So far this year, I’ve done a fair bit around the entire competition about what to look forward to in the upcoming round of AFLW footy.
But for mine, two massive games this weekend could, and may very well will, shape the top four.
It starts on Saturday afternoon with Adelaide travelling to Springfield to take on Brisbane, and the main event on Saturday night Melbourne and North Melbourne at Ikon Park.
This week, I will try to break down these two games and where they could be won and lost.
But before I do that, just some tiny bits ahead of this round: Hawthorn can beat Richmond this week and should be further rewarded for their efforts in recent weeks. Essendon could go into the top four if they beat West Coast and Brisbane lose to Adelaide. Geelong and Collingwood in a battle for survival inside the top eight will be an ugly but tight contest, and the Saints will be legitimate if they can beat Fremantle at home with Kiara Bowers back in the team.
BRISBANE V ADELAIDE
The Crows head into this game unbeaten after seven rounds. Meanwhile, Brisbane has had some wobbles recently, but their response last week against the Suns in the Q-Clash was an emphatic reminder that their best is good enough.
This game can be won for the Lions this week by exploiting Adelaide’s defence. The Crows are still without Sarah Allan for another fortnight as she works back from a hamstring injury. Najwa Allen was handed a three-match suspension for a bump on Kirsten McLeod.
That leaves either Zoe Prowse or Chelsea Biddell with the task to play on Dakota Davidson. You’d rather have Prowse take on the best forward and let Biddell as loose as you can in defence. Her intercept game is elite, and her ability to move the ball cleanly out there has been well-documented.
You can also swing Chelsea Randall down back in case the Lions go tall with Davidson, Taylor Smith and maybe Shannon Campbell up forward.
Who takes on Courtney Hodder? She has been a tour de force in the forward line over the years, but with just four goals this season, her scoreboard impact in games has been taken over by Davidson and Sophie Conway’s elite season as an offensive winger; early prediction is we see Kiera Mueller start on her.
But it’s not for a lack of effort. Hodder is in the top three at the Lions for tackles, averaging 6.7 per game, and is slowly integrating herself into the midfield unit, where I think she can be a significant impact player down the track.
While talking about Conway, seeing her go up (not directly) against Eloise Jones will be interesting. Both are similar players; they run hard, clock up kilometres, and are very dangerous with the ball.
Let’s compare the stats this season on averages.
Sophie Conway: 14.1 disposals, 1.9 marks, 0.3 contested marks, 2.7 inside 50s, 3.6 score involvements, 10 goals, five behinds, 1 goal assist, 1.4 rebound 50s, four intercept possessions, 4.1 tackles
Eloise Jones: 12.4 disposals, four marks, 0.7 contested, 2.3 inside 50s, 4.6 score involvements, ten goals, seven behinds, four goal assists, 0.3 rebound 50s, 1.1 intercept possessions, 2.1 tackles
So, both of them have critical points of difference; Conway is a player who can fly back and offer assistance to the defenders, whereas Jones is more of an offensively-oriented player who has provided an aerial threat on more than one occasion.
I look forward to the midfield battle, too. On one side, you’ve got Ally Anderson, Cathy Svarc, and Belle Dawes as the main pieces in the midfield. Conversely, you’ve got Ebony Marinoff, Anne Hatchard, and a steady rotation with Danielle Ponter, Teah Charlton and Chelsea Randall.
Ally Anderson, you can argue, is having a career-best season. Averaging career-highs in disposals (27.7 per game), metres gained (336.7 per game), inside 50s (four per game), and score involvements (4.7 per game). It would’ve been a great match-up with Abbie Ballard, who we’ve seen this season take on some of the game’s better players, but a knee injury ruled her out.
Svarc, you suspect, may get the role of one of the players, not a hard tag as we’ve seen in recent years, but she’ll make either Marinoff or Hatchard accountable around the contest. Dawes is breaking out and proving she belongs in a premiership-calibre midfield.
Where I think the Crows get the Lions through that rotation through the centre bounce. Ponter has proven to be a menace once the Crows move the ball forward, Charlton is a tackling machine that will only get better and better offensively, and Randall is a bona fide star on her day in any position you’re willing to put her.
Who can roll through the Brisbane midfield? We’ve seen Bre Koenen attend 73 per cent of centre bounce attendances last week. Since round four, she’s been a prominent figure across the midfield, recording four clearances and ten tackles the previous week in a solid outing. Maybe we can see her lock in on Ebony Marinoff and limit her influence around the contest this week.
We’ve also seen Ellie Hampson pinch-hit in the midfield at times, and Courtney Hodder features sporadically, but I don’t know if they’re there just yet as midfield mainstays.
The Adelaide forward line is where it can be won for the Crows because it is as lethal on the ground as it is on the air. Caitlin Gould has kicked 13 goals for the season, providing a solid presence in the forward line, and is well flanked by both Jones (10 goals) and Ponter (11).
