Season of headline acts puts AFLW in strongest bargaining position yet

And then there were six. As the curtain falls on the home-and-away season, the AFLW can look ahead to the finals safe in the knowledge its fifth incarnation has been its best. This alone is worthy of commendation, given the challenges of getting a season out with Covid-19 hanging around like a tagger with body odour. We are lucky we got to see it at all.

But here the competition stands on the doorstep of its first three-week finals series. With the maligned conference system a thing of the past, and the standard of the game on an upward spiral, the question is whether three weeks is long enough. Certainly, the nine-round regular season – though the longest yet – is begging to be extended beyond the incremental increase scheduled for 2022. For the sake of integrity, and not least to whet the growing communal appetite for the code, the sooner each of the 14 teams play each other once the better.

The perfect storm of circumstance and progress has led the AFLW to its strong bargaining position. In terms of appeal, the numbers are impossible to ignore: memberships are up, crowd figures are on the rise, broadcast figures are heading north and digital consumption of the game has never been higher. It set the stage for matters on the field to follow suit and this season has been the most watchable yet.

The conferences have been replaced by a conventional ladder, meaning no dead wood in this year’s finals campaign. Each of the six teams to advance to the post-season are worthy of their place and there is barely a Tally-Ho between the sextet: just one win plus percentage separates minor premiers Adelaide with sixth-placed North Melbourne.

The early knock on the AFLW was the inability of teams to rack up a score, even the ones on top in any given contest. It was symptomatic of a lack of polish, a lack of direction and a game that could not get away from stoppages. These problems now look mostly remedied.

The key metrics of a code that has grown into itself have stood up to inspection this season. Stoppages are down, uncontested marks are on the rise, ball-ups and boundary throw-ins are down, tackles are down and, best of all, scoring is on an upward trajectory. These are all hallmarks of the attacking, free-flowing style the AFLW has written into its DNA this season.

These are fertile times for the AFLW but the gains made this season must be used to push for a better deal
They have also contributed to a viewing experience that is much more palatable. By and large this season, teams – the better ones, at least – have found a way to marry speed-of-ball movement with retention of possession. The reduction in congestion has been a joy to behold and has allowed, for arguably the first time, the skills of the players to be displayed in their true light.

This more sophisticated brand of footy is a triumph of coaching but there is more to it than that. With each passing year, the median standard of the AFLW footballer has been spiralling upward. With quality ever-increasing, coaches now have the stock to not only implement a daring game plan, but also to pull it off.

Whereas the first few campaigns were dominated by already-established female footballers, season five is now cashing in on the influx of gifted greenhorns that a rapidly maturing system can, and indeed must, produce. The likes of Erin Phillips, Daisy Pearce and Emma Kearney might still be gracing the game in their advancing years, but they now share the stage with a growing band of elite youngsters. Names such as Madison Prespakis, Alyce Parker, Chloe Molloy, Olivia Purcell. These and others are helping to lift the standard across the board. As the AFLW’s youth championships continue to gain momentum, the trend will only continue.

Round nine brought with it a sense of occasion that did justice to the eight which had preceded it. The two-time premiership-winning Crows were the big firmers to make it three when they outlasted Collingwood to jump from fourth spot to first. The Magpies will rue their uncharacteristically tepid showing at Norwood Oval, a loss that saw them drop from first to third and surrender a week off heading into the preliminary finals. They were beaten to second spot by the Lions who, despite losing to Melbourne by four points, earned the right to a home prelim that might yet be played away thanks to Brisbane’s latest coronavirus outbreak. It was a breathless end to the home-and-away that confirmed the openness of the competition and gave immediate credence to the top-six finals format.

These are fertile times for the AFLW but the gains made this season must be used to push for a better deal: even longer seasons, the no-brainer introduction of a score review system, greater acknowledgment and parity in comparison to the men’s game. The AFLW has shown this season it can show the way on the field. The iron could not be hotter than now to strike off it.