The changing face of AFLW: How U18 Champs points to bright future

TIARNA Ahwang, a young Cairns footballer who has made the move to the Gold Coast, receives a free kick just outside 50.

Looking forward, the Queenslander sees a mass of Vic Country defenders, so she switches direction, hitting up Tahlia Hickie just outside the centre square.

The slippery ball escapes Hickie's outstretched hands, but she has the presence of mind to shepherd for teammate Isabel Dawes, who kicks along the top of the 50 to fellow midfielder Lily Postlethwaite.

Postlethwaite stops, props and kicks to Taylor Smith, leading into the open space created by the switch. She takes the mark 30 from goal and coolly slots the resulting shot.

 

The whole passage of play – from the NAB AFLW under-18 championships – takes less than 20 seconds, and it isn't perfect footy, but it encapsulates the development in game play of youth girls – and by extension – women's football. 

NEW PHASE, NEW FACES

If the announcement of the AFL Women's competition in June 2016 is considered day one of the new era of women's football, we're now moving into year four.

That's not to discredit the football played by women around the country before that date, it just marks a starting point from which to measure progress.

The third under-18 championships since that "day one" was held two weeks ago, and there's been a slow but steady improvement in the football played over that time.

With the under-16 championships now in play, gone are the days where squads were made up of players aged 15-18.

This year saw just four 16-year-olds – two Tasmanians, a Territorian and a South Australian – listed in squads, while Vic Country's Lucy McEvoy, one of the last remaining players to start at 15, played her fourth championships.

The wave of players who have been able to play all the way through youth girls since Auskick – rather than stop, swap to another sport, then return – are starting to dominate the make-up of squads.

Consequently, almost everything has come on in leaps and bounds. 

Disposals are more likely to hit the mark, kicking distance is longer, the number of marks – both contested and uncontested – have risen, hits are bigger, and the general game play has improved.

BEHIND THE SCENES

The second round of the under-18 championships is a highly important week in the AFLW calendar.

With all teams playing three games each over the week, recruiters can watch draft hopefuls in the one spot.

Clubs have different make-ups, but generally send a combination of a senior coach, list manager and recruiter.

Some, such as Carlton and the Western Bulldogs, also had their head of women's footy or equivalent in attendance, whereas most had just the two, like Geelong's Paul Hood and Ben Waller (coach and list manager).

Blues senior coach Daniel Harford flew up for Wednesday's matches after his breakfast radio slot.

The Dogs even had the club's overall director of football, Chris Grant, in attendance for two match days (although he was also on double duties with daughter Issy playing for up forward for Vic Metro).

Adelaide took full advantage of its AFL schedule, with AFLW premiership coach (and AFL ruck coach) Matthew Clarke and general manager of football operations Phil Harper dropping by for the last day's play.

The Crows' men's team were due to play Gold Coast at Metricon Stadium the following day.

A number of AFLW players were also floating around. Jamie Stanton and Katie Loynes were scouting for Gold Coast and Carlton respectively, Sun Sam Virgo (Queensland) and Cat Olivia Purcell (Vic Country) were runners, while Maddy Prespakis, Bianca Jakobsson and Darcy Guttridge were also spotted running an eye over proceedings. 

THE EXPERTS' VIEWS

One senior coach said the biggest difference between the 2017 and the 2018 championships was the increase in skills and disposals.

By contrast, he believed the 2019 championships were all about the development of "footy IQ".

The two go hand in hand.

If disposal efficiency is better, it means chains of possessions are longer, which leads players to make better choices, all of which was on display this year.

Coaches can then spend more time on game plans and tactics, rather than teaching the basics.

One club official, coming into his fourth AFLW draft, feels players are now better equipped to deal with the demands of the top level after graduating from under-18s.

"I think the overall skill level has improved out of sight. The ability to transition the ball from one end of the ground to the other has been a real highlight, particularly this year. The fitness level of the girls is improving as well, the ability to run out games," he said.

"It's still a learning experience, you're probably not seeing that many girls make an immediate impact. The elite ones transition really quickly, but it's going to be different for the next tier of girls that might [need] two or three years.

"They may previously have come in for a year and then be spat out of the system. I think that's going to be different."

THE FUTURE IS BRIGHT

While Vic Metro dominated the carnival, remaining undefeated with star midfielder Georgia Patrikios named MVP, it was the improvement shown by the other sides that impressed one Victorian list manager.

"They were really competitive, you can see where improvement coming from, whether the players were top-age or bottom-age," he said.

"There's going to be a particularly exciting draft next year.

"The skills in general and kicking last week was strong. The games at Southport (on Wednesday) were played in heavy conditions and the skills shone out. The overhead marking has improved, with Vic Metro especially really strong."

The list manager sees the game continuing the advance over the next few years.

"It's already improved so much in a short space of time. Continual development of the state competitions, for example the NAB League in Victoria, and making sure there's enough resources and coaching will help."