18/04/2024

Could the women's state league competitions start in alignment with the AFLW? (Photos: SANFL; AFL)

With the AFLW starting in the first week of January, the women's state league competitions will once again partially align with the top level.

The VFLW season will once again be starting in February, six weeks into the AFLW competition. It’s the same partial alignment model that was used in 2021 after the Victorian state league was moved forward.

A similar set up was used across Western Australia, South Australia, and Queensland, with all of their women’s state leagues kicking off in late February.

It’s a necessarily evil due to clashes with cricket season. Essendon was forced to play its home games out at the Hangar in Tullamarine until the beginning of May. Darebin suffered a similar fate, returning to Bill Lawry Oval in mid-April.

Under the old structure, where women’s state league seasons commenced at the start of May, this wasn’t an issue. However, this meant there was a clear gap between the timings of the top level, and the state leagues.

No competitions are more affected by this quandary than Victoria’s, which will boast a full 10 AFLW reserves or aligned teams in 2022.

Even with the mid February start, every Victorian team will have to rely on practice games or match simulation drills to keep their depth match fit early doors.

Though they give the players a chance to prove that they can step up to the next level, it’s not as strong of a use case for coaches to base their selection off.

As an example, Essendon’s Mia-Rae Clifford kicked five goals in a pre-season warm up game against the Casey Demons. While she ultimately would finish fifth in the VFLW goalkicking with 16 goals in 17 games, her highest haul for the rest of the year was three majors.

It may have helped Clifford make her case to be the Bombers’ starting full-forward all year round, but it wasn’t necessarily an accurate reflection of how a player would perform in an AFLW match.

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Conversely, AFLW-listed Geelong youngster Georgia Clarke kicked a career high four goals in the semi final against the Southern Saints, well after the AFLW season had ended.

In the men’s competitions, this would have likely seen Clarke in the mix had another forward gone down with injury or been out of form (see Marlion Pickett and the 2019 AFL Grand Final).

Instead, she had nowhere upwards to go, with the competition having finished months earlier. While this was in July because of COVID interruptions, the semi final was originally slated for late June, nearly three months after the Cats concluded their AFLW season.

While ideally the 14 home and away round VFLW competition would start on the same weekend as the AFLW, the even earlier start of the elite competition makes this hard.

AFLW CEO Nicole Livingstone spoke on Thursday on the challenges faced trying to organise the best model for both competitions.

“Certainly for the development of the AFLW to have something sitting underneath when they can’t find form or come back from injury is important,” Livingstone told media at the AFLW fixture launch.

“VFLW will not sit directly underneath the start of AFLW this year. It’s something that we’d like to work towards, but obviously there are complications around that. Having a wicket in a lot of community venues also complicates it.”

With more and more young talent coming through the NAB League and being given the opportunity to play in the VFLW in their draft year, having senior AFLW players to learn off and play against could only help accelerate their development.

Pick 2 and now Geelong Cat Georgie Prespakis played five games of VFLW before getting drafted, coming up against the likes of Ebony O’Dea, Mikala Cann, Mia King and Sophie Van De Heuvel in her midfield battles.

But imagine instead that she had able to play 10 or more matches against AFLW-level midfielders trying their hardest to earn selection, or veterans who are returning after failing to qualify for finals.

This may further add in complications with the timing of the NAB League Girls competition, but giving players opportunity against stronger opponents could only benefit them.

A number of teams have gone hard at the draft in recent years, bringing in stacks of young talent, including the Western Bulldogs.

The likes of Gemma Lagioia and Isabelle Pritchard were able to prove their mettle in the second tier competition, but didn’t get the AFLW opportunity they would have liked.

With even more draftees coming in this year trying to break into a stacked midfield with only 10 matches plus finals for opportunity, the more competitive games they can play the better.

Bulldogs captain Ellie Blackburn believes that the practice games in place this year will, however, see young players given ample opportunity to put their hands up.

“They’re training [the VFLW players], so the girls that don’t get selected will train with them on the Saturday, I assume that’s probably what’s going to happen,” Blackburn told The Inner Sanctum.

“I have no doubt by that time of year that we’re going to have practice games rolling around that they’ll have the chance to go into.

“There’ll still be that opportunity for them to play footy on the weekend, and put their name forward for selection.”

While it isn’t an ideal solution, AFLW clubs have to consider the nature of state league competitions as a whole.

AFLW players are already being underpaid for the work they put into the season while also having to most often hold onto a second job for the off-season. State league players then, as semi-professionals, are giving up their weekends with even less compensation while often working 9-5 during the week.

If the state league competitions were to start in alignment of the eventual December move for the AFLW, this could cause more problems around player availabilities. It likely would no longer be viable at all for many VFLW-listed players.

“I know it’s been altered throughout the years to come earlier alongside the AFLW season,” Blackburn said.

“We need to be understanding that that’s not their [VFLW-listed players’] job necessarily, that’s their thing on the side that they’re doing.

“They’re competing really hard in the VFLW, so it will probably be harder to bring it earlier considering it’s a real holiday period in January for them.”

Around the states

While the VFLW competition is built primarily off the backs of aligned teams, the other states couldn’t be more different.

The SANFLW, WAFLW, QAFLW and NTFL women’s competitions all have no true alignments with AFLW sides, and operate primarily standalone.

Players from those states will return to play for whichever club will sign them.

South Australian fans were treated to watching Adelaide’s Ebony Marinoff put on one of the best midfield performances of the year in the SANFLW Grand Final with Glenelg. Fremantle’s Sabreena Duffy likewise was best on ground for Peel in the WAFLW Grand Final.

While she wasn’t playing with the Gold Coast Suns, Jasmyn Hewett plied her trade in the top end with Pint, winning the Gwynne Medal as the competition’s best and fairest player.

These leagues operate as a similar second tier to how the NPL or the NBL1 competitions do for the top level female footballers and basketballers. There is minimal alignment, and some players will play full seasons in both.

We’ve seen some men’s state league players even make use of the October-March NTFL as a pseudo pre-season, such as Port Melbourne’s Callum Searle with Waratah.

With less teams in each of these states, there’s less demand for an aligned season, and perhaps even a case to be made to keep them split further.

Travelling emergencies who come interstate could benefit from a change, however. Particularly with WA border closures, some unlucky Eagles and Dockers may find themselves playing no games in nearly a month.

If other competitions were pushed closer in line with the AFLW season, those fringe interstaters could very well play a one-off game in another competition, similar to how Essendon’s VFL side topped up with QAFL players (and Alex Rance) in its trip up to Queensland during the mid-year Victorian lockdown.

What is for certain is that there is room to grow in how we best make use of the women’s state league competitions to continue growing the AFLW.

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