Ten months after the 2020 AFL Women’s season was abruptly ended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the fifth edition of AFL Women’s will get underway this weekend, with several teams out to complete their “unfinished business”.
In March last year, the AFL sought to accelerate the end of the season by scrapping the final two rounds of the regular season, and immediately starting the finals series featuring the top four teams from each of the two conference systems.
Then, as the coronavirus situation started to escalate, the decision was made to terminate the season with no premiership being awarded, thus shattering the hopes of Fremantle, which were undefeated in seven matches, and North Melbourne, which topped Conference A.
As the Adelaide Crows won the previous title in 2019, they will remain as defending premiers and their extended premiership defence will “continue” with a trip west to face the West Coast Eagles in Perth.
That will be one of two matches to be played in the Western Australia capital, with the other to feature Fremantle against the GWS Giants, who are temporarily setting up base in Adelaide with greater Sydney shut off to most states and territories.
Other matches will see Carlton begin the season on Thursday night against bitter rivals Collingwood, while on Friday night, St Kilda will host the Western Bulldogs at their traditional home, Moorabbin Oval.
In order for matches to be played in a COVID-safe environment, all matches will be ticketed for the first time, with tickets fixed at $10 for adults, while children under 18 will be permitted to attend for free, and with reduced capacity for all matches.
Additionally, the controversial conference system has also been scrapped, with a single ladder to be used, from which the top six will contest the finals to be contested over three weeks in April.
For the first time in 2021, here is your preview to Round 1.
Carlton versus Collingwood
The first premiership AFL/AFLW match to be played in Melbourne since July 5 last year will see traditional rivals Carlton and Collingwood lock horns at the venue where it all started – Ikon Park.
Despite losing inaugural captain Brianna Davey to the Pies at the end of season 2019, the Blues continued to perform consistently last year, with best-and-fairest Madison Prespakis, and forwards Tayla Harris and Darcy Vescio among their shining lights.
The Blues won their quarter-final against the Brisbane Lions last year, after which it was announced that the season would be stopped at that point; had the season been allowed to continue, then they would’ve been up against North Melbourne in the preliminary final.
Collingwood, meantime, finished fourth in Conference B, reaching the finals for the first time only to then be knocked out by the Roos in what eventually turned out to be a meaningless match.
When the regular season was stopped after six rounds, the Pies players were in tears believing they had just played their final match for the year, only for the announcement to come that they’d be playing finals for the first time.
They’ll also enter the season opener with a psychological edge, having defeated the Blues by 15 points at Princes Park in Round 2 last year.
But I think the Blues’ star-power should get them the points this Thursday night.
Prediction: Carlton by 14 points.
St Kilda versus Western Bulldogs
The first Friday night match of the year sees St Kilda face off against the Western Bulldogs with a massive point to prove.
The corresponding match last year saw the Bulldogs ruin the Saints’ AFLW inauguration at Moorabbin Oval, winning by 25 points in what turned out to be their only victory for the season.
In that match, Nadia von Bertouch suffered a sickening ACL injury and it seems somewhat coincidental that she could make her comeback against the Bulldogs this Friday night.
Despite that setback, the Saints did well to win two matches in their debut season, with Caitlin Greiser proving a shining light, kicking the match-winning goal against Melbourne and topping the AFL Women’s goalkicking for the season with ten majors.
Their other win was in Round 6 against Richmond, where they won by 39 points and managed to keep the Tigers goalless over four quarters.
Twelve months on, the Saints will be out for revenge as they seek to build on an encouraging debut season, while the Bulldogs will also want to improve as the one-year anniversary of their most recent win looms.
Backed by a home crowd, the Saints should take the points.
Prediction: St Kilda by 10 points.
Gold Coast Suns versus Melbourne
After its festival of footy last year, which included hosting the AFL grand final for (possibly) the only time in AFL history, Queensland footy fans will be treated to a first-up beauty when the Gold Coast Suns host Melbourne on the holiday strip.
In the original fixture, the Suns were fixtured to host the West Coast Eagles, however, WA’s hard border with Queensland, which has since been downgraded, meant that the Eagles would be subject to self-quarantine for a fortnight upon their return home.
Instead, with free travel between Queensland and Victoria permitted despite COVID scares in both states over the past month, it will be the Daisy Pearce-led Dees who make the trip north to the sunshine state.
Both teams made the finals for the first time last year, with the Suns suffering a 70-point thrashing at the hands of Fremantle while the Dees won a low-scoring quarter-final against the GWS Giants in Sydney after Lily Mithen kicked the winning goal at the death.
Beforehand, the Suns won two matches, and drew with rivals the Brisbane Lions in the inaugural AFLW QClash, while the Dees were the best defensive side across the shortened regular season, coughing up an average of only 20.66 points.
This will be the first time the Suns and Dees have met, the two teams having been split into separate conferences last year. While both sides will be keen to build on their 2020 campaigns, I think the Dees, led by super mum Daisy Pearce, will claim the honours.
Prediction: Melbourne by six points.
West Coast Eagles versus Adelaide Crows
As there was no premiership awarded last year due to the coronavirus crisis, it effectively means the Adelaide Crows will remain as the “defending premiers”, given they were the most recent team to win the premiership, in 2019.
