AFLW Insight: Your club's most improved player

FIVE rounds in to the seven-round season is an appropriate point to take a look at the AFLW competition's most improved players.

It goes without saying improved players have an enormous impact on their own sides, but collectively, their better play adds to the growing standard across the competition.

Under-18 graduates including Madison Prespakis (Carlton), Sabreena Duffy (Fremantle) and Alyce Parker (Greater Western Sydney) have already impressed this season and project to be stars for years to come, but the most rapid improvement has come from players in the system for a while.

To fit the criteria, players' 2019 form to date was compared to their 2018 output (or 2017 if they were not on an AFLW list last year), with consideration also given to how they have impacted their teams’ on-field performances. 

Adelaide: Anne Hatchard

Honourable mentions: Stevie-Lee Thompson, Marijana Rajcic

Hatchard's meteoric improvement this year was the impetus for this week’s Insight focus. In 2018, the Crow played predominantly as a defender who could play forward in stints. She averaged eight disposals a match. Pre-season, she trained hard, changed her diet dramatically and moved into the midfield, with her numbers and influence sky-rocketing. The 20-year-old is now averaging 21 disposals and five clearances a game. Hatchard's improvement has eased pressure on teammate Ebony Marinoff – both in terms of reliance from the team and pressure from opponents – and contributed enormously to Adelaide's re-emergence as a contender. The Crows are averaging 238 disposals and 26 clearances a match, up from 174 and 20 last year. 

Brisbane: Nat Exon

Honourable mentions: Ally Anderson, Shannon Campbell

In a topsy-turvy season for the Lions, Exon has played consistency well. The 26-year-old has turned from a player who showed flashes (and sported an excellent mullet) in 2018, averaging nine disposals, to an explosive midfielder collecting 15 touches a game. With Jamie Stanton and Kaitlyn Ashmore moving from Brisbane to North Melbourne, the Lions needed someone to step up and Exon has delivered. Working in tandem with Ally Anderson and Emily Bates, the midfield trio is proving difficult to stop. Initially signed by Carlton in 2017, she was a raw rookie with a running background who had never played footy. Exon is now also hitting the scoreboard, having kicked four goals in five matches.

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Carlton: Kerryn Harrington

Honourable mentions: Gab Pound, Georgia Gee

The former basketballer is now one of the premier interceptors in the competition, averaging 7.4 intercept possessions a match. Harrington was still finding her feet in football during her first season (2018), playing in a Carlton defence that was constantly under the pump. Her average disposals have increased from eight to 16, with a disposal efficiency of 71 per cent. The Blues are vastly improved, with the 27-year-old a great source of rebound while working well with Gab Pound, Nicola Stevens and Brianna Davey (when the skipper plays in defence). Harrington's improvement has been even more important, considering the departures of defenders Danielle Hardiman and Kate Gillespie-Jones.

Collingwood: Sarah Dargan

Honourable mentions: Ash Brazill (played only two games in 2018 due to a quad injury), Kristy Stratton

The young midfielder has been a shining light in a disappointing year for Collingwood. Tasked with the extra responsibility of playing in the middle of the ground for a young and inexperienced team, the 20-year-old is averaging 10 touches a game. It's a marked increase from the three disposals she averaged in two matches last year playing as a small forward. Dargan has become a crucial cog in the Magpies' midfield, working in tandem with Jaimee Lambert and Britt Bonnici against much more experienced opponents.

Fremantle: Gemma Houghton 

Honourable mentions: Ash Sharp, Hayley Miller

Houghton looked a likely prospect in 2017 when she was signed as an untried free agent, but floundered in 2018 and struggled to hold her spot in the team. She played just two games and was unable to lock down a position at either end of the ground. Coming off a strong WAWFL season for Swan Districts, Houghton has looked like a new player in 2019. Forming part of a dangerous new-look forward line with Ebony Antonio, Kellie Gibson and Sabreena Duffy, Houghton constantly presents and if she doesn't mark the footy, will at least force a contest and bring it to ground. Fremantle has improved its average score from 33 in 2018 to 50 in 2019, with Houghton a key part of that upswing, booting five goals this season and averaging nine disposals. Kiara Bowers gets a special mention. She did not play in 2017-18 due to knee injuries but is averaging 17 disposals and 10 tackles a game.

