Ahead of the entry of four new teams into the AFLW competition, The Inner Sanctum is looking back at the stories of the entries of the six past expansion teams. This is The New Frontier, where players, coaches and staff broke new ground and created something from nothing.
North Melbourne remains to this day the only AFLW expansion club to reach multiple finals series.
Since moving to the current finals format, the Kangaroos are also the only team to reach a preliminary final; albeit a cancelled one, a fact which still sits uncomfortably in the minds of fans.
They are the only team outside of the original eight that have been able to match it with the very best, year on year. Beating Melbourne and grand finalists Carlton in 2019, they came into the competition with a point to prove.
But it all had to start somewhere.
One of two original expansion teams alongside Geelong, North Melbourne had no reference point to build off. More than any one player, the club got it right with the initial appointment of coach Scott Gowans.
Ask anyone involved in the world of women’s footy, and they’ll having nothing but good words to say about Gowans. He rose through the ranks in a flash, starting with the Dandenong Stingrays, then Victoria Country, before guiding Diamond Creek to a VWFL grand final in 2017.
Both sides boasted incredible talent, including some of the AFLW’s best. Chloe Molloy, Kerryn Peterson (nee Harrington), Alison Downie, Katie Loynes, Steph Chiocci, Kirsty Lamb, and future players of his own Sophie Abbatangelo and Ash Riddell featured in the losing side.
Largely regarded as one of the best teams in women’s football in general, there was no stopping that Darebin side. Regardless of that, Gowans had proven his credentials as best he could.
The coach moved across to the Melbourne University Football Club for the following season, and while the results didn’t flow quite as much, the bonds were built.
Riddell and Abbatangelo followed, and started to gain chemistry with future teammates including Kate Gillespie-Jones, Kaitlyn Ashmore, Danielle Hardiman, Emma Kearney, and more.
At just 22, Riddell was named captain after playing thirds for Fitzroy only two years prior.
As the proven players from other AFLW clubs including Jasmine Garner, Jess Duffin, Jenna Bruton, Jamie Stanton, Tahlia Randall and Emma Kearney began to flow in to North Melbourne, Riddell was one of the club’s bright young hopes.
Speaking to The Inner Sanctum, Riddell recalls her early trepidations joining a whole new environment at North Melbourne.
“With any new side, it’s quite exciting and exhilarating to be a part of a new group and the formation of trying to develop something special,” the midfielder said.
“That was something I was particularly excited about. I think the thing was that I was mostly just keen to get stuck into training.
“I was coming in as a VFLW player into the AFLW system.
“Being surrounded by so many established AFLW players in their own right that have come to North Melbourne, I think that was the thing that really motivated me and excited me with the challenge of going up against them at training and learning from them.”Embed from Getty Images
Building a list for success
Riddell was selected as an open age signing, alongside Elisha King, Maddison Smith (both now delisted) and Georgia Nanscawen (now at Essendon).
In the draft, the club took Daisy Bateman, Courteney Munn, Chloe Haines, Libby Haines, and Nicole Bresnehan. Of that group, only Bresnehan is still on the list.
The big draw for North Melbourne was the talent and leadership the club was able to pull from elsewhere.
Captain Emma Kearney, vice-captain Britt Gibson, and leadership group members Jess Duffin, Kaitlyn Ashmore and Emma King were all established players in their own right, coming from successful cultures.
“We’ve got a really strong group of leaders at our footy club that have been there from the get go,” Riddell said.
“They helped guide me through the standards when I first came into the club, and they’ve continued to guide our young players now.
“Emma Kearney has a lot to do with that with the foundation she set as captain. She leads by example.
“We all want to play with her because she’s an absolute elite player, and she drives our standards and make us better players on and off the field.”
Joining North Melbourne from the Western Bulldogs, Kearney is one of the competition’s original star midfielders. Before the AFLW, she’d won five best and fairests with the Mugars, and the accolades didn’t stop coming.
She won the league best and fairest in her 2018 premiership year, has won two club best and fairests with the Bulldogs, and is the only player to have been named All-Australian in every year of the competition so far.
Known for her ferocity on field, Kearney laid the foundation from the first pre-season that the Kangaroos continue to build off.
Much like the men’s team, North Melbourne has maintained a strong connection with Tasmanian football pathways. The club plays at least two home games in Tasmania every year, and holds rights to the Tasmanian draft zone.
The current playing list has six Tasmanians: Nicole Bresnehan, Ellie Gavalas, Brooke Brown, Mia King, Perri King, and Ella Maurer.
That state connection was established right from the first game, as the Kangaroos hosted Carlton at North Hobart Oval.
Riddell recalls the experience as one which helped the team bond even further after a strong pre-season.
