The Queens of the jungle – that’s got a very neat ring to it.
Watching Brisbane’s rise from being in the middle-tier range of football teams in 2020 to becoming one of the powerhouses of women’s football in 2021 was incredibly fun to watch and looking at the list heading into their title defence in 2022, there’s not much that suggests that they’ll have any issues in being the hunted as opposed to being the hunters.
As is the case to many teams who break through for their first premiership – both in the men’s and women’s – the question has to be asked: Can they back it up?
It’s easy to say of course, but peeling back a layer or two, going back-to-back is a proposition easier said than done. They can’t control what other clubs around them are plotting, but they enter the new year with a question or two that won’t be answered until the season is in full swing.
They’ll head into the new year with a new captain, following the retirement of Emma Zielke in the aftermath of their Grand Final triumph. However, Breanna Koenen is someone more than capable of handling the role as captain for 2022 and beyond.
She’s a selfless, team-first player, the kind of player that epitomises what this Brisbane side is all about. Her shut-down roles on both Chloe Molloy and Erin Phillips in Brisbane’s two finals triumphs will go down in Brisbane’s history books – those two are right now amongst the top five for forwards in the competition and Koenen handled them both like it was nothing more than a training drill.
In addition to her role in shutting out the dangerous forwards, Koenen’s ability to intercept and drive the ball out of defence is just one of many cogs to the machine that is Brisbane’s defence. Kate Lutkins will be seen as the cornerstone of this defensive unit and Shannon Campbell is an underrated figure outside Brisbane’s inner sanctum for her negating roles.
The best thing about this Brisbane defence, however, is that players such as Nat Grider, Jade Ellenger and Indy Tahau are all forging their names as part of the next major defensive unit over the next decade, whilst what sort of role their first draft selection of 2021 Maggie Harmer plays in her first year in Brisbane colours is also worth noting.
Filling the role left by Zielke will be a challenge, but picking up Phoebe Monahan as a delisted free agent is a step in right direction. They both play a similar style in terms of their rebound but having watched Monahan play more further afield in the VFL Women’s this year, who knows what kind of plans Craig Starcevich has in mind?
A champion team is a bit of a clichéd, throwaway line journalists like to use for the really good teams, but I’m genuine when I say that this Brisbane team epitomises every bit of that term.
On every line, there are players that do more than their share of pulling the weight that they need to help get the team over the line. Brisbane were 3rd in the competition for points for and 2nd in the competition for conceding the least number of points.
They’ve got their stars on each line, but they didn’t get there on the back of over-relying on these stars or big stats – it was as pure of a team effort as you will see from a team in the modern era.
Ally Anderson and Emily Bates are the leaders in the middle, but neither of them statistically stood out in the manner that others such as Bri Davey and Kiara Bowers did last season. No standout contested possession numbers or tackle numbers for that matter; nothing but honest football and making it count when it matters the most.
But it’s not just them – the midfield has batted incredibly deep this season. Cathy Svarc elevated her game to another level to become one of the most complete two-way midfielders we’ve seen in the AFLW, capable of negating the best midfielders this competition has to offer, whilst also winning her fair share of contested ball.
Isabel Dawes is another player that had a very strong second season after finding her feet in the first year. Her averages improved from over five disposals per game in 2020 to 13.3 and doubled her career averages in contested possessions, clearances and tackles in the process. She’s a tough and uncompromised player that suits the running styles of both Anderson and Bates perfectly – the future of the Brisbane midfield.
The outside pair of Orla O’Dwyer and Sophie Conway cementing themselves as some of the best wingers in the competition – the former finished second to Anderson in the club’s best and fairest as a winger that can also win her share of contested ball, whilst the latter proved that she is one of the best gut-runners in the competition, being able to cover ground in a fashion that very few can.
Tahlia Hickie is one that probably didn’t get as much recognition as she should’ve this year, but she commanded the number one ruck position at Brisbane away from Jessy Keeffe by mid-season and finished up as one of the Lions’ most improved players on the back of improved ruck craft and her repeat efforts when the ball is in dispute.
