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AFLW 2017 – 2021: The Top Ten

As we look toward the sixth AFLW season, we have taken a look back at the ten best matches from the competition’s first five seasons.

Kaitlyn Ashmore has starred in a number of excellent AFLW matches since 2017. Image: Rachel Bach / By The White Line
Kaitlyn Ashmore has starred in a number of excellent AFLW matches since 2017. Image: Rachel Bach / By The White Line

10. Fremantle v Collingwood — Perth Stadium, round two 2018

Fremantle 3.0 | 4.1 | 5.3 | 6.4.40
Collingwood 2.0 | 2.0 | 3.1 | 4.3.27

Kicking off with a slightly left-of-field choice, this 2018 match comes in at number ten for a few reasons. This round two battle between Fremantle and Collingwood was the first ever ticketed AFLW match, and drew a record-breaking 41,975 fans. This crowd number has since been beaten in standalone Australian women’s sport only by the 2019 AFLW Grand Final at Adelaide Oval, and 2020’s T20 World Cup final at the MCG. This match was also the first elite footy match played at Perth Stadium.

After both Fremantle and Collingwood ended 2017 in the bottom four and began 2018 each with a loss, it would have been fair to assume this one would end up as an anti-climactic fizzer. But that couldn’t have been further from the truth.

More protected from the elements than the typical AFLW game—thanks to the stadium’s grandstands—the skills were clean and the ball movement was quick. Emma King came out of the blocks and kicked a goal within the first 80 seconds, and Christina Bernardi put the away side up by 12 with her first goal a couple of minutes later. But once Fremantle broke through with their first via Ashlee Atkins, the Dockers found a rhythm.

Dana Hooker led Fremantle toward their 13 point win in what was the side’s best showing to that point of the AFLW competition. Hooker won a team-high 20 disposals, laid six tackles and kicked two important goals. Meanwhile, for the Pies, Chloe Molloy—fresh off a Rising Star nomination on debut the previous week—showed composure with her 15 touches in defence.

9. Carlton v Brisbane — Princes Park, round seven 2017

Carlton 1.0 | 1.0 | 2.0 | 6.1.37
Brisbane 0.0 | 1.0 | 3.3 | 5.7.37

One of the most dramatic matches of the inaugural season, this Carlton v Brisbane match up was the very last game of the home and away fixture. While the Blues started the season with a bang, they entered this match with a 3-3 scorecard, meanwhile the Lions were on a tear, undefeated and on their way to the first grand final.

Ironically, the first two goals of this game were kicked by Lauren Arnell and Tayla Harris—against the sides they would eventually join—and at half time, the teams couldn’t be separated.

The Lions dominated the third, kicking two goals from five scores, compared to Carlton’s solitary goal, and threatened to keep their winning streak going, but the Blues’ fourth quarter efficiency exposed Brisbane’s poor accuracy in front of goal.

Watch the replay

What really makes this one special is the final 30 seconds. The Blues were surging back, challenging the Lions and making them rue their seven missed shots on goal. Six points down, Carlton had the ball locked in their forward 50. Under immense pressure, they were scrambling, and while being pulled to the ground, Lauren Arnell got boot to ball. Being sure to play in front of her direct opponent, the ball landed in Darcy Vescio’s chest 25 metres out from goal on a narrow angle. Assuming the dynamic forward would go back and take the set shot, the Lions loosened on their opponents, and the quick-thinking Vescio chipped the ball to Bianca Jakobsson directly in front who immediately played on, goals, and evened the ledge with 23 seconds remaining.

Carlton didn’t exactly end Brisbane’s undefeated run, but they ended their winning streak.

8. Western Bulldogs v Melbourne — Docklands, round six 2019

Western Bulldogs 0.0 | 4.0 | 5.2 | 6.2.38
Melbourne 1.5 | 2.6 | 4.7 | 5.9.39

As the second feature of a double-header at Docklands in 2019, the Western Bulldogs and Demons played a match worthy of their long rivalry—one that stretches back to the beginning of the exhibition games in 2013. Melbourne was teetering on the edge, still a chance of making finals, but one loss away from being out of contention, while the Bulldogs unfortunately ruled themselves out a fortnight earlier, but had a chance to dash the Demons’ hopes.

