With a maiden premiership on the line, the players who changed the Grand Final for Melbourne epitomised how the club has gone about the business of building its AFLW list over the past three seasons.
The Demons were in the game in the first quarter, but looked as though they may be overawed by the occasion once again. Away from home, with the unrelenting Brisbane pressure crashing against them, the players looked to be spooked from the jump.
But as they got the Grand Final back on their terms in the second quarter, generating four scoring shots to none, it was the names in the midfield that stood out.
Eliza West. Olivia Purcell. Tyla Hanks.
What do these players all have in common? They have all only been full-time midfielders in the Melbourne system for the past three seasons.
After making their first finals appearance in the shortened 2020 campaign, the Demons could sense that success wasn’t too far – but there were still pieces needed to complete the premiership puzzle.
Hanks was the first player to make the jump into the midfield, going from a promising prospect who spent time rotating across half-back and the middle to a consistent contributor in the guts.
So quick was her rise that she was awarded the Rising Star Award in 2021, being named as an inside midfielder every week. This included a near best-on-ground performance in the preliminary final loss to Adelaide.
Purcell was traded to the club the following season from Geelong. After joining Melbourne still recovering from an ACL, she made her debut in red and blue in Round 7 of season six, and never looked back.
Now, she’s a two-time All-Australian and premiership player.
West, meanwhile, has been one of the quickest improvers in the competition. She impressed massively in the VFLW after converting from basketball, before joining the Dees and playing every game from her debut last season.
These three took on the pressure the Lions were throwing at them for the first 15 minutes, and changed the Grand Final from the source.Embed from Getty Images
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The combination of the three, who had half of their side’s clearances, equalled the clearance count and helped the Demons to win contested possessions by two. They also generated a massive nine more inside 50s.
This is truly indicative of how Melbourne has continued to build and add to its list since being one of the AFLW’s founding teams six years ago.
Only five players, Lauren Pearce, Lily Mithen, Karen Paxman, Sarah Lampard and Daisy Pearce, remain from the inaugural list built ahead of the 2017 season.
But year by year, and piece by piece, coach Mick Stinear and his recruitment team put together a list that not only challenged the best last season, but became the best.
It is almost unimaginable to picture a confident Melbourne midfield without Paxman, as it was in the final quarter of the Grand Final as she dealt with cramps on the bench.
That continued application to recruiting players through trades, the draft, and pure cunning scouting, led the Demons to the promised land.
The same can be said of the forward line, and how the addition of Tayla Harris – who was a star goalkicker of the league in her own right last season – has only helped the development of Alyssa Bannan.
And in just her 10th AFLW game, Irish recruit Blaithin Mackin wasn’t even close to overawed by the occasion – she kicked one of her team’s two goals, when they were nine points down.
Tahlia Gillard was an absolute revelation in defence, keeping competition leading scorer Jesse Wardlaw goalless, while Maddi Gay, Maeve Chaplin and Shelley Heath have been a brilliant brigade off half-back.
Gay’s 15 disposals and three marks were just as, if not more important than the work of the midfielders.
While the Lions managed just one inside 50 in the second term, they kept on coming after the long break. But in no mood to roll over, the 26-year-old powered off the flank at every opportunity.
Holding on in a desperate struggle that was the last five minutes of the game, Melbourne claimed its first AFLW premiership after coming ever-so-close against Adelaide last time around.
For every winner…
On the other side of the coin, it was heartbreak for Brisbane. The loss marked the club’s third from four AFLW Grand Finals, after winning in 2021.
The Lions brought the intensity from the opening minutes, led on that front by Cathy Svarc (16 tackles), Ally Anderson (eight), Nat Grider (eight) and Emily Bates (seven).
They looked ‘on’ across the first term, clearly holding the ascendancy coming into the first break.
But the switch flicked from there, after the poor second term set the scene for what would be the remainder of the game to come.
Svarc’s goal in the ninth minute would prove to be the last for the rest of the game, as the Lions didn’t even manage another scoring shot until Orla O’Dwyer kicked a behind eight minutes into the third.
It was a far cry for a team that has prided itself on its offensive prowess all season. Much like in the loss to the Tigers, where the Lions only scored 14 points, their opportunities were massively limited.
They did bring the pressure into the forward line, but it amounted to little. Where they were still strong however, was defensively.
Becoming just the first player in AFLW history to win the best on ground medal in a losing Grand Final, Shannon Campbell was instrumental in keeping her side in the game.
Alongside Grider, they negated much of the damage that could have caused by the Melbourne forwards across the second and third terms.
After a brilliant finals series, it’s a brutal and unforgiving mark on a year that was defined by success week after week, with barely a blip.
The Brisbane list is one that is no doubt capable of more success. A number of the players are still well within their prime, or yet to reach it.
With Melbourne’s victory though, the AFLW has its fourth premier.
Adelaide still top the tally with three flags, followed by Melbourne, Brisbane and the Western Bulldogs all tied on one a piece.
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