AFLW PREVIEW – PART ONE

The AFLW season is weeks away and The Mongrel’s resident AFLW expert, The Doc, has been busy going through the lists with a fine-tooth comb.

Today, we begin his 2021 season preview, starting with the Dogs, Dockers and Crows.

 

WESTERN BULLDOGS

 

Being this is the team I barrack for; I’ll try not to run overtime here.

Nathan Burke’s first year as head coach of the Doggies’ AFLW team yielded just one win from six starts – that one win happened to be the first game of the season. Since then, the Dogs have had a few games where they looked completely outclassed by better opposition, and then there was the loss to conference B cellar-dwellers West Coast – just a week before, they struggled to even put one goal on the board.

Before COVID hit and brought the 2020 season to a grinding halt, they had their best game of the season against the only side that had not tasted defeat all year in Fremantle. They were right with them for three quarters before the Dockers ultimately pulled away in the final quarter.

Understandably, they were always going to be up against it in 2020, given that expansion clubs pretty much raided the 2018 premiership team bare, but the positives and the upside are the number of young and talented women that the Dogs have brought into their list over the past couple of years.

It may take another season or two to actually get them back into winning contention, but there is a lot to like about what is happening with this team for 2021 and beyond.

 

THE MIDFIELD ISSUE

Last year provided concrete evidence that the captain, Ellie Blackburn needed assistance in the middle. Her averages were down in comparison to previous years and it was noticeable in some games that she struggled to get involved. Kirsty Lamb is a good player, but I’m still waiting for her to make that jump into the next category of midfielders. Aside from those two, the midfield was scarce at times last year. It hasn’t help that Aisling McCarthy headed West, as she was coming along quite nicely.

The 2021 version of the Dogs’ midfield will be young, but exciting. Gabby Newton showed a lot of promising signs with her ability to not just win the ball at the coal-face, but tackle anytime that the Dogs didn’t have the footy. You’d expect their first of three first-round picks in the 2020 Draft in Jess Fitzgerald to see some big minutes too. She’s a very capable player, both on the inside and out. I’d also expect the likes of Britney Gutknecht and Gemma Lagoia to pick up where they left off in 2020 in the new year.

 

THE IMPROVERS

In 2020, the two biggest improvers were players that had been on the list from the start: Bailey Hunt thrived in a wing role and Kirsten McLeod was starting to be more dangerous as a small forward on a consistent basis.

It’s easy to look at the younger brigade and see that there will be improvement. Eleanor Brown had strong end to the 2020 season, playing and generating more run and carry out of the back-line. She noticeably looked more confident in doing it as well, which is perhaps the biggest sign of improvement any one can see in a player.

Who improves in 2021? I’d like to say that Celine Moody will be one to watch out for. I was quite encouraged with what she was doing in the pre-season games before she went down with an injured ankle in the opening five minutes of round one. She missed a few weeks and never seemed to recover from then on in. Fingers crossed she gets a better run of it this time around.

Ellyse Gamble will be another to watch out for this year. Having been in the system since the opening season, Gamble played the first four games of the year and showed glimpses of being a capable key defender in the years to come. She’s only 22, so there’s plenty of room to grow and learn.

 

CAN BONNIE AND NELL WORK TOGETHER?

It’s been one of the questions I’d been crying out all throughout the 2020 season: Where is Nell Morris-Dalton?

She didn’t get her opportunity until the final round of the season, which was also the game that the Bulldogs narrowly missed out on causing a boilover. Coincidence? I think not!

Individually, she was everything you could’ve asked for from a debutant. She didn’t kick a goal, but she set a few up and was prominent in the air. The question that is now raised is whether or not both her and Bonnie Toogood can co-exist as key pillars in the forward line?

It’s do-able of course, look at the better sides right now: Fremantle have Gemma Houghton and Roxy Roux, Carlton have Nicola Stevens and Tayla Harris, North Melbourne have Jasmine Garner and Emma King at various stages of the game.

They’re different types of key position forwards though. Toogood showed in 2020 that she’s good as a lead-up target, whereas Morris-Dalton is a more crash-n-bash kind of player. Having Morris-Dalton out of the square would certainly benefit players like Kirsten McLeod to crumb at ground level and create scoring opportunities. It’s a good problem for Nathan Burke to have.