Melbourne dominated the first quarter, but in true Melbourne style, didn’t make the most of it by kicking 1.5.11. The second quarter was all about the Dogs, scoring goals through Katie Brennan, Naomi Ferres, Aisling McCarthy and off the back of an impressive contested mark on the goal line from Aisling Utri. The third was an arm wrestle, highlighted by a desperate kick around the body while being tackled from Maddi Gay—from 40 metres out no less—and an Eden Zanker set shot from the boundary. 

The biggest goal of the match, however, was with just under three minutes remaining for the evening. Down by five, the Demons were surging. Maddy Guerin took possession looking inside 50 and kicked to a contest. Tegan Cunningham crashed the pack from the side and took an impressive contested mark 40 metres from goal. Having missed a shot minutes earlier, pressure was on, but the forward coolly went back and slotted it to put Melbourne on top. And with that, they kept their slim finals hopes alive.

7. Carlton v Fremantle — Princes Park, round seven 2021

Carlton 3.4 | 3.5 | 5.5 | 6.5.41
Fremantle 0.1 | 2.3 | 3.7 | 6.9.45

Coming into this game, most felt that a Fremantle win was a foregone conclusion. The Dockers were sitting second on the ladder, with just one loss for the season, while the Blues had struggled to get back to their 2020 form, and were eighth with three wins.

Carlton sped out of the blocks, using the ball beautifully. A strong contested mark from Nicola Stevens in the goal square saw them convert their first goal five minutes into the contest. Despite largely controlling play, it took another eight minutes for the Blues to goal again through Darcy Vescio, and again on the bell of quarter time, Tayla Harris slotted a booming set shot from 45 metres out. 21 points down, the Dockers had plenty to think about as they went to their quarter time huddle.

In the second, Fremantle was able to stem the Blues’ scoring, while also kicking back-to-back goals of their own through unexpected sources in Stephanie Cain and Jasmin Stewart. But the third quarter saw Carlton press away again—thanks to both Fremantle’s poor accuracy and a stunningly clean roving goal from Georgia Gee.

Up by ten heading into the final quarter, the Blues looked unassailable when Stevens kicked her second, but credit to Fremantle, they persisted. With five minutes remaining, Hayley Miller won the ball on the wing and used her power to drive it to the goal square. Some slick hands from Gemma Houghton got it into the path of a running Sabreena Duffy who managed to get boot to ball as Vaomua Laloifi ran her down.

Eight point margin.

Less than a minute later, Duffy (again) gathered at the top of Fremantle’s attacking 50, wheeled around and bombed it from the paint of the arc. Goal.

Two point margin.

At the proceeding centre stoppage, Roxy Roux had the smarts to make the most of her side’s momentum and spiked the ball forward. Tiah Toth (Haynes) collected and kicked long inside 50 onto the chest of a leading Houghton. Set shot. Goal.

Dockers in front.

With the wind at their backs, the visitors quelled any Carlton attempt to win back the lead, applying immense pressure right across the ground. Across the board, this game had it all. An impressive array of goals, a star player in Nicola Stevens, a dramatic comeback, and full-bodied grit—after all, Kiara Bowers was on the field.

6. Gold Coast v Brisbane — Carrara Stadium, round three 2020

Gold Coast 0.0 | 2.0 | 3.1 | 4.4.28
Brisbane 2.0 | 4.3 | 4.4 | 4.4.28

The first edition of this matchup at AFLW level lived up to the state-based rivalry expectation. The Lions were undefeated and had started the year well, while the Suns were playing their inaugural season, but were fresh off their first ever AFLW win.

Assumptions were that the Suns would put up a bit of a fight, but wouldn’t be able to overcome the experience of Brisbane, and how the match started, it appeared that those assumptions would be correct.

The Lions kicked the only two goals of the first through Rheanne Lugg, and piled on another two in the second to take a 15 point lead into half time. The Suns, however, showed something, with Kalinda Howarth booting her first two AFLW goals to open their ledger.

An impassioned half time speech from experienced Sun—and former Lion—Jamie Stanton lit a fire under the young side, and they came out to restrict Brisbane to a solitary point for the duration of the third, closing the gap to nine points.

The final quarter was all Suns. As they peppered the goals, the tension grew. Kate Lutkins worked her hardest, taking 12 marks for the match and leading their backline, but some hard tackling from the Suns created an opportunity. Stanton kicked from just outside 50 to a leading Howarth with four minutes to go and six points down. Howarth marked, went back and kicked her third for the day to even the scores.

For the remainder of the game, neither side gave an inch, pinballing between the arcs and leaving the first QClash in a draw.