But she’ll have some stiff competition to maintain that spot in 2022, with Taylor Smith showing that she can hold down a role as the back-up, pinch-hitting key forward last season. Sharni Webb also returns to the team after missing the past season due to pregnancy, she was strong with her ruck work and her ability to provide as a target up forward.
They found some big improvers up forward as well.
Dakota Davidson should’ve got a spot in the AFLW All-Australian side in 2021 for a season that saw her kick a total of 16 goals in 11 matches after kicking just two goals in six matches the season before. Her second and third efforts when the ball was not in her hands was also something that I considered to be a massive improvement to her game.
The same applies to Greta Bodey – I remember vividly that she was in that discussion for my rolling All Australian side up until the midway point of the season, where her goal output dipped, but overall, was still a significant improver – 9.6 in 11 games is nothing to scoff at and she is a player that should get better over time.
There’s no doubt they’ve got the forward cattle that can kick them a winning score consistently, even with the void left behind by Lauren Arnell. It was a great story watching her being picked up by the Lions on a relatively cheap deal and then seeing her eventually thrive as a half-forward type that helped create those goals rather than kick them.
Courtney Hodder became a sensation in one season with her white-hot speed and goal nous that is up there with the game’s elites and showed that she can stand up to the big occasion, what is the ceiling with her? Can anyone stop her?
What about Jess Wuetschner? She hit her straps at the right time of the year after missing the first four games of the season – she’s a very clever player to watch once she gets going. Can Zimmie Farquharson get a game this year after the 2020 first round draft pick was unable to break into the side this year?
I’m sure the external talk of premiership hangovers has already begun around the AFLW fanbase – it always does at this time of the year– and I have no doubt that it will have been mentioned and discussed at Brisbane internally, but I can’t see them regressing much, if at all in 2022.
But they must be wary of all that come before them. We’ll find out in due time as to whether the Lions can tackle the challenge of being the hunted
Round 1: vs West Coast (Away)
Round 2: vs Carlton (Home)
Round 3: vs Gold Coast (Away)
Round 4: vs Geelong (Home)
Round 5: vs Collingwood (Home)
Round 6: vs St Kilda (Away)
Round 7: vs Melbourne (Home)
Round 8: vs Adelaide (Away)
Round 9: vs North Melbourne (Home)
Round 10: vs Richmond (Away)
2021 Record: 6 wins, 4 losses (Eliminated in Qualifying Finals) 2022 Season Prediction: 4th
Will the 2022 season be the year of the Roos?
Even though they finished sixth in the home and away season and were subsequently knocked out in first week of the Finals, North Melbourne are not far away from their maiden premiership.
It’s a true sign of how even this competition is now, for the leading pack anyway, two wins separated first from eighth this past season. North Melbourne lost all three of their games in the 2021 home and away season to sides who finished inside the top four – they went goal-less against Collingwood in a 20-point loss, but also lost to Melbourne and Brisbane in relatively close games.
Despite the first week exit, I was left feeling quite buoyant about North’s possibilities for 2022. There are a few reasons this is the case.
For one, They’ve got sizeable depth in the middle, and whilst their big three all averaged big numbers in 2021, Darren Crocker is not fully gung-ho on them.
Jasmine Garner is the superstar of this on-ball brigade, capable of winning clearances and pushing forward to kick goals, Emma Kearney is the wise head who continues to churn out cracking games and Ash Riddell is the quiet achiever, managing to consistently clock up big numbers, whilst the other two remain the talk of Arden Street.
The three of them all averaged over 20 disposals in 2021 and as a collective, averaged 31.1 contested possessions, 13.6 clearances and over 932 metres gained per game – unsurprisingly, they were amongst the team leaders on all three of those statistical categories this season.
