We are three weeks away from kicking off another AFLW season, and The Doc has been all over all the news, moves and improvements for each club.

In the fourth part of his series, he examines the Dockers, Blue, and Tigers.

 

Fremantle

2021 Record: 6 wins, 4 losses (Eliminated In Qualifying Finals)
2022 Season Prediction: 7th

After being unbeaten in seven games in 2020, Fremantle would feel every right to be disappointed with their 2021 campaign, being eliminated by Melbourne in the first week.

There’s no denying within the purple camp that the Dockers are an incredibly fit football team, and they exercised this in a lot of their games last season, but how did it all go wrong for them in the fact that they turned from a premiership fancy into an also-ran?

I followed the Dockers quite closely last year and watched most of their games, and one of the constants from their home and away season last year was their incredibly slow starts to games. Out of their 10 first quarters in 2021, the Dockers went goalless in eight of them.

Up until the end of the season, they were able to shake off their slow starts and pull through to get the wins on the board needed to make the top six. Three of their last four games of the season came in their final three matches – twice to Melbourne (including the final) and one to North Melbourne and they went into quarter time goalless in all of them.

There must be a mentality issue involved with that and one that I hope Trent Cooper and the girls have worked hard to rectify heading into 2022, because if they are searching for that premiership they felt as if they’d earned in 2020, they’re going to have to catch fire early and score fast and let the opposition play catch up.

But there are issues within this issue that the Dockers will be wanting to address as the season progresses. The most important is covering the losses of both Sabreena Duffy and Ashley Sharp up forward – both are very solid pieces to their forward line and having them both on the inactive list is not want the Dockers would’ve wanted.

Duffy is a big loss, because she has proven both last season and in 2020 that she is a very exciting forward and is capable of kicking match-winning bags of goals. Her goal nous is up there with the very best in the competition. Sharp has shown from the very first day of the competition that if you let her loose, her speed will make the opposition pay.

It’s interesting to point out that the Dockers kicked 53 goals in their 10 games last year, 25 of them came off the boot of both Duffy and Gemma Houghton – Duffy 10.7 and Houghton 15.8 – it means that pressure is going to further heaped on Houghton to stand up as the number one target up forward.

But it also means that there will be a lot more pressure piled on players such as Roxanne Roux, who I thought suffered from a bad bout of the second-year blues after a very impressive first year. There were murmurings that Roxy could be thrust into the middle in 2022, but they need to find scoring options somewhere.

There’s going to be a lot of pressure on players like Gabby O’Sullivan, who is an extremely brilliant player in setting her teammates up and slotting goals from difficult spots – her 2021 was a season that I could best describe as spotty, kicking 5.7 and averaged 8.1 disposals and just over two score involvements per game.

Finding other forward options that can fill the void will be interesting. Does Duffy’s move to the inactive list open the door for the likes of Mikayla Morrison and Ann McMahon to make their debuts? More opportunity for someone like Mikayla Hyde to play? Maybe we’ll even get a chance to see draftees such as Amy Franklin and Makaela Tuhakaraina play some minutes forward early.

What can a player like Aine Tighe add to this Freo side? The big Irish talent spent the past two seasons on the sidelines nursing knee injuries and it could provide a blessing, having watched a team as well-drilled asFremantle up close.

Tighe will most likely play ruck, but if she can provide as another tall target up forward and give relief to Mim Strom playing as the secondary ruck option – it can definitely benefit the Dockers in a few areas, perhaps enable someone like Roxy Roux to play another role further afield.

Another issue that I hope the Dockers will be looking to address for this upcoming season is how they can find players to help support Kiara Bowers.

I think it’s a given in any AFLW expert’s book that Bowers is a top-five player in the competition and it was justified when she was named the joint-best and fairest winner with Bri Davey last season as well as winning the Coaches Association player of the year.

She’s the cornerstone of how the Dockers like to play – she brings a tough and uncompromising approach to the contest and has the hunger to run from contest to contest and make an impact in almost every contest she can get to.

The Dockers have been a highly regarded tackling team over the past couple of years and Bowers is the centre of the action week after week, recording astronomical tackling numbers recording very strong contested possession numbers and elite clearance numbers too.

But Freo would love to have more players around her to stand up. They need more than Steph Cain, who I thought had an outstanding year playing predominantly on the wing, and more than new captain Hayley Miller alongside her for the ride.

