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AFLW Round 4 wrap: If these trends continue....

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Roar Guru
2nd March, 2020
16

The average score in AFLW Season 2019 was 35.27 points. So far in Season 2020, the average scores have been as follows: Round 1; 25. Round 2; 29.9. Round 3; 33.7. Round 4; 36.14.

It doesn’t take a genius to spot the trend. As I said after Round 1, the women’s season is short, players enter the season very rusty after having spent ten months playing at a much lower level or not playing at all, and by Round 8 the difference in standard is going to be night and day.

The AFLW is to some extent bringing the problem of low scoring and lower standards of play upon itself by having such a short season, where most players are only just starting to hit top-form by about Round 5 when the season’s nearly over.

Another problem is that the first round always gets lots of hype, and a lot of people out there will only watch one game per season, that being the first one, and draw their conclusions about the state of women’s football from that.

Obviously they’d get a much better impression if they watched Round 8 than Round 1. This is why it’s so important that the AFLW is now playing a longer finals series.

To win over more fans, the competition needs to give them more reasons to watch. Regular season matches thus far aren’t doing it for them, but finals can, as evidenced by the Crows drawing 53,000 people to the grand final last year.

Finals can create bonds between fans and teams, particularly victorious finals. With six teams now making a final, at the right end of the year, the opportunities for fans to give a damn about their respective women’s teams will dramatically increase.

Rebecca Beeson of the Giants

Rebecca Beeson of the Giants. (AAP Image/Joel Carrett)

Evolution of the game
The improvement in the players’ technical skills are bringing about an evolution in the way the game’s being played. On the one hand, you have a lot of run and carry being used now that wasn’t used before, because players a) weren’t fast enough, and b) didn’t have clean enough hands.

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Well the foot-speed has improved a lot, and the hands have improved even more, particularly in some of the top teams. The most obvious example of a run and carry team today is Collingwood.

Some of the Pies’ handball chains are so good and so clean, it would have been unthinkable as recently as last year, even perhaps for Adelaide. But against Melbourne, the Pies massively overdid it with 117 kicks and 102 handballs.

Most teams are going at between 1.5 and two kicks per handball, and even Melbourne, historically a handball-happy team, were a lot more direct with 92 handballs and 128 kicks.

Collingwood have some of the most talented players in the game, and went for a very high per cent69 disposal efficiency for the game.

They also took 44 marks from their 117 kicks, demonstrating that most of the time those kicks were going short to wide open targets (they only had two contested marks for the match, and Melbourne had 4, so there was almost no kicking to contests from either side).

But while Collingwood’s primary goal of holding onto the ball was achieved, they did it at the cost of rapidly advancing the ball, with the effect that every time they went forward, nearly every single Melbourne player was able to fall back ahead of them and block up space.

Ash Brazill

(Michael WIllson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

Melbourne, on the other hand, seem to have found a happy medium between maintaining possession much of the time, but also kicking direct and long when they have to. Their disposal efficiency against Collingwood was even better at 70 per cent, yet their rapid attacks gained them nine marks inside fifty to Collingwood’s two — a clear sign of how much more space they were able to find in attack when they went forward.

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On the other end of the scale, you’ve got Fremantle, now undefeated after four rounds, in whose one-point win over the Saints they kicked 127 times and handballed 58 — more than a two-to-one ratio.

Fremantle hate to handpass, will always prefer to kick, with the effect that their attacks are usually very fast, attempting to catch the defence out of position and not have to worry about Collingwood’s problem of having to place kicks into the tiny gaps between swarms of defenders.

It comes with problems too, however, as against St Kilda, Fremantle showed a real reluctance to move the ball laterally, usually attacked long down the same wing time after time, and thus ended up stuck in more congestion for much of the match than the slower-moving Collingwood.

Much of the reluctance to kick laterally, on the other hand, might have been the strong wind at Moorabbin, which makes lateral kicks dangerous. But then again, if they’d been more interested in handballing and running laterally, they could have removed much of the danger, and opened up the ground away from the swarming St Kilda defence.

So which style is better at this moment in the AFLW’s development?

I think it’s probably too early for women’s football to move as heavily to a run and carry gameplan as Collingwood have. It really only works when a team is using it to break the lines and advance the ball rapidly, and too often Collingwood have used the handball and short kicks to advance slowly, moving laterally but not managing a fast breakout.

Ironically the two other handball-happy teams both played each other on the weekend — Geelong and Richmond, and put on one of the highest scoring AFLW games ever, demonstrating why this style can be fun when both sides are doing it.

But neither Geelong nor Richmond are exactly benchmarks of the competition this season, they’ve got the two worst defences in the competition so far conceding 177 and 224 points respectively. Run and carry no doubt works well when the defensive pressure is light, but the trend of the AFLW remains that defence (physical pressure) remains greater than offence (the ability to successfully avoid physical pressure).