But they’re finding time to place other players in the middle whilst those are resting. Ellie Gavalas enjoyed a breakout year as the fourth-choice midfielder. Jenna Bruton adapted more along the wing but was strong when she was presented with opportunities either in stoppage play or in the centre bounces, whilst Mia King took another step forward with her development, showcasing her tackling skills and contested work.
The acquisition of Kim Rennie from the Western Bulldogs is considered a huge move for the Roos and a player I see as a bit of an upgrade to Vivien Saad. Last year, Rennie was behind Celine Moody in the ruck order, but with North seemingly eager to play Emma King more as a key forward who can back up in the ruck, Rennie will be given every chance to make that number one ruck spot her own in 2022.
There’s no reason why she can’t – she’s a very sound athlete with a good leap, her ruck craft isn’t spectacular, but solid enough to compete at the highest level and at 27, she’s entering the prime years of her career. If she can find another gear that helps her get into double-figure averages in disposals and be around three or four clearances per game, that helps the Roos tremendously.
As well as bringing Rennie in through the Draft, North managed to bring in other draftees that will – at worst – add depth, but at best, could help bring them a step or two closer to glory.
Jasmine Ferguson is a player I consider to be a massive steal with pick 51, having played in a Collingwood VFLW side that went through the year unbeaten. She’s tough, well versed in the aerial craft and capable of playing lockdown roles in defence.
Tess Craven is another player to keep an eye out for, as she was a player I considered a top-five prospect in Victoria’s draft pool, but somehow managed to slide all the way down to North’s first pick at 13, a renowned tough in-and-under midfielder who has proved to be clean through congestion and already strong through her upper body.
And lastly, the best Tassie kid in the land, Perri King, will get her chance. It’ll be hard to see her get minutes in a stacked midfield, but her tackling pressure is elite, averaging 10.5 tackles for the Allies in the Under-19 championships this year and 9.4 tackles per game in the NAB League – could she start her career playing forward?
It leads into the next point, for I have listed down here the forward line as my greatest concern with this list. North were fifth in the competition for points for at the conclusion of the home and away season.
Garner started her AFLW career as a forward but kicked nine goals in 2021 playing more as a midfielder, Sophie Abbatangelo also kicked nine goals, but was inconsistent at times and Daisy Bateman kicked 8.1 and looks like a player that is on the cusp of becoming one of the elite small forwards of the game.
I’m still not sold on the idea of Emma King playing as the full forward. It’s true that she’s strong in the air and a great contested mark and it must be said that she played more as a ruck in 2021, but she remains a hit and miss proposition in front of goal. If Darren Crocker is serious about the idea of playing her at full-forward on a full-time basis, then she’s got to kick at least double the 6.4 she kicked this year.
I enjoyed watching Daria Bannister string together a full year after watching her career to date be plagued with injury. She was menacing anytime the ball went in her direction and she’s bloody strong through her upper body – 6.7 for the year is a good foundation to build on for the new season and will be one I’ll be keeping a close eye out on.
Grace Campbell up at half forward was interesting, and effective to an extent. Campbell made a name for herself at Richmond in 2020 as a tough, in and under midfielder, but didn’t look too out of place up forward, where she can still apply her pressure abilities and got some reward for her efforts in the process.
They’ve got the power and the talent up forward, but can they string it together a bit more consistently than what they did in 2021? If they can, then they’re as good a shot at the premiership as anyone else.
North Melbourne’s defensive unit can be overshadowed by the star power further afield, but it’s still quite sturdy in the duty of keeping opposition to relatively low scores, being fifth in the competition for points against this year.
Jess Duffin was eased back into the team last season as she missed all of 2020 due to pregnancy, but with a full pre-season under belt this time around, there’s no doubt that she can find herself back into the discussions amongst the game’s elite defenders, she’s intelligent with her reading of the play, a creative rebounding defender as well.
She compliments a player like Aileen Gilroy beautifully, who I thought had a terrific year off of half back in 2021, being allowed to exhibit her speed and her rebound with the ball in her hands to full effect – leading all Kangaroos for rebound 50s last season.
