The fourth edition of our national women’s competition is upon us, bringing to an end another long and evolutionary AFLW off-season.
As is to be expected for a league still in its early years of growth, change is once again afoot — four new teams, plenty of player movement and a longer season than ever before.
After an extended debate, a collective bargaining agreement was eventually passed, ensuring the future growth of the tournament and meaning the 2020 season can start in a relatively settled state.
The season gets underway on Friday night at Ikon Park, as Richmond makes its league debut against last year’s grand finalists Carlton. Before bouncedown, get yourself up to speed on the lay of the AFLW land.
Who are the new teams?
As mentioned, Richmond is on board for the first time and thanks to some aggressive recruiting, there will be hope the Tigers can make an immediate impact.
Katie Brennan and Monique Conti, both massive gets with the former becoming Richmond’s inaugural captain, have come over from the Bulldogs, while Sabrina Frederick has joined from Brisbane and Christina Bernardi has been poached from GWS.
The yellow and black has arrived in AFLW, with Katie Brennan the Tigers’ star recruit. (AAP: Daniel Pockett)
The outlook is less rosy for the other three newcomers — St Kilda, West Coast and Gold Coast.
St Kilda built up its list with some experienced players but looks a little light on for starpower, the Eagles will take time to get used to playing together and only really have Dana Hooker to rely on for now, while the Suns nabbed a few players from the Lions but remained fairly young and inexperienced.
There’s an acceptance that the fresh faces get almost a free hit in their first season, a sentiment shared by AFLW chief executive Nicole Livingston who said “we never want to put high hopes” on the new teams.
But at the same time, there’s genuine room for optimism for the Tigers, and reasons to believe the 2020 season can be an important foundation for the other three.
Any player movements I should know about?
The AFLW sign and trade period saw a flurry of movement, especially with the new teams needing to essentially build lists from scratch, but there were a few marquee deals to remind yourself of.
Some of which we’ve already mentioned but bare repeating — Brennan’s move to Richmond is as massive for the Tigers as it is disastrous for the Bulldogs. She’s one of the league’s best players and a genuine leader, and the impact of her move should be immediately felt by both teams.
Speaking of the league’s best players, Brianna Davey has moved down the road from Carlton to Collingwood in a boost that could catapult the Pies from the bottom of the ladder to right up the pointy end.
Hooker, formerly of Fremantle and now of West Coast, is another prime midfield mover and immediately becomes the Eagles’ best player. Libby Birch moved to Melbourne from the Bulldogs, which prompted the Dogs to take Ashleigh Guest from the Demons to fill the hole.
Daisy Pearce will play in 2020 after missing 2019 to give birth to twins. (Supplied: Melbourne Football CLub)
But just as important as the players who have moved are those who are returning. At the top of that list is Daisy Pearce, now a mother of twins, who is back in the red and blue and already making Melbourne among the flag favourites.
Collingwood’s Chloe Molloy was the rising star in 2018 but missed the entirety of last season due to a foot injury, and Geelong’s top draft pick in 2018 Nina Morrison only managed one game in 2019 before doing her ACL. Both are fit and ready to fire in 2020.
There’s also hope Erin Phillips — the league’s best player and face of the competition — will be back early in the season, maybe as soon as round one, despite famously tearing her ACL in Adelaide’s grand final triumph last year. All footy fans have their fingers crossed on that one.
How does the fixture work this year?
It’s largely the same as last year, with the controversial conference system back again, albeit with some potentially crucial tweaks.
The introduction of the four new teams should hopefully balance the conferences out a little, after last year’s debacle that saw Conference A prove to be considerably stronger than Conference B, but in some respects, we have to wait and see on that one.
What we can guarantee is a longer season than ever before, with eight rounds played before three weeks of finals. It means there will be more of an overlap with the men’s season and has thrown up a few tasty double headers along the way.
The collective bargaining agreement also ensured that the seasons will continue to get longer, by one round a year for the next two seasons.
Finally, who are the favourites?
It’s always so tough to tell in AFLW, because the length of the competition and general equality across the league making many matches hard to predict, but of course there are frontrunners.
If Adelaide gets its full complement of players fit — including but not limited to Phillips — they’ll still be the team to beat. They’ve been the pacesetters for basically all of AFLW’s existence and only injury looks like slowing them again this year.
North Melbourne is certainly one to watch too. In the early stages of 2019, which was the Kangaroos’ first season no less, nobody was playing better footy than North. While their form slipped somewhat, they were victims of conference imbalance and should be stronger for the experience, making them a feared opponent in 2020.
Many are expecting the return of Pearce to elevate the Demons, and her class definitely justifies the rise in expectations. Despite the loss of Davey, there’s no reason to expect a massive drop off in Carlton’s output too, and motivated by grand final defeat, Tayla Harrs’s side might smell opportunity in a slightly weaker Conference B.
Then there are a number of wildcards, like Richmond, Fremantle, GWS and the Bulldogs who could be anywhere from great to grim.
It’s part of AFLW’s charm that it can feel completely up for grabs right until the last game of the season. 2020 looms as another intriguing season, and hopefully another sizable leap forward for the league.