Melbourne vs North Melbourne
I’ve watched most AFLW matches since the competition started, and the Melbourne versus North Melbourne clash was almost certainly the best display of skill the competition had yet put on.
A lot of the credit here has to go to the coaches.
Traditionally in the AFLW (or the AFL, for that matter) when a coach finds him or herself on the receiving end of a shellacking, as North did in the second quarter, they put extra players behind the play, curl up into a defensive ball and try to make the game as ugly as possible.
Darren Crocker resisted this temptation, and his fired-up Roos came out in the third quarter and did to Melbourne nearly the same as Melbourne had done to them, closing the gap to a few points before finally going down 60 to 51.
Both teams played super-aggressive, running hard and always looking to get on the attack. There were no hard tags that I saw, just two supremely confident teams more concerned with playing their own games than worrying about what the opposition were doing.
Melbourne deserved to win in the end, controlling the play better, outmarking North 35 to 25 and getting more uncontested possessions 110 to 75, which allowed them to be more methodical about how and where to attack.
The midfield combination of Karen Paxman, Maddy Gay, Tyla Hanks and Lilly Mithen had 85 disposals between them, with Hanks in particular finally starting to demonstrate the promise she’s always shown, with some of the best disposal and field-vision in the business.
I’d be wary of declaring Melbourne the favourites just on the strength of this match, however. Melbourne have done this to teams before – shown scintillating form that appears unbeatable, only to later lose matches that appear unlosable, usually in the lead-up to finals.
As for the Roos, they’ll have lost no fans from this match – they lack a little of Melbourne’s polish, but make up for it in hard, blue-collar ferocity.
But it does raise a bigger issue for North – their list is older than some, and finishing higher up the ladder the last few seasons, they haven’t had the same access to the best draft talent that their competitors have had.
Surely the Roos’ window for championship glory is now, or very close to now. The longer they leave it, the more the younger teams will improve faster than them, as evidenced by the huge improvement of Tyla Hanks for the Dees, and the Roos’ championship window will close.
Melbourne just carried out a risky restructuring, criticised by many, cutting a number of established older players in exchange for promising young draft picks. Those changes having been made, they’ve shown they’re still capable of top-notch, high-skilled football that can, on this occasion at least, beat the older and more fancied North Melbourne.
Is this a sign that North’s window is closing already, and their chance has passed them by?
It’s too early to say, but if the Roos don’t win the title this year, and particularly if they don’t make the grand final, a Melbourne-style culling of some senior players for draft picks may follow later this year.
The Tigers’ loss against Collingwood was the best they’ve looked in the AFLW so far.
I bagged them the previous week for playing Ellie McKenzie up forward instead of in the midfield where she’s most needed. Against Collingwood, they used her more in the middle, but when she went forward, the Tigers a) got the ball to her, and b) she looked terrific, kicking two goals.
McKenzie’s going to be excellent where ever they play her – the surprise on the weekend was that the Tigers actually got the ball forward as much as they did, getting 32 inside 50s to Collingwood’s 25.
The difference was former basketballer Tessa Lavey, who in her very first game of AFLW football played a game through the middle that a lot of veterans would be pleased with, racking up 15 disposals. In fact, Lavey might be about as athletic as McKenzie or Monique Conti, tearing past Collingwood midfielders like they were standing still.
The role she could play for Richmond is similar to what Chloe Dalton did for Carlton, giving them dash around the contests and turning 50-50 balls into decisive wins and forward 50 entries.
The rising skill level in the AFLW is important, but the rising athleticism is too. Lesser athletes can do little to break clear of general congestion, but that doesn’t apply to speedsters like Lavey, McKenzie and Dalton.
With Lavey in the mix, suddenly the improving Tigers youngsters like Sophie Molan and Kodi Jacques were finding more space because the Pies’ mids had their hands full elsewhere, and things began to open up for the Tigers’ midfield.
This time, when McKenzie was in the forward line, the midfield didn’t immediately get flogged, despite the impressive Magpies midfield line-up. Richmond still lost, because their supposedly top-notch forward line isn’t delivering this year, but still things are looking up.
Even the Tigers’ backline starts to look much better when they’re not under siege all the time, because the best way to give your backline a break is to get the ball into your forward 50 and keep it there.
One more star player in next year’s draft, continued improvement from their existing younger players, plus some more depth, and the Tigers could really be something.
