05/03/2024

A number of teams across the AFLW will be testing new look structures for season seven. (Photos: Western Bulldogs; Essendon FCW/Twitter; Gold Coast Suns)

With nine AFLW practice matches to come this weekend, every team will get the chance to finalise their game plans and face one final test ahead of Round 1.

Some teams are entering rebuilds, others touching up their lists for a flag tilt, while four enter the competition for the first time.

The Inner Sanctum has taken a look at what’s on your team’s wishlist for the last competitive hit-out before the season starts.

Future of the forward line

Adelaide has lost not only one of its best forwards, but one of the competition’s best players in Erin Phillips to Port Adelaide. She was the club’s most prolific by a fair margin, 15 goals ahead of Dani Ponter.

Season six leading goalkicker Ash Woodland enters the season in magnificent form, but can’t do it all alone. The league’s best, including practice match opponent North Melbourne, have a number of key defensive options to deal with just one key forward.

A player like Stevie-Lee Thompson is an effective stop gap, having previously won the Crows’ leading goalkicker award. But at 30, she’s not an option for the future.

McKenzie Dowrick is another option, having played a taller marking role at stage league level. But only playing one game for the Crows last season, she doesn’t look to be the first choice option for coach Matthew Clarke.

Jasmine Simmons showed promise as a marking target in her four games. Perhaps the only question in a premiership side which relies so heavily upon its midfield and defence is how it moves forward, up forward.

Youngsters showing promise

Brisbane has one of the most talent-stacked lists in the competition, largely keeping together its group from season six despite some strong offers from expansion clubs Hawthorn and Port Adelaide.

The Lions have managed to continue to blood youngsters while in perpetual contention, with Zimmorlei Farquharson, Courtney Hodder and Isabel Dawes vital parts of the 21.

In this practice game, Lions fans will want to see the next generation of youngsters demonstrate the flashes of promise they’ve shown so far. Lucinda Pullar and Luka Yoshida-Martin have a few games under their belt, but will have to show consistency across the pre-season to disrupt the best team and earn a spot.

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Supporters will be eager to see what new draftee and latest Lions Academy graduate Ella Smith can do. The young midfielder showed some serious goal nous in the QAFLW, and could be a key rotation in both the centre and forward line.

Getting it right in the middle

Carlton goes into its practice game against grand finalist Melbourne having lost Maddy Prespakis, Grace Egan, and Georgia Gee to other clubs, and without the injured Lucy McEvoy. A full centre bounce rotation down against one of the best midfields in the competition is not an ideal situation.

Blues fans will be hoping to see the balance struck in the centre bounce with Mimi Hill, Maddy Guerin, Abbie McKay, Jess Dal Pos, Elise O’Dea and draftees Keeley Skepper and Lily Goss to work with.

A player like Olivia Purcell showed her ability to impact the scoreboard in the match simulation against Essendon. Coach Daniel Harford may look to send the defensively strong O’Dea or McKay in for a lockdown job.

Goss in particular will have a lot of eyes on her. A fierce tackler and best in and under, she’ll get her biggest test yet against one of the league’s most versatile midfield groups.

Midfield marvels off to hot start

No Bri Davey, no Brit Bonnici. It sounds like every Collingwood fan’s worst nightmare, yet it’s the reality they have to live with in season seven.

The competition will get its first look at how the midfield operates without its two biggest stars on Saturday, with an important test against newcomers Sydney.

Perhaps the biggest undoing in Sydney’s list build was its inability to lure a proven midfield star. Ash Riddell was heavily rumoured to be on its radar, but it wasn’t to be. The Pies will be more than happy about that after losing to the Roos in their match simulation after Riddell kicked the match-winner.

Mikala Cann took a big step when given opportunity to make the midfield her own last season, while Tarni Brown showed promise.

Against a Sydney midfield which will largely be comprised of inexperienced young talents in Montana Ham and Sofia Hurley, they’ll be able to guide the new blood in Imogen Evans and Charlotte Taylor as the group builds.

Backline holding up under fire

The Essendon defence had a rough welcome to the AFLW in its match simulation against Melbourne, having to deal with Tayla Harris, Kate Hore and Casey Sherriff piling on the goals.

The grand finalists kicked 12 goals to cruise to a convincing victory. It showed that the Essendon backline still has a way to go before it can hold up against the very best the competition has to offer.

With no Ellyse Gamble named for the match against Port Adelaide, it’ll be up to Dani Marshall, Olivia Barton and possibly Sophie Alexander, who’s been tipped by many for a move inside defensive 50.

Erin Phillips and Gemma Houghton will be no pushovers, with the pair having combined for 90 AFLW goals. It’s another big test for an inexperienced group that will want to iron out their best 21 quickly.

Next generation of midfielders explode

The new crop of Fremantle midfielders will get to show their wares against rivals West Coast on Saturday, with Hayley Miller and Kiara Bowers not available for the pre-season clash.

Though disappointingly Nikki Gore won’t be able to feature due to the league’s health and safety protocols, Dockers fans can expect to see the fight from their young blood in the guts.

