What we learnt from round 1 of the AFLW

When HPN wrote a power ranking of AFLW teams back in November last year, we took a very simple approach, examining where former All-Star players were drafted and trying to apply past representative results to discern the strength of each state’s draft pool. Central to our take was the following:

elite2

So, a week into the season, let’s run through the games and see what we can learn.

Depth Chart

First, let’s take a look at who played. Below is a list of every player in the league, sorted by club for the order in which they were selected by their clubs.

AFLW R1.PNG

It’s worth noting that the three marquee players who didn’t play last weekend were all out with injury, two of which (Bowers and Forth) being season-ending injuries.

Carlton d Collingwood

HPN was originally impressed by the Pies’ recruitment of a high number of former All-Stars, specifically around their key position stocks. We also noted that that Carlton had less heralded players and a likely dearth of tall talent. We said that:

“more than any other club, the Pies are gambling on the strength of their spine over that of their midfield”.

Whilst one week is a relatively short time in football, early evidence suggests that this gamble hasn’t paid off, with Carlton’s less heralded players running Collingwood off their feet.

Collingwood’s marquee ruck Emma King didn’t provide dominant service to her mids (20 hitouts vs 16 and 14 for mid-range draftees Downie and Moody). While Collingwood had plenty of inside-50s (27 to 25) they simply could not use their forwards effectively. A lot of media criticism fell on Hope, but that forward group also will have included others such as Hutchins, Garner and Cameron. Sarah D’Arcy, who was 2011 Victorian leading goal-kicker, played in defence, so an option may be to throw her forward. Beyond talent in their forward line, Carlton appeared to always have numbers back in the contests, and often sprung counter attacks from their backline.

Carlton were a relative unknown pre-season, featuring the least number of “elite” level players of any Victorian side. We noted a focus on flankers and midfielders in priority recruitment, and a potential issue with their talls. Those first-picked players were all midfielders who featured prominently in this game, with marquees Vescio and Davey clearly the best on ground. Based solely on one game, Carlton looked like they had a far more prepared and organised setup including a system for generating clear paths to goal.

If there’s a lesson to look for out of this game, it’s that tall talent may not have been the smart bet in this competition. More evidence is needed of course.

Adelaide d GWS

We struggled to split these two sides at the bottom of the power rankings, but plumped for GWS due to a greater injection of talent from the top football states, rather than backing the Adelaide players’ greater familiarity with each other. That is not how the game panned out, with Adelaide winning easily.

GWS are wounded. The chart above shows three of their top 6 missing and the Giants were also the only club calling on a top-up from outside their squad. Renee Forth is out for the year with an ACL and Emma Swanson was a late withdrawal. Both are elite Western Australian midfielders and their absence badly hurts GWS. Louise Stephenson, the Giants’ probable first choice ruck, hurt her MCL in the practice game and is in a race to return this season. In her absence, Adelaide’s Rhiannon Metcalfe was very dominant with 17 hitouts to a combined total of 9 for GWS.

Ruck dominance combined with Adelaide’s midfield edge tells part of the story, but as with the Collingwood v Carlton game, inside-50s were fairly even (23-21 to Adelaide). Forward potency proved critical, with Erin Phillips’ ability to draw the ball and free kicks from worried defenders (and, it must be said, the basketballer’s knack for accentuating contact) nearly deciding the game on its own. Phillips had three goals for the game, and probably could have ended up with six with better kicking – which should be scary for the other clubs.

Whereas HPN built up the Collingwood forward line back in November, it was perhaps the Adelaide forward line that was most impressive across the weekend. It seems like a relative misstep by the Victorian clubs to overlook Sarah Perkins in the state draft, with the KPF continuing where she left off last year at club level.

The real question out of this game is whether we have underrated Adelaide or if GWS were just severely weakened. HPN had Adelaide ranked lowly based on the historical weakness of South Australian women’s football, but the out-of-state/football system recruits for the Crows were probably in their best handful of players (Phillips, Randall, Gibson, Perkins). It’s also worth mentioning that Talia Radan, last year’s captain of the NSW/ACT state side, lined up for the Crows and not the Giants. Whilst there were bright spots for GWS, such as the work of Jess Bibby down back and Jess Dal Pos’s workrate, it appears that it could be a long season for the Giants. The Bulldogs loom as a huge test for the Crows, which will clarify a lot about their fate this year.

Bulldogs d Fremantle

Pre-season HPN had Fremantle as strong contenders, noting that a third of the All-Star players came from WA, and suggesting that the loss of five players as marquees would only have a levelling effect. We said:

we think it’s reasonable to believe that despite the important levelling effect of marquee player poaching, Fremantle’s non-elite depth will be better than the 1/4 of Victoria available in the draft to each Victorian club”.

Fremantle started out well but the Bulldogs took control, in a match that had us questioning whether we overrated Fremantle, whether they were just disappointing on the day or if the Bulldogs were the real deal instead. Travel may have been a factor – the AFLW players are semi-professional and have day jobs, meaning they only flew over the night before the game.

One game isn’t enough to overturn perceptions that Fremantle should be strong. A glance at the “bests” listed in the chart above suggests Fremantle’s top tier players mostly underperformed. Donnellan was dominant, but Freo’s 17th-picked player Belinda Smith is the next mostly highly regarded player to have cracked the best player list. Relying on draft order here may also be slightly misleading, as Fremantle were the sole club with rights to draft WA-nominated players.

