An AFLW Grand Final appearance has been a long time coming for the Melbourne Football Club. Frustratingly on the precipice for their whole history in the competition, the Demons have finally broken through.
For the first two seasons of the competition, when it was just eight sides and the top two advanced directly to the decider, Melbourne missed back-to-back appearances by a combined 27 per cent.
Then, in 2019, when the conference system was introduced, the luck of the draw unfortunately saw the Dees fail to qualify, despite winning one more game than eventual grand finalists Carlton.
This season marks Melbourne’s third straight preliminary final. It also marks its first victorious one.
Though they’ve managed to be a successful team in home and away across that whole six year period, the Demons have finally gone one step further.
“It’s been a challenging five seasons before this, coming so close yet so far,” coach Mick Stinear said post game.
“We wouldn’t change anything. It’s got us to the point we are now. We’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons.
“The team today, after having three weeks off, they knew the intensity and the competitiveness required in a final against a quality team, and they delivered that today.
“If we look back to last year’s prelim, we didn’t turn up, we weren’t strong enough, and we were a little bit intimidated by the situation.
“The group has evolved, and we’ve added players as well. Now we’re in a position to get an opportunity to prove we’re the best in the competition today.”
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The 2022 squad that has made it through for that first taste of premiership is full of faces both new and old. On Saturday, both groups did their bit.
Star recruit Tayla Harris didn’t have a huge impact, but her presence alone allowed the young Alyssa Bannan to get on the end of three crucial goals.
Eliza McNamara and Tyla Hanks made their mark in the middle in the second half, while Shelley Heath was ever influential in the backline.
But it was perhaps those that have been there since day one that exemplified the Demons’ intent.
Milestone woman Karen Paxman played perhaps her best game of AFLW yet. Leading all Demons for disposals with 20, six inside 50s, and three clearances, she was also given a vital stopping role on Orla O’Dwyer.
O’Dwyer, an All-Australian candidate, has been one of the competition’s best wingers in 2022. Noting her influence in their previous meeting, the coach was more than pleased.
“Great time to turn up and play your best game today, in a prelim,” Stinear said of Paxman.
“Her work rate, her ability to get back and help our defence, but then push forward and challenge offensively, there’s not many that can do that.
“Orla had a brilliant season, and she gave us a lot of headaches last time we played them. It was good to have two players with elite workrate, and Paxy was excellent for us today.”
Fellow winger Lily Mithen echoed her coach’s sentiments, watching Paxman go to work from the opposite side of the ground.
“A couple of Paxy’s defensive efforts have been phenomenal,” Mithen told The Inner Sanctum post-game.
“That one spoil sort of set us up for a really nice goal early in the game, which let our gamestyle [get] going from there. She was so influential to shut down and nullify O’Dwyer’s impact on the game.”
Coming into next week’s Grand Final showdown against ladder leaders Adelaide, there’s a sense that Melbourne finally has the stage to prove itself.
The Demons were tipped pre-season by many as flag favourites; now they have the chance to do it.
Players like Mithen, like Paxman, like Daisy Pearce, Lauren Pearce and Sarah Lampard have watched the program grow in its own right and within the growing AFLW competition overall.
With a premiership in sight, there’s now the extra push to show what they’ve learnt.
“We probably thought we’ve been good enough… since our inaugural year,” Mithen said.
“It’s been our goal to [win] a premiership. Last year, losing the prelim stung a lot of us. To get the opportunity to play on the G today… back in a prelim final was exactly the position we wanted to put ourselves in this year.
“I’m so stoked to finally get here. It’s been a long time coming, and the belief in the group is immense. I’m just hoping the next four quarters of footy are just as fun.”Embed from Getty Images
The Demons will take six years of learning and growing into next week’s ultimate decider, and back their growth in to get them over the line.
It’s a hard task to be confident in when faced with a team that has been the most consistent in the AFLW to date: the Adelaide Crows.
The Crows enter into their fourth grand final, having already won two flags; the only team to do so.
But there’s no doubt within the Melbourne camp that if there’s any year this side can lay claim to its inaugural premiership, it’s 2022.
“A lot of things have changed since year one… we were all in here a bit scrambled not knowing what was happening,” Mithen laughed.
“We’ve been really lucky with the consistency of the group. We’ve had a core group of players that been here since the start, and Mick leading from the front… has really cemented some strong and succinct development across this year.
“This year what’s set us apart is our mindset and our belief. We know we’ve been good enough, we thought we were good enough last year, but we couldn’t execute.
“Being able to learn from last year really set us up. It’s been a really different feeling, we’ve sort of won and not really been satisfied, or lost and really been disappointed.
“It’s been a year with a really big step forward in maturity and mindset.”
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