Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson has warned of dire consequences for his inconsistent side, unless they can improve their ball flow and kick bigger scores.
The women’s league is still very much a work in progress, which is simultaneously the most fun and the most frustrating thing about following it.
While the men’s game has plateaued, the women’s game still improves and changes by large degrees every year, throwing up many surprises.
So what can we expect, and hope, to see next season?
Season 2019 was a huge transitional year for women’s football in one respect above all others — the coaches of five teams started to play proper football.
Those teams were North Melbourne, Melbourne, Fremantle, Carlton and Adelaide. Notably, four of those five coaches were AFLW rookies, fresh to the competition with new ideas about how the game should be played.
And unfortunately for the AFLW organisers, four of those five were in Conference A, leading to the crazy-lopsided strength of that conference as the new style of play swept all before it.
This style, of course, was all about fast transitions from the back line to the forward line. Successful teams recruited for speed, and punished teams still playing the old congested style, getting out behind their high defenders and running on open grass into goal.
And for the sake of the AFLW, we need to see more of it.
For one, it’s actually fun to watch. I’m a big supporter of women’s football, but honestly, watching Geelong and Collingwood play last year was like watching mould growing, only less entertaining.
It’s crazy for anyone involved with a team playing in that style to act the slightest bit surprised that some people are skeptical of women’s football’s ability to draw a crowd.
Last year, the Cats and the Pies in particular were uglier than a warthog’s backside — playing everyone behind the ball, never having targets ahead to kick to, swamping every contest with extra players and deliberately sacrificing offence for defence.
Because that, of course, is how women’s football used to be played — assume that the players have no skill, exploit that fact by creating as much congestion as possible to make the skills of your opponents even worse, and hope that somehow your team will be the one to crawl home on their bloodied hands and knees to win by ten points to twelve, to the scattered applause of the five bored spectators who are still watching.
And oh what joy it was last season to see fast, skilful teams like Adelaide and Fremantle absolutely dismantle that old, ugly style of play, switching sides, breaking lines with footspeed and handballs, then kicking long to forwards who were (gasp!) actually waiting in the forward line.
Many goals were scored by those teams, the ugly teams were thrashed by joyously large margins, and the crowds for said exciting teams, particularly Adelaide, began to take notice, turn up in large numbers, and remark on message boards how surprised and delighted they were with the entertainment value on display.
So what we need to see in Season 2020, more than anything, is a continuing evolution of that attacking style. The AFLW can sell that style, and I strongly believe that people will one day pay money to see it, particularly in a few years when it’s gotten even better, and everyone’s doing it.
We need to see last year’s ugly teams get with the program and realise that they can’t beat the best teams by playing with the old style.
There was once a day when you could count on holding your opponent to twenty points, allowing you to scrape home with twenty-one.
But these days there’s little chance of holding Adelaide and their like to less than forty, and probably not fifty, meaning you have to be able to score at least that many to beat them.
Last season (including finals) Geelong averaged 20 and Collingwood 23 while Fremantle averaged 47, Carlton 37 (would have been more with better accuracy) and Adelaide 59. Surely that clattering sound you hear in The Cattery is a penny, dropping.
Better TV coverage
It’s a relatively small thing, but can Fox Footy please stop doing action replays and boundary interviews over live action?
There’s a reason it’s never done in the men’s broadcasts — because networks doing it would get crucified.
Missing live action because you were looking at something else is the worst sin of televised sports, but it happens in AFLW match coverage all the time, suggesting that broadcasters aren’t taking it seriously.
Or more likely, they’ve decided to prioritise ‘human interest’ stories in the women’s game over the actual sport itself, which is why you can find a dozen articles in the media about a player’s personal background and work/life balance, but very little about how many kicks she got on the weekend.
Which in turn is why the networks are still chatting to a player on the sidelines, to get a sense of her personality, while ignoring goals being scored.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s an important place for human interest angles in all sports, but if the goal is to encourage people to take the AFLW seriously as a sport, this isn’t how you do it.
General improvement in playing standard
Much of this is related to the earlier point about coaching styles.
So many of the ugly games in the first three seasons of the AFLW weren’t ugly because the players had no skill, but more because the coaches were encouraged to adopt a style that made it impossible for even the most skilful players to demonstrate their ability.
Even Daisy Pearce finds it hard to shine with three opponents sitting on her head.
But in turn, much of the reason why these new AFLW coaches are now successful playing a more aggressive style is because the abilities of individual players have increased so much.
These styles of play simply wouldn’t have worked in the first two seasons, because there weren’t enough good players to make it work. Now that’s changing, and fast.
Expansion, of course, will slow that progress down… but even so, we can see that this year’s expansion has hit some clubs harder than others.
