I’m writing part of this week’s rankings on a crowded train leaving Optus Stadium after witnessing a great game, so it’s been a good weekend in Western Australia for me.
First off, if you consider yourself a fan of the Carlton football club in any capacity, but you’re not following your women’s team, you’re setting yourself up for some very embarrassing moments in your future.
Because one day, in twenty years or so, some young kid is going to ask you, with great envy, what it was like getting to watch Maddison Prespakis play football in her early days.
And you’re going to turn red, shuffle your feet, and say awkwardly, “I didn’t bother watching.”
And that kid’s going to look at you as though you’re the world’s biggest drongo (and fraud for calling yourself a Carlton supporter) and the kid will be right. Just saying.
Second thing, I don’t normally bag umpires at all, let alone for not paying enough free kicks, but I’d like to take this opportunity to remind them that ‘holding the ball’ is a thing.
It’s usually paid when a player a) tries to run clear and is tackled, or b) when a player is lying on the ground, drags the ball back under her and is then tackled.
Allowing players to get away with either of these just adds to congestion and stoppages. Thank you for listening.
This was another of those weekends when every single one of the teams I’ve identified as the ‘new guard’ of women’s football, playing aggressive, high-scoring football, won their matches.
Most won comfortably, though Melbourne just squeaked past the Bulldogs by a point. Hopefully by now the lesson is starting to sink in — the women’s game has changed, and clubs need to change how they play if they’re going to contend for finals.
What it sets up next year is a competition where every club will be playing more aggressively, there will be less flooding, more rapid transition, and of course, more scoring.
And that, I think, will be a very good thing for 2020 — hopefully good enough to convince the AFL that fans would actually watch a much longer season.
Let’s also take a moment to consider that this has been a great year for new coaches. Scott Gowans, Mathew Clarke, Trent Cooper and Dan Harford comprise four of these five top teams, and then Paul Hood, while I enjoy his coaching less, has also been inarguably successful in Conference B.
It seems to me that this year there’s been a concerted effort from the boards of the clubs involved to recruit more aggressive, high scoring coaches, and it’s worked.
This could be bad news for existing coaches, whose boards may start wondering how much better they’d do to follow suit.
The Cats once again demonstrated why you can’t beat top teams like the Dockers by playing old-style defensive, congested football like this.
For the first half they looked like they’d give it a shake, but the Dockers’ superior run through the middle began to tell in the second half.
Playing this way, Geelong will never kick many goals. It means that if they ever get behind on the scoreboard, they’re finished, because as occurred in the second half, when confronted with the need to play catch up, they stopped congesting the stoppages quite so much and were immediately slaughtered by the Dockers’ faster, more aggressive mids who’ve been practising playing this way all season, and suddenly had room to move.
It’s not like Geelong don’t have the personnel to play more direct and aggressively — their midfield unit of Richelle Cranston, Olivia Purcell and Renee Garing were outplayed by Dana Hooker, Kiara Bowers and Hayley Miller, but not enormously.
Forwards Kate Darby and Phoebe McWilliams looked dangerous when they got it, and down back, Meg McDonald proved again why she’s one of the best defenders in the competition with 22 disposals.
But whatever the reason, this is the way Geelong have chosen to play — it’s ugly, it will turn many thousands of potential Cats women’s fans into ‘I don’t cares’, and if it became the future of women’s football, women’s football would be stuffed, because it’s only watchable when it’s getting torn to bits like it was against Fremantle in the second half.
If Geelong are any chance at the flag next year, and are to get any significant number of Cats fans to give a damn, this has to change.
As for the Dockers, Kiara Bowers had 16 disposals and 19 tackles, demonstrating just how congested the stoppages were.
Think about it for a moment. Nineteen tackles in AFLW is like 35 in the AFL — which never comes even close to happening.
Is Kiara Bowers that much better a tackler than the AFL’s best men? Of course not. Is the AFLW that much more congested than the AFL, to make such crazy tackle numbers possible? Sadly, with teams like Geelong, yes.
The other point of note was how Gemma Houghton has transformed herself into one of the most important players in the team.
Not only did she kick 2.2, she saved the team’s bacon numerous times in the first half when Fremantle were struggling to move the ball forward, simply by presenting a hard leading option and taking the difficult mark.
Athletically Houghton is a beast, faster than nearly any defender, and with possibly better hands than even Tayla Harris, though admittedly she doesn’t have Harris’s leap (who does?).
