Season preview: Six big talking points for 2019

ON SATURDAY, Geelong and Collingwood will play in the first game of the third NAB AFL Women's season.

All things considered, it's going to be a vastly different season to the previous two, for a variety of reasons.

There were very few expectations on clubs and players coming into the first season. The creation of eight new teams under the umbrella of AFL clubs was always going to produce some teething problems, even designing training programs for such a short pre-season was an unknown quantity.

Wiser for the experience, clubs revamped their approach leading up to the 2018 season. The Western Bulldogs went from a physically taxing boot camp to one that focused more on building off-field connections between players.

The Dogs also employed a new gameplan – which focused on skill development and maintaining possession – and start this year as reigning premiers.

So, what's in store for season three, now that eight of the 10 teams have three pre-seasons under their belt?

Welcome, newcomers

The addition of Geelong and North Melbourne for this season has thrown a curve ball into the mix.

The two sides took quite different approaches to list-building and it remains to be seen which the more effective method is, or if they will come to similar conclusions.

Geelong took a local approach, signing two-thirds of its squad from its VFLW team, which has already played two seasons together.

The Cats also signed some established AFLW players, raiding Melbourne by signing (Geelong locals) Richelle Cranston, Anna Teague and Erin Hoare, as well as Melissa Hickey, the newly appointed captain having family ties to the club (her grandfather's cousin was club legend Reg Hickey).

They also added veterans Phoebe McWilliams from Greater Western Sydney and premiership Bulldog Aasta O'Connor, who will add some experience to key position posts.

Rounding out the Cats' line-up is some top-level young talent, midfielders Nina Morrison (pick one), Sophie Van De Heuvel (two) and Olivia Purcell (14), key back Becky Webster (seven) and half-back flanker Denby Taylor (20).

Nina Morrison is tipped to make an immediate impact at the Cats

On the other side of the coin, North Melbourne actively targeted players from a variety of AFLW clubs. The Roos ended up signing 15 of their squad of 30 from other clubs, including Brisbane quartet Kaitlyn Ashmore, Britt Gibson, Jamie Stanton and Tahlia Randall.

Four players from Collingwood – Moana Hope, Emma King, Jess Duffin and Jasmine Garner – also joined the Roos, along with Carlton defensive duo Kate Gillespie-Jones and Danielle Hardiman.

Like Adelaide and its alliance with the Northern Territory, North Melbourne has a connection with Tasmania.

Eight of its players are based in the southern state, along with assistant coach Trent Bartlett. Members of the club's leadership group have taken it in turns to train on the Apple Isle with their Tasmanian teammates.

The flip side of expansion

On paper, it appears Collingwood was hardest hit by expansion, losing the 2017 All Australian ruck in King, the 2018 VFLW best and fairest winner Duffin and proven goalkickers in Hope and Garner.

Throw in the loss of All Australian forward Christina Bernardi to the Giants and Chloe Molloy's season-ending right foot injury and it's a very raw Collingwood line-up that will take the field, at least initially.

Former Australian volleyballer Eliza Hynes and ex-Australian netball captain Sharni Layton will be sharing the ruck duties. It's Hynes' second year of footy and Layton's first.

There are question marks over Collingwood's forward line, which will be led by Sarah D'Arcy and VFLW All Australian Sophie Alexander (untried at AFLW level). Hard-nut Cecilia McIntosh looks set for a stint as a defensive forward, but just who else joins her remains up in the air.

Former netballer Sharni Layton has been getting a crash course in AFLW since joining the Magpies

By contrast, Brisbane will have to cover holes spread across the ground, including the wing (Ashmore), midfield (Gibson), half-back (Stanton) and ruck (Randall).

Draftee Lauren Bella looks set to take the No.1 ruck role (a big ask for an 18-year-old) with the experienced Sam Virgo resuming her backline role after a year out with a right ACL tear.

Former Carlton skipper Lauren Arnell has also made the move north and is capable of playing in the midfield or up forward.

Despite the loss of the four players to North, the Lions – who have lost the past two Grand Finals by six points – remain the most experienced list in terms of AFLW games played.

TEAM

TOTAL AFLW GAMES PLAYED*

Brisbane

250

Western Bulldogs

249

Adelaide

239

Greater Western Sydney

220

Carlton and Melbourne

211

Fremantle

196

North Melbourne

186

Collingwood

155

Geelong

93

* Does not include inactive players or those ruled out for the season with injury

It's no surprise that the teams featuring in the past two Grand Finals (Brisbane, the Western Bulldogs and Adelaide) are up the top; in a short season, an extra game can inflate overall figures.

It does illustrate just how inexperienced Collingwood is coming into the season, while Fremantle has also had a consistent turnover of players over both off-seasons.

