THE LAST time Carlton and Fremantle played, they were fighting to avoid the wooden spoon.
It was round seven of the 2018 season, the last game for two sides firmly entrenched at the bottom of the ladder.
What followed was a surprisingly free-flowing, high-scoring match, with players desperate to win one last time before the season finished.
It might have been a sign of things to come this year, with the two teams booting 15 goals kicked between them. Fremantle was more accurate and won by 11 points.
Much has been said of the Dockers' third-season renaissance.
But Carlton has been flying under the radar after a slow start, gradually building on the way to winning four of its past five games (the loss was by just five points to Geelong).
NEW PLAYERS, NEW STYLE
There were eight changes between Carlton's round seven team in 2018 and 2019.
Brooke Walker (forward; rookie signing)
Bridie Kennedy (forward)
Chloe Dalton (mid-forward; rookie signing)
Lauren Arnell (mid-forward; now at Brisbane)
Brianna Davey (midfielder)
Shae Audley (midfielder)
Abbey McKay (midfielder; 2018 draftee)
Maddy Gay (midfielder; Melbourne)
Amelia Mullane (midfielder; recruited from Collingwood)
Katie-Jayne Grieve (midfielder; Fremantle)
Maddy Prespakis (midfielder; 2018 draftee)
Sophie Li (midfielder; Adelaide)
Jayde Van Dyk (defender; 2018 draftee)
Kate Gillespie-Jones (defender; North Melbourne)
Charlotte Wilson (defender; 2018 draftee)
Danielle Hardiman (defender; North Melbourne)
Carlton did well in last year’s draft, with Prespakis having an instant impact.
The Blues were forced to select defenders after the departures of Gillespie-Jones and Hardiman to expansion side North Melbourne.
Van Dyk, 22, has slotted in with ease, while 18-year-old Wilson has come on in recent weeks.
A fully fit Davey has done wonders for Carlton, with the skipper playing all seven games after managing just two last year before tearing her right ACL.
Davey's biggest strength is just that, her strength. She's a contested ball-winner who also has the power to break away from stoppages or charge along a wing.
There’s been much said about what Davey’s best position is. After spending the first two games of the season up forward building match fitness, she has been used both in the middle and in defence, generally depending on the team's needs at the time.
An elite reader of the play, the former Australian soccer team goalkeeper is a natural defender, but has been needed on the ball this season.
Davey, Dalton and McKay have also added some much-needed outside pace to the midfield, which the Blues struggled with last year.
The change in personnel both on and off the field has been impactful, with the players steadily growing in confidence as they’ve adapted to a new playing style.
2018 (8 teams)
2019 (10 teams)
The Blues are simply getting their hands on the ball more often, averaging a massive 44 more disposals (the equivalent of two top-line AFLW midfielders) compared to 2018.
The addition of captain Davey to the midfield has had a big impact (when she hasn't been needed in defence), while 18-year-old Prespakis could be in line for an All Australian berth after an impressive first season.
Prespakis is averaging 20 disposals and 4.7 clearances a game and is hot favourite to win this year's NAB AFLW Rising Star award.
Not only is Carlton getting more of the ball, it is also using it more efficiently. Naturally, inside 50s and goals have increased as a result.
SHARING THE LOAD
Carlton kicked just 21 goals in seven matches in 2018.
Only five players managed two or more: Tayla Harris and Darcy Vescio (five apiece), ruck Alison Downie (three) and midfielders Katie Loynes and Lauren Arnell (two each).
In 2019, the Blues kicked 36 goals in seven home and away matches.
Eight players have kicked at least two, with some new faces in the mix: Harris (seven), rugby sevens converts and rookies Brooke Walker (five) and Chloe Dalton (three), Maddy Prespakis (five), Vescio (four) and Loynes, Downie and Nat Plane (two each).
Sharing the scoring load makes Carlton a much more difficult team to handle. Simply shutting down one of Harris or Vescio is no longer enough.
This capacity will give Fremantle coach Trent Cooper something else to consider leading up to Saturday’s preliminary final at Ikon Park – will Ebony Antonio have to play in defence (opposed to up forward), or will he back in Tayla Bresland, Evie Gooch and/or Philipa Seth against the speedy Carlton forwards?
THE OFF-FIELD BRAINS
Coach Daniel Harford wasn't the only appointment made between seasons following the departure of Damien Keeping.
The club created a general manager of women's football role, which was filled by the experienced Nicole Graves.
A two-time premiership coach with WAWFL club Swan Districts, Graves has also spent many years in football development, returning to Victoria to work for the club she grew up supporting.
She has taken on recruiting, as well as overseeing the club’s AFLW and VFLW programs and bolstering the fitness and medical teams. The Blues have not yet had a major injury this year, with 30 players to choose from most weeks.
Graves is also a virtual second coach, running the bench on match-day and acting as a conduit of information between the coaches’ box, medical staff and players.
Also crossing from Collingwood alongside Harford was VFLW coach Shannon McFerran. The development of the VFLW program has allowed many of the players to be around the club for much longer.
Players like 19-year-old Georgia Gee, Tilly Lucas-Rodd, Breann Moody and Nat Plane all played at least eight games for the VFLW side last year, with Chloe Dalton and Brooke Walker signed with the AFLW team as rookies after playing 13 and 14 games respectively at VFLW level.
Roos in wrong spot?
The third season of AFLW marked the first time a conference system had been used to determine the four preliminary finalists.
Introduced in part to facilitate a seven-week home and away season with 10 teams, one of its aims was to produce finalists based on how they performed against teams in their own conference.
The length of the season aside, the thinking made sense. North Melbourne and Geelong, for example, didn't play each other, so their chances of making finals weren't directly linked to how their win-loss respective records stacked up.
But the reality has been quite different.
Conference A (Adelaide, Fremantle, North Melbourne, Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs) proved to be much stronger than Conference B (Carlton, Geelong, Greater Western Sydney, Brisbane and Collingwood).
The conferences were arranged on the ladder positions of the eight teams from last year (first, third, fifth and seventh in A and second, fourth, sixth and eighth in B), with expansion clubs North Melbourne added to A and Geelong placed in B.
Splitting the eight teams this way made sense as it promoted transparency. The concern was allocating the Kangaroos to a group that featured stronger teams (in theory at least).
The Roos had made no secret of their intentions to enter the competition with a bang, recruiting a host of big-name players from other clubs. The AFL responded by giving the club pick 25 as its first selection in the draft.
In comparison, Geelong built its initial list with long-term development in mind, combining players from its VFLW team, a few experienced AFLW types and talented but raw 18-year-olds.
So, the decision to then put North Melbourne in with the 2017 and 2018 premiers (Adelaide and Western Bulldogs) and the ever-consistent Melbourne was odd.
It contributed to incredibly uneven conferences. The head-to-head record in the cross-conference matches was 13-2 in favour of Conference A sides.
North Melbourne (five wins) and Melbourne (four) didn't qualify for preliminary finals, with Adelaide and Fremantle (six wins each) taking Conference A's two positions.
By contrast, the Conference B finals qualifiers, Carlton and Geelong, won four and three games respectively.
The AFL’s head of women's football Nicole Livingstone told womens.afl the system would be reviewed at the end of the season.
Adelaide last week appointed a new assistant coach for the remainder of the AFLW season.
Northern Territory Thunder VFLW coach Heidi Thompson will work with the club's Northern Territory-based players Danielle Ponter and Jasmyn Hewett after Tim Weatherald moved to Adelaide for his teaching career.
Weatherald continues to work with the AFLW team.