The fourth instalment of the AFLW kicks-off this Friday between Richmond, one of four newcomers to the AFLW this year, and Carlton, last year’s runner ups. Normally, one would assume the new team would be comfortably beaten. But it’s not that black and white (or in Richmond’s case, yellow and black).
The Tigers, like the other three new additions to the competition (Gold Coast, St Kilda and West Coast), have recruited established superstars of the competition from other teams. In Richmond’s case, Sabrina Fedrick-Traub (from Brisbane Lions), Katie Brennan and Monique Conti (Western Bulldogs) add serious depth and talent to their young squad. Carlton, meanwhile, are dealing with the loss of players to rival teams, with last year’s grand final captain Brianna Davey’s crossing to the dreaded enemy Collingwood the main example.
Dealing with the loss of players is an issue across the league as it continues to expand. All this movement causes uncertainty. And excitement.
Image: Michael Coghlan
Alongside the new teams, there’s a new season structure. The competition was criticised for having no finals series in the first two years and then a lop-sided conference system paired with a too short finals series last year.
In October 2019, a new collective-bargaining agreement between AFL senior officials, including AFL Head of Women’s Football Nicole Livingstone, and player representatives saw changes made for the next three seasons starting from 2020. This year, the AFLW season will be played across eight weeks before three weeks of finals, up from seven weeks with two weeks of finals last year.
The conference system is back, but will be ‘snaked’ based on the 2019 conference ladders. Last year’s grand finalists Adelaide and Carlton will be split, as will the other finalists Geelong and Fremantle. The two conferences will get two new teams each: Gold Coast and Brisbane together and West Coast with Fremantle to set up the first opportunity for ‘cross-town’ clashes.
The top three teams in each conference will make finals, with the two top teams having the first week of finals off. Second and third will crossover and play in elimination games, to play the top of the conferences in week two. The AFLW Grand Final will be held the following week on Saturday April 18th which coincides with round five of the men’s AFL season.
This leads to what is perhaps the biggest development in regards to the fixture: double-headers with the AFL men’s regular season for the first time. The first of these landmark games will be on Saturday March 23rd when the GWS Giants host both the men’s and women’s Geelong Cats.
Another highlight of the season will undoubtedly be when rivals Collingwood and Melbourne clash on Friday February 28th to raise money for bushfire relief alongside the AFL ‘State of Origin’ game.
In this new and unfamiliar AFLW puzzle, some familiar pieces are returning after long absences. Former number one draft pick Nina Morrison will return from a year out with an ACL injury. And perhaps the biggest name in the sport, Daisy Pearce, is back. Having sat out the 2019 season after giving birth to twins, she’s back and Melbourne suddenly seem like a real premiership threat.
Erin Phillips. (Image: Michael Coghlan)
While Pearce returns, North Melbourne-Tasmanian player Jess Duffin is pregnant and will sit out this year. Adelaide are still reeling from the loss of inspirational leader Erin Phillips to an ACL injury in last year’s grand final (though she is expected to make her comeback at some point this season). They will also be missing co-captain Chelsea Randall due to an ACL injury in December. Melbourne has lost its fair share of players, the latest being midfielder Lily Mithen, expected to be out for the first three rounds. Geelong will be without All-Australian Meg McDonald for half the year, whilst Fremantle’s Aine Tighe has also suffered an ACL injury.
This is just the tip of the iceberg of a league-wide injury crisis. But despite the alarmingly high-rate of injuries, the AFLW season goes ahead with much excitement. The Crows are looking to go back-to-back, the Blues are looking to go one better, whilst the Suns, Tigers, Saints and Eagles look to gain their footing. The Bulldogs, Lions and Magpies will be pushing for improvement. Meanwhile, the Demons and the Giants are on the hunt for their first finals after coming so close every year thus far, and the Dockers, Kangaroos and Cats aim to prove that they truly are serious contenders.
However the puzzle pieces fall into place, one thing is for sure: no one can predict how the finished puzzle will look come the end of the season. And that uncertainty is a beautiful thing.