Essendon and Hawthorn have had excellent starts to the 2022 VFLW season. (Photos: Essendon VFLW/Twitter; Hawthorn Women's/Twitter)

With 30 list spots available at Essendon and Hawthorn coming into the next round of AFLW expansion, which VFLW players could make the step up in 2023?

With three rounds run of the 2022 VFLW season, Essendon and Hawthorn are looking like two of the most dangerous teams in the competition.

While the Hawks went down to rivals Geelong in Round 2, they’ve also picked up two victories to the tunes of 10 plus goals.

Essendon, meanwhile, sits atop the ladder. Undefeated with a monstrous 595.3 percentage, the Bombers are firming as one of the teams to beat.

Entering the AFLW next season, both sides have built their programs steadily since entering the state league competition. Hawthorn is looking to return to finals after a few down seasons post the 2018 VFLW flag, while Essendon made finals for the first time in 2021, bowing out in the prelim.

Hawthorn has already taken steps to building its inaugural team, announcing AFLW premiership coach Bec Goddard as the head honcho. Eastern Ranges skipper Bridget Deed, meanwhile, has become Hawthorn’s first AFLW player.

While Essendon is still searching for a senior coach, the club seems to be taking the right steps in laying the foundations for a competitive playing list.

Which players could make the jump to their respective AFLW teams? The Inner Sanctum looks at the best of them.

Georgia Nanscawen

Picked up by North Melbourne as an expansion signing, Georgia Nanscawen played just two AFLW games before being unceremoniously delisted.

Joining the Bombers in 2019, the Roos may have immediately grown to rue their decision. She accordingly won the club best and fairest, was named in the Team of the Year, and has only looked up since.

Pocket Profile: Nanscawen
Nanscawen in North Melbourne colours. (Photo: North Melbourne FC)

That came to a head when Nanscawen won the Lambert-Pearce Medal last season, as the VFLW’s best and fairest player.

Since joining the Bombers, she hasn’t nominated for the AFLW Draft however. Appointed captain in 2021, and sharing the captaincy with Mia-Rae Clifford this year, it’s clear she bleeds red and black.

It doesn’t seem like there’s any other club she wants to play for. As one of the best midfielders outside of the AFLW, Nanscawen should be the first Bomber signed.

Tamara Luke

Returning to the Hawks last year after being delisted by St Kilda in the AFLW, Luke took up the captaincy again in 2022. She had previously held the captaincy in 2019 before she was drafted.

Luke famously finished third in the Lambert-Pearce Medal voting last year, despite missing the VFLW Team of the Year. She picked up 11 votes in 10 games.

She was one of the best ruck/forwards across the 2021 season, averaging 20 hit outs, 14.6 disposals, four marks, four inside 50s, three tackles, and kicking five goals.

Luke never quite made waves at AFLW level, going down with injury in her debut game. Competing for ruck time with Rhi Watt and forward time with Caitlin Greiser and Kate Shierlaw on her return, she was more often than not shipped off to the backline.

When she did press forward in a game against Melbourne, she kicked her first AFLW goal.

While Luke has just turned 34, she would be an invaluable leader for a side in its infancy. She’s versatile enough to play multiple key positions, and would perfectly guide the youngsters for a year or two.

Federica Frew

Frew battled through injury last season to return with a bang in 2022, suffering from a rare nerve issue.

It meant she had to miss Essendon’s maiden finals run, but that didn’t deter her. She’d kicked 11 goals in nine games to that point.

This season is seeing the former soccer player flourish in the Bombers forward line, having kicked eight goals in two games.

Six of these came in a demolition of Carlton, with five in the first half.

While a scintillating small forward, doing some of her best work off the back of a pack, Frew also boasts a booming boot. She can kick off the edge of the 50 metre arc in a way that not many crumbing players can.

Currently leading the VFLW goalkicking, Frew would make for the perfect compliment to Essendon’s inaugural key forward brigade.

Aimee Whelan

Named in the 2021 VFLW Team of the Year, Whelan swapped allegiances from Williamstown to Hawthorn this season, despite signing for the Gulls for 2022 in October.

She was a handy in and under midfielder in her own right after making the leap up from the VU Western Spurs, averaging 15.9 disposals and 7.8 tackles.

But this year, she’s taken her averages up to a new level, winning more ball in a midfield group that supports and complements her perfectly.