 

THE IMPORTANCE OF BROOKE LOCHLAND

God, it feels like an eternity ago that I was sitting in the stands of the Whitten Oval and watched her completely obliterate Carlton with a bag of seven goals. Since the premiership, Lochland has only played in a handful of games.

In 2019, Lochland hurt her knee in a pre-season contest and ruined her season altogether. In 2020, she only managed two games, as a hamstring injury derailed her chances of playing in the season opener, and then a quad injury further prevented herself from playing until late in the season.

In the two games this year, as well as a lot in the VFLW in 2019, Lochland had been playing a lot further up the ground and managed to do very well for herself. She was arguably the Dogs’ best in their VFLW Grand Final defeat and worked tremendously hard in her two games this year despite being on the back foot in terms of match fitness.

A fully fit Brooke Lochland could see her play more in the middle in 2021. Personally, I’d love to see her back in the forward line, where she can be a dangerous scoring threat, and the Dogs are slowly piecing together a few forward threats at the moment.

 

IZZY HUNTINGTON

Taken first overall back in the 2017 AFLW Draft, Izzy Huntington has had a rotten string of knee injuries that had prevented her from showing everyone just exactly what she can do on a football field.

Until 2020 that was.

There weren’t a lot of positives to take out of the Dogs’ year, but the fact that they got a nearly-full season out of Izzy Huntington should be given as a massive tick. But not just that, she was named All-Australian, won the league’s Rising Star award and was the Dogs’ best and fairest – that just sounds like cream of the cake stuff.

It’s fair to say that she earned them, too. A positional change to the defensive five saw Huntington use her football smarts to read the play well and take a lot of strong intercept marks, for someone that was drafted as a forward, you wouldn’t have guessed just how at home she was in defence last year.

Having said that, 2020 has laid the foundations of the emergence of the star that is Izzy Huntington. How she can elevate herself up another level, well I think a lot of people will be on the edge of their seats finding out that one.

 

DOC’S BEST 21

B: Angelica Gogos, Lauren Spark
HB: Eleanor Brown, Izzy Huntington, Naomi Ferres
C: Bailey Hunt, Gabby Newton, Gemma Lagioia
FOL: Celine Moody, Ellie Blackburn, Kirsty Lamb
HF: Brooke Lochland, Nell Morris-Dalton, Deanna Berry
F: Kirsten McLeod, Bonnie Toogood
INT: Kim Rennie, Hannah Scott, Ashleigh Guest, Elisabeth Georgostathis, Jess Fitzgerald

 

THE FIXTURE

Round 1: vs St Kilda (A)
Round 2: vs Carlton (H)
Round 3: vs Adelaide (A)
Round 4: vs Richmond (H)
Round 5: vs GWS (A)
Round 6: vs North Melbourne (H)
Round 7: vs West Coast (A)
Round 8: vs Melbourne (A)
Round 9: vs Geelong (H)

 

THE PREDICTION: 12th

It looks like it will be another tough year. The bulk of the playing group will now have that year of working under Burke’s system, it’s all about how they will build on the form at the end of last year. The list is full of exciting talent, a large portion of it is still very young and raw in comparison to some of the better sides in the competition.

They only won once last year, Looking at this year’s fixture, three victories and manageable in 2021 – they’d love to get one back on West Coast, whilst Richmond at home is a lovely proposition. They’d fancy their chances against both St Kilda and Geelong.

 

FREMANTLE DOCKERS

 

The 2020 season was cut short, but the Fremantle Dockers were the only side that remained unbeaten.

Should they have been rewarded with the AFLW Premiership by default? Very tough to say.

In defence of the likes of North Melbourne and Carlton – Freo never got a shot to beat them during the season. The toughest team they faced during the home and away season was Collingwood, who they managed to narrowly beat. The Pies are a good team, but they weren’t at the level of the teams mentioned above.

In their one final last season, they were up against a Gold Coast side that evidently looked a team that was still in its infant stages – the Dockers flexed their muscles and made the Suns, as admirable as they were all season, look a second rate team for four quarters.

