Erin Phillips poses with the AFLW Premiership cup. (Photo: AFL)

Season seven of the AFLW kicks off on Thursday night, in a historic occasion for the competition.

Four new teams will run out for the first time, while 14 others will look to return to finals or improve their position on the ladder.

With a top eight for the first time, the race for the flag will be tighter than even. The Inner Sanctum has chosen five things to look out for in Round 1.

Expansion teams take to the field in super Saturday

Four huge footy fanbases in Essendon, Hawthorn, Port Adelaide and Sydney will get to watch their women’s team play for the first time for premiership points on Saturday.

Port Adelaide kicks off proceedings, and is the only club to do so interstate, travelling to take on West Coast at Mineral Resources Park.

After a strong showing in their second practice game, spearheaded by veterans Erin Phillips and Gemma Houghton and youngsters Abbey Dowrick and Alex Ballard, the Power will be hoping they can knock off the wooden spooners.

West Coast comes into the match almost as an expansion team itself, with the highest turnover of players of any existing club in the off-season.

Sydney and St Kilda will play the first ever AFLW game at North Sydney Oval directly after. Having smashed AFLW membership records, Swans fans are set to turn out in droves to welcome their team to the competition.

Sydney players pose together on team photo day. (Photo: AFL)

The main event is on Saturday night though, with Essendon and Hawthorn locking horns for the first time at Marvel Stadium.

Originally scheduled to be held at North Port Oval in Port Melbourne, the game was moved after selling out in barely over an hour.

Both teams have stocked up on established talent from other AFLW clubs along with a healthy mix of young talent. Keep a close eye on Paige Scott and Amber Clarke from Essendon, while Jasmine Fleming and Charlotte Baskaran will make their case for Hawthorn.

With the Bombers’ backline relatively young, expect Sarah Perkins and Tegan Cunningham to have a big influence in forward 50.

Grand Final rematch under lights

Last year’s grand finalists Adelaide and Melbourne will meet under Friday night lights, in what is set to be a bitter battle.

The Demons made their first Grand Final in season six, but were unable to overcome the dynasty of the Crows, who took home their third cup.

Both teams look set to go around again in the 18-team competition, still stacked with talent across every line.

Adelaide lost a few of its experienced heads, with Phillips, Justine Mules and Ange Foley departing for crosstown rivals Port Adelaide. Nikki Gore left for Fremantle, while Jess Sedunary joined West Coast.

Overall though, the Crows’ list is still one that has another flag written all over it. Led by Ebony Marinoff and Anne Hatchard in the middle, Sarah Allan and Chelsea Randall in defence, and Ash Woodland in attack, there’s few weaknesses to find.

Youngsters like Eloise Jones and Montana McKinnon enjoyed breakout seasons, so there’s no reason why the Crows can’t continue to compete. And it all starts on Friday night against the league’s premiership fancies.

The Demons also had minimal turnover this off-season. Shelley Scott and Jackie Parry left for the Cats, but they got Jordan Ivey back the other way.

Gaining gems like Charlotte Wilson and Sabreena Duffy while losing only depth in Brenna Tarrant, Isabella Simmons and Krstel Petrevski sees the Demons’ list similarly as healthy as ever.

The battle between the best defence and best forward groups will be as fierce as ever. Tayla Harris is in ripping pre-season form, while the re-addition of Casey Sherriff looks set to boost Melbourne’s attack even further.

Debuts galore

At the time of publishing, six clubs have announced their debutants that will be taking to the field for the first time.

With Essendon, Sydney and Port Adelaide still yet to announce theirs, there’s sure to be a huge number yet to come.

Hawthorn will unveil a lucky dozen for the first time on Saturday night, spearheaded by top draft picks Jasmine Fleming, Mackenzie Eardley, and Charlotte Baskaran.

Embed from Getty Images

Fellow draft selection Lucy Wales also earns the call-up for the first time.

VFLW listed players Dom Carbone, Zoe Barbakos, Tahlia Fellows, Bridget Deed, Eliza Shannon and Cat Brown will make the jump up to AFLW level.

Tamara Smith (recruited from Geelong VFLW) and Sophie Locke (recruited from Port Melbourne) will also debut after biding their time for a chance at the AFLW.

