The new AFL season approaches. It’s a time for most to get excited.
After the Geelong Cats and North Melbourne made their debuts last year, in 2020 we see four new teams enter the AFLW fray – the Gold Coast Suns, Richmond, St Kilda and the West Coast Eagles – thus expanding the league to 14 teams.
Despite calls for the regular season to be extended so that every team can face each other once, the controversial conference system has been retained, with each team to face their inter-conference rivals once – as well as play two cross-over matches against teams from the other conference – which makes for an eight-round home-and-away season.
This means that, out of 13 possible opponents, every team will miss out on facing five teams, such as the Adelaide Crows missing out on facing Collingwood for a second consecutive year.
One of the four newest clubs – Richmond – will have the honour of kicking off the new AFLW season, but they’ll do so on a familiar rival’s home ground even though it will be a home game for the yellow and black.
The Gold Coast Suns’ foray into the women’s game will start with a trip to Sydney where they’ll face the GWS Giants, while the West Coast Eagles and St Kilda will both make their debuts against Collingwood and the Western Bulldogs respectively.
Meantime, reigning premiers the Adelaide Crows will be without their inspirational skipper, Erin Phillips, when they venture to the sunshine capital to face the Brisbane Lions on Saturday.
Here is your full preview to Round 1.
Richmond vs Carlton
It’s a familiar fixture many AFL fans are used to seeing – but with a twist.
For so many years we have seen the Tigers and Blues kick off the AFL men’s season in front of over 80,000 fans at the MCG on a Thursday night.
So successful has that fixture been for the men’s league that the AFLW has decided to adopt it to start the new season, but instead of it being at the MCG, it’ll be played at Ikon Park, which houses up to 21,000 spectators – just over a fifth of the MCG’s capacity.
Still, a capacity crowd will be expected to pack the suburban ground as the Tigers make their AFLW debut against last year’s beaten grand finalists this Friday night.
Coached by Tom Hunter, the Tigers recruited aggressively over the summer, landing the likes of former Western Bulldogs captain Katie Brennan as well as All Australian forwards Christina Bernardi and Sabrina Frederick, and ex-GWS midfielder Phoebe Monahan, among many others.
The yellow and black played one practice match last month, defeating fellow AFLW newcomers the West Coast Eagles by 23 points after kicking the first three majors of the match.
Now, they’ll face a Carlton side that will be hoping to build on last year’s grand final appearance, in which they lost to the Adelaide Crows by 45 points in front of a capacity crowd at the Adelaide Oval last March.
Daniel Harford’s side will enter the new season without Brianna Davey, who was traded to Collingwood last April. Still, a team featuring the likes of the Hosking twins, forward Tayla Harris and last year’s Rising Star Maddy Prespakis will be hard to beat this season.
A notable anomaly in this fixture is that while it is a Richmond home game, it will actually be played at Carlton’s home venue, which might swing the pendulum their way as far as home-ground advantage is concerned.
However, I think the Tigers can get their AFLW life off to a good start here.
Prediction: Richmond by 12 points.
GWS Giants vs Gold Coast Suns
The second team to make their AFLW debut, the Gold Coast Suns, will begin their foray into the league when they travel to Blacktown in Sydney’s western suburbs to face the GWS Giants. Rainy conditions are expected.
After getting to within a game of reaching the grand final in 2018, and despite boasting reigning All Australian forward Christina Bernardi who has since moved to Richmond, the Giants regressed last year, winning only two games as their forward line struggled to click.
Any chances they have of improving on their performances this year have taken a hit. Not only has Bernardi left, but their inaugural captain Amanda Farrugia, who has been named as the AFLW premiership cup ambassador, announced her sudden retirement late last year.
Thus, the captaincy has been handed to Alicia Eva, who has flourished in the orange and charcoal since crossing over from Collingwood at the end of the 2017 season.
