How bigger AFLW players are changing the game

How bigger AFLW players are changing the game

When the AFLW’s first season commenced in 2016, many observers were unable to get past the standard of play that was, unavoidably, a lot lower than they were accustomed to watching on commercial television.

Those critics were assured by those of us who supported the competition that if everyone was patient, the new competition would serve as a beacon, attracting a new generation of players to the game. But that was always going to take time, because junior pathways aren’t built overnight, and because the kids those pathways attract only grow older one year at a time.

But now the year is 2020, the draft for the 2021 season happened in October, and sure enough, an entirely new type of female footy player is beginning to emerge from the enormously enlarged junior ranks.

For one thing, the average player is getting taller, particularly in the midfield. The average height of first-round midfielders in the 2017 draft was 162.25cm, then 164.85cm in 2018 and 167cm in 2019. In 2020, assuming the players play in the same positions they did last year, the average height of midfielders will have increased again to 169.36cm.

This is not to say that small players are about to be extinct, any more than the advent of Marcus Bontempelli, Nat Fyfe and Patrick Dangerfield meant that there’s no longer a role for the Lachie Neales and Caleb Daniels of the AFL. But it does mean there’s about to be a lot more variety of heights and body types in the AFLW, and it will change the way the game is played.

We’ve already seen a large increase in the number of tall midfielders in existing AFLW line-ups, as teams seek big contested-ball-winning bodies who can bust through tackles and break the sometimes-suffocating AFLW congestion.

Bri Davey began her career as a halfback at Carlton, but is now a 175-centimetre midfielder at Collingwood. Jasmine Garner began as a forward at Collingwood, but is now a 175-centimetre midfielder at North Melbourne. Anne Hatchard is a dominant force at 175 centimetres in the middle for the Crows.

Anne Hatchard

The Western Bulldogs’ experiment in the middle with last year’s number one draft pick, the 175-centimetre Gabby Newton, wasn’t entirely successful, but may become so during this next season.

This year the number one draft pick for Richmond was Ellie McKenzie, who is 176 centimetres and were she playing a few years ago, would almost certainly have been thrown in the forward line. But Richmond desperately need her in their midfield alongside Monique Conti, and that’s almost certainly where she’ll play. When the AFLW first started, it was very rare to find midfielders taller than 170 centimetres, but now they’re everywhere.

When I first saw an AFLW exhibition game many years back, I was very impressed with Docker Ebony Antonio’s combination of rangy height, speed and agility across half back. I now have to remind myself that Antonio is only 173 centimetres, three centimetres shorter than Ellie McKenzie, and I’m betting in a few years McKenzie will be even less fun to get tackled by.

On the wings, it’s getting even taller. At 180 centimetres, GWS first pick Tarni Evans ran the 2K time trial at the combine in 7:14, the second fastest time ever (though these records are falling with increasing frequency as the AFLW draft pool gets deeper and better).

A few years ago the idea of a 180-centimetre player starting on the wing would have seemed crazy when most forwards weren’t much more than 170 centimetres, but the wing now seems as good a spot for Evans as any.

Then there’s the Gold Coast’s first pick, Maddison Levi, who is 177 centimetres. She set a new AFLW combine record for the 20-metre sprint at 2.990 seconds, which I’m betting is dangerously close to some respected AFL players.

Levi will likely play off half back, and has a fair bit of skills development still to come having transitioned from rugby a few years ago. But she’s one of a new breed of AFLW junior who combines speed and agility in a way a few other juniors may have demonstrated, but not in a player this size.

In the juniors beneath Levi and Evans, still two years away from draft age, there’s Ella Roberts in Western Australia, who at 15 is an outstanding player against mature-age women (including AFLW players) in the WAFLW. She is 177 centimetres, fast, agile and smart, with clean hands, a booming kick, and starred in Peel Thunder’s grand final win with two long goals.

Still in Perth, there’s the likely 2021 number one WA draft pick Amy Franklin, who is 180 centimetres, has a huge kick, and is usually one of the fastest players on the field.

And then my personal pick for the best female junior I’ve ever seen is Montana Ham of the Western Jets in Victoria. She is also 177 centimetres, a good chance of beating Madison Levi’s new sprint record in a few years, and has all the skills and smarts of a top midfielder.

Ham had some of the best stats of the three-game-long 2020 NAB League girls season, despite being a bottom-ager, and her arrival at draft age in two years should be as anticipated among Victorian teams as Georgie Prespakis’ will be next year. And Prespakis, let’s remember, has four centimetres on her AFLW MVP-winning sister Maddy. She is clearly a more natural athlete, and might just be more skilful as well.

Then among the key position forwards and backs, this draft saw the 178-centimetre Alyssa Bannan taken at pick five by Melbourne. We’ve seen 178-centimetre forwards before, but no one I can think of who is this fast and agile. Then two years from the draft at the Murray Bushrangers is 180-centimetre Grace Hay, who currently plays down back but is fast enough for the wing, then ditto 180-centimetre Mackenzie Eardley at the Dandenong Stingrays, and no doubt there’s many others I’ve missed.

AFL-generic-Sherrin

What will it mean to have a large number of athletic, fast-running talls in the AFLW? It remains to be seen, but one of a number of factors in the congested play in the AFLW is the lack of marking targets. When players struggle to mark the ball, either because they’re not tall enough in the contests or because they’re not fast enough to get into clear space, the ball spends a lot more time on the grass, leading to a lot more stoppages and messy play.

An increasing number of tall, fast runners should lead to more uninterrupted chains of possession, and more of the fast, end-to-end footy the better AFLW games are starting to exhibit.

And of course, an increasing number of talls can make life easier for the smalls, giving them more clear marking targets they can rove to, while adding more aggressive structure to the way teams play by encouraging players to take more risks kicking the ball forward.

AFLW teams still do not switch play to the open side of the ground nearly as much as male sides do, largely because of the increased risk of going through the corridor when their players do not kick the ball as far, and aren’t as good at marking.

Players like Tarni Evans and Maddison Levi are not only more likely to take a vital mark in the corridor, but are much more likely to then punish the opposition with a fast sprint up the opposite wing, forcing defences to spread wider and open up the game.

More tall forwards, meanwhile, should create more marking and scoring opportunities inside 50, while similarly tall and fast defenders should increase the speed at which wayward entries are rebounded back up the ground.

Once again, the women’s game is proving that the most exciting thing about following it is watching the entire AFLW transform itself every few years.