Fremantle will debut draft picks Madi Scanlon and Megan Kauffman for its clash with Brisbane at the Gabba, in what could be an early-season defining match.

Kauffman kicked three goals across the Dockers’ practice matches, and looks set for a role in forward 50 in the absence of Kara Antonio.

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Carlton and Collingwood are both blooding draftees for Thursday night’s season opener. Mia Austin makes her league debut in navy blue, adding another marking option in the forward line.

After going undrafted in her home state of Queensland, Imogen Evans will run out for the first time for Collingwood. With a midfield missing Bri Davey, Brit Bonnici and Mikala Cann, she may find herself straight into the centre bounce rotations.

North Melbourne will have a staggering five debutants on Saturday, bringing out their draftees and cross-code recruits alike.

Irishwomen Vikki Wall and Erika O’Shea will play their first competitive game of AFLW against Gold Coast. O’Shea in particular has gained plenty of attention for her dash out of defence.

Draftees Charli Granville, Sophia McCarthy and Taylah Gatt will all get to showcase their skills for the first time, and each adds perfectly to the Kangaroos’ needs.

McCarthy will provide another marking target alongside Tahlia Randall and Emma King, while Granville will look to fill the void left by Daria Bannister and Daisy Bateman as a smaller option.

Gatt, meanwhile, has all the pace and class to make her case as a first-choice winger for the rest of the season.

Lastly, the Eagles will have top draftee Ella Roberts and former Demon Isabella Simmons debut on Saturday afternoon against the Power.

Roberts has been earmarked as the best player out of the draft, who would have gone at number one had it been a true national pool. Look out for what she can do in the forward line alongside Aimee Schmidt and Kate Bartlett.

50 gamers join the record books

Should they all be named this weekend, 12 players are set to play their 50th AFLW games across Round 1, in a milestone celebration for the competition.

Ebony Marinoff, Emily Bates, and Ally Anderson were the first to reach the milestone last season, joined by Libby Birch, Tahlia Randall, Sarah Allan, Bre Koenen, Karen Paxman, Stevie-Lee Thompson, Alison Downie, and Hayley Miller.

This season, we could see upwards of 50 players reach the milestone across various points of the fixture.

Round 1’s class is led on Thursday night by Darcy Vescio and Jaimee Lambert. Vescio spoke on Wednesday about what the milestone means to them.

Kaitlyn Ashmore (Hawthorn), Justine Mules (Port Adelaide), Shelley Scott (Geelong) and Nicola Stevens (St Kilda) are all set to notch up their 50th game at their new clubs across Saturday and Sunday.

Ashmore will become just the second Indigenous player to reach the milestone, after Anderson last season.

Ashmore (centre) models North Melbourne’s Indigenous guersney.

Shannon Campbell, Anne Hatchard, Gabby O’Sullivan and Hayley Miller bring up 50 games as one club players alongside Vescio.

Star goalkicker Tayla Harris, midfield machine Jasmine Garner and North Melbourne skipper Emma Kearney round out the ground of milestone players.

A comeback to remember

In one of the AFLW’s great comeback stories, Collingwood forward Jordan Membrey will play her first game in 543 days.

The 26-year-old ruptured her ACL back in January 2021, missing the entirety of season six. She has been named on the half-forward line for the Pies.

Membrey was on an upwards trajectory before getting injured, winning Collingwood’s leading goalkicker award in 2020. She booted eight goals in seven games, including two in the qualifying final.

She managed three games to close out the VFLW season, kicking a goal in one of them.

Before joining the Pies, Membrey had been a part of the inaugural Lions team, even appearing in the losing 2017 Grand Final. But after limited opportunity, she sought a move elsewhere.

Whether Membrey can be the player she was in 2020 remains to be seen. But at her best, she provides a safe marking option for her height, and a reliable kick for goal.

Chloe Molloy has been earmarked for significantly higher midfield time in season seven, and has been named in Collingwood’s starting centre bounce.

Membrey could take over her role, and with Sabrina Frederick and Imogen Barnett as marking options around her, could have the opportunity to play a crumbling role or as a third tall.

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