That’s the Dockers for you. They’re not afraid of the contest and they’re classy enough to finish the plays. Makes it all the more remarkable when you consider the fact that their neighbours in the West ran away with nearly a dozen of their players at the end of the 2019 season.

No such thing happened this recent off-season, with no one departing the club, and actually bringing in a couple of names from other clubs: Tahnee Testor and Jess Trend – unfortunately the latter pulled out of playing in 2021 due to personal reasons.

Nonetheless, the Dockers are perfectly poised to do it all again, unless we get another global pandemic that cuts the season short.

 

IS THERE A WEAKNESS?

Their round six contest against the Dogs was very interesting, to say the least. It was a game that many expected the Dockers to win and comfortably at that.

However, the Dogs brought a game style to the Dockers that gave them a few headaches. Eventually, they won the match on the back of a strong final quarter. But if the better sides bring that sort of intensity and free-flowing football to Fremantle, then the Dockers could be in some strife.

Another game that piques big interest in how to stop the Dockers is their clash with the Saints in round four. In the eyes of many, they were very lucky to get away with that win, with a late 50 metre penalty against the Saints having a hand in the Dockers pinching the win. The Saints had them well beat in contested possessions and clearances that game.

No one is unbeatable in either AFL or AFLW, but Trent Cooper has a very smart football mind and I’m sure that he will be working to find ways to make sure that games like those two don’t happen too often in 2021.

 

BUT THEY’VE GOT AN UNBELIEVABLE STRENGTH

It was talked about a fair bit throughout the 2020 season and that is their hardness around the football. It won’t shock anyone to find out that Fremantle were the best tackling team in the competition last year, averaging over 69 tackles per game – the next best teams were the Gold Coast and the Kangaroos, who averaged just over 60.

But it’s the crux of their defensive side of the game: The Dockers absolutely love suffocating opposition with their tackling pressure and no one does it better right now than Kiara Bowers – what an impressive unit. Only she could go from averaging over 11 tackles in eight games in 2019 to over 14 per game across seven games in 2020.

But it doesn’t stop with just her. Katie-Jayne Grieve was one of the team’s most improved last year and averaged over seven tackles per game. Both Ebony and Kara Antonio, along with Hayley Miller all averaged four tackles for the Dockers in the middle last season.

They work as hard as anyone the Dockers and if you’re the opposition next year, I’d watch out.

 

AND THEN THERE ARE THE FORWARDS…

There aren’t many forward set-ups better than the Dockers. Along with North Melbourne, Freo averaged over seven goals per game in 2020, with the Dockers just edging them out on goals by one single goal.

How can you not get excited with this forward structure? The two key forwards have athleticism bursting out of their ears in Gemma Houghton and Roxanne Roux. I love Roxanne; yes I love The Police song too. But Roxy attacks the football with no fear and showed that she is very capable of taking a contested mark.

Houghton’s pace makes her one of the more dangerous talls in the game. After a stunning 2019, she went a little backwards in a few areas last season. She still harassed, but didn’t have the tackle numbers to go along with that, and kicked a very paltry 4.10 – if she can tidy that back up, then the Dockers have a hand on the premiership cup.

Then you’ve got players like Sabreena Duffy, who – in her second season mind you – kicked 12.9 and didn’t even get picked in the AFLW All-Australian team, which is actually the biggest load of bollocks considering her team mate Houghton got in for kicking poorly. Nonetheless, she’s an incredible talent and will only get bigger.

Also shoutouts to both Gabby O’Sullivan and Jasmin Stewart – both played a lot of time in the forward line last season and were both superb in the roles as half-forward types.

 

ANN MCMAHON

I’ve left her out of the best 21, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t a player to watch out for this year.

Ann McMahon would’ve found herself in this Fremantle team at some stage last year, had it not been for an unfortunate workplace incident on Christmas Eve that left her with both a broken leg and ruptured ACL – talk about pure rotten luck! But a credit to her, she worked hard in rehab to get her body back into good shape and with any luck, should play at some stage in 2021.

