ON PAPER at least, the most appealing NAB AFL Women’s fixture this weekend is the match-up of the competition’s top two teams, North Melbourne and Adelaide.
The winner will be one step closer to securing top spot in Conference A and locking in a home preliminary final, against the second-placed team from Conference B.
The Kangaroos are in the box seat, currently first, four points and 33 per cent clear of the Crows.
But an Adelaide win on Sunday at Avalon Airport Oval in Werribee (south-west of Melbourne) could shake Conference A right up, keeping third-placed Fremantle and fourth-placed Melbourne in the finals frame.
What's happened so far?
Expansion side North Melbourne cruised through its first three matches in the competition, defeating Carlton by 36 points, Greater Western Sydney (25) and the Western Bulldogs (31).
The Roos had their first hiccup last weekend but still recorded a win, overcoming a dogged Melbourne by just four points at Casey Fields.
It was the first time this year North Melbourne has looked vulnerable, three consecutive weeks of travel (to Hobart, Sydney and Launceston) perhaps catching up with the squad.
Adelaide started the season with a loss, inaccuracy (1.11) costing it dearly in a one-point loss to Western Bulldogs in Adelaide.
The Crows have since posted three straight wins, beating Carlton by 13 points, Geelong (29) and the previously undefeated Fremantle (42).
They put on a masterclass in Darwin last weekend, piling on six second-half goals while holding the Dockers to just three behinds.
North Melbourne's multi-pronged forward line has been an issue for opposition sides. Mid-sized forwards Jasmine Garner, Moana Hope and Sophie Abbatangelo present well at the ball and create space for each other.
Ruck Emma King has been a constant threat up forward this year. She is excellent at drawing free kicks, her reach causing defenders to panic and either push her in the back or chop her arms.
Small forward Daisy Bateman has worked well with the big ruck, the other forwards clearing out and isolating the pair close to the square.
But King has been allowed to spend time up forward because of the good form of Kate Gillespie-Jones, who as a second ruck has been much more influential than she was as a key back at Carlton.
The Roos have only the fourth-highest average inside-50 count (29), but their ability to score and their accuracy set them apart. They are third for average score (48 points per game) and first for goalkicking accuracy (52 per cent).
No conversation about North's strengths is complete without mentioning the midfield. The Roos average 207 disposals a match, the third-best in the competition. Captain Emma Kearney is the reigning AFLW best and fairest, while Jenna Bruton has taken her game to a new level after also crossing to North from the Bulldogs, averaging 18 disposals (up from 11 in 2018).
Jamie Stanton has been a ball-winner, while her former Lions teammate Kaitlyn Ashmore (round four aside, when she was well-beaten by Demon Sarah Lampard) has provided plenty of drive.
Rebounding defender Jess Duffin is on track to poll well in the competition's best and fairest award, Danielle Hardiman continues to fly well under the radar as a strong lockdown defender, and Jasmine Grierson has looked assured across half-back.
Adelaide had a disappointing 2018, with a slow start and injuries to Erin Phillips and Courtney Cramey eventually leading to a fifth-place finish.
One facet of the game the Crows have significantly improved is their scoring.
Average points per game
2017 (eight games including Grand Final)
2018 (seven games)
2019 (four games so far)
The Crows’ 51 points per game this year (best in the competition) includes a first-round score of 17, when they were wildly inaccurate.
Phillips is back to her best, averaging 12.8 contested possessions (third in the competition), 5.5 clearances (equal-third) and 15 kicks (second) a match.
In four matches, she has also kicked six goals, had 26 score involvements (first in the competition) and totalled 1407m gained (second).
But it's not just Phillips who has driven Adelaide to new heights this year.
Stevie-Lee Thompson always showed great dash and intensity off half-back but has been much more dangerous since moving forward.
The 26-year-old is averaging a career-high 11 disposals and has kicked seven goals (including four against the Blues in round two), the equal-most in the competition.
Eloise Jones is having longer patches of dominance up forward, and Danielle Ponter (a round-four nominee for the NAB AFLW Rising Star award) has showed poise at both ends of the ground, her 20 disposals in three games delivered at a team-high 90 per cent efficiency.
The Crows were hit hard on the eve of the season, losing rucks Rhiannon Metcalfe (left ACL) and Jasmyn Hewett (right ankle).
It left 35-year-old debutant Jess Foley as the side's sole ruck. The former Opals basketballer impressed in her first year of footy in 2018 with SANFLW side Sturt and has slotted into AFLW level with ease.
She has been feeding the ball to one of the competition’s most improved, Anne Hatchard. The 20-year-old played her first two seasons in defence and also spent a bit of time up forward and pinch-hitting in the ruck.
Hatchard worked hard on her fitness over winter and is now a top midfielder. Tall enough to help Foley in the ruck, she has increased her average disposals from eight in 2018 to 23 in 2019.
After last season, it was clear Ebony Marinoff needed more support in the middle of the ground, and Hatchard has delivered.
How the Roos can win
While it would be entertaining if North Melbourne coach Scott Gowans and his Adelaide counterpart Matthew Clarke allowed Emma Kearney and Phillips to go head-to-head, that’s unlikely to happen.
Someone like Ali Drennan could be one to run with Phillips in the middle, while Britt Gibson is strong enough to take Phillips when she moves forward.
Aside from clamping down on Phillips, the Roos must win the ball out of the middle to deny Adelaide's potent forward line supply. The Crows are first for both average inside 50s and disposals.
Winning the ball out of the centre will be crucial, because the Crows are unlikely to let the ball leave their 50 easily when it’s in there.
