The Sydney Swans entered the AFLW competition for the first time last season under challenging circumstances. The league informed clubs seven weeks prior that season seven, instead of beginning in January 2023, would begin in August 2022.
The early start meant Sydney could not attract a ‘big fish’ free agent in time. Additionally, the lack of preparation time hobbled the team’s match fitness and on-field chemistry.
Despite the turmoil, Sydney put together a promising young squad to use as a foundation for its three-year plan. The emergence of first-overall draft pick Montana Ham following an early season injury, along with club champion Cynthia Hamilton, were just two highlights.
The Inner Sanctum spoke to Sydney Swans AFLW Coach Scott Gowans about the team’s seven recruits, the seven ‘holy’ stats shaping strategy, and what fans can expect in the club’s sophomore season.
Although the Swans had opportunities to win games, notably against Hawthorn in Round Five and Essendon in Round Eight, the team finished with zero wins and ten losses. Swans coach Scott Gowans stressed that wins were inconsequential in the context of the club’s first season.
“This year, it was almost like a free hit”, Gowans told womens.afl in November 2022.
“Next year, the plan is to concentrate more on winning games and really coaching the girls to win, having set KPIs (key performance indicators) around that. Then we’ll go into year three, that’s when we see ourselves having a bit of success and pushing for finals.”
Early in season seven, Scott Gowans referred to nine KPIs that shaped game strategy and analysis. By round three, Gowans revealed at a post-match press conference that the team had reduced the nine KPIs to seven. Although he understandably would not reveal those seven KPIs, Coach Gowans provided more information to The Inner Sanctum.
Seven KPIs Shaping Strategy
“When you get appointed as a coach”, Gowans told The Inner Sanctum.
“You have an idea and a philosophy of a way to play. But that philosophy may not suit the competition you’re coaching in.
Before season seven, Gowans and an analyst worked together to build a strategy for an AFLW premiership contender. Gowans said the focus revolved around the question, “if we are to win this competition, what things do we need”.
Using this reverse-engineered approach, the team discovered nine statistical commonalities among top-four AFLW teams since 2017.
“We took those”, Gowans said, “and basically made the game plan up off of those. [I] added the little sprinkle on top, which is my coaching philosophy and things like that, but the nitty-gritty of how we want to play was done off those nine stats.
“As we got into the season, we worked out that we were a fair way behind the competition in a lot of the stats, so we stopped keeping two of them. We were never going to attain them, it was doing our heads in basically.
“We’ve kind of refined it a little bit again this year. We’re going to stick with the seven, and go with them again.”
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For Gowans, the KPIs would change significantly based on the competition. Referring to the Victorian Amateur Football Association (VAFA) to illustrate the point, Gowans said, “I might like a very open game of football. But it’s no good what I like if that’s not gonna win us the flag.”
Asked how those seven KPIs shape recruitment, Gowans responded, “It shapes everything, it basically shapes recruitment of the playing list.
“It dictates everything to the list changes, to our training plans, to the way we train, what we train, how long we train each thing for. And then vice versa, the way we play, and the way we review and reflect.”
Two Big Fish
The Swans were, expectedly, active over the last month, adding Chloe Molloy within 50 minutes of the Priority Signing Period (PSP) opening.
Gowans has coached Molloy previously at the Diamond Creek Women’s Football Club when she was 18-years-old. He spoke proudly of helping her “almost tip-toe into senior women’s football”.
Gowans told The Inner Sanctum, “We had a very successful side that made the grand final and played at I think it was Marvel Stadium. That was a very special thing to do with her… that’s part of that connection.”
Before the week finished, Lucy McEvoy, a second ‘big fish’, signed on for the Swans.
Gowans also coached McEvoy in the Victoria Country squad, “as a fourteen-year-old, can you believe it!” he said with a sense of awe.
“She came on and played in the under-18s and was just so resilient against bigger bodies. But she just had this steely determination to succeed.”
Gowans reflected on McEvoy’s perfectionism at such a young age, and how he encouraged her to just focus on the next possession rather than dwell on mistakes.
“If you get 30 possessions in the men’s game, you’re gonna muck up six to ten of them. If you can go with that 60 or 70 per cent [success rate] and get 30 [possessions] each week, you’re gonna be a pretty good player.”
Gowans mused that their past coaching relationship might be “part of why [Lucy’s] trusting in us, and it’s definitely the reason why we’re trusting in her.”
The ‘Beautiful Mind’ Approach Behind Irish Trio
Far from finished, the Swans added three Irish prospects – Paris McCarthy, Jennifer Higgins, and Julie O’Sullivan – who bring experience in Gaelic football and basketball. Gowans revealed to The Inner Sanctum the reasoning behind the imports.