As a player, she is listed as a midfielder with decent foot skills, who can also work as a terrific pressure forward. If her work ethic in the rehab group is any indication, then she could be one of the finds of the year.

 

DOC’S BEST 21

B: Ange Stannett, Janelle Cuthbertson
HB: Evie Gooch, Ebony Antonio, Phillipa Seth
C: Steph Cain, Katie-Jayne Grieve, Hayley Miller
FOL: Mim Strom, Kiara Bowers, Kara Antonio
HF: Jasmyn Stewart, Roxanne Roux, Gabby O’Sullivan,
F: Sabreena Duffy, Gemma Houghton
INT: Ashley Sharp, Leah Mascall, Matilda Sergeant, Laura Pugh, Emma O’Driscoll

 

THE FIXTURE

Round 1: vs GWS (H)
Round 2: vs Collingwood (A)
Round 3: vs North Melbourne (H)
Round 4: vs West Coast (H)
Round 5: vs Adelaide (A)
Round 6: vs Geelong (H)
Round 7: vs Brisbane (A)
Round 8: vs Gold Coast (H)
Round 9: vs Carlton (A)

 

THE PREDICTION: 1st

I think this team has the depth and the talent to go all the way. It might be a bit hard to go through unbeaten here, as they do play Collingwood, Adelaide and Carlton away, whilst Brisbane away might also prove a tough challenge. But they do get a good run of home games, with Geelong, Gold Coast and GWS games that they should put away.

Nonetheless, this Fremantle side look a team hell-bent on making sure the competition knows that they are the top dogs in the AFLW. They’re the best tackling team in the competition, but also know how to get it done up forward, they’re basically a complete side and providing we don’t have another season cut short, they’re the favourites.

 

ADELAIDE CROWS

Season 2020 was always going to be a tough one for the Adelaide Crows. Despite having won the 2019 Grand Final, they lost co-captain Erin Phillips to a ruptured ACL, as well as talented youngster Chloe Scheer with the same injury. Then it got worse for the Crows in the lead-up to 2020 when the other co-captain Chelsea Randall ruptured her ACL, meaning that the Crows were without either co-captain for the opening round of the season.

Phillips did race back for the final few games of the year, but by that stage, the Crows looked flat and far from the powerhouse that we witnessed in 2019. Without the two co-captains, the Crows looked directionless at times last year and unsure with their disposal. That’s how important both Randall and Phillips are to this team.

Well, they’re back and they’re firing, which will spell trouble for the other competition powerhouses if they can keep a fit list together. Even still, they brought in over half a dozen players that will at the very least add depth to their squad – depth that was found wanting at times last year.

 

WHERE DO YOU PLAY ERIN PHILLIPS?

It should be a no-brainer to plonk her back in the Adelaide engine room. Ebony Marinoff and Anne Hatchard were stars at finding the football and winning it at the source, but it was the next part of Adelaide’s gameplan that crucified them and that is the effectiveness and the scoreboard impact.

This is where Erin comes in, because she doesn’t need to burrow in and win contests, all she needs to do is set up or kick them herself, because you look at the forwards that were in that premiership side – Danielle Ponter, Stevie-Lee Thompson and Eloise Jones: All three struggled big time last year without Phillips playing in the side and it either left them playing different roles or they got harder attention. Either way, they struggled a lot.

Phillips played so well in both 2017 and ’19 flags as the perfect 50-50 midfielder forward, I wouldn’t be surprised if she was more used as a forward this year just to ease back into it, but don’t rule out the thought of Matthew Clarke unleashing arguably the best player we’ve seen to date in the midfield.

 

DON’T FORGET ABOUT ME!

I briefly mentioned her in the intro, but I cannot stress how important Chloe Scheer was to this Adelaide team in 2019.

She was one of the many finds of the season, and with her talent, it’s remarkable to think that only the Crows could’ve accessed her as late as pick 37. She’s a natural footballer, a great leap and does know how to find the big sticks, kicking eight goals in eight games in her debut season.