Danielle Hardiman is the non-flashy, blue-collared lockdown full back that puts in the hard yards week in and week out and Tahlia Randall is more of the same, maybe just that little more athletic, both are terrific key pillars in defence and are as important as the midfielders.
Another player that is worth mentioning here is Nicole Bresnehan, who was just recently elevated into the leadership group. I’ve been sceptical in the past about what exactly she brings to the team over the past couple of years, but this past season showed that she’s every bit as valuable as her teammates.
Whilst she is of smaller size, she’s plays as if she’s a heart-and-soul player. A player that lets her actions do the talking as opposed to her words and is always looking to work on whatever flaws remain in her game. She’s a great lockdown small and maybe not as prominent with her rebounding or intercepting like others, she still provides a good role within the team.
Whilst North possess an abundance of young talented up-and-comers to take them forward in the years to come, they have got a side is well and truly in the frame for the premiership. They must strike while the iron is hot, as the clock is starting to tick for some of the older heads in this team and they might not get a better opportunity to go all the way than they do in 2022.
Round 1: vs Geelong (Home)
Round 2: vs Adelaide (Away)
Round 3: vs GWS (Home)
Round 4: vs Carlton (Away)
Round 5: vs Fremantle (Home)
Round 6: vs Richmond (Away)
Round 7: vs Collingwood (Home)
Round 8: vs Melbourne (Away)
Round 9: vs Brisbane (Away)
Round 10: vs West Coast (Home)
There’s a sense of optimism in the air at Kardinia Park ahead of the 2022 season.
In season 2021, Geelong narrowly avoided the wooden spoon by beating the winless Gold Coast Suns in the final game of the home and away season, in the lead-up to that game, they were also win-less from eight games.
To put mildly, last season was a shambles at Geelong, but there was some reasoning behind it – Nina Morrison didn’t play as she continued to recover from a knee injury sustained in their last game of 2020, whilst Olivia Purcell had gone down with a knee injury mid-year before she headed off to Melbourne in the off-season.
On top of that, a large bulk of the team is still young, but the side was miles apart from the rest of their fellow expansion sides; St Kilda, Richmond and West Coast all beat them in 2021 and if you’d watched Geelong play, you could tell how poor their ball use was.
The Cats sat dead last in the competition for goals kicked – this included three games in which they could only manage one goal for the entire game – and while it won’t be the statistic that speaks the whole story, it is one of many underlying factors that saw the Cats struggle massively at last season.
Whether or not new coach Dan Lowther has addressed these issues ahead of the new season remains to be seen, but the number of players brought in over the off-season to help fast track the Cats back to where they’d like to be has given them plenty of reasons as to why they’re looking up.
It’s easy to look at the drafting of Georgie Prespakis and see it as a big win. There’s no doubt that if she can stay healthy, she’ll add so much to their midfield, she’s already brilliant at winning the contested ball, a great tackler and can impact with her possessions consistently, she is a player that is both ready to go and ready to make an instant impact for the Cats.
But being a Calder girl and experiencing senior footy at Essendon in the VFLW in 2021, Geelong are going to fight tooth and nail to retain her beyond the upcoming season as the Bombers will be unrelenting in chasing her down to join them in 2023. This is something to keep an eye out for as the season progresses.
A midfield of Morrison, Prespakis and reigning club best and fairest winner Amy McDonald doesn’t sound too bad – it’s a great blend of inside power and class. Also add in their two young gun midfielders Laura Gardiner (who was in the VFLW team of the year in 2021) and Darcy Moloney, and it’s a midfield that has got plenty of potential to give opposition midfields a real shake.
Lots of eyes will be on Prespakis and rightfully so, she was the best under-18s prospect in the land in the land in the eyes of many, but equally, it’s their VFLW signings I look forward to seeing with great intrigue as well, for Olivia Fuller and Claudia Gunjaca were both in the team of the year on the back of strong seasons.
