We’re now less than a month away from the AFL Women’s competition returning and with the squads set, it’s time to look at each team’s best 21 – yes, 21. The AFL has limited teams to five players on the bench to go with 16 on the field and that means we will be going through each side’s best 21.
We kick things off with a Melbourne squad which is rightfully one of the flag favourites. The Demons had an impressive 2017 campaign and if not for a shock loss to GWS, they would've taken Adelaide's spot in the Grand Final.
Not enough analysis has been made of the initial AFLW draft, but undoubtedly the Demons outperformed the other three Victorian teams and put together a very strong roster that will carry them well this season.
If they had a weakness, it was their avenues to goal. Alyssa Mifsud came from seemingly nowhere to become the team’s dominant forward, kicking nine goals for the season. Cat Phillips was also effective, kicking five, but they needed more targets inside 50 – and that’s exactly what they’ve added for 2018.
Their first move was picking up Carlton forward Bianca Jakobsson for next to nothing in the trade period. While Jakobsson didn’t set the world on fire with the Blues, she still ranked third in the competition for marks inside 50. They then drafted key forwards Eden Zanker and Tegan Cunningham with picks six and 22 respectively. The Demons saw the flaw in their squad and have turned it into one of the team’s areas of depth.
Lauren Pearce finished the season as one of the best rucks in the competition, but she will likely spend more time as a key forward as well with the acquisition of ruck giant Erin Hoare. The former Melbourne Vixen comes into the competition as (by far) the tallest player at 194cm and was very effective for Geelong in the VFLW as a ruck option.
You can’t preview this Melbourne side without talking about ‘the big three’ in the midfield. Daisy Pearce, Karen Paxman and Elise O’Dea all finished at the pointy end of almost every measurable metric and gave the Demons a constant midfield dominance. Melbourne averaged 24 more disposals than any other team, largely because of this trio. All three ranked inside the top six for total disposals in 2017 with a large gap between O’Dea in sixth and Ebony Marinoff in seventh.
The most frightening part was the success of Paxman, O’Dea, Lily Mithen, Shelley Scott and others in their middle allowed Pearce to spend more time up forward or across half back and she changed the flow of multiple games doing so.
Losing Rising Star nominee Deanna Berry to the Western Bulldogs was the only big off-season disappointment, but they brought in GWS midfielder Ashleigh Guest who should slot straight into their best side.
This is a team – on paper – without any significant holes. Down back, Laura Duryea was unlucky to miss out on All-Australian selection and marquee Melissa Hickey roams as a general controlling the play. Hickey could be used through the midfield, but their depth in that position gives them the luxury of using her in defence.
Meg Downie is essentially a new recruit for the team after she only played two games last season before injury. Downie is another lockdown defender who will allow Hickey more freedom this year.
Looking at this best 21 on paper, it may be a little top heavy with Lauren Pearce, Hoare, Cunningham, Mifsud and Zanker all in the one side and it’ll be interesting to see how they balance their line-up. They may go with second round draft pick Maddy Guerin as another midfield rotation if they want to go smaller.
You’ve probably noticed how glowing this preview is. That’s because this is a team ready to take the next step and bring home a flag and anything short of a top two finish should be considered a failure for this squad. They’ve also drawn a favourable fixture, meeting both of last year’s grand finalists in Victoria which is a massive bonus.
You could make a case for all eight AFLW sides to improve on what they showed last season and that makes for what should be a very even season. Having said that, this team right here is your favourite.
Ladder prediction: 1st
Season MVP: Daisy Pearce
Leading goal kicker: Alyssa Mifsud
Surprise packet: Erin Hoare