“It was nice because we were down in Tassie, in Hobart,” she said.
“The whole trip being together, sometimes we forget about that being in COVID, we haven’t been able to have those moments where you travel for a full weekend with the team.
“In hindsight looking back, it was quite a valuable experience that we could experience that not only with our teammates, but it was easily accessible for families to come down. In previous years, that’s been quite challenging.
“To have all our support systems around us, was absolutely amazing.”
It was a first game you could only dream of. While proceedings started out slow and nervy, the Kangaroos came to play in the second term.
Led in the middle by Kearney and Riddell, and up forward by Emma King, they set themselves up for victory with a three goal to none second term.
They didn’t know at the time, but they had just utterly crushed the eventual grand finalists.
Amongst the excitement was the typical first game nerves across the whole 21. But with so many playing their first games together, it took the pressure off any one player’s shoulders.
“It’s sort of a mix of emotions when you do make that debut in your first week, and making your debut for a new club,” Riddell explained.
“It’s probably less intimidating in a sense because there were so many girls making their debut, so it wasn’t like I was the lone soldier with the attention all on me.
“All eyes were on us as a club as a whole, which probably took the pressure off in a sense. You don’t feel like you’re burdened with as much of the load.
“Going up against Carlton, we were mostly quite excited because it was an established club, and we knew we’d be testing ourselves against one of the best sides in the competition.”
Riddell even kicked her first goal in the final term, but kept the celebration relatively low-key.
“Because we were all new to the club, everyone that kicked a goal in that game, it was their first goal for the club… it probably tapered me down a little bit,” she laughed.
“I think I was just so focused on trying to get the win and the broader picture rather than pumping my tyres.”
2019 and beyond
The Kangaroos kept going from strength to strength from there, winning their next three games to sit 4-0 with an average winning margin of four goals.
While they fell in Round 5 to eventual premiers Adelaide, there was no doubt they were one of the best teams in the competition.
Built off the back of a dominant midfield group, a rock solid backline, and a game-plan facilitated by link play between the arcs by Ashmore and Duffin, the Roos looked like they’d been playing together since the first season of the competition.
Riddell wasn’t able to be a part of it however, going down in the Round 2 match-up with GWS with an ankle injury that required season-ending surgery.
She had to watch from the sidelines as her teammates continued to rack up win after win, unable to be a part of the history-making group.
“It was obviously super challenging, it’s the last thing you want to hear after Round 2 that your season’s over when it’s just begun,” Riddell admitted.
“It’s probably been a blessing in disguise a little bit and shaped me as a footballer, and made me more grateful for the opportunities that I do get to play in.
“I’m making sure I’m taking those opportunities when I step out onto the field, because you never know when it’s going to get cut short.
“Though I felt like the world was ending at the time, it clearly wasn’t, and I think I’ve come out the other side in better shape.”
The Roos would ultimately finish the season with fives wins and two losses, but were gatekept out of finals due to the conference system that was in place at the time.
Highly controversial, the conference system was trialled across 2019 and 2020, but it was ultimately scrapped. Had 2019 been played under a unified ladder, North would have finished third, and faced off against Fremantle in Western Australia for a chance at the grand final.
Had the Kangaroos beaten the Dockers in their Round 7 match-up, they would have been playing finals instead. It was a mighty run that is yet to be repeated by any other expansion side.
The club then took it a step further in 2020, finishing 5-1 with a record worse only than Fremantle (undefeated) and Carlton by percentage.
Due to COVID taking a hold over Australia and the world, the season was cut short, and there were no finals to be played. The last game North Melbourne played in 2020 was a fierce semi final win over Collingwood in front of empty stands.Embed from Getty Images
The Roos and the Dockers never met in 2020, in what many would regard as the ‘true’ Grand Final that never was.
But girls in royal blue and white wouldn’t be deterred, and have now qualified for finals three years straight.
After pulling talent from across the league, the shoe is now firmly on the other foot heading into season seven. North has lost Jamie Stanton, Ali Drennan, Aileen Gilroy, Jess Duffin, Kaitlyn Ashmore, Daria Bannister and Lexi Hamilton over the past two rounds of league expansion.
Looking across the new landscape of the competition, with four new teams now in the same position they once were, Riddell takes an altruistic look at season seven.
“I really believe that you can have all the talent in the world, but it’s about having those strong leaders around a new group to set those standards up,” she said.
“That’s what we at North did quite well. It’ll be interesting to see how it all plays out with the expansion teams. I’m sure they’ve investigated all of that and they’ll set those standards to make sure they have success going forward.
“They’ve been in a really good position all those clubs, because they’ve seen how we’ve all done it. They’ll learn from us and develop their ideas from there.”
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