Matthew Clarke’s side sat in second-last place in Conference A at the end of Round 6, having just suffered a narrow loss at the hands of the GWS Giants when it was announced that the finals series would be brought forward.
That put an end to the Crows’ season, and they’ll be keen to perform from the outset when they face the West Coast Eagles in Perth as part of an extended premiership defence.
They may have to make do without midfielder Ebony Marinoff, whose appeal against a three-match suspension incurred from a high tackle on the Giants’ Brid Stack during a pre-season friendly last week hangs in the balance.
Chelsea Randall will now lead the side in her own right, after Erin Phillips stood down from the captaincy following three successful years at the helm.
The Eagles struggled in their first AFL Women’s season, winning only one game, which came against the Western Bulldogs at home in Round 4, just a week after being held scoreless to three-quarter-time against the Giants in Sydney.
Thus, facing the Crows, even at home, will be one tough ask, and while the Eagles will be up for the fight, the visitors’ experience should hold out.
Prediction: Adelaide Crows by 18 points.
Richmond versus Brisbane Lions
The first of three matches on Sunday sees Richmond play host to the Brisbane Lions in front of a sold-out, COVID-safe capacity at their spirutual home, Punt Road Oval.
The match was sold out within an hour of tickets going on sale, such is the anticipation of, hopefully, a much-improved performance from the Tigers this season and the Lions hoping to capitalise while their premiership window remains open.
Also lighting the fuse for this match is the fact that Sabrina Frederick-Traub will finally face off against her old side, after the planned late-season showdown between the two sides was canned due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Frederick-Traub will have a point to prove, as will the Tigers as a whole after the club failed to win a single match in its inaugural season, which was capped off when they failed to kick a goal in a 39-point loss to St Kilda behind closed doors at Moorabbin Oval.
Former Melbourne defender Ryan Ferguson has taken the reins as coach, succeeding Tom Hunter who was released at the end of last season.
The Lions sat in third place in Conference A when the regular season was called off, and subsequently lost its quarter-final against Carlton by 29 points, after which the premiership was declared null and void.
Craig Starcevich’s side had won three of their first four games, but then lost to Fremantle and Collingwood in rounds five and six respectively, with the latter match played behind shut doors.
Still, their premiership window remains open, and with the list they have, they will want to capitalise on this opportunity, and what better than to start off with a win against the Tigers?
Prediction: Brisbane Lions by 20 points.
Geelong Cats versus North Melbourne
It was before the teams’ most recent meeting, in Round 6 last year, where life in Australia was to suddenly change.
On the afternoon of the match, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced at a COAG meeting that all non-essential mass gatherings of over 500 people were to be outlawed from the following Monday (16 March).
AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan brought the crowd bans forward, to be effective from Saturday, March 14, however fans were still permitted to attend the match between the Geelong Cats and North Melbourne at Kardinia Park, with no attendance officially recorded.
Those that did attend, though, witnessed a second horror knee injury suffered by Cats forward Nina Morrison, as the Kangaroos ran riot in the second half to run away with a 46-point victory.
Given how the coronavirus situation in Victoria would unfold for the remainder of 2020, it would go down as the last event to be attended by spectators in the state until last month’s Boxing Day Test cricket match.
Last season, North Melbourne finished on top of its conference and after defeating Collingwood in their quarter-final, had their premiership dreams ended when the season was terminated the following day.
Thus, there is a sense of unfinished business at Arden Street, and the Roos, under new coach Darren Crocker, will want to come out all guns blazing as they set to finish off what they started.
But the Cats, who finished just half a game short of a finals berth last season, will be no pushover, especially at home.
Prediction: North Melbourne by 10 points.
Fremantle versus GWS Giants
Another club with unfinished business are the Fremantle Dockers, who were the only club not to lose a match in season 2020, winning six of its regular season matches before the finals series was brought forward by two weeks.
They then thumped the Gold Coast Suns at home by 70 points, before having their premiership dreams shattered when the season was terminated due to the growing impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
It also continues the club’s long and agonising wait for a maiden flag, with the men’s team having not yet tasted the ultimate success, coming closest in 2013 when it lost the AFL grand final to Hawthorn by 15 points.
Trent Cooper’s side have vowed to “finish what they started” and it is the GWS Giants who are first in the firing line.
The Giants have been forced out of Sydney due to border restrictions, with the club setting up base in Adelaide for at least the first two rounds while we wait to see whether other jurisdictions will relax their hard borders with greater Sydney, or in the case of Western Australia, all of New South Wales.
The club sat second in Conference A when the finals series was suddenly brought forward, and suffered a heartbreaking loss to Melbourne in the quarter-finals at Giants Stadium.
Again, the club will be led by Alicia Eva, whose leadership of the club throughout the 2020 season is documented in the newly-released novel, “Never Surrender”.
It will be the first time the Giants and Dockers have met anywhere since 2018, when the Giants won in Perth; the only other meeting before that resulted in an entertaining 43-all draw at Blacktown in 2017.
But at home, and with the possibility of a pro-purple crowd cheering them on, the Dockers should take the chocolates to start off their campaign.
Prediction: Fremantle by 17 points.