It’s taken them five years and seven seasons, but Melbourne are finally the champions of the AFLW.
Since the league’s inception in 2017, Melbourne have historically been thereabouts in the top two to three teams in the competition and there have been moments since that have made me question their capabilities of claiming ‘the big one’.
In their first two seasons, they finished 3rd, when it was just a top-two, one-and-done grand final. In 2019, they had the fourth-best win-loss record, but a farcical conference system meant that they wouldn’t be in the finals picture that season. They made the final four in 2020 before Covid wiped out the season. They were preliminary finalists in 2021 and were in the Grand Final earlier this year, falling in both games to the Adelaide Crows.
Nothing in the lead-up to this game signified that this particular notion was going to change anytime soon. Brisbane had looked head and shoulders better than most of the competition this season and in their sole meeting in round four, had Melbourne’s number at Casey Fields.
However, not even a home game at the newly christened Springfield facility was enough to deter Melbourne from claiming their first premiership. From the moment that Maddy Gay tackled Isabel Dawes as the umpire called play-on, the Dees looked dialled in for this game, but it came with plenty of challenges by the Lions.
This was a game with which the score line won’t indicate just how good the action was. It was intense, it was physical, the Demons were made to play out of their comfort zone and adapted to Brisbane’s style incredibly well en route to its maiden premiership.
I haven’t done a full-scale review for a while, but for a game as big as this, only feels right to wheel it out one more time, right?
SHANNON CAMPBELL – THE BEST ON GROUND
By halftime in this game, Shannon Campbell was the clear standout in this game and was by a fair margin. After the Lions controlled the opening quarter, the Demons wrangled momentum back in their favour and started to peg their way back.
After the match, there was plenty of discussion of who should get the best on ground, and ultimately, it was handed to Campbell on the back of her performance. Some will agree, and others will be inclined that it should’ve been someone from the winning side.
I’ll play the man who sits on the fence for this one, because you could’ve really gone both ways in this decision. Those in charge of the voting in the medal gave Campbell 12 of a possible 15 votes, including a pair of three votes. Eliza West was second with 11.
Melbourne got a goal just before halftime through Blaithin Mackin to make the difference less than a kick, but the Lions can thank Campbell for keeping her team in front for as long as they were. At times, it felt like it was a one-woman show in the defensive half as Campbell positioned herself beautifully to cut off Melbourne’s inside 50 entries.
And in her one-on-ones against Daisy Pearce, she nullified the Melbourne captain’s influence with such ease. I won’t say much about Daisy’s game, because she’s been a presence for women’s football for years and yes, a player of her stature deserves a premiership, but this wasn’t her best outing. Simply because Campbell played off her and shut her out like it was Kate Lutkins in the 2021 Grand Final, it was that elite of a game.
As the game progressed, her influence began to taper off, but there was no denying that in terms of individual brilliance, there probably wasn’t anyone better than Shannon Campbell. Her stat line read 19 disposals at 79 percent, nine intercept possessions, eight marks and 562 metres gained.
SO LET’S TALK ABOUT WEST
So, if we’re to break down who was the most influential player for Melbourne in their boilover premiership win, you can narrow it down to a few players, but I’ll roll out this line from the start of my Grand Final preview that I released on Saturday afternoon:
“…this is where the game will be won and lost. The midfield is all about who wins the clearances, who can win the ball from the source, and who can gather the metres more.”
By quarter time, Brisbane had annihilated Melbourne in the middle for centre clearances, but the stoppage clearances were in Melbourne’s favour. However, the players who have made their name in the Dees’ engine room had yet to get into top gear. Eliza West didn’t get a lot of the footy, nor did Liv Purcell or Tyla Hanks.
Once they all got their hands on the football, that’s when the game began to tighten right up, but that all started when West put her head down and charged through every contest.
I will say on her work rate this season, not just through the contest, but in terms of getting to the next contest, it has improved noticeably as the season has progressed, and in a game where the Demons needed heroes in the middle, the player that was the least experienced of that trio stood up for them.
She stood up strong all throughout the last three quarters. Took a important contested grab when the Lions were pushing and when she was called upon, was displaying fast hands from the source and was working hard whenever she was around the ball. She recorded 12 contested possessions and seven clearances – the most of any Melbourne player on the ground.
She also recorded six tackles and, in a game where we saw a lot of them as the game went on, they proved to have counted by the time the siren sounded.
SHUTTING OUT THE LEADING GOALKICKER
Okay, so I gave myself a pat on the back for practically getting something right. Now it’s time for something I got horribly wrong. I wrote about Jesse Wardlaw being my best on ground prediction, saying that she’ll kick a bag of four goals.
Wardlaw didn’t even get four touches of the leather product. But a lot of that was on the player that matched up on her from the first bounce – Tahlia Gillard. From the first week of the season when she was impressive against the reigning premiers to now, it’s been a quality rise from a player who is still 18 years of age – that’s not a typo; she turns 19 in a couple of weeks.
Whilst Gillard had just five disposals herself, there were plenty of moments in this game that saw her win out over her direct opponent. Wardlaw would take her up the ground in an effort to lose her, but Gillard kept at her hindlegs at every step. At 190cm, Gillard is one of the tallest players in the competition and has got the athletic attributes to be a real menace towards the opposing tall forwards.
One such play saw Wardlaw find herself a metre and a bit clear on the wing and just as she was about to close out with a mark, Gillard sprung out of nowhere and spoiled the ball and brought it to ground. It was clear from the start that it was going to be the match up and we were treated to both a brilliant match within a match, and the arrival of a key defender that will be highly spoken about in years that follow.
There’s going to be something that plays out once Gabby Colvin comes back into this team next year, because that is essentially who Gillard replaced to come into the side, but Mick Stinear is a quality coach and has been a master of playing his players in multiple roles for quite some time now – he’ll find a way to make it all work.
