A Way-Too-Early 2017 AFL National Women’s League Power Ranking

Last week we threw together what we know about the AFL National Women’s League, now we’re going to look at what team strengths might look like.

A lot of unknowns remain about marquee recruitment and state drafts, but we can make some general inferences using the recent indicative strength of the state squads and the origins of elite players. Our main reference for results will be the 2013 National Championships, as well as 2015 representative fixtures and the 2016 Exhibition Series. We’ll also look at the pool of players selected for the most recent all-star games which breaks down like this:


Note that we have only done limited research on current Victoria-registered players who might be from other states originally, but some who relocated to Victoria for development opportunities may move back home to play now.

On first glance using what’s available, we think a power ranking for the NWL should look something like this:

1 – Fremantle

2 – Brisbane

3/4 – Melbourne/Bulldogs

5/6 – Collingwood/ Carlton

7/8 – GWS/Adelaide

Fremantle (1)

Underlying state strength and recent results suggest that a team made up of the best Western Australians should start out at the top of the power rankings as they’re likely to be stronger than any quarter-Victorian side built by roughly equitable means.

Using the 2015 all-star exhibition team squads (Demons and Bulldogs), we can say over a third (15/46) of that talent is are Western Australian. Even at the very top end, eight of the most elite 24 players selected were Western Australian – Chelsea Randall, Kara Donnellan, Kirby Bentley, Emma King, Kiara Bowers, Kellie Gibson, Emma Swanson, Renee Forth and Hayley Miller. All except Bentley played in Western Australian teams during the 2016 Exhibition Series and would surely be the first targets for the Dockers.

This strength is, of course, contingent on WA keeping enough of their best players away from eastern states who will surely be eager to lure them away.

Western Australia is the second strongest state for women’s football but remains well behind Victoria. At the 2013 championships, Victoria defeated Western Australia by 90-32 initially and then by 50-13 in the final, while the West Aussies outclassed third-placed Queensland 82-23.

More pertinently to this ranking, Western Australian sides have results against half-strength Victorian sides. In this year’s exhibition series, Western Australia ran a Western Bulldogs side representing half the Victorian pool to within 13 points and in 2015, Western Australia kicked straighter to defeat a Victorian side 52-48. That side was called Victoria 1 and would have been stronger than half-strength because Victoria 2 played the weaker NSW that day and easily won.

This all suggests that if Fremantle can retain a critical mass of WA’s strongest players, they should enter 2017 as favourites against a Victorian talent pool split four ways rather than two.

If enough of those players get lured to play for other sides, Fremantle could find themselves pulled back into the pack. For now the Dockers look potentially dominant. Fremantle have a stated aim of playing an entirely Western Australian team, which is an obvious move in their position. It will be interesting to see the extent to which they manage to retain everyone they want. We’d call Chelsea Randall, one of the highest rated in 2015 (retained by the Demons before the draft) and currently employed managing football in the Pilbara very likely to be selected as a marquee player. We haven’t seen much regarding the plans of the others, though most seem to be based in the WAWFL league right now. Seven of last year’s 46 elite players were from the Coastal Titans alone.

If Fremantle do turn out to be very strong this year, look for rejected bidders West Coast to be added to the mix very quickly if only for equalisation reasons.

Brisbane (2)

It might be a bit of a leap to rate Brisbane in second, even this far out, but the divide of Victorian talent and the growing strength of the Queensland game put the Lions in the mix.

In practice we think Brisbane will probably finish amongst the Victorian teams, as a couple of the Victorian squads might end up more stacked than others. This ranking is also based on the assumption that Brisbane can assemble nearly all of their own state’s best talent.

Queensland is clearly the third strongest state in women’s football, but the question is how far adrift they are of the big two. At representative level they generally beat NSW/ACT sides (75-28 in 2015) and consistently lose to WA and Victorian sides (although the 2016 under 18s side only lost to WA by 1 point, which suggests strong development coming through).

Queensland have a fair contingent of very talented players, including a couple of rising stars. Judging by the 2015 all-star player pool, Queensland had seven of the best 46 players in the country. Victorians make up 20 of that group (roughly five per AFLNWL side), placing the Lions slightly ahead with respect to elite talent. HPN has included Katie Brennan, now Victoria-based, in these numbers as even though she relocated to play at a higher level as an 18-year-old and is hoping to stay at the Bulldogs, she must at least be open to returning home if made the right offer.

The Queensland group includes Melbourne’s former second-picked Tayla Harris who is already working at Brisbane, and the game’s number one ruckman Aasta O’Connor and first picked former Bulldog. They will also have Craig Starcevich, one of the game’s best coaches right now. Harris and O’Connor might be enough to drag the Lions to the top rungs of the ladder on their own, and both will only get better with time. Brennan would strengthen them further. There may be a real dilemma for Brisbane as to the choice between O’Connor and Brennan (if interested) as the second marquee on their submitted list, as the one they they place third they may lose to another club.

In addition, Emma Zielke was drafted 7th (effectively rated 19th overall) in 2015 and already works at the Gabba as a ground manager. The other elite players are Leah Kaslar, a lockdown defender, Emily Bates, a midfielder or halfback flanker, and Jordan Zanchetta, a midfielder. This seven would therefore be well spread by position, potentially providing balance to the team.

The integration into senior ranks of players from a fairly strong under-18s side (about equal with WA and Vic Country in 2016) should also help with depth. The Lions also stand to have one of the most significant home ground advantages, given the heat and humidity of Brisbane in the summer.

