What a final term by the Bombers!
Rather than reviewing the round just passed, I thought this week I’d use most of this space to preview the finals instead.
But first, let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room. Instead of this year’s finals series being a contest between the best four teams in the competition, it is instead a contest between the first and second best (Adelaide and Fremantle), and the fifth and seventh best (Carlton and Geelong).
These positions are arguable, given the oddities of the conference system, but I’m putting Fremantle over North Melbourne because of that comfortable Round 7 victory, and the Western Bulldogs get sixth because they beat Geelong 34 to 16 in Round 3, plus had to play all their in-conference games against the competition’s best four teams, which Geelong did not.
Clearly, for the seventh-best team out of ten to make the finals while the third and fourth-best miss out is a joke, but it’s a) not Geelong’s fault, and b) is what it is, so let’s get on with it, and save the broader complaints about AFLW organisation for another time.
And by the way, though Carlton are clearly less deserving than North Melbourne and Melbourne, the margin is much slimmer, and if all teams had played each other once it’s very possible the Blues would have qualified fair and square.
And here’s a thought — how much do you think AFL HQ will be praying for Carlton to win the whole thing? Not only would it achieve their dream of a powerhouse Victorian club winning the title, but all the bashing they’re getting over the conference system would vanish.
In Memoriam; The 2019 Seasons of North Melbourne and Melbourne.
All the other teams in the AFLW are terribly sad that North didn’t make the finals. Or not.
The Roos ruffled a lot of feathers by being too successful with their recruiting strategy, which might be one reason not everyone’s up in arms about the injustice of the conference system.
But whatever — they had a tremendous first season in the AFLW, they broke no rules to do it, and they finished the season as the third-best team in fact if not in actual ladder placement.
Their coaching was excellent, their gameplan balanced, and they played some of the most entertaining football all season.
Fremantle got them in Round 7 probably with midfield pressure (no one out-tackles Fremantle’s midfield) and all-round depth (North had seven players in double-figure disposals, Freo had 12).
As good as North are, the bottom half of their list can go missing against the best teams, and they could use a little more speed.
It’s still a heck of a foundation to work on for 2020. Now if they can only keep this list together during the offseason. Certainly they won’t get sympathy from other clubs when the raids start happening.
Melbourne are much better than their last game against the Crows suggests. They did, however, make the mistake of trying to claw back the 27-point effective deficit required to make the finals all in the first quarter.
Against Adelaide of all teams it’s a silly thing to do, and the Crows smashed them accordingly, from which the Dees never recovered.
It also suggests that as fast, lithe and fun as the Demons are, they lack a little grunt in the contests, as indicated by losing the clearances 16 to 30 here.
The Crows are not only fast and skilled, they’re big and tough, too, and Melbourne’s skilful, zippy players at times looked like whippets getting mugged by alsatians.
Still, the Demons at times set the new high-standard for ball movement this season, demonstrating that women’s football need not be a rolling maul of stoppages, for which all women’s footy fans should be grateful.
Yes they’ve turned missing out on finals into an art-form, but this year at least it wasn’t really their fault, and they didn’t so much choke as get KOed by a superior opponent who would probably have beaten them even if they hadn’t played so dumb in the first quarter.
Next year they’ll presumably get Daisy Pearce back, and they’ve shown enough depth this season that the expansion losses should hurt them less than most.
Next year the Dockers are unlikely to be a threat after the Eagles take many of their best players, plus the two new expansion teams are unlikely to repeat North’s success and should struggle, leaving Melbourne one of the top teams by default.
Just hang on, Dees fans, you’ll get there eventually…
Given the spanking Adelaide handed out to Melbourne in Round 7, this game shouldn’t even be close. However, several factors could make it tricky for the Crows.
Firstly, the game’s going to be played on Adelaide Oval on a Sunday, in front of what could be a very large crowd by AFLW standards.
Adelaide’s forward line has a lot of kids in it, and in Round 1, against the Western Bulldogs, they kicked 1.11 and lost a game of which they were otherwise in total control.
Lining up for goal in front of thousands home fans may be old news to the AFL’s male players, but for the younger women in particular, it’s going to be intense. Anything could happen.
Secondly, the one thing Geelong do well is defend. Against a team with as many attacking options as Adelaide have, it shouldn’t help them much, but we’ve all seen very talented teams get bogged down in the flooding congestion of the less talented but defensively minded, and it can get very ugly.
On the reverse side, Geelong will have little to lose. Having nothing to lose certainly helped the Western Bulldogs in the last quarter of Round 7 against Carlton, as they flew back into contention with five goals in quick succession, but it seems unlikely that Geelong could replicate such heroics against Adelaide.
As to why, just look at what the Demons tried in Round 7 against the Crows. The Demons were super aggressive from the beginning, needing to win by 27 points or more they kicked long and used the corridor for the most direct route to goals.
Melbourne have been one of the best attacking sides all season, and against a lesser team their strategy might have worked.
But not only did Adelaide have the speed to shut down Melbourne’s formidable run-and-handball, they had the midfield power to crush the Dees in the clearances 30 to 16.
And then, the Crows’ defence was so strong that even when Melbourne got it inside their forward 50 24 times, they could only convert to the tune of 1.2.
