Who will challenge Adelaide for the AFLW throne?

AHEAD of the 2020 NAB AFLW season, it's Adelaide or bust for the flag.

Or is it?

With two flags in three years – the 2019 Grand Final was won comprehensively by 45 points – the Crows are the benchmark team of the competition.

FULL FIXTURE Every round, every game

The perks of being the only AFLW team in the state means the Crows have had an impressive retainment rate, losing just six players to other sides dating back to the end of the 2017 season.

The unity of their large core means the Crows are the most well-organised and cohesive on-field group in the competition.

Adelaide celebrates the 2019 premiership. Picture: AFL Photos

They're all on the same page, running in waves across the ground in a devastating number of forward-50 forays.

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But Adelaide currently has five players – including co-captains Erin Phillips and Chelsea Randall – sidelined with torn ACLs in a squad of 31, which includes the replacement for Hannah Button, nee Martin. 

Deni Varnhagan is also set to miss three to six weeks with ligament damage in her knee, stretching resources even further.

That opens the door to the next wave of top-line clubs.

So, who are the contenders (in alphabetical order)?

CARLTON

It'll be a tough ask for the Blues to make it back to the Grand Final after losing inspirational skipper Brianna Davey to arch-rival Collingwood, but they've got the players to do it.

After a slow start in 2019, Carlton hit the ground running, finishing with an impressive preliminary final win over Fremantle.

Darcy Vescio and Tayla Harris have plenty of talent but have struggled to get going at the same time. If they are both in form in 2020, they'll be a handful to juggle for opposition defenders.

Can the Blues go one better in 2020? Picture: Getty Images

Number two draft pick Lucy McEvoy should have an impact coming into the side playing in the middle and up forward, and 2019 NAB AFLW Rising Star Maddy Prespakis will have to take on greater leadership in the centre in the absence of Davey.

Last season's rookies, pacey rugby sevens duo Chloe Dalton and Brooke Walker, have another VFLW season under their belts, while the backline boasts two All-Australian defenders in Gab Pound and Kerryn Harrington.

The Blues will want to avoid the slow start that cost a practice match win against North Melbourne, but their response in that game shows they have the players to match it with the best. 

FREMANTLE

There's been a fair few changes at Fremantle during the off-season due to the inclusion of new cross-town rivals West Coast.

The Dockers lost nine players to the Eagles (eight through expansion rules and one trade), including star midfielder Dana Hooker, dynamic forward Kellie Gibson and ruck duo Alicia Janz and Parris Laurie.

Athletic forward-ruck Roxy Roux, fellow tall Mim Strom, tough former Cat Mia-Rae Clifford and Irish duo Kate Flood and Aine Tighe are among the inclusions, but the number of changes is a concern for a side pushing for the flag.

Mim Strom might have to shoulder the ruck load for Freo this year. Picture: AFL Photos

Tighe's unfortunate torn ACL has also left Strom as the only recognised ruck on the list at just 18 years old.

The Dockers had shone through during the 2019 season, debuting an exciting, free-flowing style of footy, with Gemma Houghton, Ebony Antonio and Sabreena Duffy part of a new-look forward line.

If they can continue to dominate in attack, Trent Cooper's side will be a force to be reckoned with, but the loss of Hooker in the engine room will affect supply to the forward line.

MELBOURNE 

Melbourne once again came into pre-season as one of the stronger teams in the competition, but it's been a pre-season from hell. 

Blessed with a dream midfield of Karen Paxman, Elise O'Dea and the returning Daisy Pearce, with Maddy Gay, Lily Mithen and Kate Hore rotating through, the Demons are usually serviced by All Australian ruck Lauren Pearce.

But Pearce is set to be sidelined for at least the first three rounds of the season after undergoing an operation to stabilise cartilage in her knee.

Melbourne's Ainslie Kemp is helped from the field during the Dees' practice match against Collingwood. Picture: AFL Photos

Shae Sloane and Katherine Smith ruptured ACLs just before Christmas, and the highly useful Bianca Jakobsson has withdrawn due to work commitments.

Add Mithen (ankle, three weeks) and injury clouds over Tegan Cunningham, Hore and Ainslie Kemp, and Melbourne's depth will be tested like never before.

It's been an incredibly difficult team to break into over the past few years, but we'll see the likes of Casey Sherriff, Maddy Guerin and Shelley Heath play more games than they did last year, while draftee Jackie Parry will add some strong hands up forward.

Highly rated Irish duo Sinead Goldrick and Niamh McEvoy are expected to have an impact, but it could be tougher going than first thought for the Demons.

NORTH MELBOURNE

The most likely to challenge Adelaide.

North Melbourne made all the early running in 2019, dominating the competition for the first month before running headfirst into a Crows onslaught in round five.

The Roos faded late in the season on the back of a fairly hectic travel schedule – in part due to the club's commitment to host two games in Tasmania – just missing out on finals, and are desperate to avoid doing so again. 

They've retained the vast majority of their already strong list, although it will be a different-looking forward line with ruck Emma King expected to spend more time in attack after the delisting of Moana Hope.

Will Scott Gowans lead the Roos to glory? Picture: AFL Photos

The biggest strength Scott Gowans has at his disposal is the balanced nature of the team. 

The inclusion of ruck Abbey Green will allow King to dominate out of the goalsquare, while the versatile Jasmine Garner is primed for an excellent season after another strong VFLW performance.

The midfield core of the unheralded Jenna Bruton, AFLW best and fairest winner Emma Kearney and hard-nosed draftee Ellie Gavalas will be difficult to stop, and the defensive core is cohesive and disciplined.

Round five against Adelaide looms as a crucial clash.  

THE "NEW TEAMS" WILDCARD – ST KILDA 

The Saints have been quietly biding their time in the background as the AFLW seasons have progressed, waiting for their opportunity to field a side.

Coach Peta Searle has been steadily building a list through VFLW affiliate Southern Saints, where they made the preliminary final in 2019.

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Seven players have been directly promoted from that side, while the likes of Ali Drennan, Courteney Munn and Selena Karlson have returned from other AFLW clubs after previously playing for the Saints.

While their AFLW recruits – including Nat Exon, Kate McCarthy, Jess Sedunary and Emma Mackie – aren't the biggest names, the Saints have built a very well-balanced side, with some lively kids in Georgia Patrikios and Nicola Xenos.

As always, the question mark for expansion sides is over their cohesiveness as a new team. While they're unlikely to contend for the flag itself, St Kilda look most likely of the four newbies to sneak a finals spot.