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So long as that remains true, a handball to kick ratio of less than 1.5 probably remains a bad idea.

Best player in the league
Regular readers will know I’ve suspected it for a while, but finally in Round 4 all doubt has been removed — the most talented player in women’s football is Monique Conti (28 disposals and five tackles) with daylight second.

This doesn’t mean she’ll automatically win every award, and it doesn’t mean she can’t be stopped — Geelong made no apparent effort to tag her but other teams probably will, and in a more congested setup she’s not enormous, and she can obviously be slowed down.

But her agility is comfortably AFLW-best, as is her vision and field-awareness, as are her hand skills, in everything from collecting the ball one-handed at full sprint to lobbing perfect handballs onto teammates’ chests from traffic. And her kicking’s probably top-five in the comp as well, and she’s even got a leap and can take a grab.

She’s been a basketballer all her so-far short sporting life, but seemed to make a very big call to choose AFLW over WNBL this season.

Considering what she’s done so far, and her continual improvement every game, you’d have to think it beats the heck out of sitting on the bench for the Bulleen Melbourne Boomers. And it makes you wonder how much better she’d be if she focused entirely on football from now on.

Better yet for the Tiges, Conti is one of those few players in the league that you can genuinely build a team around. She’s not just a star who does everything for herself — her passing skills are so elite that she makes everyone around her better, and being still so young, her best footy lies ahead.

Monique Conti

Best on ground Monique Conti of the Bulldogs poses with her medals during the 2018 AFLW Grand Final match between the Western Bulldogs and the Brisbane Lions at IKON Park on March 24, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images)

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ACLs strike again
It’s been another dreadful week for ACLs injuries in the AFLW, with a number of players going down, the highest profile being Collingwood star Ash Brazil. The high rates of ACLs in the AFLW get me thinking that it must have something to do with the hardness of the grounds in summer.

Yes, I’m aware that the physiological differences in female anatomy from male make women a lot more susceptible, and of the various other factors rumoured to be involved. But the women play much longer seasons at VFLW and other state levels with a far lower incidence of ACL injuries than this.

Those figures aren’t readily available, but I keep enough of an eye on various state leagues during winter to know this for a fact. Yes, I know that state level football is a much lower intensity than AFLW, and injuries are far more likely when the standard and stresses is higher, but it doesn’t seem feasible that that alone should account for this much of an increased incidence.

On the other hand, if you have a female playing group who are more susceptible, and then you get them playing on rock-hard summer grounds as well? Like the difference between running on grass and running on concrete, it seems to me the risk increase could be exponential.

The obvious fix, if this turned out to be true, would be to switch the AFLW season to September-December. It’s probably a less crowded time of the year anyway, the weather’s usually cooler, and while the grounds will harden toward the end of the season, for the first three-quarters they should retain much of their winter softness, especially in Melbourne.

The best
Right now, the ladder says the two best teams are Fremantle and Brisbane. Luckily for us, they’ll be playing each other next Sunday.

On recent form you’d have to pick Brisbane. The Dockers were lucky against Collingwood in Round 3, and lucky again against the Saints last weekend — a team who, despite their impressive form, Fremantle were expected to clobber.

Fremantle’s midfield is depleted with the loss of Steph Cain (another ACL) but Katie Jane Grieve and Jasmine Stewart have both stepped up, and youngster Emma O’Driscoll had her moments in her debut game in defence.

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Freo’s game style may need some tweaking, as lately they’ve been playing almost too much contested football for their own good — kicking to contests, smashing packs and laying huge tackle numbers (63 to 41 against St Kilda).

It sounds great, but lately it’s been messing up their disposal chains and creating ugly football, which in turn limit their ability to get the ball quickly into their forward line — the strongpoint of the team. A bit more lateral movement, and a bit more run and carry, could be in order against Conference A leaders Brisbane.

Jess Wuetschner

(Chris Hyde/AFL Media/Getty Images)

Brisbane are playing a very balanced brand of contested football and fast ball movement. Midfield stars Ally Anderson and Emily Bates are going at 20 and 21 disposals a game respectively, Cathy Svarc had a breakout game against the Suns with 23 and two goals, and twenty-year-old Jesse Wardlaw is the competition’s leading goal scorer with 1.8 per game, and looks the prototype AFLW key forward with height, mobility, contested marking and a great set kick.

On paper the Lions’ midfield looks too strong for Fremantle, and while Kiara Bowers is a tackling machine, Cathy Svarc just shut down Alyce Parker against the Giants with a similar pressure effort while collecting many more disposals than Bowers is getting this season, plus two goals.

On the other hand, topping Conference A isn’t quite as impressive as topping Conference B, and the Dockers will be playing at home.

Tip: The Lions by a whisker.