For the Bulldogs, things looked like pretty smooth sailing. HPN identified their midfield as a key strength and they won all those indicators; +22 in Contested Possessions; +15 in tackles; +13 in inside-50s. The Dogs picked three of the five current VFLW Team of the Year starting midfielders in Blackburn, Lambert and Kearney. All performed well, with Blackburn and Kearney proving particularly dominant. This is before we begin to discuss the performance of Katie Brennan, who put in a decent claim to be called the best player in the nascent competition. If, as we expect, the Dogs easily defeat the Crows they will be a popular pick for the premiership. While it is folly to predict a grand final from the first week of a competition, this could very well have been a preview of grand final.

Brisbane d Melbourne

This was not as big an upset as many observers seemed to think – that view was likely based on simple unfamiliarity, and Queensland’s status as a development market in men’s football. We had Brisbane 4th in our power rankings based on Queensland’s historical strength in women’s football, and due to Brisbane securing the third-most All-Star level players. The main lesson from this match is probably confirmation of Brisbane’s competitiveness.

It is, however, difficult to form firm conclusions from a match riven with Casey’s wind-tunnel effect which was so wet that a halt was called for lightning.

A glance at Brisbane’s depth chart shows why they should be competitive – Jaimie Stanton was 20th-picked by the club and was the most fancied player missing. This demonstrates that come draft time, Brisbane knew exactly who they wanted to play, and they drafted accordingly. The Lions are a de facto state team minus three players (former QLDers Aasta O’Connor and Katie Brennan at the Bulldogs, Jordan Zanchetta with an ACL). This means coach Craig Starcevich, formerly of the QLD high-performance program, had seen them a lot before. More than any other side, we should expect Brisbane to be cohesive and familiar with each other, and this probably showed with the organisation and understanding they exhibited throughout the game.

In terms of performers, Brisbane’s big marquee forwards understandably had limited impact (though Sabrina Frederick-Traub still found ways to impose herself) but the core of priority picks and early draft picks were all among their best as midfielders.

For Melbourne, it’s hard to tell where they stand yet. This was an even contest in most respects, and Melbourne probably dominated play before lightening stopped proceedings. Melbourne had 30 inside-50s to 19 but could not hit the scoreboard. Daisy Pearce was very involved in the play in the first three quarters, but made two turnovers that ended in Brisbane goals. And whilst the Dees largely won the midfield battle, they looked pretty harmless when they got up forward, with Melbourne having to resort to shifting Pearce to CHF in the final quarter to get back in the game. Melbourne also gave away a couple of silly 50m penalties that ended up being decisive score-wise.

Melbourne took 10 marks to Brisbane’s 27, meaning the Demons were relying a lot more on winning the ball in general play. This firstly illustrates that Brisbane might be a pretty potent marking side (they had more than the Bulldogs or Carlton had). However it also suggests to us that the Demons might go better on a dryer deck where their running power isn’t hampered by boggy conditions. Daisy Pearce in her media appearances has flagged that Melbourne regard themselves as an undersized, fast, hard running side. We need to see them in decent conditions to see how that works out – with weather permitting, we might expect them to replicate Carlton’s success against Collingwood this weekend. However, after one week HPN can’t help but worry about Melbourne’s forward line, after showing a similar inability to score as in their practice game against Carlton.

Three more things

Three suspensions is a lot

Three players were suspended for head-high contact during the weekend’s matches. That’s a lot. On the one hand this demonstrates the commitment, passion and toughness of the women’s game, but on the other hand, head injuries are serious business given what we now know about the long term consequences. If this level of head contact is to become a trend, that will be pretty concerning for everyone involved.

If we convert three suspensions in a round to a men’s round using suspensions per player minute, it works out to be as if nearly 14 players had been suspended from one round in the men’s competition for inflicting potentially concussive head impacts:

suspensions.PNG

This is something to watch to see if it becomes a trend.

Matches become sudden-death almost instantly with a 2-team finals series.

Only the top two teams in the AFLW will qualify for the finals, straight to a single Grand Final event. With a 7-round schedule and 8 teams, it’s very unlikely that a team with three losses will qualify.

Depending on how results are distributed, we could end up with both finalists on 0 or 1 loss, or we could end up with teams on 2 losses qualifying but sweating on percentage. A team on three losses could qualify for the final if several teams all ended up 4-3, with another team well ahead, but that’s not a high percentage path to glory and probably requires some biggish upsets.

That makes the situation for premiership aspirants with a loss against their name (i.e. Fremantle, Collingwood and Melbourne) already pretty risky. It turns upcoming matches into something approaching sudden death.

Stop questioning the popular appeal of women’s sport

HPN knows that one week won’t settle this argument for some, but on early returns the attentiveness of the footballing public to AFLW mirrors that of the previous exhibition games. The season opener on Friday night officially packed out (might have been able to fit one more if he was keen), and the pub from which HPN watched the action had several tables of punters engrossed in the action on the big screen.

According to FootyIndustry, the first round had 50,457 people rock up in person and 1.8mil viewers watching on TV (both FTA and Pay). By comparison, the relatively established A-League had a totally attendance of 71,638 and a TV audience of 352,000 people across five matches. The AFLW also outrated the NRL Auckland 9s and the Sydney Rugby 7s this weekend, and quite significantly so.

This is the most prominent display of domestic female sport in Australia in a very long time, if ever. The WBBL, with lesser media attention, also rated relatively well when it was shown on FTA TV. The audience is there; now is the time for broadcasters and sporting administrators to capitalise on it.

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