Survival of the fittest – I fear we’re going to hear that more and more as the season wears on.
Whilst it’s great to have football back on our screens for the first time since October, the opening weekend of AFLW saw plenty of serious injuries, and that’s before we get to the number of players that had missed due to the AFL’s Health and Safety protocols – just a polite way of saying “you have Covid, sit out for us please?”
Over the course of Saturday and Sunday, we saw three serious knee injuries to key players of the Western Bulldogs, Collingwood and Brisbane, with all three of Izzy Huntington, Bri Davey and Kate Lutkins confirmed over the past 24 hours that their knee injuries were season-ending
It would also be remiss not to mention what looks like a serious shoulder injury to GWS’ Chloe Dalton, a massive shame considering that she was playing some pretty good football in the first half for the Giants.
I would also like to mention the unfortunate injury to Dakota Davidson, who looked as if she did a bad ankle just by jogging backwards off the mark, talk about rotten luck. The early word is that she won’t miss the entire season, but considering how impotent the forward line was on the weekend, that’s more news the Lions didn’t want to hear.
There’s a lot of discussion about how the ongoing knee injuries can be prevented in the future and one bit of information kept popping up; the weather, and how the heat and stifling conditions cause the surface of the ground to harden up, and that puts more pressure on your joints when you go to change direction.
It’s one of many reasons I think the scheduling of the league needs to be moved, and there’s a lot about the ‘semi-professionalism’ on AFLW footballers as well – Bec Goddard put it best on Saturday night after Huntington’s injury: It’s not just football, but it’s her life, study and work – it impacts everything.
The discussion to make AFLW full time is a matter that needs to be continued to be pushed and I think there are a number of writers and journalists out there that can preach it better than me, but for now, I’d like to restrict my focus to on-field matters.
For both Collingwood and Brisbane, one injury to a big-name star does not mean the end of the world, nor the end of their quest for the premiership. As we’ve seen so often, great AFL sides – both men’s and women’s – find ways to cover to the injuries, either by throwing players in different positions, or through their depth.
It does have to be said that Brisbane’s quest to go back-to-back will be a lot harder without Lutkins marshalling the back five. Without question, the best key defender since the AFLW competition began, her ability to not just win her one-on-ones, but her smarts in terms of her positioning in a zone defence and capitalising on opposition forward error cannot be ignored either.
Despite the five-goal losing margin, I thought Brisbane showed some resistance and resolve throughout the match, if it had been a side like the Gold Coast or St Kilda that rocked up to Noarlunga, the Crows would’ve likely had won by 50 points. Possibly even more.
The Lions still possess some great defensive talent, and a few of their players really shone through without Lutkins in the team. It also should be made mention that as Lutkins went down early in the first quarter, going through with one less rotation off the bench isn’t something to be taken lightly.
I thought Sunday was the best game I saw Nat Grider play in her young AFLW career. Her tenacity in the one-on-ones is remarkable and her strength is something I consider to be vastly underrated if you’re not familiar with the Queensland clubs. She may not be underrated for much longer.
Phoebe Monahan proved to be a very strong acquisition in her first game since being picked up as a delisted free agent, having played a strong lockdown role against Danielle Ponter – particularly in the second half of the game, Monahan held firm and won a few critical contests against the very dangerous Crow.
Indy Tahau is a player I rate immensely, it looked as if most (if not all) of Ashleigh Woodland’s four goals came against her, but I think she had a lot of moments throughout the game where she could hold her head up high and say she did what she could with her competitiveness in the air.
The injury to Lutkins, however, means that all three of these players will now need to amp up what’s required of them if the Lions are to go back-to-back. Bre Koenen was alright in her first game as captain, but on the back of a big loss, she’s got to galvanise the players on field.
In any given season, losses need to be at a minimum, but in a season like no other, where we’ll see plenty of AFLW stars sit out for a week here and there, wins are even more crucial.
Davidson will miss the next 4-5 weeks of the season with that ankle, and even on her return, it won’t be so clear cut, as her counterparts will have had the match fitness by then, where she will have not.
One thing she does have on her side though is determination, and if she can find the same level of determination she found last year en route to a breakout year that saw her kick 16 goals across 11 matches, then she might not have much to worry about – her tackling pressure as a key forward is extraordinary.
In the meantime, Craig Starcevich is going to need Jesse Wardlaw to step up in her absence. Her output last year was much quieter in comparison to Davidson – 6.3 in 2021 after kicking 9.4 in a shortened 2020 season is something that must be addressed.
Sure, she takes a lot of pressure off those forwards around her, but consistency is key and Wardlaw’s potency in front of goals last year was very inconsistent, it just wasn’t scrutinised heavily because the Lions weren’t dropping games and they went on to win the flag.
In fact, a lot of the forwards are going to have to step up. Jess Wuetschner’s kicking for goal was disappointing on the weekend as I thought the rest of her game was pretty good; her leading patterns and her pressure were splid, but the kicking from a very gettable set shot was the let-down.
