A young Hawthorn AFLW team rode into their maiden AFLW encounter on a wave of emotion and enthusiasm. When the game settled, however, the experienced heads in the Essendon side came to the fore to deliver victory in their competition debut.
In assembling their squad for the new venture, the Bombers recruited the record goalkickers from two inaugural AFLW clubs. Brisbane’s Jess Wuetschner kicked 37 goals for the Lions, whilst Bonnie Toogood kicked 29 in her Western Bulldogs career.
The two boom forward acquisitions bookended the Bombers’ scoring in this encounter. Wuetschner became Essendon’s first AFLW goalkicker seven minutes into the season, and Toogood came to the fore after a quiet start to kick two majors to ensure that the four points headed towards Tullamarine.
Hawthorn’s players took to the ground sporting two black armbands on their left arms. First-gamer Sophie Locke’s mother passed away two weeks prior to the match, following the loss of premiership forward Sarah Perkins’ aunt Sandra, a key figure in her youth.
The emotion was palpable when Locke became Hawthorn’s first goalkicker late in the first term, and Perkins followed suit finishing classily from 25 metres to kick the first goal of the second half. Both looked to the sky in tribute as their team-mates rushed from all parts of the ground to lend support.
Whilst Essendon looked the better side for the majority of the night, the inexperienced Hawks had moments where they truly troubled the red and blacks. After conceding the first two goals of the game despite having the better of the territorial battle in the first five minutes, they finished the first quarter full of running and ruffled some Bomber feathers heading into the first break.
Then during the middle stages of the third stanza, Hawthorn took the lead for the first time since the opening minutes after Perkins kicked truly, and tricky youngster Zoe Barbakos capitalised on repeat efforts in the forward pocket by the impressive Aileen Gilroy.
Essendon had more seasoned players around the ground however, and it was not by accident that in three of the four quarters on the night it was the Bombers that kicked the last goal to finish with the momentum.
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Toogood kicked Essendon’s only second quarter goal, finishing unerringly with a set shot to take her side to the main break with a ten-point advantage. The game’s turning point, however, came in the last three minutes of the third quarter when defender turned ruck Dani Marshall went forward to mark strongly and kick a booming right-foot goal to turn a possible three-quarter time deficit into an Essendon lead.
After Toogood opened the final quarter scoring, the Carlton connection of Georgia Gee and Maddy Prespakis combined to kick the sealer for the Bombers. When Sophie Alexander put the icing on the cake late on, Essendon completed a 26-point opening night triumph.
Hawthorn coach Bec Goddard will have found much to please her in this display. The move to play Tegan Cunningham in the backline proved a master stroke until swept aside by the Bomber tide in the last quarter, and in youngsters Fleming and Barbakos she has youngsters that will excite fans for years to come.
Essendon though will be delighted by their recruits, particularly Prespakis who was in much of what was good in their display, particularly after half-time. Her 26 possessions exceeded all comers in a clear best-on-ground performance.
Both these sides have the wherewithal to suggest that they will win matches this season. This performance, aligned to a favourable draw in the next three weeks, may have Bomber fans believing that something more may be possible.
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