5. Collingwood v North Melbourne — Victoria Park, qualifying final 2021

Collingwood 3.2 | 3.4 | 4.6 | 7.8.50
North Melbourne 1.0 | 3.1 | 7.2 | 7.2.44

The most recent edition of the dramatic rivalry between the Pies and Kangaroos had not only the glory of a win on the line, but a spot in a 2021 preliminary final.

Collingwood spent much of the season in the top three on the ladder, winning their first six games of the season by an average margin of 24 points. Meanwhile, the Roos hadn’t quite been able to recapture their dominant 2020 form—highlighted no less by their goalless performance against the Pies in round four.

There was plenty going on in the first quarter. Emma Kearney spent much of it on the bench working through an early injury. Chloe Molloy was crashing packs. Ruby Schleicher was displaying the damaging run and carry that saw her awarded her first All Australian selection. And Collingwood dominated the scoreboard, taking a 14 point lead into the first break.

Things started to turn for the Roos in the second, largely led by Kaitlyn Ashmore. Keeping Collingwood goalless and kicking two of their own—one of which was a desperate soccer kick on the goal line from Beth Lynch for her first AFLW goal. And that positive momentum continued through the third, with North Melbourne adding goals through Sophie Abbatangelo, Lynch, Ash Riddell and Daria Bannister to be 14 points up at the final break.

But Brianna Davey and her Pies wouldn’t let that happen. They opened the fourth with a Kristy Stratton goal from deep in the pocket, then minutes later put themselves within a point with a physics-defying shot from Chloe Molloy. A high kick under pressure, it looked sure to miss, but the ball landed on its end just before the goal post, and redirected itself through the big sticks.

Then, with two minutes left on the clock, first-year player Tarni Brown found the ball in her hand and plenty of space inside 50 in front of her. Streaming toward goal, she kicked truly and put her Pies in front. With that, they were into a prelim.

Davey played one of the all-time best individual games on the day. Registering 31 disposals—at 81% efficiency—nine tackles, seven clearances and 393 metres gained, surging her side across the line.

4. Melbourne v Fremantle — Casey Fields, round one 2019

Melbourne 2.2 | 3.2 | 8.6 | 8.7.55
Fremantle 3.1 | 6.4 | 6.4 | 9.5.59

This was a significant match in a number of ways. Fremantle went to Casey Fields with eight debutants—seven players including the greatly anticipated Kiara Bowers, as well as new coach Trent Cooper—while Melbourne was the highly fancied home side. The Dockers had never registered a win outside of WA. The Demons were without marquee player Daisy Pearce, who was sitting out the season while pregnant with her twins. It was also a searing 39 degrees out at the shadeless Casey Fields.

Related—A Long Awaited Debut: Kiara Bowers finally hits the AFLW

The game opened fairly evenly, Fremantle only taking a quarter time lead thanks to a post-siren goal from Ashley Sharp. And the visitors took that momentum into the second term. The genius of Ebony Antonio’s move to the forward line became evident, with the defender-turned-forward kicking one goal and two behinds for the quarter. Fremantle also enjoyed goals from Gemma Houghton and Melissa Caulfield, taking a commanding 20 point lead into the long break.

Melbourne wasn’t having that though, and made use of their slick running handball game to heap on five goals during the third quarter—three of which came in less than three minutes of game time—while holding the Dockers scoreless. They looked unstoppable.

But the momentum fell back to Fremantle six minutes into that final quarter when highly touted debutant Bowers calmly went back and slotted a set shot from the pocket to get her side back within two kicks. From there, the Dockers were switched on and kicked two more unanswered goals to claw back the lead and win by four points.

3. North Melbourne v Collingwood — Princes Park, semi final 2020

North Melbourne 1.1 | 2.3 | 4.4 | 5.4.34
Collingwood 1.0 | 4.1 | 4.1 | 5.2.32

Another significant chapter in the North Melbourne and Collingwood rivalry, but unfortunately played to no crowd due to the evolving COVID-19 situation that would ultimately see the season ended the following day. While not an example of a high scoring epic, this one was an anxiety inducing push and pull. A team would take the lead, but not nail the door shut, then the other would kick that door down.

The Roos’ quick start came through Daisy Bateman, and the sides were largely in a standoff for the rest of the quarter until Jordan Membrey goaled late in the term to keep it tight. Collingwood pulled away slightly in the second, and North Melbourne pegged them back in the third. Unsurprisingly, Jasmine Garner and Brianna Davey rose to the top throughout it all.

