FREMANTLE looks like it has finally become the AFL Women's team many thought it would be in 2017, the competition's first season.
Two matches into the 2019 season and the Dockers are flying. Undefeated and third on a strong Conference A ladder, they have been the highest scoring team in both rounds.
Against Melbourne on the opening weekend, Fremantle scored 9.5 (59) in a nail-biting four-point win, while on Sunday it blew two-time grand finalist Brisbane away, kicking 10.7 (67) in a 27-point victory, probably the team’s most comprehensive to date.
In 2017, the Dockers were hot favourites before the competition began, but crashed to successive seventh-place finishes (second-last) in 2017 and 2018.
The hype came partially because the team was based in a strong female footy state. In 2017, West Australians Chelsea Randall and Kellie Gibson (Adelaide), Emma King (Collingwood), Sabrina Frederick-Traub (Brisbane) and Emma Swanson and Renee Forth (Greater Western Sydney) were recruited by rival clubs as marquee players.
The Dockers had signed Kara Donnellan, a stalwart of West Australian football and the club's inaugural captain, as well as the explosive Kiara Bowers, as their own marquee players.
From the outside, the only hiccup before round one was the loss of Bowers to an ACL injury.
But it took until round three in a seven-week season for Fremantle to get points on the board (a draw with the Giants) and it had to wait until round six for its first victory, by 16 points over Carlton.
Coach Michelle Cowan's team finished seventh with a percentage of just 64.
There was a marked improvement in 2018, the first win coming in round two against Collingwood in front of nearly 42,000 fans at the newly opened Optus Stadium in Perth.
They backed up in round three against Melbourne, with a third win coming in the final round against the struggling Blues.
But it was again another disappointing second-last finish, albeit with three wins and a much-improved percentage of 90.
Cowan chose to step away from Fremantle at the conclusion of the 2018 season and is now an assistant coach at soon-to-be cross-town rival West Coast, which joins the competition in 2020. Cowan is also heading the AFLW Coaching Academy, set up to fast-track the development of female coaches.
Trent Cooper – the coach of Western Australia's girls' under-18 squad – took over at Fremantle, promising a high-scoring, free-flowing game style. With the bulk of the same players Cowan had, he has delivered, at least initially.
With two-thirds of the 2018 squad back this year, one of the biggest differences aside from a new gameplan is the health of the list.
In 2017, Bowers (right knee reconstruction), Brianna Green (broken collarbone), Emily Bonser (who incredibly played the 2016 WAWFL season with damage to both ACLs), Tiah Haynes (dislocated left shoulder) and Kim Mickle (right ACL) missed all of large periods of the season.
The team was so decimated it was forced to sign three injury replacement players – Beatrice Devlyn, Brooke Whyte and Alicia Janz – in the two-month season.
In 2018, it was much of the same, with Bowers again sidelined, along with Kirby Bentley (right knee), Tayla Bresland (right lateral knee ligament), Devlyn (broken finger which required surgery), Kellie Gibson (hip flexor) and the luckless Green (right ACL).
Along the way, a host of players missed matches with minor injuries and the club often found it difficult to get enough players on the park for an effective training session, with many nursing niggles throughout the week but able to play on weekends.
The addition of former Hockeyroos player and coach Kate Starre as AFLW high-performance manager has had a big impact, with Cooper now reaping the benefits.
Average disposals in 2017
Average disposals in 2019
Ashley Sharp (forward/midfielder)
Kiara Bowers (midfielder/forward)
Tayla Bresland (key defender)
Ebony Antonio (defender/forward)
Kara Donnellan (midfielder)
Dana Hooker (utiilty)
Hayley Miller (midfielder/defender)
Gemma Houghton (forward)
Melissa Caulfield (forward)
Steph Cain (midfielder/defender)
The most interesting number in the above table is Kara Donnellan's decrease in average disposals. For quite a while, the skipper had to shoulder the load in the middle of the ground, but the team is now significantly better with her getting less of the ball.
Hayley Miller has been spending more time at centre bounces, as has the versatile Hooker.
With the likes of Sharp (four goals in 2019) and Houghton (three after kicking three in the past two seasons combined) stepping up in the forward line, Hooker can now feature mainly in the middle of the ground, where she is most dangerous.
Other players still on the list who were drafted in the Dockers' initial haul in 2016 are Green (out for the season while in the latter stages of recovery from a knee reconstruction), Gabby O'Sullivan (two goals in 2018 after two in two seasons) and Cassie Davidson (yet to play).
The additions since the start of 2018 include forwards Kellie Gibson and Ashlee Atkins, key backs Evie Gooch and Alex Williams and ruck Parris Laurie.
Former Blue Katie-Jayne Grieve has added some run on a wing, while Philipa Seth can either lock down a midfield opponent or win the ball herself.
Round two NAB Rising Star award nominee and 2018 West Australian under-18 captain Sabreena Duffy has added x-factor to the forward line, averaging 10 touches and 1.5 goals a game.
Granted, it's only two matches into the season, and Fremantle is in a strong conference, with North Melbourne, Western Bulldogs, Adelaide and Melbourne.
It's too early to suggest the Dockers will finish in the top two and qualify for a preliminary final, but the team from the west looks set to cause some headaches for the rest of the season.
Other observations from the round:
- The Western Bulldogs won just 10 clearances in its round one match against Adelaide, but improved dramatically against Geelong, recording 29. The Dogs will be up against their former midfield bulls and now North Melbourne players Emma Kearney and Jenna Bruton on Friday night, with the duo set to go head-to-head against Ellie Blackburn and Kirsty Lamb.
- Collingwood's forward line continues to be a real issue, with small forward Sarah Dargan kicking the team's sole goal in round two (late in the last quarter). Sophie Alexander (concussion) could return this week and would provide a target, while Sarah D'Arcy is more of a high forward than one who stays close to home. The Pies are desperately missing the classy Jasmine Garner (averaging 15 disposals and a goal a match), Jess Duffin (18 touches playing down back), Emma King (eight disposals and two goals) and Moana Hope, all with the Kangas.
- Nineteen of Melbourne's 68 tackles came inside its own forward 50. The Demons’ winning margin of 17 points over Collingwood could have been much higher, but for inaccurate goalkicking (3.8 in windy conditions at Victoria Park.
Homework for Irish recruit
Most AFLW teams feature players who have crossed from other sports, with some of the newbies challenged by the complex rules of the game.
The Western Bulldogs gave former netballer and hockey player Libby Birch a printed copy of the Laws of the Game when she signed as a rookie in late 2016.
With Birch now a 17-AFLW game veteran (with a further 35 matches for VFLW sides Darebin and the Bulldogs), she has handed the well-thumbed book to Irish recruit Aisling McCarthy.
The Gaelic footballer from Tipperary, 23 next week, kicked a goal against Geelong in her debut game last weekend.
"She'll hate me telling this story, but we were playing match sim and she came up to me afterwards and asked, 'Why do we keep stopping and throwing the ball up?'," coach Paul Groves said.
"For a coach at that point, you realise you have to go back a few [steps]. We've got the Laws of the Game that Libby got when she started and we've passed that on."