Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson won’t look outside the AFL bubble for advice on how to handle hub life, suggesting it is important to trust your instinct and acknowledge each club will handle it differently.
Round 1 of the AFLW was scrappy and low scoring, with the median team score 21.5 points per game.
This was therefore accompanied by the rise of many overnight experts suggesting women’s football was finished, the ground should be shrunk by a hundred metres and the women should play with a square ball made of feathers.
Then came Round 2. The players had a week to get the cobwebs out, the weather was a little better (though only on Sunday) and suddenly the median score was up to 29.5 and the gameplay was looking much crisper and faster. Plus we had our first genuinely ripper game of footy – Carlton vs Collingwood at Ikon on Sunday, where the first half in particular was fun footy by any standard (but maybe not for Blues fans) and the Pies lived up to my preseason expectation of a big season by proving me wrong about Carlton being slightly better. I’ll take the half-win.
I can’t write about every team because the article would be a mile long, but here’s what stood out for me in Round 2.
The next level of AFLW coaching may have arrived with Collingwood’s Steve Symmonds. This is the fun thing that you can see in the AFLW more than any other football competition – every year last year’s winning coaching strategy seems to be challenged and beaten by something better.
Carlton play long, fast and sometimes recklessly. Collingwood have taken Carlton’s speed and aggression and mixed into it a superior lateral use of the field, going wide through the corridor and back again instead of just long down the field to predictable contests. Their run and carry was superior, which allows them to control the ball in a way reminiscent of last year’s Adelaide Crows.
Gradually the Pies picked the Blues apart, and because they were willing to switch play so often, they’d get forward 50 entries from different positions rather than the same predictable entry down the wing and get lots of space and forward targets to hit. The result was that while forward 50 entries were nearly even 30 to 31, the Pies converted 14 of those into scoring shots, of which six were goals, while the Blues only managed nine shots for three goals.
The other notable thing about this game that all other AFLW teams need to learn from was the close-in work around the stoppages. Both Collingwood and Carlton move the ball quickly in close with fast handballs or, if they can’t take possession, just taps of the loose ball to get it clear. This eliminates congestion, the scourge of women’s football, as the ball will quickly emerge from the congested space, making for fast, open play.
Whether it’s because they’re poorly coached or poorly skilled or because coaches deliberately don’t want the ball emerging quickly from stoppages, too many other teams aren’t doing it, leading to repeated stoppages and ugly football. But the writing is on the wall because it’s very hard to see those teams getting close to Collingwood in particular when they play like this, which will force coaches to change and copy them, thus improving the competition. Unless, of course, they don’t have the players to make it work.
It takes a lot of skill and speed to play this way, and credit to Steve Symmonds for backing his young players. They did it without Bri Davey too and got breakout performances from young midfielder Mikayla Cann with 16 touches, young defender Lauren Butler with 17 and Irishwoman Aisling Sheridan with 14. Add this to big games from established stars like Chloe Molloy, Jaimee Lambert and Steph Livingstone and the Pies are looking like one of the deepest line-ups in the competition. Once Davey and Ruby Schleicher return that will improve again.
The third season was about teams playing fast and aggressive football, and Carlton were great at it. The fourth season might be about teams playing football that’s fast, aggressive and smart. Thus far the Pies are the team showing how it’s done. Next Saturday evening at Fremantle Oval Collingwood will test this new style against the Dockers, who take Carlton’s cannonball approach to a higher and often painful physical intensity. With any luck it’ll be a ripper.
What’s wrong with the Tigers?
Well, if you’re judging current performance against expectations, there’s nothing wrong – they’re doing about as well as I expected them to, having picked them to finish last.
The problem is that Richmond look like a good VFLW team put together by people who thought that would be plenty. The general rule that applies in all sports is that superior athleticism will erase superior skill. For example, there are plenty of very good basketball players who shoot high percentages and look incredible in the NBL who would disappear if they moved to the NBA. Against players who are taller, stronger and faster, they wouldn’t get a shot off and all their clever skills would be for naught.
And so it is with football, men’s or women’s. We’ve seen it happen to Mo Hope and Sarah Perkins, we might soon be seeing it happen to Sabrina Fredrick and to a solid chunk of the Tigers line-up who were excellent at VFLW level. Put them up against faster, stronger opponents and all their clever skills disappear because they just don’t get any time or space to get a kick away before someone is planting them face-first in the turf.
This is why Mon Conti looks like such a star on the field for the Tigers – it’s not just that her skills are better, it’s that her vastly superior athleticism gives her the extra space she needs to execute her skills. The old adage in footy is ‘can’t kick, can’t play’, but this doesn’t particularly apply to women’s footy right now because with the standards still low, there are plenty of players, including some high-profile ones, who struggle to hit targets.
The adage in women’s footy might instead be ‘can’t run, can’t play’. Which is why Gabby Seymour, a volleyballer who’s been playing footy only about a year and whose skills are accordingly rusty, looks to have a promising future, while some of the Tigers’ more skilful and experienced VFLW players probably don’t. Seymour is an athlete and can make her own space to get a disposal away. At this level players who can’t do that can’t do much.