If she could just iron the remaining kinks from her game, she’d be unstoppable.
Next week Freo face North Melbourne in Fremantle for what is effectively a qualifying final. It should be a ripper, and if the WA footy media give it a push, should attract a big home crowd.
North are probably the better team, but on their home ground I reckon Fremantle by a point.
As I’ve said repeatedly, this Magpie team is much more talented than they’ve shown.
With the season well and truly gone, the last two games have been against teams that play a much more open structure (last week being Carlton) and finally the players were encouraged and had the space to attack and run.
The result was a team that may have been beaten by one of the competition’s very best, but were certainly not humiliated as in previous weeks.
One promising sign was the move of two young defenders, Darcy Guttridge and Jordyn Allen, to the forward line, resulting in two goals for Guttridge and some strong lead-up marking from Allen.
Jamie Lambert was again outstanding, and Ash Brazill demonstrated the changed gameplan in backing her pace and playing on at every opportunity, even through the middle.
She got caught several times for holding the ball, but clearly there’s been a changed instruction here, and the players all had licence to take risks with the ball and played much better because of it.
Special mention goes to Sarah Rowe, who in her very first season from Ireland is probably in the team’s top three players with Brazill and Lambert, and has to be one of the strongest runners in the whole competition, right up at Karen Paxman level.
The striking thing about North is that even when they don’t have any huge stars playing standout games, they have performances like this, with ten players in double figures for possessions, and seven individual goal kickers.
With Emma Kearney relatively quiet, it’s time to recognise that Jenna Bruton and Jamie Stanton have elevated to become true A-Grade midfielders who can shoulder much of the load when their higher-profile captain is getting tagged.
Furthermore, the sheer versatility of so many players stands out, with forward Jasmine Garner weaving through the backline like a veteran, Emma King playing as simultaneously ruck and forward, and pretty much any Roo capable of popping up anywhere on the ground and making an impact.
The Dees really know how to make it hard for themselves. After missing finals the last two years by losing games they should have won, they tried their very best to ditch this one too, kicking 1.5 in the first quarter after dominating general play.
After halftime, the Bulldogs finally began to change up the way they play. All season long they’ve been slow, methodical and predictable, but in the second half things began to open up and the Dogs began moving the ball more rapidly and playing on quickly from stoppages.
The result was one of the best halves of footy for the season, and shows just what the Dogs are actually capable of.
As with the Collingwood game, the talent in the team isn’t the reason the Dogs haven’t been successful this season.
Ellie Blackburn, Monique Conti and Kirsty Lamb were again outstanding through the middle, youngster Eleanor Brown played her first good footy of the year in the second half on Karen Paxman, Hannah Scott led the defence from the front with 18, Isabelle Huntington had a solid second game back, and young Aisling Utri showed why she could become a star of the competition up forward or down back.
There’s talent here and plenty of it, they just haven’t been moving the ball with the speed and aggression required to win in AFLW 2019.
In the second half, they did for the first time, and fell short of beating one of this season’s best teams by a whisker.
The other thing with short seasons is that it’s a very short time to carry out tactical readjustments, and now, just as the Bulldogs are figuring it out, the season’s already over.
Of course, it wouldn’t have been particularly close if Melbourne had kicked straight. The Dees had 29 Inside 50s to 19 and 14 scoring shots to eight, with inaccuracy the culprit once again.
Tellingly they handballed 107 times to 52, but the Dogs were better set defensively and seemed to block Melbourne’s run after quarter time.
This also indicates that the Dogs can match Melbourne for pace for periods at least, unlike previous teams that Melbourne has shredded with their handball-and-run.
Again, one has to wonder what could have been for the Dogs, if they’d only used that pace for a run-and-handball game instead of slow short-chipping.
I mentioned earlier that North Melbourne had 10 players in double-figures for disposals — well in this game, Melbourne had 13.
Karen Paxman and Elise O’Dea were well out on top with 24 and 21 while the next nearest only had 13, but the number of contributors with the ball were still enormous (the Bulldogs, by comparison, only had six players in double figures).
Special mention here goes to Lauren Pearce, who had 12 disposals and 31 hit outs, including a couple of the sweetest taps to Paxman that you’re likely to see.
There’s not a ruck in the competition with the same control as Pearce, and she moves so well she’s nearly another midfielder with the ball.
Next round, Melbourne host Adelaide in Casey Fields, in the matchup of the two deepest teams in the competition.
