AS WE reach the midway point of the 2023 home and away season, the first meeting of Geelong and Melbourne kicks it all off in the only Thursday evening match of the year.
Four big Friday match-ups, including a double-header at Ikon Park and a return to Whitten Oval after more than a year, continue the festival of footy. And on Sunday, big -name Hawthorn recruits Emily Bates and Greta Bodey will face their old side Brisbane for the first time.
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 28
Geelong v Melbourne at GMHBA Stadium, 6.15pm AEST
Some 1700 days after Geelong played its first AFLW game, it will meet Melbourne for the first time. With significant crossover between the two clubs, they are effectively rivals before even playing a game against one another, and the first meeting comes when both are in great form.
Geelong's style of play, which requires outside ball and clean disposal, will face its toughest challenge to date with Melbourne particularly good at forcing opponents into contested, messy ball use. If the Demons are able to take that away from the Cats, the latter will need to find scoring opportunities another way, and that is the one knock on their game to date this year. When challenged to play more contested footy, Geelong hasn't been able to bring its heavy attacking run.
Melbourne's forward efficiency will be a challenge for Geelong's defence, which is still without interceptor Annabel Johnson. Claudia Gunjaca and Meghan McDonald will have to take control of Demons spearheads Eden Zanker and Kate Hore – no easy task – but it will be a full-team responsibility to minimise the inside 50s Melbourne generates. The visitors are averaging a record 16.3 marks inside 50 this year, meaning their opportunities at goal have been composed, resulting in the club's best accuracy in its history. It is for this reason that the Cats' wingers need to be super accountable to Melbourne's players sliding forward, something that Alyssa Bannan and Casey Sherriff have been very good at already this season.
Tip: Geelong will show plenty, but the Demons will be too much to contain. Melbourne by 20 points.
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 29
Richmond v Fremantle at Ikon Park, 1.05pm AEST
Fremantle will be disappointed with its 20-point loss to Essendon last week, falling away late in the game after going toe-to-toe with the Bombers for the first half, while Richmond had the opposite experience, breaking free of Carlton late in the game to claim the win. The Dockers want to play a contested game and get the ball on the boot to gain ground, whereas the Tigers are more focused on using their strong defence to rebound through the corridor. The run and carry, handball game Richmond plays when at its best is close to unbeatable, and it is something that has the potential to unsettle a typically stable Fremantle defence.
Both sides will be without important star players - Kiara Bowers for Fremantle, and Ellie McKenzie and Bec Miller for Richmond - but they have also been able to adapt this year without those contributors to still post wins. Where they have fallen, however, is in third terms. Richmond is yet to win a third quarter this year, while Fremantle has won just one, so whichever side can get a stranglehold after the main break will be best placed to claim victory.
Tip: The Tigers will have just a bit too much run. Richmond by 10 points.
Carlton v Sydney at Ikon Park, 4.05pm AEST
Another first-time match-up, this battle is enticing given their highly talented, young midfield groups, while Sydney co-captain Lucy McEvoy will face her old side for the first time. Both sides are averaging almost identical clearance numbers, with Mimi Hill, Abbie McKay and Keeley Sherar taking charge for Carlton, and Chloe Molloy, Laura Gardiner and Sofia Hurley doing the job for Sydney. More exciting, however, is the ruck contest above them. Young Swan Ally Morphett is building a fantastic season in the ruck, averaging 17.3 disposals, 33.8 hitouts and seven clearances, but on Friday she must face the impressive duo of Breann Moody and Jess Good – never an easy task.
What Sydney cannot allow the Blues to do is control the territory and apply huge forward pressure as they did in round one against Gold Coast. Instead, if the Swans are a chance to win this one, they must find that territory control themselves, keep the ball living in their forward half and generate repeat opportunities at goal. Carlton's defence is very well-organised, particularly with captain Kerryn Peterson back in the line-up, but repeat entries and little reprieve will give the Swans a chance to post a winning score.
Tip: It will be close, but the Blues will ultimately take the win. Carlton by five points.
Western Bulldogs v St Kilda at VU Whitten Oval, 7.15pm AEST
AFLW returns to Whitten Oval after 572 days on Friday, with the Dogs searching for their first win against St Kilda. The Saints have plenty of momentum, kicking the last six goals of their game against Collingwood on Sunday and snagging their first win of the season, and settling into a quick, attacking method of play. It is against this style that the Dogs have been most vulnerable this year, caught out when teams win the turnover. As a result, it could be an opportunity for new Saint Jesse Wardlaw to get off the chain, especially with the Dogs' depleted defence conceding a record 12.3 marks inside 50 this year.
While neither side is winning heaps of the footy, the Western Bulldogs are also conceding a record 270.5 disposals and 156 uncontested possessions per game, but it is imperative they get their hands on the footy and find some control. They have an opportunity to start strongly, with St Kilda failing to score in two of its opening quarters so far this season, but they must also prevent the Saints from running away with it late in the game as they did last week.
Tip: It will be a happy homecoming for the Dogs. Western Bulldogs by three points.