I liked Greta Bodey’s pressure as well – she looks to have continued from where she left off in 2021 and Courtney Hodder was only introduced to the footy four times. I also thought Taylor Smith’s aerial presence in the second was greatly improved and whilst she’s already seen as a second-up ruck to Tahlia Hickie, might be more heavily relied on as a key forward target.
What the Davidson injury may also do is that might open the door up on Zimmorlei Farquharson to finally make her debut. At 176cm tall, it would add another dimension into Brisbane’s forward line with the height, combining her elite pace and continually improving skill set.
She featured on the scoreboard in Brisbane’s win over the Gold Coast in their practice match over the holiday season, in fact she kicked three goals for the Lions, so I reckon there may be a chance she gets a game sooner rather than later.
Of course, it doesn’t help the forward line that many of the forward 50 entries didn’t resemble that of a premiership side, a lot of kicks were either shallow or favoured the Adelaide defenders.
With Collingwood, Davey’s injury is a little less complex. I listened in on Steve Symonds’ press conference following the win against Carlton on Sunday evening and he made mention of possible solutions to filling in for the absence of Davey.
Whilst Jaimee Lambert had a stellar game and was thoroughly deserving of the maximum coaches votes on the weekend, Davey’s strength in the congestion was one of a few big reasons why the Pies were as good as they were in 2021.
It was also the main reason she was one of two co-winners of the league’s best and fairest award last year. Davey was in the top percentile of players for contested possessions and clearances, but also proved her worth up forward, capable of kicking a goal or two when she’s resting away from the middle.
It’s crystal clear that Lambert will be given free rein to win as much contested ball in the midfield as humanly possible. Yes, she’s not as strong or as big as Davey, but she brings just as much heart into every contest she competes in and not only that, but it’s her burst out of the stoppages that has made her a very lethal weapon over the past few years.
Will there be any change to Brittany Bonnici’s individual game during this time? Will there be more of defensive attention on her around the stoppages? How do you negate her in general play?
Bonnici is an out-and-out workhorse and there aren’t many who would come close in terms of covering kilometres and getting involved in a chain of possessions so consistently in the manner that she does.
She often starts herself in the centre bounces and positions herself accordingly around the stoppages and if the ball is in her vicinity, there’s no hesitation to go in and win the ball, but it’s her intelligence to recognise that when her teammates get the ball, she’s off and running and then she’s off to the next part of the contest, or is the next link of the chain, watching her play the game and work hard for her footy is just incredible.
I don’t think much needs to change with her individually, as I think there are other players that are well and truly of breaking through for more minutes in the midfield, and certainly capable of winning their fair share of hard ball.
If you ask around the Collingwood camp about Tarni Brown, they’d tell you that she had a ripping pre-season and would be one looking to elevate herself to the next level. After playing every game last year for the Pies and averaging healthy numbers of 11.3 disposals, 3 tackles, 1.3 clearances and 5 contested possessions per game and also contributed with four goals.
On Sunday, she only had the five disposals and looked to be played in a few different areas around the ground, but heading into the Saints next Saturday, she’s got a great opportunity against a midfield that is clearly understrength.
Same can be said with Mikala Cann, who is one of the more underrated players in this side. She may not reach the averages of the stars around her, but I love watching her attack the contest at a speed that always yields consequences on impact.
Out of all possible options, I see Cann as more of that Davey replacement, she’s a great in and under player, quite strong for her size. The folks down at Collingwood brand her as ‘The Bull’ because she’s tough, ferocious at both ball and ball-carrier and by God, she’ll hurt the opposition if they’re not careful about it.
Behind the big trio of midfielders on the weekend, Cann only registered nine disposals, but on that, she was quite good in putting in clearance numbers and contested possessions. That’s her wheelhouse. Out of her nine disposals, five were contested and she recorded three clearances as a result.
Symonds also made mention of Ebony O’Dea as a player that was set to play more minutes in the defensive end, but the Davey injury means that she might play further afield again, just to keep the rotations ticking.
Like Cann, O’Dea is one of the more unheralded players in this team, she’s often out there in the middle, tasked with a negating run-with role on someone or to just get to the right spots and assist the Pies with their movement of the footy.
Currently, she’s a role player and a very damn efficient one at that. However, she can be much more than that. When I saw her at VFLW level last year, she was a solid contested ball winner and was very capable of breaking out into space and making things happen.
She can be a very good midfielder if blessed with a better role. In her time at VFLW last year, she averaged just over 15 disposals in her handful of games last year, so don’t be surprised to see her move into the middle again by next weekend.
I can understand the hysteria about missing the best player on the team, but as last year’s Brisbane team have shown, the game is won with an even spread of 21 contributors. The Lions are still a good side without Lutkins and the Pies will still a very good football team without Davey.
Are they still premiership contenders? I had them in my top two for the season predictions, but with Melbourne putting in a good performance and Adelaide’s big win over the Lions, I’d say they’ve got some work to do.
Both teams will have a point to prove next weekend and I believe that they can respond in the best way possible. They both have got a good system from their respective coaches, and we’ve seen over the past 12 months that there has been a buy-in from both sets of players.
So why not?