We are only just a few days into the new year but we do not have to wait long for the return of Australian rules football, with the sixth season of the AFL Women’s competition to get underway this weekend.
Among the matches this weekend include a grand final rematch, as well as a Western Derby, both of which were not originally part of the Round 1 fixture but came about due to Western Australia further tightening its border restrictions with Queensland and South Australia.
Originally, the Adelaide Crows and Brisbane Lions were scheduled to play the two WA clubs, Fremantle and West Coast respectively, before the ‘extreme risk’ category for those two states kicked in on December 31.
But something good has come out of it, as we’ll get a grand final rematch in Round 1, as we will for the men’s season when that gets underway in mid-March with a Wednesday night showdown between Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs.
After their Round 1 Western Derby, both Fremantle and the West Coast Eagles will be forced onto the road for the next month, with the state not due to lift its hard border until February 5.
Thus, do not be surprised if the ‘House Full’ sign is put up outside Fremantle Oval for what will be the only Western Derby of the season.
Here is your preview of Round 1.
St Kilda vs Richmond
The season kicks off on Friday night with the first AFL/AFLW match to be played in front of fans in Victoria for nearly six months, with St Kilda and Richmond to face off at Skybus Stadium in Frankston.
Both teams won only three matches each last season, with the Tigers finishing higher on percentage (tenth) in part thanks to a long-awaited 47-point win over the Geelong Cats at Kardinia Park in Round 5, which ended a ten-match losing streak to start their AFLW history.
Tigers players celebrate the Round 5 triumph over Geelong (Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)
Construction work at Moorabbin Oval means the Saints won’t be able to play at their spiritual ground until early March, meaning they’ll have to play their first three home games elsewhere, with a TBC marked for their Round 6 game against the Brisbane Lions.
They enter the new season with former men’s player Nick Dal Santo as their new coach, but also without superstar Georgia Patrikios, whose immediate playing future remains unclear, having so far refused to disclose her COVID-19 vaccination status.
Meantime, after struggling early on in the AFL Women’s competition, the Tigers finished last season strongly, winning three of their final five matches, including the aforementioned win against the Cats as well as those against the Gold Coast Suns and West Coast Eagles.
They have been boosted by the acquisition of Jess Hosking, who will be reunited with her twin sister Sarah after both started their careers at Carlton in the early years of the AFL Women’s competition.
The only previous time the Saints and Tigers met was in Round 6 of 2020, when fans were locked out during the early stages of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The Saints won that match by 39 points, with Caitlin Greiser kicking half of her side’s six goals that afternoon.
But that was nearly two years ago, and the Tigers will no doubt have improved since, while the Saints will be without their two-time reigning best-and-fairest Patrikios, with no timeframe set on her return.
That being said, I think the Tigers can take the points in this one.
Richmond by eight points.
North Melbourne vs Geelong Cats
The first of three matches on Saturday takes us to Hobart, where North Melbourne will be out to make a statement against last year’s strugglers, the Geelong Cats.
After starting last season as one of the title favourites, the Roos finished sixth on the ladder with a 6-3 record before bowing out to Collingwood in their semi-final last year.
In comparison, the Cats struggled last year and avoided the embarrassment of an imperfect season when they defeated the Gold Coast Suns on the holiday strip in the final round.
Following the season, Paul Hood stepped down as coach and has been replaced by one of his assistants, Daniel Lowther, who played 34 games for the club between 1997 and 2001.
Aasta O’Connor, Madeleine Boyd and Richelle Cranston are among the players who have departed the club, while Chantel Emonson joins the club after playing 22 games for Melbourne since her debut in 2019.
While the Cats would dearly love to improve in 2022, the support of the Tasmanian public should get the Kangaroos over the line in this one – and in convincing fashion.
North Melbourne by 18 points.
Western Bulldogs vs Melbourne
In the evening, two of the founding Victorian clubs of AFL Women’s will face each other when the Western Bulldogs and Melbourne lock horns at the Whitten Oval.
The Dogs had a strong start to last season, winning four of their first five matches, only to then capitulate winning only their final round match thereafter to finish eighth and therefore miss out on finals under second-year coach Nathan Burke.
It means that they have not contested finals since winning the flag in 2018 and that is a drought they will be keen on ending in 2022.
Meanwhile, Melbourne enjoyed a strong season last year, finishing fourth and just falling short of qualifying for the grand final when they lost to the Adelaide Crows by 18 points in the preliminary final at the Oval.
Their title aspirations have been boosted by the high-profile acquisition of Tayla Harris, who joins the club following her messy exit from Carlton, where she had spent four years.
(Brett Hemmings/Getty Images)
Her highly-anticipated debut for the red and blue gives this match the blockbuster status it warrants, and is also sure to attract high ratings for the Seven Network in the early part of the new year.
The Bulldogs won the corresponding match last year by 13 points, with the highlight being a running goal from captain Ellie Blackburn, though the Dees won the previous meeting before that by 20 points in Round 2, 2020.
With the stronger squad on paper, plus the addition of Harris, the Dees should take the chocolates in this one.
Melbourne by six points.
Fremantle vs West Coast Eagles
Originally, Fremantle and the West Coast Eagles were to have faced the Adelaide Crows and Brisbane Lions respectively, but after Western Australia upgraded its borders with Queensland and South Australia last week, we now have a Western Derby to look forward to this Saturday night.
It is good and bad news for WA footy fans, the good being that the two local clubs will get to face each other in Round 1, and the bad being that after this weekend, both clubs will be forced into a hub in Victoria until the state fully reopens on February 5.