Melbourne's defensive structures will be tested in 2019, having lost Hickey and Teague. Talia Radan has crossed from Adelaide and looks likely to fill a slot, while Sarah Lampard, who missed nearly all the 2018 season with hamstring and right torn ACL injuries, should play at half-back.

Expansion has left the Bulldogs with a significant hole in their engine room after the loss of 2018 AFLW best and fairest Emma Kearney and fellow midfielder Jenna Burton to North Melbourne.

Belinda Smith, who was delisted by Fremantle before coach Trent Cooper was appointed, has been one of the best on the track and is expected to play more midfield time than she did with the Dockers.

The return of star forward Katie Brennan (from suspension and a right ankle reconstruction) will allow fellow co-captain Ellie Blackburn to spend more time in the middle.

M.I.A

Melbourne superstar midfielder Daisy Pearce will miss the season as she is pregnant with twins. She is due in coming weeks but has been at training mentoring players.

It leaves a huge hole in Melbourne's midfield, with new co-captain Elise O'Dea set to spend a greater portion time in the middle, rather than across half-forward.

Daisy Pearce is due to give birth to twins in the coming weeks

Adelaide lost two rucks in an eventful practice match against Fremantle, with Rhiannon Metcalfe set to miss the year with a torn left ACL and Jasmyn Hewett is out for at least three more weeks with ligament damage in her ankle.

Draftee Jess Foley, in her second year of football having been drafted after a stellar debut season at Sturt, will have to hold the fort in the middle of the ground.

Young Collingwood defender Jordy Allen could be one to take injured Chloe Molloy (right foot)'s spot, while draftee Alyce Parker may be one to fill Britt Tully's inside midfielder role at the Giants. Tully has taken time away for personal reasons.

Brisbane forward Sophie Conway (left knee reconstruction) and Fremantle mid Brianna Green (right knee reconstruction) are two others who have been ruled out for the season.

Ten into two

The 10 AFLW teams will be split into conferences for the 2019 season and preliminary finals have been introduced.

The top two teams in each pool will play in the preliminary finals, and with two five-team ladders, sides can rise or fall dramatically in the space of just one round.

Percentage will be absolutely vital. One big loss could rule a team out of finals contention almost instantly.

With 10 teams and seven home and away matches, not everyone will play each other once, meaning there is a chance two teams – such as North Melbourne and Brisbane – could face each other in a preliminary or Grand Final without having previously met.

Space invasion

Along with eight of the rules that will also be introduced to the AFL competition, two AFLW-specific rules will be used this season.

Bringing boundary throw-ins by 10 metres has been implemented to reduce the need for a secondary stoppage or throw-in.

The increased amount of space now available in front of the stoppage will allow for a quick breakaway. It could create more chances to score, but equally, bringing the throw-in closer to the corridor may lead to easier exits from defence.

With goals in AFLW mostly coming from play on the run, as opposed to a set shot, failing to lock the ball inside 50 could prove costly.

The other new AFLW-only rule will see last touch out of bounds in play but only between the 50-metre arcs, rather than around the whole ground as was the case last year.

Expect to see a higher number of long kicks inside 50 now the danger of an instant turnover to the opposition is no longer an option if a miskick dribbles out of play.

One rule in place across both competitions that will have a big impact relates to kick-ins. Players defending kick-ins must now stand 10 metres back from the goalsquare (compared to five). Players kicking in no longer have to kick to themselves before exiting the area.

The impact was seen in practice matches, with several players – including the Lions' Sam Virgo – managing to run nearly 40 metres before kicking, clearing the opposition's zone defence.

A changing landscape

The third season of the AFLW is set to be an open affair. The introduction of conferences and preliminary finals means the vast majority of teams are likely to still be in the running for finals in the last round.

A host of new players – those graduating from the under-18 pathways, experienced state league campaigners and athletes from other sports – will become new fan favourites and characters within the competition.

The younger players in particular have now had dedicated and clear playing pathways for most of their football development, meaning their skill development is at a comparatively high level and some are ready to make an instant impact.

Let the games begin

New rules have been introduced to increase the likelihood of higher scoring and free-flowing footy.

Expansion sides Geelong and North Melbourne will be under scrutiny from the footy public, keen to see how they will perform in their maiden seasons.

There are a host of questions set to be answered in the coming weeks.

Will Emma Kearney continue her dominant individual form at North Melbourne?

Will Erin Phillips rebound to her best after an injury-interrupted year?

How will Fremantle, Adelaide and Carlton perform under new coaches?

Can Brisbane maintain its position as the best-performed team of the past two years?

Is it finally Greater Western Sydney's time to shine?

Or can the Bulldogs go back to back?

Let the games begin.