For the record, I love the appointment of Miller as the new captain and there’s a couple of reasons behind this.

The first is perhaps the most obvious, it allows Kara Antonio to focus more on her football. She’s been a terrific servant of the club and a tremendous leader at Freo since the league’s beginning. She spent a lot more time playing forward of centre last year, and the form line was sporadic.

The second reason is that Miller is the sort of person who will lead by example. It’s easy to think by that reasoning that Bowers should’ve got the captaincy, but Miller is a player that has been handed a few roles through the middle over the years and is a consummate team player willing to do whatever she can to help the Dockers over the line.

There’s a lot of wraps in Western Australia for draftee Dana East, having averaged very strong numbers during the under-19 championships. She’s already proven to be very good in her extraction of the ball through stoppages but is also a brilliant tackler that will compliment a midfield that already puts up big numbers.

Sarah Verrier is another player that I think can make big strides in her development next year. Taken as Fremantle’s first pick in the 2020 AFLW Draft, Verrier played every game for the Dockers last season, playing several roles around the ground and adapting to any position promptly, she could be one who plays more minutes in the middle too.

What about Ebony Antonio, could she play full-time as a midfielder? She’s been Fremantle’s ‘fix’ for a while now.

If there’s one thing that the Dockers have nailed is there defensive aspect to their game. On top of being the best tackling team in the competition, they were in the top three of the competition for points against, only conceding an average of 22 points per game during the home and away season.

Janelle Cuthbertson broke out at the ripe age of 31 to be named an All-Australian in the defence last season on the back of excellent intercepting and great all-round defending. But the defence is more than just her, they’re a team-oriented defence that are able and willing to play one role one week and then a different role the following week.

Players such as Laura Pugh and Philipa Seth do such a great job in providing defence first and run and drive out of the defensive half second – both are in the top five for rebound 50s and Pugh is second only to Cuthbertson for averaging the most intercept possessions at Fremantle last season.

Ange Stannett is another who I have enjoyed as the defensive small defender. She’s a player who boasts incredible fitness and has developed a strong understanding of the ball in flight the more she’s gone on to play games. Matilda Sergeant is another player who I’ve grown quite fond of as 2021 progressed, watching her play as the second tall defender behind Cuthbertson, but also showing that she can play offensive – particularly during the end of the season.

Fremantle could easily be a team that plays finals in 2022, but I’m not sold on them, personally. Finding replacement forwards for Duffy and Sharp will be key, as will be midfield assistance for Bowers and Miller.

They’ve got the established talent, they’ve got the exciting up and comers, but have the Dockers got the consistency?

 

The Fixture

Round 1: vs Adelaide (Home)
Round 2: vs GWS (Home)
Round 3: vs Richmond (Away)
Round 4: vs Collingwood (Away)
Round 5: vs North Melbourne (Away)
Round 6: vs Carlton (Home)
Round 7: vs Geelong (Away)
Round 8: vs West Coast (Home)
Round 9: vs Melbourne (Home)
Round 10: vs Western Bulldogs (Away)

 

 

Carlton

2021 Record: 5 wins, 4 losses (7th)
2022 Season Prediction: 9th

The Blues are a hard team to really figure out, but we’re going to find out a lot more about them within the first five games of 2022.

It’s one of, if not the most, hardest fixtures out of all the teams in the competition. Among the first five games include matches against the two Grand Finalists, including a trip up North for the Lions. Also in their first five weeks, they take on Collingwood, North Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs, then backed up with Fremantle in out West in round six.

If, and only if, the Blues win three of these first six games, then the Blues could be genuinely considered a finals threat. There is also every chance the Blues go winless from their first six games, and it may just be the worst-case scenario for both the Blues and Daniel Harford.

Particularly against the better teams in the competition, Carlton got found out and exposed significantly in critical parts of games, yet in games against the bottom sides such as St Kilda and the Gold Coast, they were quite assertive with their ball use and it resulted in dominant wins, including the breaking of a league record for the highest score in the competition.

To go forward in 2022, the Blues must try and find ways to work around the hard tag that’s being applied by their young gun Maddy Prespakis.

In just her second year of her AFLW career, she was named the league’s best and fairest, but last season teams were working overtime to frustrate her by double and triple-teaming her around the stoppages and it resulted in a few brain fades – one of which landed her a week’s suspension.