Unlike last year, when there were two Western Derbies (one of which was closed to the public due to a COVID-19 scare in February), this will be the only such match for the year and for both clubs it is a chance to make an early statement.
Having enjoyed an undefeated (albeit incomplete) season in 2020, the Dockers slightly regressed after having their record 11-match winning streak ended in Round 5, but still reached the finals where they were knocked out by Melbourne in the qualifying final.
Still, they have a strong squad on paper, and will start favourites against a West Coast side hoping to continue to improve on its first two seasons in the competition.
Not only do the Eagles have a new coach in Michael Prior, they also overhauled their list by delisting ten players as well as bringing in Evangeline Gooch and Aimee Schmidt from Fremantle and the GWS Giants, respectively.
In the three Western Derbies to date, the Dockers have won on each time, with Kiara Bowers being named best-on-ground, so she is one player the Eagles will look to target as they seek their first Derby win.
But as much as the Eagles would love to cause an upset, I think the Dockers should prove too strong here.
Fremantle by 20 points.
Adelaide Crows vs Brisbane Lions
Having claimed their first flag in their third attempt last season, the Brisbane Lions enter the new season with a huge target on their heads as the other 13 teams attempt to prevent them from going back to back.
Shannon Campbell in action (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)
Two decades after their men’s counterparts won the first of a hat-trick of flags that made them football’s invincibles earlier this century, the Craig Starcevich-coached Lions finally claimed their maiden AFLW flag, avoiding a third runner-up finish in the process.
In a memorable grand final played at the Adelaide Oval last April, the Lions won by 18 points with Kate Lutkins being named best on ground, while captain Emma Zielke suffered a hamstring injury in her 41st and ultimately final game.
The Crows’ quest for revenge is made easier by their home ground advantage, as well as the return of Chelsea Randall to the side after she missed the decider due to concussion, which ultimately derailed her side’s bid for a third flag in five years.
From last year’s side, they have lost only Renee Forth (delisted), while the Lions have also lost Lauren Arnell and ex-Crow Rheanne Lugg, among others, in addition to Zielke who is now on Starcevich’s coaching staff.
As one of the matches of the round, both sides will be eager to get their seasons going and it would not be surprising if it ends up in a close contest. But despite the loss of so much experienced players, I think the Lions should claim the honours once again.
Brisbane Lions by 12 points.
Carlton vs Collingwood
The last of the three matches in Victoria this weekend pits together two traditional rivals in Carlton and Collingwood at Ikon Park, with both sides eager to get off to a winning start in season six.
After reaching the grand final in 2019 and then reaching the preliminary finals in 2020, which was ultimately never played, the Blues narrowly missed the finals last year, with three losses by a goal or less ultimately conspiring against them.
There were several high-profile departures from the club during the off-season, none more so than Tayla Harris who has joined Melbourne and recently opened up on her exit from Ikon Park, describing it as “distressing”.
Chloe Dalton, Katie Loynes (both GWS) and Jess Hosking (who has joined her twin sister Sarah at Richmond) also left the club, though former All Australian Jess dal Pos is a notable arrival after she requested a move back to Victoria in order to finish a paramedics course.
While the Blues missed out on finals action, their rivals Collingwood had an impressive 2021 season, reaching the preliminary final before bowing out to eventual premiers the Brisbane Lions by just four points at the Gabba.
Sarah Rowe (Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)
The heartbreaking finish to last season will surely fuel the fire for the Pies to go one better this season, and their flag credentials have been boosted by the arrival of Sabrina Frederick who joins the club following stints with the Brisbane Lions and Richmond.
A win against the Blues would be the perfect way to start the new season, and possibly build another successful campaign on. The question is: will it end in premiership glory?
Collingwood by 14 points.
Gold Coast Suns vs GWS Giants
The final match of Round 1 stands to be a tight clash between the Gold Coast Suns and GWS Giants, if their previous two clashes are anything to go by.
Both sides enter the new year with a point to prove following contrasting disappointing seasons, with the Suns suffering the ignominy of a winless season, while the Giants won only four of their nine matches, none of them by more than 20 points.
One of the Giants’ four wins, however, was against the Suns in Round 3, in which they kicked two goals in the opening quarter but none thereafter, though it ultimately proved enough for a ten-point win after the Suns kicked their only goal at the death.
The previous meeting before that saw the Giants win a low-scoring slog played in wet weather, 1.3 (9) to 1.2 (8).
The western Sydney club, whose men’s team will mark a decade since their entry into the AFL competition later this year, have added Carlton pair Chloe Dalton and Katie Loynes, as well as Jasmine Grierson from North Melbourne, while Jess dal Pos left for Carlton.
Meanwhile, the Suns delisted five players, among them ex-Brisbane Lion Leah Kaslar, and also have new coach Cameron Joyce in tow after predecessor David Lake resigned in the wake of the club’s winless season.
As a result of the poor season which saw them take out the wooden spoon, the Suns claimed the No.1 draft pick, which they used to recruit Charlie Rowbottom, whose brother James plays for the Sydney Swans (who will start fielding their own AFLW side next season).
For the Giants, it will be the first of three matches they’ll play on the road, so a couple of wins early on, especially with matches against heavyweights Fremantle and North Melbourne to come immediately after, will be crucial if they are to improve on seasons past.
On the road, Alan McConnell’s side should take the points, but not without an almighty challenge from the Suns who will be eager to avoid another season in the red.
GWS Giants by two points.