Unfortunately, she couldn’t get a game as she suffered a setback to her knee, but in the grand scheme of things, AKA this year, she’s going to be so much better for it. By all reports, it’s looking like she’ll be back in the side for round one, and if she’s another that can stay fit, that Adelaide forward line is looking the goods once again.

 

THE UNSUNG HEROES

In amongst the Phillips’, Randall’s, Marinoff’s and Hatchard’s of this team, are some genuinely good role players who don’t get the credit they deserve. For the sake of trying to keep this brief, I’ll only list two, but people also better start recognizing Sarah Allan. In the absence of Randall last year, Allan was almost a one-woman show down back, intercepting everything in sight.

So the first player I’ll bring to you is Angela Foley. She’s played in both Adelaide premierships, but for some reason always gets overlooked. Last year the rebounding defender was fourth in the club for disposals, averaging 12.3 per game, first for intercept possessions, averaging over five per game and second behind Ebony Marinoff for metres gained.

The other is Dayna Cox. I don’t know, but there’s something about the way she plays the game that always intrigues me. She’s hard-at-it, doesn’t take a backwards step when she has the footy in her hands and whilst she’s not the biggest woman on the ground, she’ll step at anyone who has a crack back. Would you call her a ‘blue-collar’ player? Point is, that she’s such a tough customer and can play a number of roles around the ground.

 

MONTANA MCKINNON

It was a bit puzzling to see the best ruck from the 2019 AFLW Draft Class play just the two games last year and it wasn’t like they were bad games. She averaged seven disposals, and 16 hitouts per game which are promising numbers for a young big.

But with Jess Foley now retired and Rhiannon Metcalfe facing a career-defining season after missing most of 2020 and all of 2019 with a ruptured ACL, You’d think that the young ruck ace will get plenty more opportunity to play footy this year.

Could she play a bit more as a key forward and allow Metcalfe more time in the ruck? Another big strength in McKinnon’s game is her contested marking, she took two contested marks in her two games last season – It’s only a small sample I know. But the only team mate that averaged more than one per game was Caitlin Gould.

 

DOC’S BEST 21

B: Marijana Rajcic, Sarah Allan
HB: Renee Forth, Chelsea Randall, Angela Foley
C: Hannah Munyard, Anne Hatchard, Rachelle Martin
FOL: Montana McKinnon, Erin Phillips, Ebony Marinoff
HF: Danielle Ponter, Ashleigh Woodland, Eloise Jones
F: Stevie-Lee Thompson, Chloe Scheer
INT: Rhiannon Metcalfe, Teah Charlton, Jess Sedunary, Deni Varnhagen, Justine Mules

 

THE FIXTURE

Round 1: vs Melbourne (A)
Round 2: vs Gold Coast (H)
Round 3: vs Western Bulldogs (H)
Round 4: vs Collingwood (A)
Round 5: vs Fremantle (H)
Round 6: vs Brisbane (A)
Round 7: vs Carlton (H)
Round 8: vs Richmond (A)
Round 9: vs GWS (H)

 

THE PREDICTION: 3rd

We’ll get a fair indication of where the Crows will be after three rounds. Melbourne is the biggest test, but if the Crows are 3-0 then they will mean absolute business. They avoid North Melbourne, and they get both Fremantle and Carlton at home this year which are both big ticks in terms of fixture and five home games in South Australia isn’t so bad either.

If they can keep it all together across in the next couple of months, then a third flag is definitely theirs for the taking. Not only that, but the younger recruits that they’ve brought in this past off-seasons such as Hannah Munyard, Teah Charlton, Rachelle Martin and Ashleigh Woodland make this Crows side almost as strong as it’s ever been and pending the development of some of these youngsters, the ones such as Maddi Newman and Nikki Gore, both of whom featured heavily last year, we could still see a dynasty unfold yet.

 

EDIT – As a bit of a prediction, I am throwing out the name of Eloise Jones to make a real impact in 2021. As Doc pointed out, she missed the calming presence of Phillips, but there is a lot of Stevie Johnson about her and I expect her to do things that can alter the course of the game in 2021. Happy to be wrong, but she is one of my favourite players to watch. I also like the run of Justine Mules, who does a heap of defensive work that goes unreported. – HB Meyers.

 

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