AFL umpires will take a minimum 50 per cent pay cut during the shutdown period under a new agreement struck with league headquarters.
Well, we didn’t expect that the AFLW finals would start this weekend, but that’s exactly what will be the case as the league attempts to complete its season before any potential shutdown period sees nearly all sport suspended for an indefinite period of time.
At the same time the AFL announced that the men’s season would proceed as scheduled, starting last night, it was also announced that the AFLW would forgo the final two rounds of the regular season, and bring the newly revamped finals series forward by two weeks.
With the regular season abandoned, it means that the Adelaide Crows’ premiership defence is over, while Richmond become the first team in AFLW history to go through an entire season winless.
And with the Western Bulldogs also missing out on a finals berth having lost their last five matches, it means a brand new premier will be crowned at the end of the three-week finals series, with the grand final scheduled for the weekend of April 4-5.
Originally to consist of six clubs, another two clubs will also qualify, making for an eight-team finals series, but it will be significantly different to that of the men’s game.
Four matches – all of which are conference cross-overs – will be contested this weekend, but unlike the standard AFL finals series where the top four teams have a double chance, there will be no second chances, like in tennis.
This means that one loss – even for conference-toppers North Melbourne and Fremantle – and they’re out.
Five teams – North Melbourne, Collingwood, the GWS Giants, Melbourne and Gold Coast Suns – will be contesting finals for the first time, with four of those clubs to face each other in two of the four matches.
The finals series will be structured like this.
Qualifying final 1: A1 vs B4
Qualifying final 2: A2 vs B3
Qualifying final 3: B2 vs A3
Qualifying final 4: B1 vs A4
Preliminary final 1: Winner of QF1 vs winner of QF3
Preliminary final 2: Winner of QF2 vs winner of QF4
Grand final: Winner of PF1 vs winner of PF2
In the two preliminary finals and the grand final, the higher-ranked team across both conferences will have home-ground advantage. All matches will be closed off to the public.
Here is your preview to the first week of the AFLW finals series.
North Melbourne vs Collingwood
The first match of the knock-out finals series sees the Conference A minor premiers, North Melbourne, face off against Collingwood in what will be the first finals series for either side.
When the AFLW called off the remainder of the regular season, North Melbourne had won their past five matches, and were within a kick of being 6-0 after losing to Melbourne by two points in the opening round.
Collingwood, meanwhile, won four of their six matches, with their two losses being in consecutive rounds – against Fremantle and Melbourne in Rounds 3 and 4 respectively.
Their last outing saw them defeat the Brisbane Lions by 29 points at Hickey Park, in what was the first AFLW match to be played to a crowd of zero.
When it was announced that the AFLW were forgoing their final two rounds, the Pies – who sat in fourth place in Conference B – were at first devastated when they thought that it would be only the top two teams from each conference contesting the finals.
However, disappointment and despair turned to ecstasy and excitement when the revamped eight-team finals series was announced, and now they’ll find themselves facing the Roos with every team an equal chance of claiming the fourth AFLW premiership.
On the other hand, the Roos conceded the first three goals of the game against the Geelong Cats at Kardinia Park, but then kicked the final eight goals unabated to maintain their place at the top of Conference B.
Originally, the Roos and Pies were scheduled to play the Western Bulldogs and St Kilda respectively, but will now duke it out for the right to become the first team into next week’s semi-finals.
The two teams last met in Round 6 last year, with the Roos winning by 22 points. This time, I think the Roos will again take the points, and as the highest-ranked winner, would host a preliminary final at a ground still to be determined next week.
Prediction: North Melbourne by 16 points.
GWS Giants vs Melbourne
The second AFLW quarter-final takes us to Sydney, where both the GWS Giants and Melbourne will contest their first AFLW finals matches against each other at Giants Stadium.
At the end of the regular season, the GWS Giants sat second in Conference A, only behind North Melbourne, with four wins and two losses, while Melbourne sat in third also with four wins and two losses, the most recent of those against Carlton last week.
The Dees had the chance to go 5-1 for the season against the Blues in Alice Springs, but in front of only their coaching staff and officials, failed to kick a goal after halftime as they crashed to a 16-point loss, which could’ve proven costly for the club’s finals chances.
Other than that, Melbourne have been particularly impressive this season, being helped by the return of Daisy Pearce from maternity leave and ex-Western Bulldog Libby Birch marshaling the best defence in the competition.