“This is probably a bit of a ‘beautiful mind’ going on,” Gowans said.
“Whereas AFLW talent can be scouted by what they can do, the Irish talent is scouted based on potential.”
The Swans looked for players with elite fitness and elite habits.
“Even though they play an amateur sport (Gaelic football) over there, they just train so hard,” Gowans stated.
“What they don’t have are the game nuances.
“So the thinking behind the three Irish girls is they’re basically a blank canvas, and I can shape them for these roles that we need. They’re not going to have preconceived ideas from ten coaches they’ve had in the past.
“They’ve already got the athletic ability and the mindset, that’s the key, to shape them the way you want.”
The recruitment team looked for Gaelic football players who took the game on, could move laterally, and demonstrated versatility.
Out of the three recruits, Paris McCarthy is a proven elite multi-sport athlete, excelling at Gaelic football and basketball. Just 19-years-old, McCarthy played Division One Basketball in the United States, and has represented Ireland at various international youth levels.
The Final Two Recruits: A ‘Surprise Package’ and ‘Rock-Solid’ Competitor
Last season, Sydney struggled at times with composure, particularly when holding leads in the second half. Players looked tentative, and the team gave away free-kicks at inopportune moments. It was understandable considering the lack of AFLW experience in the squad.
The Swans addressed that lack of experience with two more signings, Laura Gardiner (18 AFLW games) and Hayley Bullas (30 AFLW games).
On March 17, Sydney traded Pick One and 27 in the AFLW Supplementary Draft to Geelong for 20-year-old Laura Gardiner. For Gowans, it was more than simply knowing Gardiner was better than who they could select with the top pick.
“That was one reason why,” Gowans agreed, “but the second reason was that we only had nine players last year that had previous AFLW experience.”
“One of the key things to getting better is having some experience”, said Gowans. The team looked at playing lists league-wide to find a player who wasn’t getting opportunities, perhaps stuck behind a good midfield group.
Going through Geelong’s list, Laura Gardiner fit the criteria.
“It wasn’t like she was second or third choice from that group, she was actually the first choice,” according to Gowans.
“We were actually planning on holding on with [pick] one and we just decided that it was too good of an opportunity. Laura Gardiner is ready to shine, she might be a bit of a surprise package.”
Sydney added Hayley Bullas on March 21, a ‘fierce contested-ball winner’ according to the club’s website. “She’s gonna be good because she just plays that rock-solid footy”, Gowans told The Inner Sanctum.
Bullas became available when West Coast announced her contract would not be renewed for next season. Gowans told the club’s website that Bullas “will add some grunt to the midfield, and also has an elite athletic ability which will be handy for us moving forward”.
Quest for Versatility Impacts Recruitment
Last season, Gowans often moved players across lines during matches. The established AFLW recruits have all demonstrated the ability to play in different positions.
Lucy McEvoy, for example, made four different U18 All-Australian teams, and featured across all three lines. Chloe Molloy has experience playing both on the back-line and the forward-line.
Laura Gardiner has had 49 possessions at the VFLW level, however, according to Gowans, her skill-set suits a pressure forward role.
“That was strategic,” Gowans said.
“We had a strategy that we wanted to fix some gaps, but not just fixing gaps, but really drive the way we wanted to play.
“We went for the best players that we could to fill those roles. So there were other players that we may have been able to get… but they didn’t suit what we needed in those gaps.”
After last season, Gowans felt there was a need to provide help in the forward lines for Bec Privitelli, and free her from the attentions of the opposition’s best defender.
The recent signings make him confident that objective has been achieved. However, ideally Gowans would like to acquire a tall forward.
“That’s probably the only position that we haven’t been able to fill this season”, Gowans said. “So that’s something that we will try and do next one. But other than that, all the other gaps we saw we filled.”
After adding such a group of elite and promising players, expectations are sure to increase from last season. 26 players from last season have returned to the club and will have a full offseason to develop on-field chemistry.
Gowans insisted that although expectations have increased, there is no specific target or number of wins that would make the sophomore season a successful one.
“We want the main target to be competitive as early as possible”, he said.
“We think we’re probably about a couple of steps off being a really good side, but we think we can now be competitive.
“If you end up winning four or five [games], you’re gonna be there or thereabouts for finals. So if you can get into that area, that would be a pretty comfortable sort of year.”
Sydney fans will be keen to see the team return for AFLW season eight and will be hoping to witness the team’s first victory.
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