If Adelaide plays to their best form, does anyone see Geelong’s slow, plodding ball movement getting more inside 50s against Adelaide than Melbourne did? And once there, being more effective at converting them into goals?
Geelong will almost certainly have a low-scoring game (as they have all season), so their only chance is to make the Crows have one too.
But their problem is that, because they struggle to move the ball upfield, it will likely remain in their own backline instead, with entry after repeated entry to Adelaide’s fleet of smaller, dangerous forwards.
The Cats can clog this up with numbers, and against teams with bigger, less agile forwards that might work, but the Crows forwards are all opportunists who can manufacture scores from anywhere, so it seems unlikely the Cats can hold them for long.
Once the Cats get down on the scoreboard, they’ll have to push numbers up the ground and attack… at which point they’ll likely get slaughtered, as the only thing keeping them in the game is removed.
Or that’s how it will probably go, if Adelaide play to form, and don’t kick for goal like the scared little girls they were in Round 1.
Prediction: Adelaide by a lot.
While the conference system has probably served up a slaughter in the Adelaide vs Geelong final, this one at least should be close.
This game could be billed as the battle of the big improvers, given both teams were near the bottom of the ladder last year.
But while we’ve probably seen Fremantle’s best standard this year — and it’s impressive — it’s doubtful we’ve seen the Blues’.
A big part of the reason for this is the recent form of Carlton’s two rugby sevens recruits — Chloe Dalton and Brooke Walker, who are improving so fast you can see it, game by game.
In Round 7 against the Bulldogs, Dalton and Walker combined for five of Carlton’s six goals, and in the past two games, Walker’s had five on her own.
Walker’s emergence as a key Carlton forward changes the Blues’ whole setup. For starters, it allows Bri Davey to spend more time in the middle, where she’s bucking the trend of AFLW halfbacks becoming midfielders by playing very well.
The midfield therforre becomes Davey, Prespakis and Mullane — all big contested ball winners — and then a rotation of Dalton who has great speed, Georgia Gee who has great skills, and Katie Loynes or a Hosking twin.
Having Davey there almost permanently gives Carlton serious grunt in their primary on-ball lineup, which they’re going to need against the Dockers.
In the forward line, Walker turns the mostly two-pronged Carlton attack into three, and Dalton’s split time between forward and midfield makes that four.
Walker also gives the Blues’ forward line something slightly different — a fast leading forward whose first couple of steps are too quick for most defenders.
Harris does something similar, but she’s not quite that fast — her advantage is in contested marking, while Darcy Vescio’s is ground balls and small-forward opportunism.
Fremantle, on the other hand, lost key defender Alex Williams to an ACL in Round 6. In Round 7 against North Melbourne, this forced them to put Ebony Antonio in the back line once more, though impressively Freo’s offensive output did not appear to suffer much, and that against the third-best team in the comp.
Against the Blues, Freo will probably start Antonio back once more, with Walker a large part of the reason why.
Fremantle’s backline has been solid this season, but against the new-look Carlton forward line, they’re going to need some help.
Antonio versus Tayla Harris could be great fun, but she could just as likely end up on Walker, given her recent form.
But of course, that would just leave Harris licking her lips, as with Williams out, Freo don’t really have anyone who can go with her.
Harris will need to take advantage by helping out her mids — pushing upfield to take pressure-relieving marks, something she’s done well, but probably not as well as Gemma Houghton (see below).
The battle of the midfield should be a doozy. Fremantle have a clear advantage in defensive midfield pressure, with Dana Hooker and Kiara Bowers in particular having some of the best tackling numbers in the league.
This is going to make it harder for the Blues to break clear of stoppages, so expect Fremantle to show a pace advantage there, as Steph Cain and Haley Miller make theirs the fastest midfield as well.
A lot could then rest upon the shoulders of Madison Prespakis, who’s probably the slowest of the bunch, but has by far the best hands in her team, and is possibly the best player in the league at finding handball targets in close while being tackled — a necessity against Fremantle.
If Carlton have had a flaw all season, it’s their skills and composure deserting them under pressure. Fremantle’s midfield pressure could shut down less composed Carlton mids, but they’ll be unlikely to shut down Prespakis. If they do, it’ll be very hard for the Blues to win.
Down back, Carlton’s defenders will have to be careful not to play too high, or else Freo will do to them what they did to North in Round 7, and most teams all season — get the ball over their heads and charge into goal with superior foot speed.
But while Carlton’s defenders may lack a little size at times, they might be the fastest lineup going around — if they could deprive Fremantle of that tactic, that’s more goals Freo will need to make up somewhere else.
A concern for the Blues is the question of who’s going to match up on Gemma Houghton? Ashley Sharp has had just as many goals (eight) but Houghton is the more damaging, providing the Dockers with a big marking target high up the ground to relieve pressure on their backline and mids.
Carlton youngster Charlotte Wilson has the height but probably not the strength or endurance. Kerryn Harrington is the Blues’ best defender, but it would be a shame to wrap her up in a lock-down defensive role when she provides so much run and carry from the Blues’ backline herself.
Allison Downey could possibly do it, but Carlton need her in the ruck. Without anyone to match her, Houghton could be a game changer for Fremantle.
It’s a tight matchup, but I’m tipping the Dockers to hit more targets through the midfield, and cause more turnovers with their tackling.
Prediction: Fremantle by a goal.