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AFLW Season Wrap: Conference B

In the second part of Siren’s season wrap, we’re casting an eye over the tighter and more competitive Conference B. Even with so many unknowns surrounding the season’s end, there is still plenty to take out of the performances of these clubs, including a number of incredible highlights. As with Conference A, we’ll be looking at what went well for each team, what didn’t and what their focus areas should be heading toward 2021.

Related—AFLW Season Wrap: Conference A

Fremantle Dockers: 6 wins, 0 losses, 154.7%

What they did well

The Dockers did a heck of a lot right this year, as their undefeated record suggests, but there were two big standouts for them. The first was their nous to cover the key players they lost to expansion—Dana Hooker, Kellie Gibson, Alicia Janz, Parris Laurie—and injury—Steph Cain, Ann McMahon, Aine Tighe. The number of important players Fremantle had to go without in 2020 was huge, but the growth of their remaining list to cover those losses, combined with their game style was something to behold. The Dockers capitalised on the assets that remained or had been recruited: outside run provided by Ashley Sharp, Gemma Houghton and Ebony Antonio; pressure at the contest from Kiara Bowers, Jasmin Stewart and Katie-Jayne Greive; a deep forward line with Sabreena Duffy, Gabby O’Sullivan and Roxy Roux.

The second was the word we heard from the club on multiple occasions: resilience. Fremantle were the never say die team who were literally in games right until the dying moments. Even when they were pushed to what seemed like their limit, they always found another level. As a club, they clearly have an all in attitude—led by coach Trent Cooper and on field leaders Kara Antonio, Ebony Antonio and Kiara Bowers—that allows them to push that little bit further.

What didn’t work

It’s tough to really label something here because the Dockers were just that good, but on a pedantic level there are two areas where they might improve.

Only twice did Fremantle win the clearances out of their seven games this year, and while it was clear that they were well-versed in winning the ball back, they would become that much more damaging if they were winning it at the source more often than not.

Other than this, the Dockers did seem to be caught out a little by teams who locked the ball down and limited ball movement on the outside. Although they did eventually get over the line against Collingwood and St Kilda, Fremantle did struggle to get those games on their terms.

The focus for 2021

Gemma Houghton’s accuracy on goal. While Fremantle went at a 52% conversion rate, Houghton herself kicked 4.10—29%. If she can clean up her kicking at goal, there is absolutely no reason why she can’t be the best forward in the game.

Carlton Blues: 5 wins, 1 loss, 151.8%

What they did well

Carlton were the most damaging outside run team in the competition this year. Their overlap run between players like Chloe Dalton, Georgia Gee and Brooke Walker generated a lot of their most efficient attacking play. Opposition teams really struggled to limit this run and the Blues used this to swing momentum their way for crucial periods in games. 

On an individual level: Madison Prespakis’ ability—as a 19-year-old—to break through a tag and lead their midfield, Darcy Vescio’s gut running from defence to the forward line and Kerryn Harrington’s courageous defensive efforts. There was a lot to like about Carlton this year.

Madison Prespakis gets a handball away against the Saints. AFLW Conference B. Image: Megan Brewer
Madison Prespakis gets a handball away against the Saints. Image: Megan Brewer

What didn’t work

The main issue for the Blues this year was their accuracy at goal, and while it didn’t hurt them so much against the weaker teams—their 6.12 scoreline against Richmond still garnered a 34 point win—better teams certainly exploited this. Their 3.6 against Collingwood in round two saw them lose by 15 points despite registering the same number of scoring shots as their opposition.

Going hand in hand, the Blues often didn’t make the most of their forward entries, only registering a shot on goal 41% of the time. While this is by no means a terrible number, they only recorded a better efficiency than their opponents twice this home and away season.

The focus for 2021

Keeping standards high to maintain this year’s intensity level and entering their forward line more cleanly. By hitting better spots and targets inside 50 their opportunities to score—and accuracy—will increase.

Georgia Gee bounces the ball against the Dogs. AFLW Conference B. Image: Megan Brewer
Georgia Gee bounces the ball against the Dogs. Image: Megan Brewer

Melbourne Demons: 4 wins, 2 losses, 164.5%

What they did well

Melbourne have been one of the best Victorian teams at retaining players, which helped them cover their injury woes. A shallower list than Melbourne’s would not have coped in such a way—even when needing to elevate Sarah Perkins for three games.

The Dees’ backline was also the stingiest in the competition, conceding just 150 points across the season—including finals. The addition of Libby Birch and Daisy Pearce to their backline solidified their structures immensely, particularly with Harriet Cordner spending a lot of time up the field. It wasn’t simply Pearce and Birch who deserve credit for this, either. Sarah Lampard, Meg Downie, Sinead Goldrick and a number of others played significant roles in the back 50.

Karen Paxman kicks a goal against the Western Bulldogs. AFLW Conference B. Image: Megan Brewer
Karen Paxman kicks a goal against the Western Bulldogs. Image: Megan Brewer

What didn’t work

Outside of injury issues, Melbourne’s problems of the past few seasons remained: dropping a key game against an underdog and accuracy at goal.

The Dees’ round three loss to St Kilda was reminiscent of past losses (GWS in 2017 and Collingwood in 2018). This is not to diminish what St Kilda were able to do, but Melbourne went into that game as favourites for a reason and simply struggled to get it on their terms. Another common denominator across their two losses in 2020 is their limited bench during those games: Goldrick and Guerin’s injuries against St Kilda and Goldrick and Lampard’s injuries against Carlton.

Melbourne’s inaccuracy has plagued them for years and during their pre-season scratch matches it seemed they had resolved this but alas, it wasn’t to be. They had the fourth worst accuracy in the competition (41%) across the home and away season, and averaged 28% worse accuracy than their opponents week to week.

