How 2021 has seen a changing of the guard in the AFLW

A LOT HAS been said about the increased playing standard of the NAB AFLW competition over its five-year history.

But an overlooked aspect of a developing competition is the evolution of the stories and people who are attached to it.

Half the appeal of sport are the storylines and context which adds significance to singular moments: the come-from-behind win, the loss to an arch-rival, the star player defecting to another side and the loyal veteran who has given everything to their club.

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Over the past half-dozen years, new chapters have been added to the stories of women who starred in state leagues around the country, now able to strut their stuff on the national stage.

The AFLW tapestry grows ever richer and more detailed as time progresses, and though we've seen players come and go in recent seasons, there's been something about 2021 which feels like a real changing of the guard.

Lauren Arnell, Emma Zielke, Aasta O'Connor, Sally Riley, Sam Virgo – these are people who were already legends in their own small footy communities, but their five seasons of AFLW has given fans around the country ample time to form their own attachments.

'If we win, I'm retiring': Zielke's fairytale finish

03:32 Apr 18. 2021. 6:00 AM

Brisbane premiership skipper Emma Zielke speaks about her Grand Final injury and her decision to retire

Zielke captained Brisbane in four of her five seasons, leading from the front in the midfield before moving to defence, giving younger players like Belle Dawes more time on the ball.

Virgo was Zielke's loyal lieutenant for a time, then crossed to newbie Gold Coast as its inaugural co-captain.

Arnell skippered Carlton in the first ever AFLW match; Michael Willson's iconic photo of the slightly anxious midfielder standing at the head of her team, looking from the players' race out to a heaving Ikon Park will live on in the annals of football.

Lauren Arnell prepares to lead out the Blues for the first ever AFLW game in 2017. Picture: Michael Willson, AFL Photos

Riley had the honour of being in the leadership group of both Adelaide and Gold Coast, and was responsible for laying the foundations of team culture for two inaugural sides.

O'Connor was the Western Bulldogs' second-ever draft selection before shouldering the ruck for Geelong's inaugural side, and has been influential in developing some of the top talent who have come through the NAB AFLW Academy.

And it's very much the emergence of these young players which has contributed to the passing of the baton.

A tribute to Sam Virgo

01:59 Apr 14. 2021. 5:00 PM

AFLW players pay tribute to a retiring Sam Virgo

The likes of Maddy Prespakis, Alyce Parker, Liv Purcell, Tyla Hanks, Nat Grider, Roxy Roux and even a comparative veteran in 23-year-old Ebony Marinoff are now not just bobbing up in games, but dictating them.

Ellie Blackburn, Brianna Davey, Emma Swanson and Darcy Vescio were fresh-faced youngsters when signed as marquee players back in 2017, but are now coming into the prime of their careers.

They've taken up the needle and are introducing their own bold and bright embroidery thread to the AFLW tapestry, building upon the foundations set by those who have now called time.