The two top picks in the Victorian section of next year’s draft look likely to be Georgie Prespakis (sister of Maddy) and Charlie Rowbottom (sister of the Sydney Swans’ James), the 178-centimetre Oakleigh Charger just having accumulated 28 disposals and two goals for her first 2021 game in the NAB League.
The addition of either could turn the Tigers into a ferocious unit in 2022.
Good teams become great teams when the gap between their best and worst players begins to narrow.
Adelaide are the obvious example — when the competition started, they had Erin Phillips, Chelsea Randall, Ebony Marinoff, plus maybe Courtney Cramey and one or two others. Everyone else was pretty second-rate compared to those stars.
The Crows’ all-conquering 2019 season happened because all those second-rate players either caught up with the stars, or were replaced with new, usually younger players, who in turn became stars themselves.
The Bulldogs are going through a phase of massive improvement, but they’re still led by several big stars who are clearly performing at a much higher level than everyone else, those being Ellie Blackburn, Kirsty Lamb and Izzy Huntington.
If they can narrow this gap, they’ll be one of the best teams in the competition and a genuine shot at the flag.
Can they do it?
Given how young most of those players are, and how much improvement must surely lie ahead of them, the answer must be yes.
Nineteen-year-old Gabby Newton is fulfilling her potential perhaps more slowly than fans may like, but you can see it coming game-by-game, and her ceiling is enormous. Also in the midfield, 23-year-old ruck Celine Moody is having comfortably her best season, and 19-year-old Elisabeth Georgostathis is getting a lot more of the ball, though her disposal can still be disappointing for a high draft-pick junior.
In the backline, 18-year-old Sarah Hartwig looks like she’s going to become one of the best defenders in the competition, 23-year-old Ellyse Gamble continues to improve and 21-year-old Ashley Guest shows real dash.
Better yet, 21-year-old Katie Lynch is looking like a natural defender, having been unable to make it as a forward at Collingwood. Lynch was a standout several years ago as a junior, with some of the best kicking skills in the draft, so it’s great to see Nathan Burke succeed where Collingwood’s coaching staff failed.
And then forward, there’s the crazy high standard being set by the AFLW’s marking queen, Izzy Huntington, who is now clearly a better grab than even the likes of Taylor Harris, averaging four contested marks per game – double or more than everyone else except St Kilda’s Kate Shierlaw with 2.7.
She’s joined by 19-year-old Jess Fitzgerald, who I’d expect to move into the midfield in a year or two, but is currently learning her trade up forward, and kicking goals. The next two who need to lift, and are probably capable of it, are 19-year-old Nell Morris-Dalton and 21-year-old Bonnie Toogood.
Plus, of course, the Dogs have some older players currently doing good things, like Nicole Ferris, Brooke Lochland and Kirsten McLeod.
At the moment the Dogs are not a match for the big guns of the competition, simply because of that gap between their best and the rest.
The thing to watch is how much that narrows over the course of this season, and next. As it stands, I think Newton, Hartwig, Fitzgerald and Lynch are locks to rise to the top.
If enough of the rest of them can follow, this will be a very hard team to beat over the coming years.
Yes, I know I haven’t talked about Brisbane when they’re sitting atop the ladder with a percentage of 502.9.
Yes, I think they look very good, but they’ve also only beaten Richmond, Gold Coast and West Coast. As soon as they beat someone good, I’ll write about them.
Just recently comes the crazy sad news that Melbourne’s Shae Sloane has done yet another ACL, her third in a row. But is it my imagination, or are ACL injuries – the bane of women’s sport in general and women’s football in particular – sharply down so far this year?
In previous years it seemed barely a week would go by without players lost to ACLs, but this year seems less. Or, maybe I should just keep my mouth shut, and not tempt fate…
And I’ve left it until last, because as a West Coast fan it’s embarrassing to say… but I love this Fremantle team.
It’s clear that the slow scoring in the first half against the Crows was mostly the Crows’ fault. While Adelaide played defence and structure, the Dockers just maintained their length, refused to get sucked up to the contest, and blasted the ball down the other end as fast as possible at every opportunity to score.
It’s kind of like what Mike Tyson said about other fighters trying to execute clever plans against him in the ring: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”
Well, everyone has a clever defensive plan against the Dockers until the Dockers race the length of the field to kick goals. Then the opposition has to abandon those plans to kick goals themselves, which opens the game up, which allows Fremantle to kick even more goals.
The moral of the story is clear – play ugly, defensive football against Freo at your own peril.
They’re good for footy, and they’re particularly good for women’s footy.
I think a Freo versus Melbourne game, with both teams in top form, would be quite something.