tackles and four marks, but at times looked smothered by Brisbane’s pressure — but take note, Parker’s first-ever AFLW game landed her in the top-15 possession getters for the weekend, and she didn’t even play all that well.
The Giants did win more contested possession, 88 to 114, reflecting further that their midfield is great at getting the ball, and not so good at chasing without it.
There are still good signs for the Giants. Cora Staunton, Yvonne Bonner and Christina Bernardi made three genuine threats up forward, and against a less capable defence than Brisbane’s (meaning everyone) should be more effective.
They just need to improve their midfield defence and get as aggressive without the ball as with it.
The Lions look excellent as always, but their insistence on playing percentages and taking few risks will always make them vulnerable against higher scoring teams.
But in order for the wily Starcevich to become convinced that he ought to take more chances, other teams are going to first have to start beating him.