West Coast Eagles v Port Adelaide at Mineral Resources Park, 7.15pm AWST
It has been a tough season so far for the Eagles, who are yet to post a win and have a losing margin of an average 36.8 points. Now, they face Port Adelaide for the first time this season, but with a little reprieve given Power spearhead Ashleigh Saint has been suspended for a week. West Coast is goaling from just 11.6 per cent of its inside 50s, and while an accuracy of 27.5 per cent doesn't help, the side has also struggled to break through well-organised defences. Kellie Gibson has kicked five of their 11 goals, with no other Eagle kicking more than one to date, despite averaging a club-high 23.8 inside 50s.
Port Adelaide, meanwhile, has been averaging the worst disposal differential in AFLW history, recording 59.3 fewer disposals per game than its opposition, but it is against the Eagles that they might be able to make a change. The home side has been particularly vulnerable at stoppage this year, and Port Adelaide's onball brigade of Abbey Dowrick, Erin Phillips and Jasmin Stewart has the opportunity to get first touch and take control from there. Another enthralling aspect will be the battle of the young rucks. Port Adelaide's Matilda Scholz has hit the AFLW hard, impressing as the side's No.1 ruck and already earning a Rising Star nomination, while the Eagles' Lauren Wakfer has fought admirably with little support due to Sarah Lakay's back injury.
Tip: West Coast will continue to search for that first win. Port Adelaide by 15 points.
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 30
Collingwood v Essendon at Punt Road Oval, 11.05am AEST
Collingwood and Essendon enter this one on very different footing to this time last year, with the established Pies registering just one win this season to date, while the Bombers have dropped just one game. Both sides have similar profiles from quarter to quarter, but the visitors have been stronger late in games which is a worrying sign for the Pies who gave up the last six goals of Sunday's game against St Kilda. Collingwood must take full advantage of its strong starts on Saturday, not just controlling play but doing damage on the scoreboard if they're to get over the Bombers.
Essendon's stacked forward line will be a tough task for the Pies' defence, which remains depleted. Bonnie Toogood is in a rich vein of form, Sophie Alexander leads the competition for goal assists, Paige Scott's high-flying marking ability is game breaking and Jess Wuetschner has a knack of bobbing up in crucial moments. Collingwood simply cannot afford to let Essendon move the ball freely down the ground, it must apply pressure and force limited, poor forward entries.
Tip: Life will only get tougher for Collingwood. Essendon by eight points.
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 1
North Melbourne v Greater Western Sydney at Arden Street, 1.05pm AEDT
The Giants have never beaten North Melbourne from three starts, losing by an average of 23.3 points, and coming into this one winless against a side out to atone for a round four loss will have GWS fans nervous. Conceding an average of 77.3 points per game, the Giants' defence has really struggled against powerful scoring teams, something North Melbourne will no doubt be ready to take full advantage of with its dangerous aerial attack.
North Melbourne has been dominant at stoppages this year, averaging 34 clearances a game thanks to the work of Jasmine Garner, Mia King, Ash Riddell and newly returned Jenna Bruton. This will be a tough task for the likes of Alyce Parker, Nicola Barr and Bec Beeson to contain the Roos around the footy, but it will be priority No.1 if they are to stand a chance to claim their first win.
Tip: The Roos will get back on the winners list. North Melbourne by 33 points.
Hawthorn v Brisbane at Kinetic Stadium, 3.05pm AEDT
This match-up has a whole new meeting this year, with Emily Bates and Greta Bodey preparing to face their old side for the first time. A lot will be on the pair's shoulders, however, as a depleted Hawthorn must take on a Brisbane side that has just started to get its game going. Without Mackenzie Eardley available due to concussion, Jenna Richardson, Tamara Luke, Laura Elliott and Catherine Brown will have to take on Brisbane's dynamic forward line, including contested marking beast Dakota Davidson, dangerous small Courtney Hodder and emerging forward Lily Postlethwaite.
The Lions' forward pressure has been a hallmark of their game for several seasons now, but this year it's gone to a new level as they average 18.5 tackles inside 50 a game. This makes life tricky for the Hawks, who like to generate attack with slingshot play out of their defensive half. Meanwhile, wingers Sophie Conway, Orla O'Dwyer and Jade Ellenger have each been important to Brisbane's attacking drive, something the Hawks wingers must be conscious to defend throughout the game.
Tip: The Lions will land a second win in Frankston in as many games. Brisbane by 30 points.
Adelaide v Gold Coast at Unley Oval, 4.35pm ACDT
These two sides have only played each other once, resulting in a dominant 70-point win for Adelaide as it kept Gold Coast goalless for three quarters. This year it looks quite different, however, with the sides sitting second and third in the competition for average marks inside 50 and both entrenched in the top eight as we reach the halfway point of the home and away season. What will be crucial for the Suns this weekend, however, will be maintaining their focus for the full four quarters. Adelaide is very good at continuing its scoreboard pressure throughout games, pulling away in second halves. Ominously, the Crows are yet to lose a third or fourth quarter.
Gold Coast has been particularly strong at the contest this season, averaging 31.3 clearances per game, but the Crows aren't far behind with an average of 27.5. What the Suns are allowing opponents to do, however, is take plenty of marks around the ground, which could be dangerous given Adelaide's ability to control the contest and generate plenty of inside 50s.
Tip: The Suns won't lose any fans, but the Crows will claim victory. Adelaide by 25 points.