With just three points separating the finalists at three quarter time, it was well and truly up for grabs. Sophie Abbatangelo’s strong mark and snap shot on goal from the tightest of angles five minutes into the final term put the Kangaroos in the box seat. But this game wasn’t going to end that simply. Membrey hit back two minutes later, turning the intensity right back up. But it was former Pie and now Roo Garner who had the last say. 

Two points down with 15 seconds left on the clock, Collingwood made a last ditch attempt to get the ball inside 50, but it was Garner who read the flight of the ball beautifully, floated across and intercepted the kick. And with that, the Pies’ first final was over.

2. Melbourne v North Melbourne — Casey Fields, round three 2021

Melbourne 1.3 | 7.4 | 8.4 | 9.6.60
North Melbourne 2.1 | 3.1 | 7.3 | 8.3.51

This was unfortunately another outstanding spectacle that took place in front of no crowd due to COVID, but it certainly kept fans enthralled from their couches at home. Both teams went into this round three match undefeated, and had played off in a thrilling two-point game last time they met in round one the previous year.

The Karen Paxman v Emma Kearney match up in the middle—and all over the ground—was a fascinating one. Both are tough, endurance players, their one-on-one was a game in itself. When the Kangaroos took a four point lead into quarter time, the stage was set for the arm wrestle to continue. 

Or not.

In the second term, Melbourne hit rare air where everything seemed to go right. Their run and carry through the corridor and quick handball game saw them go on a full out attack that North Melbourne was scrambling to slow. They piled on six goals, including two to both Tegan Cunningham and Jackie Parry, while Shelley Scott and Kate Hore also joined the party. Their second quarter dominance had the Demons 28 points up at half time.

The third saw the Roos fight back, kicking four goals to Melbourne’s one. This was highlighted by two quick majors from Daria Bannister, who had spent the first four years of her career battling injury, most recently in the same fixture the previous year.

Just one goal split the sides entering the final quarter, and despite an Isabella Eddey major putting North Melbourne within two points, Scott had the last say, goaling after the siren to seal the Demons’ nine point win and continue their winning season.

1. Western Bulldogs v Fremantle — Whitten Oval, round six 2020

Western Bulldogs 2.0 | 4.1 | 7.3 | 8.3.51
Fremantle 1.2 | 4.3 | 6.5 | 10.6.66

Heading into what would be the final home and away round of 2020, Fremantle was on a winning streak only seen previously in Brisbane’s inaugural season and by reigning premiers Adelaide Crows in 2019. The Bulldogs, meanwhile, were coming off four consecutive losses despite a bright start to their season. At a crowdless Whitten Oval, however, they found their groove.

In what would end up being the highest combined score in an AFLW match across the first five years, it was the Dogs who got control early. They looked on track to take a two goal lead into the first break until an impressive contested mark from Kara Antonio inside 50 saw her kick the Dockers’ first goal of the day after the siren.

A quick goal from captain Ellie Blackburn to start the second had the Western Bulldogs back in control, but the sides would largely trade goals for much of the quarter, and the home side maintaining the lead. That was until another red-time goal from Fremantle—this time through the unlikeliest of sources in Laura Pugh—had them edge in front by the half time break.

Momentum swung back toward the Dogs minutes into the third when some poor choices from Docker Katie-Jayne Grieve at half forward saw her give away two 50 metre penalties, landing Aisling McCarthy a set shot from the goal square. They quickly added two more majors through Kirsten McLeod and Deanna Berry and had a strong 17 point lead, but in true Fremantle fashion, some late scoring had them back in a reasonable position at three quarter time, just four points in arrears. 

The biggest moment of this game then came two minutes into the final quarter. Arguably Fremantle’s best player of the day, Ebony Antonio won the ball on the paint of the 50 metre arc. Under pressure with multiple Dogs bearing down, Antonio smoothly evaded all oncoming traffic, had time to contemplate a handball to a teammate, decide against it, and power inside 50 to kick the goal herself. It wasn’t just a stunning goal, it put Fremantle in front and gave them the energy to push toward a win.

Not even an impressive second-effort goal to Danielle Marshall could stop the Dockers, who went on to score three consecutive majors through Mia-Rae Clifford, Kate Flood and Ashley Sharp, stamped their win and continued an undefeated season.

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