In terms of results, in the 2016 Exhibition Series the Queensland side (representing the Lions) were chosen along with WA to play a half-Victorian team. The Lions, with only three of this seven (Zielke, Bates and Kaslar) lost to the double-strength Demons side 91-20, after all the damage was done early. Against a team half as strong as this, with all their potential stars, coached by Starcevich, and played in the QLD summer heat? We’d expect the Lions to do a lot better.

Melbourne and Western Bulldogs (3 and 4)

This far out, it is very hard to determine the relative strengths of the four Victorian sides. We’ve ranked Melbourne and the Bulldogs higher due to the fact that they have an existing football setup and links to top players, which likely gives them an early advantage. Of the 6 pre-listed and first 6 draft picks at each of the Demons and Bulldogs 2015 all-star teams, both currently look like retaining four or five depending on those interstate prospects.

We rank Melbourne slightly higher than the Bulldogs as they have Daisy Pearce (the premiere player in the women’s game) and Michelle Cowan (the pre-eminent coach) on their full-time payroll at the club, likely locking them both into the inaugural season.

However, the Demons have lost one of their first-picked, Queenslander Tayla Harris, to the Lions, amongst other former interstate stars. The Demons had six highly rated Western Australians last year, and will surely hope to entice a couple of those to remain at the club.

The Dogs are losing their highly-rated coach (Craig Starcevich) back to Queensland where he was working as high performance manager for the Queensland Women’s team and will now coach basically that same group at the Lions. That loss may bring a touch of uncertainty to the Bulldogs.

Furthermore, the Dogs have also likely lost Meg Hutchins to Collingwood, as she has been appointed as their full-time Women’s Football Operations Manager, and Darcy Vescio has been strongly linked to Carlton. The Dogs may also struggle to retain Queensland ruck Aasta O’Connor who was one of their first picked last time around.

Katie Brennan, who kicked 4 of their 5 goals in game 2 in 2015, has Queensland links but has some desire to stay at the Dogs. The Dogs will likely pencil in their captain Stephanie Chiocci as a marquee, and presumably look to use the other spot to retain Brennan as well. The Dogs may also struggle to keep Brianna Davey, a Matilda signed to Melbourne City (whose season overlaps with the NWL).

Collingwood and Carlton (5 and 6)

It is very hard to split these two as there is little information on either side as yet. Collingwood likely have Hutchins on board, and that might be enough to separate them this far out, although Carlton are strongly linked to Darcy Vescio who appeared at their launch and is employed at the club as their graphic designer. However we think both sides are still likely to be stronger than the two interstate sides discussed below. Sportsbet is offering $6.00 on Collingwood winning the title but $9.00 for Carlton. This would have to be based on the recruitment of Hutchins (a Big V stalwart) or even on the names of the clubs.

We think they’ll start off a little behind Melbourne and the Bulldogs (as do the bookies) just because they don’t have a pre-existing setup and most of the best Victorians have already played at the Bulldogs or Melbourne, giving those sides the inside running on year one.

GWS/Adelaide (7/8)

The last two sides are tricky to project because they will likely have a good selection of Victorian or WA marquee options to compensate for weaker local talent pools, especially if the AFL intervenes with a proactive competitive balancing agenda or with extra marquee slots.

On the face of it, these sides are made up of the “development” areas of the country. South Australian women’s representative football has been much weaker than in men’s footy where they are the second state of football. NSW/ACT women have much more relative strength than in the men’s game.

In terms of selection to the all-star women’s series of 2015, both NSW/ACT and South Australia had two players chosen; Danielle Goding and Courtney Cramey for SA and Heather Anderson and Jodi Hicks for NSW/ACT (from the ACT and Wagga respectively). These low figures may partly reflect availability issues or knowledge gaps in recruiters as well as talent levels, but it’s clear there’s less readily available talent in these parts of the country. Of the four, Anderson is perhaps the most credentialed, and an All Australian pick in 2013. However, it is worth noting that Goding was a high draft pick in 2015, taken at #2 after 12 others had been pre-listed.

GWS will have the pick of Canberra and NSW players. With the Sydney and Canberra/Riverina competions roughly equal in strength both should have a strong showing in the team.

On 2013 representative results, the GWS draft area bodes well for them against the Crows. In the 2013 championships, NSW were the bottom Division One side (i.e. ranked 4th), while the ACT defeated SA for the Division 2 title. At under 18s level this year, NSW beat SA 72-7 but last year South Australia won easily, which also suggests uneven talent from year to year.

It appears that South Australia has closed the gap with NSW/ACT noe hi VJ. The exhibition game this year between the future cores of the Crows and Giants at Adelaide Oval went down to the wire, with a kick on the siren giving SA the win against an inaccurate NSW/ACT. That suggests significant development has occurred at the top end of SA women’s football since 2013, and that they should at least be competitive with the NSW/ACT-based Giants next year.

NT players will be available to the Crows and we don’t know how much that will add in strength. NT results suggest they’re either a bit weaker than South Australia, or much much weaker than them or NSW/ACT.

GWS was originally to have access to Tasmanian players in their state draft, but this has since been rescinded in favour of funded relocation to any state.

These are both development states and their two local teams should be the weakest two teams without heavy recruitment beyond their borders, or a miraculous training and coaching impact.

If at gunpoint we had to pick a 7th and an 8th, we think overall NSW and ACT have usually had the greater strength over recent years and that the Giants might still have the edge over the Crows in year one for that reason. That’s admittedly in spite of this year’s closer representative result, and the wildcsrd of the addition of a few NT players.

A lot really may come down to what players each club secure from stronger states.

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