Before AFLW season 2020 began, I put together this list of the most underrated AFLW players in the competition. While some managed to shake that tag this year—Shelley Scott won Melbourne’s best and fairest and Jenna Bruton came equal-fourth in the league-wide edition—others continue to fly under the radar. With the season over, I’m revisiting this piece in a way, looking at who went unheralded throughout this year.
Kirsten McLeod (Western Bulldogs)
In a young team where praise was rightfully heaped upon Isabel Huntington, Ellie Blackburn and Gabrielle Newton, Kirsten McLeod seems to have been forgotten. When the team’s main forward target, Bonnie Toogood went down with a knee injury in round four, McLeod was moved into the forward line. Despite being known for her agility and speed on the wing, McLeod showed she is no easy beat in a one-on-one contest of strength. Her marking on the lead was a highlight, as were her five goals—four of which came in the final two home and away games.
Kirsten McLeod is the kind of player that any team would want two of: one running hard on the wing and one as a strong lead up forward. Preferably the former kicking to the latter.
Lauren Bella (Gold Coast Suns)
It was certainly an interesting year for rucks, and in the process of everyone praising Sharni Layton’s remarkable improvement and rueing Lauren Pearce’s knee injury, a lot of commenters seem to have missed Lauren Bella’s leadership at the Suns. At 19 years of age, Bella came into the Suns’ side with just three senior games under her belt, but she immediately got to work within a midfield headlined by Jamie Stanton and Jacqui Yorston, and led the competition for hitouts with 130.
As a young ruck she’ll only improve, but 2020 was undoubtedly an incredible show of grit and presence from Bella and an exciting long-term leader of the club.
Harriet Cordner (Melbourne Demons)
In a Melbourne team whose midfield was ominous and whose defence was the stingiest in the competition, Harriet Cordner had a hand in both of those parts of the ground throughout the season. When Lauren Pearce was ruled out for at least half the season, a number of questions were raised around who could fill that role. What we saw was Eden Zanker and Cordner share the job, each with their own distinct rucking style. While Zanker has been commended for her forward line heroics, few have mentioned Cordner’s impact on the team’s moderate success in 2020.
She strongly held down that role in the ruck early in the season, averaging 15 hitouts a game across the first three rounds. Then when Meg Downie fell ill and missed round five onward, Cordner slotted back into her key defender role, important in one-on-ones against key forwards which allowed Daisy Pearce, Libby Birch, Sinead Goldrick and Sarah Lampard to rebound out of the back half.
Katherine Gillespie-Jones (North Melbourne Tasmanian Kangaroos)
The Kangaroos had the second best defence in the league this year—while Brittany Gibson played forward—but few seem to have noticed. Katherine Gillespie-Jones was effectively the leader of the Roos’ back half, and also snuck forward to kick a career high three goals. Her strength, versatility and cool head are important attributes which all helped North Melbourne to balance out their team of star names and in the process, limit opponents’ scoring.
Brittany Bonnici (Collingwood Magpies)
Another player who is often forgotten thanks to a number of high profile teammates. Brittany Bonnici has been doing the dirty work in Collingwood’s midfield for four years and has arguably been the Pies’ most consistent performer across their AFLW history.
In 2020 she improved her average disposals by seven, and while all eyes were on Jaimee Lambert, Brianna Davey and Sharni Layton, Bonnici was the one handing them the ball. Her performance against the Lions where she gathered 26 touches was certainly a season highlight as she set the tone for her teammates as soon as the siren went.
Phoebe Monahan (Richmond Tigers)
It’s easy to assume that Richmond’s defence was simply poor given they conceded a whopping 322 points throughout the home and away season. That’s an average of nearly 54 points a game. Defence wasn’t necessarily the Tigers’ main problem, but without Phoebe Monahan, their first season would have been far bleaker.
Granted, the ball spent more time in the backline than Monahan would have previously been used to, but she certainly rose to the challenge. Averaging more than 17 touches a game—up ten from her career average pre-season—14 of those were kicks to relieve pressure. She’s a smart footballer, something Richmond recruiters will ideally sign more of heading into 2021.
Lauren Ahrens (Gold Coast Suns)
A key to Gold Coast’s first AFLW season was their two defensive pillars in Jade Pregelj and Lauren Ahrens. While Pregelj’s back story and journey back to football garnered her some deserved attention, toiling away alongside her quietly was Ahrens who proved crucial to the Suns’ trademark gamestyle.
She’s tough and persistent, doing the small things right that any defender will tell you earns praise inside a footy club but none outside. Gold Coast conceded the fewest points of any expansion side and were the only of the four to play a final. This wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for the tireless efforts of Lauren Ahrens, in her first season no less.
Ebony Antonio (Fremantle Dockers)
Possibly the most versatile player in the competition, it’s stunning that Ebony Antonio doesn’t get more recognition. Starting her AFLW career as a key defender, she was unleashed as a tough forward in 2019. This year, however, she really excelled on the wing as Fremantle lost some outside run through injury and expansion.
She was one of the first players I added to the Siren All Australian team because she was undoubtedly the stand out winger this year, yet didn’t make the AFLW All Australian team and earned just one solitary competition best and fairest vote for the season. I’m not too sure what she needs to do in order to get more attention, but I can guarantee any coach would snap her up in a heartbeat.
Jordan Membrey (Collingwood Magpies)
Heading into 2020 Jordan Membrey had Collingwood’s highest goal kicking average, and while Collingwood really did struggle to find reliable goalkickers each week, Membrey was the one to stand up more often than not.
She led the team with seven goals and more than doubled her career average disposals. Initially drafted as a midfielder it seems that Membrey is more comfortable in the forward line and should receive a bit more attention when it comes to discussing Collingwood’s forward half.
Tyla Hanks (Melbourne Demons)
This underrated tag has followed Tyla Hanks around for two years, with her sliding seamlessly into Melbourne’s lineup and not missing a game since her debut. After playing predominantly forward last year, Hanks spent much of 2020 in the midfield, and really made her mark in round four against Collingwood, running with the white hot Jaimee Lambert. While Lambert still gathered plenty of the ball, Hanks was certainly able to significantly curb her impact and gathered her own season high 15 touches.
It’s what Hanks does without the ball, however, that makes her so valuable, and largely the reason she is so often ignored in the scope of Melbourne’s list. The footy world tends to focus far too heavily on pure disposal numbers and rarely considers the impact of those disposals, or the impact players can have without actually possessing the ball. Hanks’ hard two way running and repeat efforts make it possible for players like Paxman and O’Dea to perform their roles to the standard we expect every week.