Carlton’s midfield is youthful, and is capable of being potent, but as it showed against the likes of Collingwood and North Melbourne last season, aren’t amongst the competition elites.

Grace Egan was second to Prespakis in contested possessions and clearances last season but is a player that I think can find another level to her game and genuinely help ease the pressure off of Prespakis. Abbie McKay is another one who I was extremely impressed with over the course of the 2021 season, averaging career-highs across the board.

Also throw in Lucy McEvoy, Mimi Hill and Georgia Gee and there’s a Blues midfield that will command respect sooner rather than later. It’s also worth mentioning that all these players will rove off Breann Moody, who had a 2021 season that has thrust her into the discussion of the best ruck in the league today.

What makes her so good is on top of her elite ruck craft, is that she is mobile enough to follow up from her initial ruck contests and with that, she wins her share of clearances, contested possessions and can move the ball forward and hit her targets on the chest with such regularity.

Brooke Walker will be another player to look out for, as she missed the first seven games of the AFLW season due to a foot injury. At her best, Walker is a brilliant running player that helps link up their fast plays and has been a proven contributor on the scoreboard over the past couple of years – she could very well be Carlton’s missing piece in the middle.

All that said, will 2022 be the year that midfield commands that respect?

It’s incredibly hard to say. Hill is still recovering from an ACL she suffered last season and may not be back at all in 2022. McEvoy had a strong VFLW campaign, playing through more in the middle when she played and if Egan can get herself averaging over 20 disposals in the new season, that helps take some pressure off Prespakis to a certain degree and that’s where the Blues can get better.

A surprising statistic from their 2021 season is that the Blues were the highest-scoring team in the competition, averaging over 46 points per game. Now it must be said the win against the Suns inflated this, but the Blues went under 35 points only twice – round one against Collingwood and the round nine against the Giants.

Darcy Vescio enjoyed a career-best year in which she kicked a very accurate 16.4, was named All-Australian, took home the league’s goalkicking award and was about as every bit asdangerous as she was in the first year of AFLW. For a small forward, she averaged over a contested mark per game, and also led all players at the Blues for marks and score involvements.

The unceremonious exit of Tayla Harris over the off-season will raise concerns about covering her position. If they can’t, then unquestionably, more defensive attention will be directed to Vescio. Harris’ presence in the forward 50 – no matter what club she plays or how her form is – means that often the best defenders are playing on her weekly.

The thing is though, the Blues had the scoring options in recent years that made them very unpredictable and very difficult to defend against.

It’s easy to overlook the season Nicola Stevens had up forward when Vescio was playing scintillating football on a near-consistent basis, but Stevens had nearly as many scoring shots as Vescio playing as the second key forward, bagging 9.8 and averaged over a contested mark per game and 3.5 score involvements per game in 2021.

With Harris now gone, Stevens has got to take the mantle as the go-to key forward for the time being. The scene was set for Serena Gibbs to play the second key forward before she was put on the inactive list to focus on her mental health.

Enter Imogen Milford – Having seen her refine her craft at Casey last season in the VFL Women’s, the way she played the game at times has made me think on a number of occasions that she is too good for state-level football. She leads very well playing deep, but also can cover the ground very well.

But two important things stand out with Milford, she’s a terrific pressure forward when the ball is in the opposition’s hands, averaging over four tackles per game last season. And most importantly, she’s capable of tearing a game apart on the scoreboard, having kicked 19.14 in 15 matches this year, including a bag of six and multiple goals of two.

There will be much fanfare about the arrival of Jess Dal Pos and rightfully so – Dal Pos is a player that not only can play a plethora of roles and do the job comfortably, but she’ll provide another wise head to help nurture the younger core of players and help push them to be the best players they can be.

What Dal Pos’ role is for 2022 is unknown at present, but I can see a similar way to how Elise O’Dea was played in 2021; A little in the middle, a bit up forward, a bit as the spare behind the play.

Maybe Dal Pos is too short to be the kick behind the play, but she can be a very handy player in the forward half, where she can create opportunities for her teammates, harass the opposition into turnover and put herself into position to score herself.

