The third game of Round 2 is between two teams from different sides of the continent, Brisbane and Fremantle.
After being heavily raided in the off-season two years in a row, you might expect the Lions to be a shambles with very few good players left. Yet somehow they look to have accumulated one of the strongest midfields in the country.
This happened because the Lions’ experienced middle core of Ally Anderson, Emma Zielke and Emily Bates have stayed true to their club, while the Queensland draft this year offered up two of the most talented young midfielders in the country: Lily Postlethwaite and Isabel Dawes.
Postlethwaite and Dawes are similar in that they’re fairly small and agile in the way of so many junior female midfielders today. Postlethwaite’s strength is her pure class and decision-making with the ball – think of a blonde Daisy Pearce, always with plenty of time, always hitting targets and thinking the situation through. Compared to the smooth, effortless Postlethwaite, Dawes is the Energiser Bunny, always bouncing and darting, with clean hands and one of the best handballs under pressure that you’ll find.
In fact the Lions have so many good midfielders that it could cause some problems finding somewhere to put them. The wing is best left to speedy runners and outside midfielders, but all of Brisbane’s five big guns are a similar type of small to mid-sized ball-winner. This midfield should be amazing at winning the ball in close, but distributors need someone faster to distribute too. Contrast this to Fremantle’s midfield, for example, with its line-breaking runners like Steph Cain and Haley Miller.
Developing cross-code soccer player Brianna McFarlane might take a wing, or possibly Irishwoman Orla O’Dwyer, whose video highlights demonstrate some serious speed. And there should be plenty of pace in the half-forward line with the return of exciting youngster Sophie Conway from an ACL and possibly even Greta Bodey, a soccer player who took up footy only earlier this year and has been making waves.
But even here we can see that the Lions are desperately short of proven forward targets, and putting O’Dwyer on a wing could deprive them of a strong forward option.
Yes, they’ve got the always-reliable Jess Wuetschner, but the rest of the forward line may have to be improvised from various less recognised players. Jesse Wardlaw was impressive as a forward in the QAFL. Hard-leading forwards at 183 centimetres could be difficult to stop in the AFLW, but she hasn’t done it at that level yet. In fact Brisbane’s surplus of midfielders might see a few redeployed to make a mosquito-fleet forward line like the Bulldogs did so well in 2018.
The ruck presents some interesting problems for Brisbane also, though not necessarily bad ones. This is because the Lions have three young players all around the 183-centimetre mark: Jesse Wardlaw, Jessey Keefe and Hannah Hillman – though, as mentioned, Wardlaw will likely be in the forward line. Exactly which of Keefe and Hillman will be the starting ruck is anyone’s guess, though Keefe is older and (one would think) more developed.
The Lions backline looks strong despite all the players lost from it to Gold Coast but, then again, the Lions always had a surplus of good defenders. Kate Lutkins, Breanna Koenen and Shannon Campbell are three of the best going around, young Arianna Clarke and Nat Grider are also talented, and mature age cross-coder Cathy Svarc has big raps on her as well.
The Lions’ season should rest upon how much of a forward line they can improvise from limited options. Their backline and midfield look strong, but the Lions under Craig Starcevich have been one of those teams more focused on defence than offence. Last season they averaged only 27 points per game – the top-scoring teams, Adelaide and Fremantle, averaged 59 and 47 respectively.
Some of this inability to score can be laid on the lack of a forward line and some more could be a lack of foot speed, but there’s no doubt that much of it was an outmoded gameplan that last year got badly exposed. If the Lions play the same way this year, taking few risks to move the ball forward rapidly, they’ll get crushed irrespective of the players in their forward line.
But a team with this good a midfield and backline ought to be able to control the ball well enough to take some chances going forward, and if they do, they’ll be tougher competition in 2020 than some may think.