Mikala Cann has stepped up in the absence of her injured skippers. (Photo: Collingwood FC)

The young players of the AFLW are being thrust into leading their teams after a slew of injuries to start the 2022 season.

The beginning of the AFLW season has seen various high-profile injuries, creating a need for the less experienced to shine.

It isn’t just the amount of injuries causing issues for teams either, but the sheer amount of experience shared between these felled stars. It’s forcing younger players to step up and lead their teams through the rough.

On paper, Collingwood looks to be having a horror start to the year for injuries. Both of its co-captains, Brianna Davey and Steph Chiocci (the former being the reigning league best and fairest), missed Rounds 2 and 3 with leg injuries, with Davey missing the remainder of the season.

Yet in their absence, the Magpies have won both, with the less experienced Lauren Butler and Mikala Cann both proving valuable in their loss.

Cann is up on her career average on disposals from 10.4 to 14 this year, while Butler has increased her averages in disposals (8.9 to 11.7) and marks (1.9 to 2.7).

The injuries to these high-calibre players could have sent any AFLW team’s season off the tracks, yet Collingwood has managed to use them to its young players’ advantage.

In a new league like the AFLW, injuries almost always allow for the development of the game for the youth making their way up.

Senior players that go down with injuries end up becoming the coaches that assist these developing stars, so when they eventually do decide to finish up, their proteges are primed to take over.

The likes of Sam Virgo sat out the entirety of the 2018 for Brisbane through injury, but took up a team management role off the bench. Now she’s coaching at close to the top level of men’s football in Queensland.

But who else is benefitting from receiving these newfound opportunities?

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The up and comers

Although the Saints have struggled to begin the year without star midfielder Georgia Patrikios, 20-year-old Tarni White is averaging career best numbers in her absence after making the switch from defence, including an astonishing nine tackles a game.

More battlers in the league include the Eagles, where many young players are being blooded in hopes of being the next generation to help West Coast succeed in the near future. Charlotte Thomas, Courtney Rowley and Sarah Lakay (18, 19 and 18 years of age respectively) are three teenagers that have all been given their debuts this year.

Debutants Courtney Rowley (left) and Sarah Lakay (right) are presented with their Eagles Jumpers (PHOTO: West Coast Website)

For the league leaders Adelaide, 22-year-old Eloise Jones has had an unbelievable start to the year, nearly doubling her output in disposals per game this season and averaging 4.7 marks per game to go along with it. She’s part of the push driving the Crows to the top of the ladder once more.

With these young stars already dominating the league, the injuries at the start of this 2022 season will allow the emerging players to flourish that have yet to make their names.

This also rings true with the health and safety protocols that each team must navigate week in and week out, with a wide variety of players being sent out to represent their club that may have not gotten as great a chance in previous years.

For some clubs, there’s still question marks. Who will rise in the absence of Kate Lutkins and Dakota Davidson at Brisbane? Can the Bulldogs replicate the contested marking talents of Izzy Huntington with Bonnie Toogood and Nell Morris-Dalton?

Richmond now has an ACL to Harriet Cordner to worry about, while Courtney Wakefield is still missing with her arm in a sling.

This season, above all else, will prove to be one where depth is crucial, and an understanding of the game plan from every single athlete must be paramount. 2022 may be less about skill and more about the pure want and desire to take the team all the way from everyone on the playing list.

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