It’s a fair assumption that Carlton plays a quicker brand of football capable of big scores, the weakness is that the defence got exposed as a result of the Blues trying to play free-flowing football – they conceded an average of over 36 points during the home and away season – the seventh-highest average in the competition.

Kerryn Harrington took a few games before she really hit her straps and showed everyone why she’s a much-revered leader of the competition. Her ability to not just neutralise the one-on-ones she competes in, but to expertly read the play and cut off the opposition’s forward entries are amongst some of the best in the competition.

The supporting cast needs to help her out though. Mua Laloifi missed a game early last year due to concussion, but it correlated into very patchy form in comparison to her 2020 campaign and the young pair of Charlotte Wilson and Daisy Walker showed vast improvement in their games, playing across the half back line.

Carlton were the flag favourites in the eyes of many experts last season but missed finals altogether. They’re a good enough team and with strong players on every line, there is no doubt they’ll be asking the question of ‘why can’t it be us?’

There will be questions asked from the outsiders; Are this younger brigade of Blues tough enough to hang and beat the games very best? Can the forward line still function without Tayla in the team?

We’ll find out more about these Blues in due time.

 

The Fixture

Round 1: vs Collingwood (Home)
Round 2: vs Brisbane (Away)
Round 3: vs Western Bulldogs (Away)
Round 4: vs North Melbourne (Home)
Round 5: vs Adelaide (Home)
Round 6: vs Fremantle (Away)
Round 7: vs St Kilda (Home)
Round 8: vs GWS (Away)
Round 9: vs Gold Coast (Home)
Round 10: vs Melbourne (Away)

 

 

Richmond

2021 Record: 3 wins, 6 losses (10th)
2022 Season Prediction: 10th

It wouldn’t have been hard to improve on what was a very disastrous debut season in 2020, but Richmond won three games in 2021 and were very competitive in most of their defeats.

Whilst the wins came against the likes of West Coast, Geelong and the Gold Coast, losses to sides such as Collingwood by 16 points, Carlton by less than a kick and the Bulldogs by 13 points are indicative of the direction the Tigers are heading as we approach their third year of the competition.

There are many reasons why the Tigers found such significant improvement in the span of 12 months.

The most easily noticeable is the instant impact the recruits made on arrival. Harriet Cordner had an All-Australian calibre season playing as the premiere defensive stopper, taking on and beating some of the game’s most dangerous key forwards.

However, it shouldn’t be discounted the year Sarah D’Arcy had in 2021. Her transition from a forward target at Collingwood to intercept-marking defender yielded tremendous results. Between the pair of Cordner and D’Arcy – they averaged over 13 intercept possessions between them and unsurprisingly, led all Richmond players in that statistic.

Despite the fact the Tigers conceded the fifth-highest number of points in 2021, there was a lot within that defensive unit last season that suggests they can hold up against some of the better forward lines of the competition.

In addition to that defensive pair, Sarah Hosking’s influence in the midfield was felt all throughout the season. She might not reach the heights of those like her teammate Monique Conti, but midfield depth and assistance was something the Tigers desperately lacked in 2020.

Even then, Ryan Ferguson got career-best seasons out of several players that helped contribute in the middle part of the ground. I’d like to highlight the work of Maddy Brancatisano in the middle, Kate Dempsey on the wing and Gabby Seymour in the ruck as critical reasons why the Tigers have made a sharp turnaround.

Seymour is a player that I’ve circled as a player to look out for in 2022. Seeing her breakout as a ruck is even more amazing when you consider that she played all six games in 2020 as a full back.

Her mobility, hunger for the contest, understanding of how the game plays, and how to position herself to impact after ruck contests are what has helped her get this far as a ruck option in a very short time.

But I think the most important player we saw Ferguson get a career-best season out of was from their captain, Katie Brennan.

There was a lot of external pressure coming for the poor 2020 she had playing as a midfielder. Last season showed that she is a natural forward – her confidence in her body and her game was evident the longer the season went and she was able to convert her opportunities more often than not. Kicking 14.7 on an average of 13.3 disposals, 3.1 marks and 4.8 score involvements is a great return from a leader.

Looking ahead to 2022, the Tigers will be aiming for higher ground, and there’s a lot of improvement in several of their players.

The debut year of Ellie McKenzie will be something the Tigers fans will want to see more of in 2022. She spent a lot of 2021 across half-forward and was quite pivotal in helping the Tigers create scoring opportunities – finishing in the top five for score involvements.