However good they’ve been this year, Melbourne have a history of struggling to put teams away. Against the Crows, they’ll need to take every chance.
It can be frustrating for superior teams to be playing sides that stack every player in their defensive 50, then try to beat their opponent on the rebound.
This is how GWS played for three quarters against Adelaide, with every one of their four goals coming in the first half, in an open forward line having beaten the Adelaide defenders out the back.
Adelaide had 46 Inside 50s to GWS’s only 15, yet at the third quarter mark the difference was only seven points.
For the entire first three quarters, Adelaide dominated inside 50s and general aggression, but were unable to squeeze a goal out of the congestion before the sticks.
But in the last quarter, Adelaide threw Chelsea Randall forward, had a few breaks fall their way, and got an early couple of goals.
That forced GWS to play more offence and less D, and from there they were finished — primarily defensive teams forced by the scoreboard to abandon their defensive structures usually get slaughtered, and so the final quarter quickly turned into a rout.
Adelaide will want to think about how they might fix the problem GWS’s defence presented in this game, because there’s a chance they’ll run into Geelong in the semi-final.
On current form the Crows should account for Geelong easily, but as we’ve seen before, heavily defensive teams work to rattle their opponents’ skill level, and therefore their accuracy in front of goals.
In a final, anything can happen, and Adelaide’s forward line of Stevie-Lee Thompson, Eloise Jones, Danielle Ponter, Chloe Scheer and Erin Phillips is unmatched for talent, but it’s also very young.
This game will give the Crows confidence, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if Mathew Clarke would rather face Carlton in the semis, whatever the Blues’ more dangerous firepower.
Melbourne next week will prove a more formidable challenge, but at least swarming, congested defending shouldn’t be on the cards.
Both teams like to attack and run, and this should be a really fun match. Adelaide have been on balance the best team all season, so I’ll tip them by a goal, but without enormous confidence.
If the Blues could consistently kick straight, they’d be as good as any team in the competition.
The reason why they don’t kick straight is because of a reasonable number of established players with dodgy disposal (Amelia Mullane, Breann Moody and both Hoskings twins for starters) combined with the new rugby girls, Chloe Dalton and Brooke Walker, who between them in this game had 25 disposals.
Don’t get me wrong, Dalton and Walker have been tremendous additions to the club — Dan Harford and his staff built the new-look team around footspeed and the ability to transition quickly from defence to offence.
Dalton adds a hugely to the Blues’ midfield, and Walker scored 2.2 in this game in the forward line; both players were enormous in this game.
But when they’re under pressure, either would struggle to hit the side of a barn — which is what you’d expect from players so new to the game, and will doubtless change in years to come.
But combine that with a few of the other dodgy kickers, and Carlton can sometimes get a critical mass of sprayed kicks that bring the team’s forward momentum to a grinding halt.
The point is, this is the only reason why Carlton aren’t up there with Adelaide and North Melbourne, because the rest of their game is tremendous.
Brisbane were in the contest early, and were utilising the extra space that Carlton’s wide setup gives to all opponents by playing direct through the middle, to some effect.
But pretty soon it became clear that Carlton’s line-breaking pace on the outside was too much for the Lions, meaning that the only way they could win was to create lots of stoppages, dominate them, and prevent Carlton from getting the ball.
Sadly for the Lions, Carlton have too much inside midfield game this season to make that possible, and the Blues won the clearances 25 to 19 — ten of them from Madison Prespakis and Bri Davey, the latter spending most of the game in the midfield.
It’s crazy how much better Prespakis is than Davey right now. Sure, Davey’s relatively new to the midfield, and she’s struggled for top match fitness as she comes back from her knee reconstruction… but this is still one of the undisputed best players in the competition.
And while she had a strong game with 14 disposals and some hard attack on the ball, Prespakis, an eighteen-year-old kid in her first AFLW season, had 27, including some of the prettiest, cleanest, stoppage-busting handpasses you’ll see in any form of the game, and some nice run and foot-passing on the outside.
To be Carlton’s best player in her first year is impressive. To be in the running for the AFLW’s best player in her first year is nuts.
Brisbane’s next couple of years will be a trial. Gold Coast will doubtless take some more of their players, and the lion’s share (no pun intended) of next year’s draftees.
If Craig Starcevich adjusts his team’s playing style to match the new wave of high-scoring teams, they could be okay, but some established coaches are very set in their ways.
If he won’t or can’t change his style, and the Lion’s 2020 lineup is further depleted, things could get ugly.