'A lot of Tetris' behind state-league sides' AFLW balancing act

AT THE CONCLUSION of the NAB AFL Women's season players return to their state league sides, forcing clubs into a juggling act.

Most AFLW footballers are on restricted playing plans, designed to maintain fitness and build skills without overworking the players, who are not yet full-time athletes. 

State leagues themselves (let alone clubs) manage the influx of AFLW-listed players differently. 

The WAFLW has limits on the number of games AFLW players can line up in, while others like the VFLW have a cap on the number of AFLW-listed players named within a match. 

Collingwood and the Western Bulldogs will face off in the VFLW Grand Final on Sunday and have had slightly different tactics when incorporating their AFLW players with the rest of their VFLW lists.

The Magpies went to the extraordinary step of publishing an article on their website in mid-August, alerting fans their priority was preparing VFLW players to be drafted and that it may affect selection and results in the final home-and-away rounds. 

"[We manage it] with a lot of Tetris," coach Penny Cula-Reid said with a laugh. 

"We have to wait for the medical crew to clear the AFLW players, and then the coaching staff – Steve (Symonds, AFLW coach), Jess Burger (list manager) and Tess McManus (operations manager) – works out who we want to play. 

"We look at the girls who need a bit more experience, game time and match fitness. From there, we'll work out the VFLW players around the AFLW girls." 

Collingwood's VFLW coach Penny Cula-Reid

Western Bulldogs VFLW coach Sean Kavanagh echoed Cula-Reid's sentiments. 

"We're in a similar boat. We [made] a plan earlier in the year post the AFLW season with girls coming back who needed their break and might get a few games later in the season," Kavanagh said.

"Some of them have tipped out again ready to go for their (AFLW) pre-season. We've had a similar balance, some of our first and second-year players have been getting a bit more footy in them through the VFLW season.

"Basically, everyone on our list has now played, which is exciting. To give as many of our girls some exposure at the level as we could was the plan, and it's been a great season so far."

Footscray's VFLW coach Sean Kavanagh

Another factor state league coaches in Victoria need to balance is the introduction of the top-flight under-18 players who are eligible to be drafted at the end of the year.

In competitions like the QAFLW and WAFLW, younger players who are ready play from the start of the season, sometimes even at the age of 16. 

This is the second year elite 18-year-olds have been integrated with VFLW teams following the NAB AFLW under-18 championships in July, giving them a taste of senior footy and training at elite clubs before they are signed to AFLW sides. 

Although just because an under-18 is playing at a VFLW club, does not mean they will be automatically drafted to its AFLW team; for example, last year Tyla Hanks played at Carlton but was drafted by Melbourne.

The Dogs have fielded GWV Rebels Sophie Molan and Ella Wood, along with Western Jet Elisabeth Georgostathis, while the Pies have had Gemma Lagioia, Nicola Xenos and Alana Porter (all Oakleigh Chargers) on their list this year. 

"What they do is they play with confidence," Bulldogs VFLW skipper Mickayla Ward said.

"Coming through a junior development (program), where some of our VFLW players haven't had that experience, they're able to get out there, know exactly what their role is and go and do it." 

Cula-Reid said the under-18 players lifted the entire team.

"I've been watching their NAB League games and finding out what they bring, finding out where their flaws are, and then when they come into the system, trying to close that gap in terms of what we need them to play," she said.

"Those kids are just unbelievable. The best thing is they (initially) don't have that much knowledge of some of the players around them, but when they get in, they think it's such a cool environment and where they want to be. 

"They test some of our VFL girls, and that's where we want them to be. If they're pushing each other, the level's just going to be better and better."