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Geelong: Meghan McDonald

Honourable mentions: Kate Darby, Richelle Cranston

McDonald is a completely different player from the forward who played for the Western Bulldogs in 2017. Not offered a contract in 2018, McDonald returned to VFLW club Darebin and worked on her fitness. She has transformed herself into the No.1 intercept defender in the competition. The 27-year-old has become a cornerstone of Geelong's defence, allowing Maddy McMahon and Bec Goring to grow in confidence as they transition from VFLW to AFLW, and generally taking the opposition's best forward each week. McDonald is averaging 15 disposals and three marks a game, a huge improvement from her time as a forward in 2017 when she had just 16 touches in four games.

Greater Western Sydney: Rebecca Beeson

Honourable mentions: Nicola Barr, Elle Bennetts

Beeson has morphed from a small forward who could float into the middle on occasion to a pure midfielder who is a strong ball-winner. It's been a tough season for the Giants, but Beeson has consistently been one of their best in the team's strongest area of the ground. She is averaging a team-best 18 disposals a match with 73 per cent disposal efficiency, relatively high for onballers often dealing with pressure in contested situations. Beeson's improved form has taken pressure off fellow mids Alicia Eva, Courtney Gum and Jess Dal Pos, with Dal Pos in particular lifting her output.

Melbourne: Harriet Cordner

Honourable mentions: Lauren Pearce, Lily Mithen

Although she was an unconventional selection, Cordner has fast established herself as one of the strongest full-backs in the competition. With fellow defenders Melissa Hickey and Anna Teague leaving Melbourne for Geelong, the Dees needed a defender to assert her influence on matches. Cordner broke into the side in round four last year, playing the last four games of the season, but was nowhere near as effective as she has been in her five matches this year. The 26-year-old was particularly strong against Lion Sabrina Frederick-Traub in round three, spoiling marking attempts and launching rebound 50s of her own.

Harriet Cordner has been a shining light down back

North Melbourne: Kate Gillespie-Jones

Honourable mentions: Jess Duffin, Emma King

Gillespie-Jones was drafted by Carlton with pick 14 in 2016, but unfortunately for the Blues, she’s only now starting to show her potential. The 27-year-old struggled to lock down a position at Carlton, which tried her in the ruck and up forward but mainly in defence in a side that was often exposed in 2018. This year, Gillespie-Jones has rotated with Emma King between the forward line and the ruck. Her strong centre-square work has allowed King to dominate inside 50, turning matches with her goalkicking bursts. Gillespie-Jones' average output has increased from eight disposals and 0.3 hit-outs in 2018 to 13 and 7.2 so far in 2019.

Western Bulldogs: Aisling Utri 

Honourable mentions: Monique Conti, Kim Rennie

It's been a relatively lean year for the reigning premiers, but Utri's development has been a definite upside. Utri spends much of her time away from football playing hockey but has come on in leaps and bounds since last year. Providing a key target up forward was crucial in the absence of Izzy Huntington and Brooke Lochland in the first four rounds. Utri has also been able to swing into the middle of the ground, partially filling the void left by now Kangaroos-Emma Kearney and Jenna Bruton. 

Other observations from the round:

- Geelong has a potent attack stacked with dynamic forwards but has struggled to get the ball inside 50 at times this year. That wasn't the case against Brisbane, with the Cats amassing a season-high 37 inside 50s.

- Kiara Bowers was highly rated in West Australian footy circles for years, but two years of knee injuries prevented her from playing at AFLW-level for Fremantle. Five rounds in, the midfielder is hitting her straps, finishing last weekend’s match against the Western Bulldogs with 23 disposals and an astonishing 16 tackles.

- Stevie-Lee Thompson's outright lead in the competition's goalkicking race is indicative of a larger trend in the competition. Smaller, speedy forwards are kicking plenty of goals. The past two winners of the goalkicking award were Blue Darcy Vescio (166cm) and Bulldog Brooke Lochland (158cm), with Lion Jess Wuetschner (162cm) the competition’s leading all-time goalkicker (24 goals). 

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