Whelan (number 18) with the Hawks 2022 VFLW squad. (Photo: Hawthorn FC)

Whelan had a quiet start in her first two games, but picked up a career-high 26 disposals in the smashing of Darebin, plying her trade through the middle all game long.

While the Hawks may have other midfield options they may be looking to add from elsewhere, with Deed already locked in, Whelan would be a great midfielder to round out the group.

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Nat MacDonald

Midfielder/forward MacDonald has been slowly developing her game since joining the Bombers in 2018, only taking up footy the previous year.

A basketball convert, she’s grown a penchant for kicking freakish goals in clutch moments, and has developed a strong goal sense.

While she spends most of her time sitting deep in the forward line, MacDonald has pushed higher up the ground as the years have gone by. She’s increased her disposal average from 9.8 in 2019, to 11.4 to 2021, and now up to 12.5.

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While she does occasionally have her fumbles with the footy and skill errors, MacDonald is a weapon around goals, and would slot beautifully into a forward pocket.

The romantic side of having MacDonald in the team also can’t be ignored, as one of the players who’s been around the VFLW side since its inaugural season in 2018.

Jessie Williams

Williams joined North Melbourne for its inaugural 2019 AFLW season, but never debuted.

Another cross-coder, the 27-year-old made the leap from soccer to Aussie rules. Tasmanian-born, she’s moved all over the country to keep pursuing her career, first to Canberra, then Melbourne.

Linking up with the Hawks in 2021 after the cancelled season, she showed what she could do around the sticks, kicking 11 goals in 14 games.

This year though, Williams is beginning to really come into her own.

Alongside partner in crime Kristy Stratton, she provided plenty of highlights against Darebin. Williams kicked four goals, also picking up 16 disposals, taking four marks and laying three tackles.

She now sits third in the VFLW goalkicking after three rounds. Williams will face a big test against a strong Collingwood backline this weekend, but if she can stay prolific, she’s doing her chances of an AFLW list spot no harm.

Eloise Ashley-Cooper

Ashley-Cooper is another player that’s seen a rapid rise since her VFLW debut in 2019.

Playing 13 games in her first season with the Bombers, she finished seventh in the club best and fairest count, while also earning the club rising star award.

She became known for her ground level game and tackling pressure, adding a different level of defensive pressure to Essendon.

This was key to the Bombers high intensity game style in 2021, where she averaged 5.5 tackles a game. Ashley-Cooper was duly awarded, pipping Nanscawen for the Essendon best and fairest.

She’s a versatile player that can move between the backline and the midfield with ease, and could easily slot into either at AFLW level.

With Essendon’s more direct, quick movement this season, Ashley-Cooper has shown she can change up her gamestyle. She’s taking more marks (averaging 4.3 a game) and helping move the footy inside 50 instead of being the turnover creator (averaging 15 disposals).

Dom Carbone

Darwin local Carbone is just one of the many stories of resilience in the VFLW, travelling across the nation to join the Hawks after she wasn’t drafted in 2019.

Her draft year wasn’t her best, unable to make a splash either with the Central Allies representative team or in her two games with the NT Thunder.

But since moving to the Hawks, Carbone has shown that she has what it takes to become an AFLW player.

She still spends time up in the top end with the Darwin Buffaloes, kicking 13 goals across her 10 games in 2021/22 before making the trip back down to Melbourne. Six of these came in a stunning 215 point victory over Tracy Village.

Carbone is once again providing the highlights at the Hawks, with both her pace and goalscoring.

Still only 20, Carbone is of the perfect age to become a stalwart of Hawthorn’s AFLW side.

Courtney Ugle

Another one of only a handful of players remaining from the inaugural team, Ugle is another player who bleeds Essendon through and through.

After inaugural captain Lisa Williams departed the club, she was voted in as the club’s captain for the 2019 season. Forever a popular player at the club, she was voted as vice-captain in 2021, after overcoming a huge setback.

Ugle was struck down with a knee injury during the 2019 season, ending her year early and leaving her on the long road to rehab.

But she came back bigger and stronger, and has only improved since.

Ever consistent, Ugle has been utilised across a number of midfield roles. Though undersized at times, she’s a force on the inside, averaging 4.6 tackles and 2.8 clearances last season.

At times throughout 2021, she took on a more defensive midfield role, sitting behind the footy and using her strong IQ to take intercept marks.

Ugle is a player that would not only be key to building a strong AFLW midfield, but a strong culture.

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