With the final round of AFLW expansion, much attention was paid during the off season to see how each of the four new sides — Essendon, Hawthorn, Port Adelaide, and Sydney — would craft their playing lists.
While each chose a different strategy, two clubs have enjoyed immediate results in their debut season.
Essendon targeted experienced talent from across the competition.
Seventeen members of the playing list – more than half – came to the club with previous AFLW experience, and then another key contingent was elevated from the club’s premiership-winning VFLW side.
For this reason, the Bombers came into the AFLW with an average of 15.2 games’ experience, the most of any expansion side.
Port Adelaide, while recruiting some experience from around the country, did look to the state leagues – particularly in South and Western Australia – and the draft to craft the bulk of its list.
Because of this, the Power came into its first AFLW season marginally less experienced than Essendon, at an average of 11.5 games.
The youth recruited by both clubs have already caught the eye of the football world, with three players earning a Rising Star nomination within the first three rounds – Paige Scott (Essendon), Abbey Dowrick and Hannah Ewings (Port Adelaide).
Not only are these young players doing some nice things on the field, but they are also key reasons to both teams’ success.
Scott has kicked a club best five goals in the opening four rounds, Dowrick leads Port Adelaide for disposals with 70 and Ewings has won 18 clearances, the most at the Power.
They have also enjoyed consistency in their playing groups, using the fewest players of any club, just 24 (Essendon) and 25 (Port Adelaide).
Each side has made its brand very clear from the outset, and in doing so have found success. For Essendon, it is a damaging attack. For Port Adelaide, it’s a pressure game.
Essendon’s damaging attack
To date, the Bombers are the highest scoring side in its first season that the AFLW has seen. Averaging 48 points per game across the opening four rounds, they are second this season only behind Brisbane, and sit sixth in competition history for average points scored.
They have enjoyed 11 individual goal kickers, again trailing only ladder-leaders Brisbane and this attacking run includes the highest-ever score by a side in its first season, 13.6.84 in round three.
Much of this attacking strength has come from Essendon’s powerful midfield group that is averaging 23.5 clearances each game and then sending the ball inside 50 an impressive 30.3 times.
Being a front-half team leans into the side’s list build – tough midfielders and a stacked forward line.
Once forward, Essendon is goaling from 22.3 per cent of those entries thanks to the contingent of co-captain Bonnie Toogood, rising star Scott, reliable Daria Bannister, and experienced forward Jess Wuetschner.
In addition, the Bombers are enjoying midfielders like Maddy Prespakis and Steph Cain pushing forward and kicking goals as well.
Their losses to date have been tight ones, losing by a combined three points, and they are the only expansion side so far to beat an established side.
In attack, Essendon is mounting a case as the best side in its first season that the AFLW has ever seen.
Port Adelaide’s pressure game
Alongside the Bombers, Port Adelaide is putting its hand up with of the best debut seasons in the competition. It is playing a very different game to that of Essendon, however, as its backbone is immense pressure right across the ground.
In round one against West Coast, the Power laid a whopping 92 tackles – the most of any team in its first game and the equal-fourth of any team since the AFLW began. From there, the side has maintained an average of 76.8 tackles, also the most in competition history.
Due to this pressure being applied right across the ground Port Adelaide is conceding both the fourth fewest inside 50s and fourth fewest marks inside 50 so far this season, greatly limiting the scoring opportunities their opponents are able to create.
Added to this, their own forward entries are prolonged thanks to their immense forward pressure, whereby they are averaging 14.8 tackles inside 50.
This tackling pressure is led by experienced players Jacqui Yorston (36 tackles) and Maria Moloney (33), but it is young duo Dowrick (28) and Ewings (23) who are contributing at a high rate and carrying a lot of the load.
Port Adelaide is setting new standards for pressure footy, not just for new teams, but all sides across the competition.
As the season continues both Essendon and Port Adelaide’s average numbers will no doubt shift and change, but what is certain is that both sides will continue to play in their well-established style and as long as they are doing that, they will challenge even the best sides.