HODDER V HEATH IV
Whilst on about matches within matches, this was something that I just can’t get enough of every time I see Brisbane and Melbourne play a game. It’s been a good rivalry between these two over the past couple of years and it came to fruition again in this game – Courtney Hodder and Shelley Heath in one-on-ones all over Springfield.
Honestly, you could just lock these two in a phone box with a football and I could watch them fight over it for hours. They’re that bloody tenacious and leave nothing to chance.
When the Lions were in control in the first quarter, they did it as they so often did this season and is lock the forward half down with their tackle pressure and by quarter time, the Lions already had seven tackles inside 50 to their name and Courtney Hodder was responsible for four of them.
The Lions would go on to record a further two tackles inside 50 for the entire game, making it the first time this season to go single digits in a statistic they often do so well in. But in fairness to Brisbane, after recording seven inside 50s in the first term, they only recorded just 12 more entries for the rest of the game.
The decision was made in the last quarter to throw Hodder into the middle and Heath found her around the stoppages at every possible chance, such was the importance to stick a player like Heath – who relishes in these little jobs so often – on a player as dangerous as Hodder.
And it worked… Hodder only had just four touches and in terms of offensive impact, a non-factor in this game.
THE KOENEN INJURY
We may be talking about the Springfield surface in the week or two that follows this game, but I know nothing about how laying turf and how soft the surface should be. I’m only just getting hands-on experience laying out plants in my partner’s backyard, for goodness’ sake.
But let’s talk about the knee injury to Breanna Koenen, because it looked as if when she went down to palm the ball out, she planted the knee hard on the turf. It becomes one of those things in football that you won’t win out as a coach or captain.
If you choose to sit out in a Grand Final, some will have the gumption call it soft or lacking leadership in a big game. Choose to attempt to play it out, you’ll be seen as a weakness and a hindrance and some will unfairly point out that because you weren’t at 100 percent, you cost them the flag.
When she was doing the run throughs before the second half commenced, she looked to be grimacing in a bit of pain as she tried to change direction and that happens a lot in football. I will say that it would’ve been easy to put your hand up and say ‘that’s me done’ but in a Grand Final, there is no next week.
Especially for the captain, what sort of example do you set if you don’t attempt to run it out? Whilst she was clearly hampered by the injury, you have got to give her dues for it, because there’d be plenty who wouldn’t have gone on with it… Might be including myself in that group.
IN THE MIDNIGHT HOUR, WE CRIED HORE, HORE, HORE!!!
I’d like to talk about the last few minutes of this game, because Brisbane were making another late charge to take the lead back in the dying stages. But as the game was happening, I couldn’t help but notice the positional change that saw Kate Hore play as the spare behind the ball.
Hore has been in sublime touch as a forward this season, but in a game where goals were few and far between, she made some important plays by intercepting and holding up the play in the last quarter when the Dees needed some steady hands. She finished with seven intercept possessions for the game – a career-high for her, eclipsing the five intercept possessions she had against Adelaide last year during the home and away season.
I will also make mention that when it came to forward pressure, the Demons beat Brisbane at their own game and Hore was at the forefront of it, with five tackles inside 50 – eight all up. It was the game for tackling pressure, and she was one of many who brought it and then some.
It may not have been her best game in terms of scoreboard impact, but this game has solidified that in life without Daisy (who can also play many positions), whenever that comes, that they have got a plan B, C and most likely a plan Z.
I’d love to start this part of by giving Maddy Gay some love for this game. She had some key moments with her intercepting and won some important one-on-one contests. She finished with 10 intercept possessions, 15 disposals and 374 metres gained out of the defensive half.
Some of the composure from Tyla Hanks in this game was second to none. The fact that she found an extra second or two to find targets has been consistently solid all throughout the year – like Eliza West, had a claim to being the best player on the ground.
I liked Blaithin Mackin running alongside Sophie Conway at times. Conway has been a real menace at times this season with her run and carry and whilst the game was not tailored to the wingers, Mackin held her to 10 disposals and very little influence of the game.
Lauren Pearce on Tahlia Hickie in the ruck was always going to be something to look out for, and whilst Hickie’s athleticism was good against Tayla Harris, she struggled to get around the bigger body of Pearce around the stoppages Hickie had just 12 hitouts, four disposals and five tackles. Pearce had 17 hitouts, eight disposals,
Whilst Campbell’s second half tapered off slightly, Nat Grider’s influence in the game ramped up with some big intercept marks in the defensive half. She finished with eight intercept possessions, two contested marks and eight tackles, including a massive tackle on the stroke of quarter time on Megan Fitzsimon.
Games that are an arm-wrestle and Cathy Svarc laying tackles – name a more iconic pairing. We all know how much Cathy loves to tackle, and after a brilliant opening term with which she kicked a goal and set up a great centre clearance, she got down with the scrappy nature of the game – 16 tackles for the game.
Some really good passages from Orla O’Dwyer in this game which involved her gathering the ball at ground level and gaining significant meterage. It’s a bloody hard thing to do in a pressure-cooker environment to pick up the ball below your knees at any level, but she was brilliant. 11 disposals and 306 metres gained – played well.
And I guess on that, that’s a wrap on AFLW season seven. Melbourne have finally reached the top of the mountain of women’s football and with that, some questions about their older heads – mostly Daisy and Karen Paxman – and where they go from here will be asked about ahead of next August (hopefully).
In the meantime, the women get a good break from the action at least (hopefully). The first season with all 18 teams has been… well it’s been some ride. But as I continually stress, this game is not built on just one season – by the time the 2023 season rolls in, the players will continue to improve and the intensity in games will be as strong as it’s ever been.
I’m just glad to witness and write about it while I still can.