Tahlia Read and Megan Kauffman will have the opportunity to utilise their pace against an Eagles outfit that has lost a lot of outside speed of their own. Expect plenty of on-ball minutes for Dana East, who may find a match-up against Emma Swanson in her future.

Dana East will play a crucial part in Fremantle’s centre bounce rotations. (Photo: Fremantle FC)

Both sides will be trialling options in a number of areas across the ground. Coming off a big loss in match simulation against Richmond, coach Trent Cooper will be looking to address what went wrong this time around.

Closing the game out

More than any individual area of the ground, Geelong let itself down more often than not being able to kick that one extra goal or hold teams right to the final siren in season six.

The Cats lost seven games by under 15 points last season, with three of those being under 10 points. This included some of the very best in the league in the Lions, Kangaroos, and Pies. The Suns were one of those teams earlier this year, losing by just 11 points.

Naming a 26-woman squad with Maddy McMahon the only notable missing piece, fans will get to see what a full strength team can do in a similar match-up to six months ago.

Coach Dan Lowther’s high pressure game-style is sure to only benefit from the addition of Mikayla Bowen (averaging 5.8 tackles) and the movement of Chloe Scheer from the forward line into the midfield.

All things going right, Cats fans should expect a win on the road in the final preparations for season seven.

Strong leadership

The Gold Coast Suns are down a number of leaders in season seven – captain Hannah Dunn, Kate Surman and Sarah Perkins all departed. In their place arrived a number of players unfamiliar and inexperienced at AFLW level.

Tara Bohanna‘s appointment as captain speaks to her impact on the club in barely 12 months, but also comes with a huge challenge for the club moving forward.

She’ll be supported by veteran leaders in Jamie Stanton and Bess Keaney, but now has to balance the weight of being the main marking target in a different looking forward line with leadership.

Suns fans will eagerly await to see how she lines up against fellow captain Meg McDonald on Saturday, in a big test of the juggling act ahead.

Running out four quarters

Season six was often the same story for GWS: start off solidly in a competitive battle before fading out late and losing all spark.

Winnable games against Richmond and Carlton were lost this way, while it would have been the case against St Kilda had it not been for a goal after the siren.

The Giants’ match simulation against the Swans saw them kick away in the second half to claim a comfortable three goal win. It’s all well and good to do so against a new squad – can they do the same against fellow inaugural side the Western Bulldogs away from home?

Two goals from Emily Pease and Zarlie Goldsworthy is already promising good signs for an area of the ground the Giants were lacking in previously. Bringing 23 players into this game, this will be as close to a test of a game for premiership points as possible.

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Defence balanced in the air and on the ground*

Facing a Tigers forward line that seems significantly more balanced than in past years, and that is fresh off posting 70-plus points against the Dockers, the Hawks will look to find their best defensive balance at the MCG.

Hawthorn built tall from the backline, with the majority of its defensive brigade standing over 170cm. Of The Inner Sanctum’s predicted Round 1 line-up, it’s a largely top-heavy group.

With Steph Williams and Emelia Yassir running around, if the Hawks can’t dominate the air, they may find themselves on the back foot at ground level.

The Hawks already gave up 70 points to the Eagles, and will come up against a team filled with significantly higher forward firepower in the Tigers.

*squad not named at time of publishing

Making the final touches

Melbourne entered season six as the clear favourite for the premiership, and made it all the way to the grand final before succumbing to the brilliant Adelaide.

Coach Mick Stinear is looking to iron out his best team with a 28-woman squad named for the practice game against Carlton. There weren’t many weaknesses in this group last season, losing just one game.

The only team that had the Dees’ number all year long was Adelaide. They struggled to contain the dominant midfield pair of Ebony Marinoff and Anne Hatchard on both occasions they met.

One of those final touches could be rotating different midfield line-ups against the young Blues group, including finding a dedicated tagger. Shelley Heath has done the role before in both the forward and backlines against important small forwards and rebounders, and could have the endurance to do so here too.

With 12 players to pull from on the bench, expect the defensive and forward structures to also be tested. Newcomers Charlotte Wilson and Jordi Ivey add to the depth of the backline, while Sabreena Duffy brings even more quality to a stacked forward group.

Newfound run and carry

The expansion signing period saw a couple of key pillars of North Melbourne’s outside game in Aileen Gilroy and Kaitlyn Ashmore depart for Hawthorn. Gilroy’s pace and Ashmore’s uncanny ability to find space to mark and utilise her elite foot skills often made up for lacking options inside 50.

Bella Eddey played every game last season on the wing, and while inconsistent, showed promise in the role. With only 21 games under her belt, she’ll be expected to start to step up and play an important role for Darren Crocker’s side.

Closer towards goals, Ellie Gavalas is a player that could move back to the midfield as the other winger. Playing as a half-forward flanker for most of season six, expect her to take over Ashmore’s role. With a forward line that struggled for marking targets outside of Tahlia Randall however, her services may be more required there.