She also showed in the last few games of the season that she can be used as a midfielder to good effect, she averaged 2.4 clearances and 8.6 contested possessions per game on the back of averaging over 15 touches in 2021 – including a 17 contested possession effort against the Eagles in round eight.

Is she ready to go full-time in the middle? There’s not a doubt that she is. Her and Conti in the midfield would cause an array of problems for opposition midfield units. Conti’s ability to win the hardball and then burst away from a stoppage with it is a big reason why she’s highly regarded as a midfielder.

Another draftee I was very impressed with when she got her opportunity was Tessa Lavey. People give the whole ‘basketball background’ schtick a good battering, but her vision when she had the ball in her hands was that of someone who has played professional sport at an elite level for a little while, she’s a player that has turned from a speculation pick into a sure-fire best 21 player.

Sophie Molan was Richmond’s first draft selection in 2019 and after a rough initiation season, she’s starting to really find gears of improvement in her contested game, being able to pressure and harass players consistently and finding herself in the right positions when the Tigers move the ball in transition.

Speaking about Richmond’s off-season, I really liked their recruiting drive, both from trades and from the Draft, a few players should see immediate minutes and hopefully improve their standing in 2022 by a win or two – they’re well on the way of building a list that can compete.

Poppy Kelly is a player that was starved of minutes last season at St Kilda, but at Richmond, will see minutes playing as the back-up to Seymour, but with her athleticism, she could be moulded as the perfect third tall key forward behind Courtney Wakefield and Katie Brennan as well as provide the chop out in the ruck.

Jess Hosking was a last-minute trade acquisition from Carlton and reunites with her twin sister Sarah and could add another wise and experienced head in the middle, but she has also been deployed at either end of the ground – I wouldn’t be too surprised if she was deployed at half-forward so she can play as an extra midfielder around the stoppages.

Maddie Shevlin was the player that was part of the return from Collingwood in exchange for Sabrina Frederick. Shevlin’s played a variety of roles at Collingwood and her athleticism means that Ferguson could deploy her as a ‘fix-it’ type player. She’s got the pace to play on the wing and half-back and has got the smarts to play forward too.

Where does Stella Reid play in this Richmond team next season? Her 2021 campaign for Oakleigh yielded some significant returns, averaging 20.1 disposals, 4.5 marks, nearly four tackles and over a goal per game across 11 games and carried that into the championship games at Vic Metro.

Richmond have got a really good player on their hands. Her height at 173cm makes it a very tantalising opportunity for the Tigers to play her up forward as another marking option, but she’s also proven over the past 12 months that she can play as a rebounding defender with her elite skills and can throw down in the contest in the midfield if the going gets tough.

Their other first-round selection in Emelia Yassir might have to work a bit harder to break into the side, but she showed plenty during her time in the NAB League that her tenacity, game sense and skills with when she has the ball in her hands is warranting minutes in the seniors at some stage throughout the year.

I will also highlight the drafting of Meagan Kiely. Her games at North Melbourne’s VFLW side last season showed that she’s ready to make the next jump. She’s got the tank to cover ground, she’s intelligent in knowing where to be and how to use the ball and most importantly, she’s consistent in doing it. I wouldn’t be shocked if she got games early in the year either.

Whilst internally, the Tigers will be eyeing off a finals berth, I’m not convinced that they’ve got what it takes to push themselves into the finals conversation in 2022, but one thing is certain is that they’re now up and running and sides must be wary.

They’ve got a good spine organised, capable key forwards, a ruck that is only going to get better and key defenders capable of locking down the most dangerous forwards, complimented with a lot of players around the ground that can make an impact.

Can the new recruits gel immediately? Expect another year of continued growth with the Tigers, but also expect them to go with the teams around them, fighting for a spot in the top six, five wins is very much a possibility.

 

The Fixture

Round 1: vs St Kilda (Away)
Round 2: vs Melbourne (Home)
Round 3: vs Fremantle (Home)
Round 4: vs Gold Coast (Away)
Round 5: vs Western Bulldogs (Away)
Round 6: vs North Melbourne (Home)
Round 7: vs West Coast (Away)
Round 8: vs Geelong (Home)
Round 9: vs GWS (Away)
Round 10: vs Brisbane (Home)

 

 

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