When attacking, the Roos must be accurate to limit the impact of interceptors Chelsea Randall and Sarah Allan, whom they’d prefer to see in one-on-one situations.
How the Crows can win
Shutting down the dynamic duo of Kearney and Bruton is vital. Kearney's biggest strength is the amount of distance she can cover with a single disposal; last year she led the competition in metres gained and is in the top 10 again this year.
This match will come down to a battle of midfields: Marinoff, Hatchard and Phillips versus Kearney, Bruton and Stanton.
Allan looks likely to take on the might of 187cm King when she swings forward. At 178cm she's the tallest (available) player on Adelaide's list other than Foley, who will be required to ruck most of the match.
The vastly improved Crow have the smarts to not concede too many free kicks to King, but stopping the ball at the source – the midfield – will help their defence enormously in combating the dynamic Kangaroos forward line.
Other observations from the round:
- Collingwood remains the most unlikely of mathematical chances to make finals. The Magpies need to win their three remaining games, while relying on Brisbane and Geelong to draw this weekend, and then one of those two to lose their following two matches. A finals position would then come down to percentage. It's incredibly remote, but still possible for the Pies.
- Many believed Maddy Prespakis would have an immediate impact on the competition when she was drafted last year. She’s certainly done that. The 18-year-old Carlton midfielder has accumulated 22 clearances this season, equal with superstar Phillips and one fewer than competition leader, Fremantle’s Dana Hooker, who won her team’s best ad fairest last year.
- Meg McDonald continues to be one of the success stories of the expansion teams. Given a second opportunity at AFLW level by Geelong after playing four games for the Western Bulldogs as a forward in 2017, McDonald leads the competition in intercept possessions (35) and appears perfectly suited in defence.
- The Pies have had a rough season but played their best game against the Giants on Sunday. They’ve struggled to get enough of the ball, with just 165 disposals on the weekend. By comparison, Adelaide had the most of any side with 260.
After several years of rarely making changes, Brisbane has been forced – through injury and form – to use 27 players (AFLW games are played with teams of 21), the second-most of any side.
By contrast, Melbourne has been the most difficult side to break into, with the Dees using just 23 of their squad.
The 10 teams have a minimum of 30 players, with several having been allowed to sign additional players to cover long-term injuries, players on personal leave, and to compensate them for losing players to expansion teams.
Adelaide (24 players used)
Absentees: Nikki Gore, Jasmyn Hewett (ankle), Rheanne Lugg, Rhiannon Metcalfe (ACL, season), Katelyn Rosenzweig, Jess Sedunary (foot), Jess Allan (work, inactive), Ruth Wallace (personal, inactive)
Absentees: Bella Ayre, Ruby Blair, Jade Ellenger, Brianna McFarlane (shoulder, season), Krystal Scott, Sophie Conway (ACL, inactive)
Absentees: Reni Hicks, Bridie Kennedy, Courtney Webb, Charlotte Wilson, Emerson Woods
Darcy Guttridge (quad), Chloe Molloy (foot, inactive)
Absentees: Cassie Davidson, Ebony Dowson, Alicia Janz (PCL), Tayla McAuliffe, Matilda Sergeant, Jasmin Stewart, Brianna Green (ACL, inactive), Lisa Webb (personal, inactive)
Absentees: Hannah Burchell, Rene Caris, Elise Coventry (ACL, season), Hayley Trevean
Greater Western Sydney (28)
Absentees: Delma Gisu, Ebony O'Dea, Lisa Whiteley, Britt Tully (personal, inactive)
Maddy Brancatisano, Maddy Guerin, Shelley Heath, Jordann Hickey, Brooke Patterson, Talia Radan, Casey Sherriff, Daisy Pearce (pregnancy, inactive)
North Melbourne (25)
Absentees: Daria Bannister (ACL), Libby Haines, Taylor Mesiti, Maddison Smith (patella), Jessie Williams
Western Bulldogs (25)
Absentees: Kate Bartlett, Tessa Boyd, Jessie Davies, Isabel Huntington (ACL), Brooke Lochland (broken leg)
Around the grounds
- The AFL has started looking potential finals venues, with the preliminary finals to be held on March 23. The highest ranked team in each conference will host a preliminary final, with the Grand Final (on March 30 or 31) to be hosted by the team with the most premiership points (or percentage, if points are the same). Tasmania could be an option for a North Melbourne final.
- St Kilda signed its third player, with Isabella Shannon joining the club ahead of its AFLW entry in 2020. The 17-year-old, a Vic Country representative at under-18 level, can play at half-forward or in the middle. The club's VFLW coach Peta Searle is expected to take the reins of the AFLW side.
- Brisbane has confirmed AFLW assistant coach David Lake has applied for the Gold Coast AFLW coaching job. Lake has been working with the Lions’ AFLW team since the competition started but has now "stepped away" while he goes through the Suns’ application process. AFL premiership Lions Clark Keating and Simon Black will take over Lake's midfield role.
Footy’s better with bacon
Geelong's Mia-Rae Clifford is developing a reputation as a tough defensive forward since her return to the AFLW (she played the inaugural season with Melbourne as a key back).
The 32-year-old has an unusual pre-match routine – eating a full plate of bacon on the morning of a game.
Cats teammates were amazed when Clifford placed her order at a café: four to five rashers of bacon and a single slice of toast.
With fellow forwards Aasta O'Connor and Maddie Boyd missing this weekend's match against Brisbane due to suspensions, Clifford might have to ramp up her order on Saturday.