The focus for 2021

Melbourne need a contested marking foil for Tegan Cunningham when Kate Hore and Shelley Scott have to venture up the ground. We saw Cunningham really battle to take marks or hit the scoreboard, and with Hore and Scott impacting up the field, Melbourne’s forward line struggled.

Collingwood Magpies: 4 wins, 2 losses, 153.7%

What they did well

Heading into the season all the talk was about Collingwood’s midfield. With the addition of Brianna Davey, the improvement of Sharni Layton and the already reliable Jaimee Lambert and Britt Bonnici, they seemed unstoppable at the contest.

They lost the clearances just twice all season—rounds one and two—but dominated otherwise, and amplifying that contested work was Steph Chiocci’s run and carry on the wing. They also used the ball beautifully all season, never dipping below 61% disposal efficiency. The Pies averaged 66% disposal efficiency for the home and away season, which was the equal highest in the competition.

What didn’t work

Collingwood struggled all season to find a leader in their forward line and never really found any consistency in their forward half. They weren’t able to find a reliable target for more than one week in a row, and too often their best forward was a midfielder (or Sharni Layton) heading down there. It was disappointing given their brilliant ball movement was often let down when it mattered. They were also one of two teams that battled some issues off the ball with undisciplined acts giving away free kicks at crucial moments.

The focus for 2021

Recruit or develop a contested marking, straight kicking forward who can be relied upon. It’s really as simple as that. Were Collingwood to add a player like Caitlin Greiser or Jesse Tawhiao-Wardlaw to their forward line they’d become fairly tough to stop.

St Kilda Saints: 2 wins, 4 losses, 90.6%

What they did well

They bought in. St Kilda was the best expansion team of the year—edging out Gold Coast—because the whole team bought into their game style and played their role. These may seem like footy cliches, but watching St Kilda play it was evident that Peta Searle has developed an incredibly strong culture. 

They were willing to lock down and limit opposition ball movement while creating space for players like Patrikios, Vesely and Dillon to win the clearance and get it to the outside runners. They were simply well-drilled. The Saints also deserve a huge shoutout for their list development, creating an incredibly balanced list with little regard for big names instead focusing on hard workers and role players.

Nat Exon runs for a loose ball. AFLW Conference B. Image: Megan Brewer
Nat Exon runs for a loose ball. Image: Megan Brewer

What didn’t work

While they certainly had some highlights up forward (Caitlin Greiser, anyone?) the Saints did struggle a little to make the most of their attacking presses. They registered a scoring shot with just 37% of their forward entries—the fourth worst in the competition. Greiser headlined their forward line kicking ten goals, but next in line was a four-way tie—Darcy Guttridge, Molly McDonald, Jess Sedunary and Kate Shierlaw—each with just two goals.

The focus for 2021

Balancing out their attacking game without getting caught out in defence. We saw the Saints really work on their attacking game against Carlton in round five and it did open them up a little defensively. Finding a way to maintain their solid defence while also putting greater scores on the board will undoubtedly be an off season focus for Peta Searle.

Western Bulldogs: 1 win, 5 losses, 72.8%

What they did well

The big highlight of 2020 for the Dogs was Isabel Huntington’s full season in defence. Her intercept marking and ball reading ability really held the Dogs together when they were under siege. She filled the (huge) hole left by Libby Birch and did it wonderfully. She averaged 13 touches and 4.8 marks a game directing the Dogs’ defence.

Ellie Blackburn gets a kick away. AFLW Conference B. Image: Megan Bewer
Ellie Blackburn gets a kick away. Image: Megan Bewer

What didn’t work

The Dogs really lacked outside run and forward options at key moments this season. Injuries robbed them of important players at times, but there were also some curious selection choices at times. Bonnie Toogood began the season as their main forward target, and did it well, but once she went down with a knee injury Kirsten McLeod was moved as their deepest forward, robbing them of her speed, run and carry up the field. McLeod was strong—and damaging—in that forward position, but her outside running ability was too crucial to the team for her to be sitting forward, especially with highly touted draftee Nell Morris-Dalton waiting in the wings.

The focus for 2021

Realistically the Dogs should be looking hard at their team structure and lineups heading toward next season. Finding a balanced team while keeping players in the positions they can be most damaging is a puzzle the Western Bulldogs need to solve.

West Coast Eagles: 1 win, 5 losses, 32.1%

What they did well

Won the clearances. The Eagles lost the clearances just once all season—in their win against the Dogs. Their strength at the contest was certainly a highlight of their season, led by Dana Hooker, Emma Swanson and Imahra Cameron in the midfield. Parris Laurie also didn’t miss a beat this year and was certainly an important part of that midfield strength. She averaged 18 hit outs a game—an improvement of more than seven on 2019.

It was also pretty important that when things got a little out of hand for the Eagles—like in their loss to Fremantle in round two—they were able to follow up in the next week by going back to basics to gather a little more control of games.

What didn’t work

The Eagles’ balance between inside and outside the contest was poor. While they did very well to win the majority of clearances, they were unable to capitalise on that dominance once the clearance was won. They also really struggled to hit targets around the ground which played into opposition hands, turning over the ball far too often. It certainly felt like the Eagles didn’t quite have enough class across the ground and relied on too few to do too much.

The focus for 2021

A big, marking key forward. West Coast desperately needs a reliable focal point of their forward line—much like Collingwood. Danika Pisconeri, Grace Kelly and Emily Maguire all tried to be that player for the Eagles but no one was able to really take hold. Finding a consistent marking target is an important offseason focus for them.

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