A number of top clubs, after the draft, are going to have notably more talent than last year, and of course clubs like Carlton and the Bulldogs have half their current list comprised of players with barely any AFLW experience, and thus enormous built-in upside.
I’m predicting that the gap between the top teams and the bottom will be particularly wide in 2020, leading to some nasty blowouts.
But then, I’m convinced that sixty-point blowouts are less damaging to the AFLW than fifteen-point draws. In a sixty-point blowout, fans can see that at least one team can play exciting football.
Pay holding the ball. Please. The umpires are seriously slack on it in the AFLW, giving the women leeway they don’t apply to the men.
It’s not so much that it’s patronising (though it is) but rather that too many players are anticipating that the umpires are soft on it, and so make no effort to move the ball on, leading to more stoppages, more congestion — all the things AFLW HQ would like to see gone.
It’s also one of those skills where the women’s game most seriously lags the men’s — the ability to anticipate contact and get the fast handball away while being tackled.
The young stars have all got it – Maddy Prespakis could hit a target near upside down while getting dumped – but a lot of the older players just tuck the ball under their arm in the middle of a pack, try to run and get swamped.
If umpires call ‘ball’ on them, it’ll a) help decongest those stoppages, and b) encourage players to look for fast handballs rather than playing rugby and deliberately running into walls — exactly what the rule was designed to prevent.
But so far it’s not happening, encouraging players to develop bad habits, and making the game much less attractive.
This won’t be popular among non-Adelaide residents (for the record, I’m a West Coast fan), but it won’t hurt the competition if Adelaide once again win the title without anyone else getting close.
In a developing league, having a benchmark for everyone else to look up to isn’t a bad thing, particularly when they’re playing unquestionably the most entertaining brand of women’s football yet seen anywhere, and drawing huge crowds in the process.
And that’s the other thing — it’s not just happening on the field. Anyone who thinks a non-SA team could have drawn 50,000 to a Grand Final is dreaming.
All the Victorian clubs’ AFLW supporters who could be relied on to turn up to their team’s Grand Final combined wouldn’t be much more than 50,000.
Adelaide are slaughtering the rest of the competition in attracting public interest to women’s football, and that’s not a bad thing either.
It shows what’s possible, and that the public will support the AFLW when the standard’s that high, which preemptively shoots down all the excuses made for public disinterest elsewhere.
It may encourage hard questions to be asked, in other cities, about why they aren’t experiencing the same thing. Questions that are asked are more likely to be answered.
Having said all of that — let’s not give Adelaide every championship until Port Adelaide enters the competition just yet.
For one thing, there are doubts this year about the fitness of Erin Phillips and Chloe Scheer, and Adelaide’s midfield is actually a little thin once you get past the superstars.
But mostly, this kind of thing will happen in a rapidly evolving competition where there’s a new benchmark standard being set each year.
Teams will improve radically, new stars will emerge from nowhere, and everything will become quite unpredictable.
And while there’s surely a great torrent of young South Australian talent coming down the pipeline, it hasn’t arrived yet, while in Victoria, Queensland and increasingly even Western Australia, it’s in full flow.
Here come the kids
This season’s draft was the best yet, and next season’s will make this season look small.
Yet still there are clubs that don’t quite get it. Collingwood, yet again, passed up draft picks for big-name recruits — in this case former Carlton captain Brianna Davey.
Carlton used their compensation pick to grab Lucy McEvoy. Bri Davey is one of the competition’s best players, but it wouldn’t surprise me if McEvoy’s Season 2020 is just as good as her’s. In future years, I’d be surprised if she didn’t leave Davey behind.
The top kids coming through the juniors are simply better than anyone we’ve seen to date, and the top senior players running around at the moment (with the possible exception of Erin Phillips) wouldn’t be considered particularly special in five years’ time — at their current standard at least.
And Collingwood not only spent their top draft pick on Davey, but other top picks as well.
If Nina Morrison is fully fit from her ACL, she’ll be lighting up the midfield of Geelong, Monique Conti is on her way to dominating the Richmond midfield, the Carlton midfield of Maddy Prespakis and Lucy McEvoy will be one of the competition’s best, Georgia Patrikios will be a huge fan favourite at St Kilda, Gabby Newton will lead a bevy of young stars for the Dogs, Lily Postlethwaite and Isabelle Dawes will light up the field in Brisbane and Roxy Roux will begin compiling one of the AFLW’s best highlight reels at Fremantle.
These players are the reason why I’m watching the AFLW.
And next year’s Victorian draft, at least, looks about twice as strong and deep as this year’s. Clubs that don’t figure this out are going to struggle.