With the 2019 AFL draft in the rearview mirror and club lists finalised for 2020, we decided – despite overwhelming popular opinion – that it’s not at all too early to start speculating about the season ahead.
If Adelaide were fully healthy, you’d be an idiot to bet against them winning their third out of four AFLW titles.
As things stand, you might still need to be an idiot…but two of last year’s stars are coming back from ACL injuries, including their biggest star of all, and now one of the competition’s best players in Chelsea Randall has done her ACL in practice and will miss the whole season.
Adelaide’s defence is the most underrated part of their game, and while there are plenty of strong defenders still in the line-up, Randall was their leader and comfortably their best. Last season saw a number of teams playing very fast, attacking football (led by Adelaide themselves) and if we’re to give AFLW coaches any credit at all, one suspects that this very successful brand of football will be emulated by many more this season.
The thing with playing this style, however, is that the ball does tend to ping from one end to the other quite a bit, and the run in a defensive line playing this way will be greatly tested. Without Randall, the Crows’ defensive run will drop considerably, and many of the more aggressive AFLW teams will start to fancy their chances of keeping the ball locked into Adelaide’s back fifty, having the effect not only of increasing their scoring chances, but depriving Adelaide’s deadly forward line of the ball.
The two stars recovering from last season’s ACLs are Erin Phillips and Chloe Scheer. Phillips obviously gets the most attention, but for me Scheer was probably the sadder injury — still only 20, this is her second ACL and she has the potential to be one of the best players in the game if she could just stay healthy.
A comparable player in the men’s competition would be scrutinised every step of her recovery, but because this is the AFLW, I’ve only glimpsed one report suggesting Scheer was running very soon after her surgery, so she seems on track for Game 1 of the season, as does Phillips, who’s received a little more scrutiny.
But while their knees may be fine by the regular season, it seems likely they won’t be able to train at the same intensity in the preseason, with a resulting lack of fitness limiting how they can be used. This will have the most impact on Phillips, who may end up playing the whole season out of the goal square, as she did in Season Two.
It’s not a bad problem for Adelaide to have — in Season Two Phillips was one of the competition’s dominant forwards — but it does create a partial hole in Adelaide’s midfield, as ideally the Crows would like her to split her time between forward and the middle.
Thus we had coach Mathew Clarke reaching out to the recently retired Courtney Gum, who is now 38 but was one of the best midfielders in the country as recently as 2018, to play one more season, this time for her home team.
But there’s no guarantee Gum can be as effective as she was in 2018, not so much because of her age, but because the league has moved on since then. Adelaide have good depth in Sophie Li and Renee Forth (who’s apparently having such a good time in Adelaide that her hometown Eagles couldn’t lure her back), but if Phillips is only playing forward, Adelaide’s middle will be down on star power — a fact made worse by the loss of promising youngster Hannah Martin in the offseason to, you guessed it, another ACL.
Adelaide’s midfield has actually always been a little thin for superstars, particularly when you consider that Anne Hatchard, prior to last season, was barely a nine possession per game player before radically transforming her fitness and thus performance.
There’s an argument to say that Hatchard is possibly Adelaide’s most important player after Phillips and Randall because she’s been an absolute monster for them both in numbers and in literal size — tall for a midfielder (and occasionally playing ruck), and very strong, she’s teamed with Phillips and Ebony Marinoff to create the most physically dominant midfield combination in the country.
Others line-ups may be as skilful, but most of those just get bullied and beaten up by the bigger, tougher Crows mids. If Hatchard hadn’t improved so radically, and with Phillips in the forward line, Adelaide’s apparent total dominance over other teams would have evaporated fast, because the Crows’ B-grade mids aren’t nearly as intimidating, and it’s not clear that Courtney Gum will change that.
One option for Mathew Clarke is moving Eloise Jones from the forward line to the middle. She’d only make an outside mid, lacking the physicality the Crows are accustomed to, but she’s lightning fast with probably the best pure skills in the team. If Phillips is camping in the goalsquare along with Scheer the Crows forward line should manage fine without Jones, who would add pace and slick skills to the middle.
In the ruck, Rhiannon Metcalf should be back from injury, and it will be interesting to see whether she takes over the starting ruck from Jess Foley, who did a tremendous job last year. If so, Foley could give the Crows a tall, agile option up forward…or maybe that will be Metcalf’s role.
In the same mold, the Crows also drafted the promising youngster Montana McKinnon, who is nearly six-foot, very strong and a great mark. So as if Adelaide didn’t have enough weapons, they should now have two tall contested marking options, something they lacked last year outside of Sarah Allen down back.
The rest of Adelaide’s line-up looks relatively settled. The forward line should be as dominant as ever, particularly if Phillips and Scheer are there fulltime, but also 2018 promising talent Ruth Wallace will be returning, clever youngster Danielle Ponter will be another year better and Stevie Lee Thompson will have another year’s experience in the role after last year’s very successful transition.
By present AFLW standards, the Crows are stacked with talent, and move the ball almost like a men’s team, rarely fumbling and punishing teams without the same running power. If the question marks over Phillips’ and Scheer’s roles are resolved positively, as seems likely, then the Crows will remain favourites to win their third title.
But losing Chelsea Randall is going to give a lot of opposition teams the feeling that they’re a real chance, and the Crows will have to fight off some stiff challenges this season.
I predict that Adelaide will remain too good, but the gap between them and the rest may diminish by more than most expect.