When West Coast traded away their 2019 and 2020 first-round draft picks to secure Tim Kelly from Geelong, they potentially traded their future for the present.
Disclaimer: I’m a West Coast Eagles fan, so figure that into your assessments when considering my objectivity. However, for the purposes of this prediction, I’m calling that the Eagles will be the best performed of all the expansion teams.
Mostly it’s the midfield. Midfields are even more important in the AFLW than in the AFL, and the Eagles recruited as though they’re aware of it.
Dana Hooker is one of the best in the business. Emma Swanson hasn’t perhaps achieved the heights that some suspected she would at GWS, due partly to last season’s shoulder injury, but she’s home now, still only 24, and one of the better midfielders in the competition. Mikayla Bowen was a priority pick and a star of the WA junior ranks – she’s only small but she’s a gun with a crazy appetite for hard contact.
Then there are the wildcards: Brianna Green and Niamh Kelly. At the beginning of the AFLW, three good midfielders would have been plenty, but now it’s barely enough.
Green is still only 23, and a few years ago she was regarded as one of the brightest young stars in the WAFLW. Then at Fremantle, a succession of injuries saw her sidelined. If Green can rediscover that old form with good health and become West Coast’s fourth big on-ball mid, that’s a critical mass impressive for even an established team, let alone an expansion team.
Add to that the prospect of the Irishwoman Kelly, whose Gaelic football video clips got Eagles fans quite excited about her speed, and the West Coast midfield could be quite serious by any standard. While a lot of Irish players are put in the forward line in their first season, it seems the intention is to put Kelly on a wing, which suggests the coaching staff are impressed with her oval-ball skills.
Some of the WAFLW mature-age midfield recruits, like Imahra Cameron and Emily Bonser, look useful too, while mature-age ruck Danika Pisconeri has real size and strength, and was impressive in the WAFLW last season.
But while the Eagles’ midfield could be stacked if everyone performs, they don’t look nearly as strong in the forward or back lines. Niamh Kelly’s sister Grace comes with big raps and is more of a key forward type, while Kellie Gibson is an established threat with her speed and finishing.
Ashley Atkins was one of the Dockers’ most underrated players and has been setting the much-improved WAFLW on fire, and then there’s Tarnee Tester, who was the WAFLW’s leading goal-scorer in 2019, but isn’t that big and will be facing much tougher, meaner defenders at AFLW level.
A lot will depend on how well Grace Kelly adapts, because while Gibson is excellent, neither she nor Atkins have a history of prolific goal-kicking, being the kinds of players who make everyone around them better. That’s always nice, but at some point there needs to be a person who actually kicks the goals, and in this Eagles forward line it’s not certain who that’s going to be, if anyone.
It’s down back where the Eagles look weakest. McKenzie Dowrick is a star youngster with a huge left foot. Emily McGuire was a young Dockers forward who was inexplicably delisted then successfully reinvented herself as a powerful defender in the WAFLW. Sophie McDonald is a 182-centimetre hockey convert with exciting athleticism. But they’re all so young.
Maddie Collier and Belinda Smith will bring more experience, but there’s no-one in the back line who will have opposition forwards lying awake the night before wondering how they’re going to handle them. That’s the case this year at least, although next year may be a different story.
With their strength in the middle and an effort to target fast rookies like the Kellys and former rugby international Mhicca Carter, and it’s hard to see the Eagles playing a style other than the one that was most successful last season: run hard, play on at all costs, and get the ball forward before the opposition defence gets back. It’s the kind of style this forward line could capitalise on. They might not take many contested marks for set shots, but they could get some goals with their pace onto the loose ball.
I tip the Eagles to get their share of wins this season and to hopefully play some exciting football. But the more established, high-scoring teams could hand them some nasty beatings as the young defence gets left exposed on the rebound. As with all expansion teams, once you get past the headline players, the talent level drops away pretty sharply. The Eagles will be found wanting for depth, particularly if the injuries mount.
The newly restructured WAFLW is starting to produce some very good football, and the WA talent pipeline is just starting to flow properly. With the Dockers looking to be super strong in 2020 as well, Western Australia could be reclaiming its mantle as a powerhouse of women’s footy.