The Giants, meanwhile, registered back-to-back wins for just the second time ever, backing up their 45-point win over Richmond with a gutsy five-point win over the Adelaide Crows at Richmond Oval.
Making those two victories all the more impressive was the fact they were missing captain Alicia Eva, who suffered a foot injury in the 28-point loss to the Brisbane Lions in Round 4, in which coach Alan McConnell said his side “trashed the brand”.
Thankfully for the Giants, Eva is a good chance to return for the club’s first ever finals match, which will be played at the same venue as their men’s season opener against the Geelong Cats later in the evening, both to be played to crowds of zero.
The club also managed a one-point victory over the Gold Coast Suns in the opening round, while they were clinical in a 28-point win over Conference B wooden spooners the West Coast Eagles in Round 3.
Now they will need to bring the heat if they are to knock off the Dees for a second time, after their sole victory in the 2017 season.
However, despite last week’s slip-up against Carlton, I think Melbourne’s overall form this season will be too hard to ignore, and they should leave Giants Stadium with the chocolates.
Prediction: Melbourne by 18 points.
Fremantle vs Gold Coast Suns
Having claimed the overall minor premiership with six wins from as many matches, flag fancies Fremantle will host the Gold Coast Suns in the third of the AFLW quarter-finals.
Last week the Dockers survived a major scare from Conference B strugglers the Western Bulldogs, having to come from behind to win by 15 points and keep alive their chances of completing the first perfect AFLW season.
The victory was marshaled by Ebony Antonio, who gathered 19 disposals and kicked the game-changing goal in the final quarter to deliver her club their sixth straight win, and if they can secure a grand final on home turf in two weeks, you would think they will start favourites.
Meantime, the Suns claimed their second win of the season by beating the West Coast Eagles by a club-record 25 points at Mineral Resources Park, keeping the Eagles goalless for three quarters in a clinical display. That saw them move up to fourth place in Conference A.
The sudden announcement of the AFLW finals being brought forward to start this weekend means the Suns will now have to fly back to Perth only six days after that match, though this time they will play at Fremantle Oval.
It is nearly the same situation their men’s side faced in 2018, when they played consecutive matches in Perth and remained in the city in between rather than fly home to where the Commonwealth Games were being held at the time.
It will also be the first time the Suns are represented in a finals series, with their men’s team yet to finish any higher than 12th, let alone reach a finals series, since entering the competition in 2011.
In the end, I think the Suns’ travel will take its toll and the Dockers should stroll to another victory here, but not by much.
Prediction: Fremantle by 14 points.
Carlton vs Brisbane Lions
The last of the AFLW quarter-finals takes us to Ikon Park where the home side Carlton will host the Brisbane Lions on Sunday.
At the time of the abandonment of the regular season, Carlton sat in second position, only behind Fremantle, with five wins from six matches, with the only loss being against Collingwood in Round 2.
And despite being ravaged by expansion, the Brisbane Lions did well to sit in third position in Conference A, behind North Melbourne and the GWS Giants.
Last week, the Blues came from behind, keeping Melbourne goalless after halftime to register a 16-point victory at Alice Springs, while the Lions put in their worst performance of the year, crashing to a 29-point loss to Collingwood at home.
On form, the Blues will start favourites as they look to better last year’s effort in which they rose from wooden spooners to grand finalists in 2019.
As for the Lions, after missing the finals last year, this is just about their last chance to cash in on a flag before their premiership window shuts for a few years, the playing list having been decimated by expansion in recent years.
The last time these two sides met, the Blues won by 16 points at Ikon Park in Round 6 last year, marking their first win over the northerners after a loss in 2018 and a draw in the final round of the 2017 season.
Again, the home-ground advantage should suit the Blues here, even if none of their fans will be permitted to see it first hand.
Prediction: Carlton by 20 points.
If results go as predicted, the preliminary finals would be North Melbourne vs Carlton and Fremantle vs Melbourne.
The winners of those two matches would then face off in the grand final, set to be held at Ikon Park unless Fremantle advances, in which case it would be played at Fremantle Oval or Optus Stadium.
Regardless, the AFLW will become the second professional league in Australia to hold its grand final to an empty stadium, with the W-League holding its grand final between Melbourne City and Sydney FC to an empty AAMI Park in Melbourne tomorrow.