Still, the Tigers have a core group of players who are athletic enough to be either very good now or to become very good in the future. Those players will be kept and the others will be replaced over the coming years. Tigers fans should keep an eye on Ellie McKenzie of the Northern Knights in the NAB League, who might be their first pick next year. Put her alongside Conti in 2021 and you’ve suddenly got a serious midfield. When building off a low base, just a couple of big new inclusions can radically improve the whole team.
What’s wrong with the Eagles?
Against a team of the calibre of the Dockers, the Eagles have a small number of effective players, a small number of players who may one day become effective, one or two who ought to be effective now but aren’t (Kellie Gibson) and then a big, big bunch (perhaps half) who don’t really belong at this level. That’s to be expected in an expansion team in 2020 – see the Richmond Tigers.
Of course there are immediately Western Australia fans claiming that the Eagles coaching staff have stuffed it up, assembled a dud team and should be sacked. It’s hard to know what these fans were expecting. This is the talent that was available for the rapidly expanding AFLW at present, and it’s thin. If you don’t think the Eagles knocked on every Western Australian door in the lead-up to this season, including that of Chelsea Randall, Renee Forth and others, you’ve got rocks in your head. They took what was available, and it was never going to be enough in the first year, particularly against teams like Freo, who have one of the best lists in the country.
The real question is how fast can Western Australian junior stocks and a long string of No. 1 picks in the Western Australia draft build up West Coast’s list until they’re ready to match the best teams like Freo?
To judge from what we saw on Saturday, I’d say three years at least – like Richmond, West Coast are full of players who are quite adequate at a lower level of competition but simply lack the power and athleticism to make anything work at AFLW level.
Without any real help, the team’s midfield stars – Dana Hooker and Emma Swanson – just got beaten up and overwhelmed by the bigger, meaner Dockers mids. Niamh Kelly showed some promise with 13 disposals on the wing, but Brianna Green hasn’t played a game yet, and the Eagles really need to put youngster Mikayla Bowen in the guts instead of out on a wing – she’s only small, but she’s effective around hard contact, which most of the others are not.
What’s wrong with the Cats?
Geelong were the lowest-scoring team in the AFLW last year with 20 points per game. This year there was much hope that they’d be faster, more aggressive and higher scoring. And so, after two rounds of football, the Cats are scoring at an average of 24 points per game. This is not the improvement that major turnarounds in form are built upon.
The Cats are slow. I wondered in my season preview if favouring older VFLW recruits over some star NAB League juniors would hurt them, and while I’m not familiar enough with the juniors they passed over to say for sure, it’s obvious that many of the older Geelong players are nowhere near quick enough to play the fast-running, overlap-handball style they want to play.
Also, against Brisbane, it looked a bit like the old low-scoring defensive Cats hadn’t entirely changed their hoops. Ahead by two goals early, they put players behind the ball to stop a good stretch by Brisbane and thus killed all their own offensive run. They scored 20 points against the Lions despite their fast start – the same as their scoring average in last year’s dreadful season – despite all their supposedly new offensive dash.
If they’re going to retreat back into their shells at the first sign of trouble and stop the fast dash that’s been their only source of scoring this year, it’s going to be a long season in Geelong.
Nina Morrison’s yet to return to last year’s fitness but looks to be improving with each game, Olivia Purcell has lifted to become a genuine star and Rocky Cranston is in great touch, so the Cats should have done better in the midfield but got beaten 29-21 in clearances. A lot of this was when Rocky Cranston was in the forward line instead of on the ball where she belongs. As soon as she went back on the ball the Cats looked far better, but by then it was too late.
So the next question: are the Cats actually better than they’ve shown? Or is the coaching letting them down?
It’s now a proven law of Australian sport that women’s football attracts rain like magnets attract filings. There was no rain in Melbourne all week but it poured on Friday for the Dogs and the Dees. There were clear skies on Gold Coast but it rained in the second quarter of Tigers and Suns. It was fine and hot as always in Perth but it rained in the third quarter.
Women’s footy at present is really a bit of a sandcastle – it looks fine and fancy in the sun but crumbles when it rains or blows. I propose that the AFLW schedule one game each summer in the worst drought-affected part of the country just to invite a downpour.
Another proven law: if there’s an exciting play on the field – a goal being scored or a big mark being taken – Channel Seven and Foxtel will be right there to not cover it because they’re conducting some pointless interview on the sidelines or looking at a replay of something else.
For two weeks now Australia’s most mighty sporting organisation, the AFL (of which the AFLW is part) has been tasked with a most difficult and complex bureaucratic challenge: putting my media accreditation in the mail and sending it across several Melbourne suburbs to my mailbox. Thus far they’ve failed and I’ve missed attending two weekends and counting of football in person. Pray that this is not indicative of their prowess elsewhere.