She will lead the Giants in her own right for the first time on Saturday when they face the Suns, who built their list by raiding their neighbours the Brisbane Lions, poaching seven players from up the M1.
They also landed Jamie Stanton from North Melbourne, making her the first player to play in a club’s inaugural season twice after having switched to the Roos from the Lions in the 2018-19 off-season.
Given the Giants have had a three-year head start on the Suns in the AFLW, there will be no excuses for them not to start the new season with a win, which could set them up for the year.
Prediction: GWS Giants by 18 points.
Melbourne vs North Melbourne
The second match on Saturday afternoon sees Daisy Pearce return from a 12-month sabbatical, during which she gave birth to twins, to lead Melbourne into battle against North Melbourne at Casey Fields.
A major anomaly of the conference system last year was that without Pearce, Melbourne won four of their seven matches with a percentage of 111.2 – enough to qualify for the finals on a normal ladder – but finished fourth in their conference, only ahead of the Western Bulldogs.
By contrast, Carlton also won four of their seven matches, but with a percentage of 99.6, yet finished on top of the weaker Conference B, earning them a preliminary final berth.
The Dees have yet to reach the finals since the establishment of the AFLW competition in 2017, and with their inspirational captain Pearce back on board, and having poached Libby Birch from the Western Bulldogs, they’ll be intent on taking the next step up in 2020.
It will not come easy against a North Melbourne side, which has been touted as flag favourites, the Roos winning five of their seven matches last year in Conference A and just missing out on a preliminary final berth when they lost their Round 7 match against Fremantle in Perth.
The Roos lost three players to expansion clubs – Jamie Stanton to the Gold Coast Suns, as well as Alison Drennan and Courteney Munn to St Kilda, while another big name – Moana Hope – was delisted.
In the battle of the two teams that finished third and fourth not just in Conference A, but also overall, it will come down to which team is more willing than wanting.
Prediction: North Melbourne by eight points.
Brisbane Lions vs Adelaide Crows
In the evening, the Adelaide Crows will head to the sunshine state to begin their premiership defence when they face the Brisbane Lions at Hickey Park.
After just three seasons, the Crows have stamped themselves as the most dominant team in the AFLW, claiming two flags – the latter with a dominant 45-point victory over Carlton in the grand final in front of a capacity home crowd last year.
Their quest for a third flag in four years will start without their inspirational captain, Erin Phillips, who is recovering from the ACL injury she suffered in last year’s decider, as well as Rhiannon Metcalfe, who missed the whole of last season due to the same injury.
The Crows will also be facing one of their ex-players in Rheanne Lugg, who was delisted last April but has since found a new home at the Brisbane Lions.
With the inclusion of the Gold Coast Suns into the competition, the Lions’ playing list suffered the most, losing seven players to the new club, while forward Sabrina Frederick also departed for an expansion club, joining Richmond.
And after finishing just above Collingwood in Conference B last year, it’s fair to say that this is not the same Lions side that dominated the early stages of the AFLW competition when they reached a pair of grand finals in 2017 and 2018, losing both by six points.
They also lost a recent practice match against the GWS Giants in Sydney last month, failing to kick a single major over the course of four quarters.
Still, facing a weakened Adelaide Crows side first up, I think the Lions can spring somewhat of an upset here.
Prediction: Brisbane Lions by ten points.
Collingwood vs West Coast Eagles
The next of the four expansion clubs to make their debut will be the West Coast Eagles, who will begin their foray into the AFLW with a clash against Collingwood at Victoria Park.
Like their fellow three entrants, the Eagles recruited aggressively as they build towards their debut, poaching Dana Hooker and Kellie Gibson from cross-town rivals Fremantle as well as landing GWS pair Maddy Collier and Emma Swanson, who has been appointed captain of the side.
The Eagles played one practice match late last month, losing to Richmond by 28 points, but it will remain to be seen how they adapt to the big time.