On top of that, some of the forward-half pressure that the Crows have built this season is second to none. Rachelle Martin has seen more minutes in the forward half, averaging two tackles inside 50 per game. Teah Charlton averages over two and a half per game.
But that’s not to say Brisbane’s pressure has dipped in past years; they still average over 73 tackles per game. It’s just the Crows’ pressure has gone on another level.
It should be a cracking game. I’d love for the Lions to get up this week and make things at the top interesting, but I think the Crows are in much better form, and they’ll notch up another win away from home.
MELBOURNE V NORTH MELBOURNE
Where do you want me to start with this one? We could be treated to a Grand Final preview on the weekend.
The best offensive team in the competition versus the best defensive team. Melbourne has scored an average of 75 points per game this season, ranked first in the competition for points. While North Melbourne conceded an average of 18 points per game so far this year, sitting first in the competition for the least amount of points conceded.
We have seen, though, this year both teams can be beaten. Brisbane defeated North Melbourne in Tasmania earlier this year, handing them their first loss at the Apple Isle since coming into the AFLW competition. Meanwhile, Adelaide defeated Melbourne a couple of weeks back at Casey Fields, a ground that the Demons have excelled at.
The key is relentless pressure. The Crows stymied Melbourne’s kick-mark style at Casey Fields, and the Lions made it an absolute scrap against the Roos in Tasmania. This game will be all about who can take away the other’s game style for longer.
I think we start with the North defenders and the Melbourne forwards. Eden Zanker and Kate Hore occupy the top two spots on the leading goalkickers’ table, with 33 goals between them – Zanker with 17 and Hore with 16. I expect both Jasmine Ferguson and Sarah Wright to come in and get the jobs on both of them.
This year, they’ve been such underrated and unsung heroes in this North side. Between the defensive pair, they’ve only lost five defensive one-on-ones out of a combined 38 contests.
I suppose it leaves the question, who gets the job on Tayla Harris when she is up forward? It’s been an injury-interrupted year for her this season. I suspect Eliza Shannon will get the job on whoever rests in the forward line, whether Harris or Georgia Campbell.
Who plays on Alyssa Bannan? Fresh off a five-goal bag against the Eagles. Her speed will be something that will be on the mind of the North Melbourne coaching staff. It might be a job for Erika O’Shea to at least match speed-for-speed, but she will need to get very physical with her around the ground.
On the other side of the ground, you can see the inclusion of Gab Colvin is there to help combat the tall trio of forwards that North Melbourne does have. Tahlia Randall is currently third on the goalkicking table and is arguably their most dangerous forward.
Tahlia Gillard would be an excellent match-up for her. She’s continued from her stunning defensive campaign last year, having yet to lose a defensive one-on-one contest this year from 15 attempts. She has the height and athleticism to make it a problem. That’s one match-up I’ll be looking forward to watching.
I’m not sure who gets the job on Shierlaw. It might have to be Libby Birch; she’s got the ability to run and match her pound for pound, but does that take her away from the defensive 50, where she has been so commanding throughout her career? I could see someone like Maddy Gay going up the ground if she does go up and leave Birch with Emma King.
Which now leads me to the midfield battle. This is where the game will be won and lost for me. The Roos have been gods at the clearances this season. Between these two teams alone, three of the top four clearance-getters this year have been North Melbourne players.
We know what Jasmine Garner has been capable of for a long time, but this season feels like it’s been one of domination. More often than not, she’s single-handedly wrecked opposition through her contested work and her ability to push forward and score.
Ash Riddell once again found that form that made her so dangerous in season six, and Mia King has found another level in the midfield and is proving to be more than just a solid contributor. Between the three of them, they averaged 19.3 clearances per game this year.
Add Jenna Bruton to the mix, who’s averaged over four clearances per game since her return from injury; then it’s a big issue for the Demons mids to figure out.
As much as I love Shelley Heath and her job as a run-with player, I don’t know who you send her to. If she goes to Garner, I think she’ll be outmatched. Possibly Riddell? Take out her influence, and it disrupts the operation significantly.
Tyla Hanks has been a clearance machine for Melbourne, but I need to see more from Liv Purcell and Eliza West. Purcell has been averaging four clearances per game, which is up from last year, but it won’t get the job done if the job is to restrict North’s midfielders from winning the ball from the source.
Melbourne will get Paxy Paxman back into the team this week, and her best can still prove to be line-breaking and game-winning; given that she has had a few good performances against North over the years, she can help them get over the line.
It’ll be a significant effort from the wings as well. Eliza McNamara has had a good return, Blaithin Mackin has gone up another level this year, and Lily Mithen is about as consistent as they come.
I don’t know who to back in this game; they tell you defence wins flags, but you’ve got to be able to kick a winning score as well. North Melbourne needs a scalp before finals – they’ve got Adelaide the following week. They need to win at least one of these, and I’ll back them in here to get it done.
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