Taylah Gatt will likely get the chance to show what she can do in the wing role against tough opposition in Eloise Jones and Niamh Kelly.

Midfield dominance

While ultimately losing the match-up, Port Adelaide’s midfield group put in a strong shift against a powerful Adelaide unit in its match simulation. Now facing fellow newcomers Essendon on Saturday, the in and under brigade have the chance to flex their muscles.

With the Bombers missing Georgia Nanscawen and Jordan Zanchetta, and likely to trial what their best contested mix will look like, it gives the chance for Jacqui Yorston, Hannah Ewings, Erin Phillips and Maria Moloney to build chemistry and confidence.

Maddy Prespakis will provide strong competition, but coach Lauren Arnell would be well within her rights to send Ewings straight to her to watch and learn the craft of a league best and fairest.

Gaps filled by new recruits*

Richmond’s recruiting has looked to pay dividends early doors, with a domineering 63-point win in match simulation over Fremantle last weekend.

The list management team might need a pay-rise should the Tigers also dominate the Hawks on Sunday at the MCG, with the additions seeming to add to the structure perfectly.

Grace Egan adds an extra level of grunt into the midfield mix, freeing up the silky ball users in Mon Conti and Ellie McKenzie to play to the strong ball movement the Tigers demonstrated last season.

Steph Williams adds another ground level presence inside 50, giving more mobility alongside Emelia Yassir and Stella Reid to compliment Katie Brennan and Courtney Wakefield‘s marking prowess.

Libby Graham, meanwhile, will try and fill the gap left by Harriet Cordner as she recovers from an ACL injury alongside Rebecca Miller.

If the Tigers are serious about pushing into finals contention this season, all areas should be firing with the fresh new additions.

*squad not named at time of publishing

Immediate impact from new and old

St Kilda comes into season seven welcoming new recruits and familiar faces into the side, and a number of them will be on show on Friday.

There are perhaps none more anticipated than midfield prodigy Georgia Patrikios. After sitting out last season due to vaccination requirements, it’ll be the first time in 17 months Saints fans get to watch her.

There will questions around her match fitness, and how she combines with new rucks Erin McKinnon and Simone Nalder, as well as elevated VFLW midfielder Hannah Stuart.

Saints fans will also want to see increased output from the forward line, which struggled to put scores on the board in season six. Nicola Stevens will be a big part of that, and whether she can apply scoreboard pressure alongside Nicola Xenos, Caitlin Greiser and Kate Shierlaw could provide an important preview for St Kilda’s season.

Settling when the going gets tough

Sydney couldn’t keep its backline together in its match simulation against cross-town rivals GWS, going down by three goals and giving up 51 points in its first competitive encounter.

This comes as no surprise, as the Swans have brought in very little leadership into the side in defensive 50. It is perhaps one of the squad’s biggest weaknesses in comparison to the other three expansion sides.

Swans fans should be watching to see if coach Scott Gowans drops Lisa Steane or Alana Woodward into the backline should the going get tough against a Collingwood forward line which includes Sabrina Frederick and Chloe Molloy.

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Molly Eastman has captained North Melbourne’s VFLW side, and while traditionally a midfielder, could perform a similar leadership role in defensive 50.

The last thing a young, inexperienced team needs is a big score run up against it before Round 1.

Defensive structure set

More than any other team entering season seven, West Coast has undergone an almost full-scale rebuild, with 15 players departed from a 30-woman list. With Evie Gooch inactive, it may as well be more than half.

As such, the backline is all but entirely reliant on Belinda Smith, which was exposed clearly in the Eagles’ match simulation against the Hawks. Tamara Luke got off the chain and kicked four goals.

Beth Schilling took advantage of the newfound responsibility though despite her two games of AFLW experience. At 177cm, she’ll be required to take on the big responsibility of Amy Franklin in this match-up.

Fremantle’s forward line lines up relatively short, but Aine Tighe being swung forward could provide plenty of challenge.

With their own forward group firing through Aimee Schmidt, Kate Bartlett and Shanae Davison, the Eagles will also want to keep the ball rolling after an 11 goal effort. This was 17 points higher than their AFLW record.

A partner for Nell

While the Western Bulldogs weren’t hit as hard by expansion and trade as they had been in previous years, their tall stocks in the forward line have plunged from elite to nearly non-existent.

Bonnie Toogood and Izzy Huntington are both in different colours now, leaving Rising Star nominee Nell Morris-Dalton as the most experienced tall in the forward 50.

Richelle Cranston brings the experience, but stands at 171cm, often out-reached by taller defenders. Only kicking five goals last season, she’d need a significant lift in her game to be considered the second marking option.

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Bulldogs fans will be keen to see who picks up the slack on Saturday. Gabby Newton will likely rotate forward in her return to football, and at 175cm, is a genuine aerial threat.

Deanna Berry (171cm) has played a marking role before, but after returning for just three games in season six, is still regaining full match fitness in her first full pre-season in over 18 months. New recruit Millie Brown could also be considered, with all the skills required to switch from back to forward.

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