Geelong haven’t nailed down a number one ruck option yet, but Fuller could be the one that seizes this opportunity in 2022. She’s already solidly built, and at only 21, is a rapid improver in terms of her ruck craft, and her abilities to both cover ground and win her own footy.
Gunjaca was the vice-captain of their VFLW side and is a player that can play several roles across the ground, she kicks goals up forward, she can intercept mark, and possibly have a run through the middle. Her form not only saw her in the VFLW’s team of the year in 2021, but also took home the club’s best and fairest as well.
Another to watch out for from their own backyard is Annabel Johnson, who was a bit of a surprise selection for the Cats with pick 15 in the AFLW Draft. But Geelong rated her on the wing for their VFLW team this year, she’s quick and clean with her ball use – both of which the Cats lacked significantly in 2021.
All this talk and I haven’t even mentioned Chloe Scheer yet, who was Geelong’s key target during the trade period. Despite the knee injuries in recent years, Scheer’s talent is unquestionable and there is no doubt that she is a key player for the Cats to go forward this year.
Whilst the scope to play in the middle is there, with her contested ball skills, I’ll maintain that her best footy is in the forward 50. She’s so exciting to watch when she gets going, very clever with her leading patterns, has strong marking hands for her size and a polished performer in front of goals – they were at a premium this year for the Cats and if they can get a full year out of her playing forward, it’s a bonus.
Can these forward line issues be addressed in one year? Probably not but finding improvement and consistent scoring options is a start.
They need more out of Phoebe McWilliams this year. Her goal-kicking in 2021 was a very lacklustre – with 4.7 and from an experienced head, you expect better given the opportunities in front of goal for the Cats in 2021 were scant.
Liv Barber’s attack on the footy was fun to watch, but remains a player in development, but 10 goals in five VFLW games is a big plus, whilst Georgia Clarke’s form at state level will also be something to look out for in 2022, having kicked 18 goals in 13 VFLW games in 2021
Gabbi Featherston is another player that I can see playing early on in 2022, particularly as a high half-forward. Her athleticism helps her stand out with a great vertical leap and is also capable of bobbing up for a goal or two.
If they can work on their ball movement, then the defence won’t be as overworked. To be truthful, I don’t think it’s as bad as what the stats show you.
Meg McDonald’s first year as captain was disastrous. Not through much fault of her own, but she was caught under pressure too many times due to Geelong’s inability to maintain possession. Despite this, she still led the club in both intercept possessions and rebound 50s and dubiously named in the AFLW’s All Australian team last year.
She’s got able support in Maddy McMahon and Maddy Keryk, both of whom are solid role players, whilst Sophie Van De Heuval is beginning to show why the Cats were keen to draft her a few years back as she continues to build on both her intercepting game and her rebounding game – she’s one primed for a big year in defence in 2022.
Also, look out for Chantel Emonson and where she plays next year. To casual observers, she will most likely be remembered for being the steak knives in the deal for Purcell, but she’s someone who I think can feature heavily inside Geelong’s best 21, with her experience on a wing or at half-back, she averaged nearly six kicks at about 75 percent efficiency.
Whilst Geelong seemingly are a year or two away from being genuine finals contenders, they must be a lot better than one win in 2022.
Is a three-win season too much of an overreach?
When playing the likes of the Eagles, Suns and Saints – the Cats need to at least win two. If they can manage to hang with Richmond and GWS, as well, and pick up a win against either of them, then Dan Lowther and the team should be very pleased with their progress heading into 2023.
Round 1: vs North Melbourne (Away)
Round 2: vs Western Bulldogs (Home)
Round 3: vs Collingwood (Home)
Round 4: vs Brisbane (Away)
Round 5: vs West Coast (Home)
Round 6: vs Gold Coast (Away)
Round 7: vs Fremantle (Home)
Round 8: vs Richmond (Away)
Round 9: vs St Kilda (Away)
Round 10: vs GWS (Home)