Collingwood, on the other hand, will enter their fourth season with a new coach in Stephen Symonds, after inaugural coach Wayne Siekman was sacked at the end of a dismal season in which they won only one match – against the Brisbane Lions in the final round.
Not only did they finish at the bottom of Conference B, they were also the worst-performed team overall, landing them the overall wooden spoon and a first for the club since the men’s team finished at the bottom of the ladder in 1999.
Any hopes they have of an improvement on their one-win season have been boosted by the arrival of ex-Carlton captain Brianna Davey, while ex-hockey player Georgie Parker was one of many delisted by the club.
At home, I think the Pies can get their season off to a good start.
Prediction: Collingwood by seven points.
St Kilda vs Western Bulldogs
The last of the four new teams in the AFLW, St Kilda, will mark their debut with a clash against 2018 premiers the Western Bulldogs at their spiritual home, Moorabbin Oval.
It will be the first time since 1992 that a professional Australian rules football match is played at the venue, and if past history is anything to go by, then it could bode well for the women, as the men won both their first and last matches at the ground in 1965 and 1992 respectively.
The Saints’ recruits include Nat Exon from the Brisbane Lions, Rhiannon Watt from Carlton and Alison Drennan, who played in North Melbourne’s inaugural AFLW match last year and could do the same for the Saints this weekend.
They’ll face a Western Bulldogs side that has not only lost former captain Katie Brennan to Richmond, but will also be coached by Nathan Burke, a Saints legend who played 323 matches for the club – a record that was surpassed by another club legend, Robert Harvey, in 2006.
Burke replaces premiership coach Paul Groves, who stepped down from the role at the end of last season in which the Bulldogs finished at the bottom of Conference A, just 12 months after leading the club to the ultimate glory.
Among the players he will coach is Isabella Grant, the daughter of club legend Chris Grant, who was denied a Brownlow Medal in 1997 after being found guilty of a striking charge during that season.
With Brennan’s departure, Ellie Blackburn takes the reins as Bulldogs captain on a full-time basis. The Saints, meanwhile, will have three co-captains – Cat Phillips, Kate Shierlaw and Rhiannon Watt – and be coached by Peta Searle.
While both sides appear evenly poised on paper, and the Saints will be keen to impress first up, I think the Bulldogs’ experience should get them home in this one.
Prediction: Western Bulldogs by 12 points.
Fremantle vs Geelong Cats
The final match of Round 1 takes us to the west where last year’s losing preliminary finalists go head to head.
The Dockers will be looking to build on last year’s preliminary final showing, which they lost to Carlton at Ikon Park after they’d lost only one regular season match. That was to the eventual premiers, the Adelaide Crows, by 42 points.
The entry of cross-town rivals the West Coast Eagles into the league saw the Dockers’ playing list cop a hit, losing eight players to the blue and gold, including 2017 best and fairest Dana Hooker, plus Ashlee Atkins and Kellie Gibson, among many others.
Still, a side featuring captain Kara Antonio, rising star nominee Sabreena Duffy and vice-captain Kiara Bowers will be tough to beat as they vie for another finals berth in 2020.
The Cats, meanwhile, will also be looking to build on their preliminary final appearance last year and will have learnt a lesson or two from their crushing loss to the Adelaide Crows, when they lost by 66 points and very nearly went through the entire match without kicking a major.
It was in that match the Cats kicked the lowest score in AFLW history, 1.1 (7).
They’ll be hoping to have Nina Morrison available at some point this season after she cruelly suffered a serious knee injury during training 12 months ago, which followed her phenomenal debut match against Collingwood in which she earned a Rising Star nomination.
And while Erin Hoare – who arrived at the club from Melbourne over 12 months ago – retired during the AFLW off-season, the Cats did get Millie Brown – the daughter of former club forward Paul – at the draft.
While both sides will be eager to improve on their preliminary final efforts from last year, the home-ground advantage should get the Dockers home in this one.
Prediction: Fremantle by 14 points.