SOME teams enter the back half of the season on a knife's edge, with must-win games ahead should they still be a chance for finals. Others continue to cruise along in good form, starting to face some real challenges for the first time this year.
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 6
Western Bulldogs v Carlton at Whitten Oval, 7:15pm AEDT
It's make or break time for the Western Bulldogs. Friday's game against Carlton is a must-win should the Dogs gather any momentum through the back half of the season. If they are to lose, it will be their sixth-straight loss, the longest losing streak in the club's history. A glaring issue for the Bulldogs is how drastically they have been falling away late in games, losing all but one final quarter, and this is something they need to address if they are to get over the Blues. Carlton comes into this game with a world of confidence, three wins under its belt, and evidence that every player is on the same page – much more than can be said for the Dogs.
Carlton has the opportunity to exploit a somewhat vulnerable Bulldogs defence, averaging the third-most tackles inside 50 this season, which has led to a significant increase in scoring. The Dogs, however, have been conceding nearly double the points they did last season, and with a tall trio of Phoebe McWilliams, Mia Austin and one of Breann Moody or Jess Good to contend with, minimising the hurt on the scoreboard becomes an even tougher task. It is likely Gab Newton will be swung into defence for the Dogs to help quell Carlton's firepower, but that leaves them limited in attack when they are able to gain possession of the footy.
Tip: The pain continues for the Bulldogs. Carlton by five points.
SATURDAY, OCTOBER 7
Greater Western Sydney v West Coast at Blacktown International Sportspark, 1:05pm AEDT
Fresh off its first win in nearly 400 days, West Coast will travel to Blacktown with a heap of confidence in its young group to stick fat when challenged late in matches. The Eagles have never won back-to-back games, but this presents as their best opportunity to tick that goal off the list. On the reverse, GWS is currently on the longest losing streak in club history, dropping its last five games. Much of that hurt, like the Bulldogs, has come in the final quarter for the Giants, kicking just one point in fourth quarters, while conceding 128 in that same time.
The midfield battle will be a fascinating one, with the Eagles steadily improving their clearance work since losing the differential by 27 in round two, but they have also proven that they don't need to win the clearance count to claim victory. Meanwhile, the Giants remain heavily reliant on star Alyce Parker to get the job done through the middle. Parker, who is averaging 5.8 clearances a week – a fifth of the Giants' average – will likely need to work through an Aisling McCarthy run-with role. McCarthy is not only a great stopper, but makes her opposition accountable to her running the other way, and it is the matchup that could decide the game.
Tip: This is a prime opportunity for the Eagles to break through a mental barrier. West Coast by three points.
Melbourne v Adelaide at Casey Fields, 3:05pm AEDT
Undoubtedly the game of the round, this will be the 10th meeting between Melbourne and Adelaide, and in true form, both sides come in undefeated. Melbourne has won five of their matchups to date, Adelaide the other four. As the two most dominant teams of the season, they are also the two highest scoring sides, with Melbourne averaging 79.8 points and Adelaide 66.6, while they are also both high-disposal teams, wanting to control the play with ball in hand.
What the Demons are particularly good at is creating scoring opportunities once inside 50. Generating a shot on goal from 61.7 per cent of its inside 50s, Melbourne attacks with real purpose coming out of stoppage, flicking the ball around by hand and running in waves. The Demons forwards are patient, willing to wait for the right option to appear before hitting them up. This is something Adelaide needs to be really aware of, particularly without defensive conductor Sarah Allan in the side. Wingers must be accountable of their opponents sliding into attack, and others need to be willing to work hard to block leading lanes in the Demons' forward 50.
Adelaide has done plenty of damage in third quarters this year, while Melbourne has separated itself on the scoreboard in fourth quarters, so expect a push-and-pull in the second half. Meanwhile the midfield battle between these two is ever-enthralling. Adelaide's average clearance numbers of 27.8 put it eighth in the competition this season, but what it does so well is force poor clearance from its opponent, from which it wins the ball back and attacks, so this is pressure Melbourne must work through.
Tip: It will be the Demons' biggest challenge yet, but the winning streak will roll on. Melbourne by 10 points.
St Kilda v Hawthorn at RSEA Park, 3:05pm AEDT
Hawthorn's defend-first mindset last week worked beautifully for a half before Brisbane adapted to the pressure and the Hawks fell away. If they can bring that pressure against the Saints, however, that will put them in a strong position to end St Kilda's momentum. What the Hawks also do really well is adapt to conditions – particularly wind – to make it work for them throughout games. RSEA Park generally does have a wind advantage, so expect that to be something the Hawks have worked into their game plan.
Where St Kilda can really get a hold of this game, however, is through powerful forward Jesse Wardlaw. In the last two weeks the Hawks have given up three goals to each of Dakota Davidson and Eden Zanker – marking forwards who become the focal point of a team's attack. Wardlaw has started to find her groove in the Saints' lineup, kicking three goals last week, and this could be another big week for her. This game will likely be a high-pressure, stoppage-heavy affair, and the Saints have the opportunity to get on top late like they did against Collingwood at the same venue a fortnight ago.
Tip: The Hawks will push for a half, but the Saints will go the distance. St Kilda by 18 points.
Port Adelaide v Sydney at Alberton Oval, 4:35pm AEDT
Both expansion clubs last season, Port Adelaide was the far better side of the two when they met, with Sydney held goalless. But this year things look very different. The Swans sit ahead of the Power on the ladder, having snagged two wins to the latter's one. Port Adelaide is also coming off a surprise loss to West Coast in which coach Lauren Arnell would no doubt be disappointed. This one will also see Rising Star nominees Matilda Scholz and Ally Morphett going head-to-head in the ruck, a battle that we can look forward to many editions of in the years to come.
Port Adelaide is struggling to get its hands on the football, averaging 59 fewer disposals than its opponent each week, and the disposals it does get are being used poorly, going at just 57.5 per cent disposal efficiency. Both sides are generating almost identical inside 50 numbers each week, but the Swans are more consistently able to find targets in attack, taking 7.6 marks inside 50 compared to the Power's 3.8. As a result, the Swans are taking more considered shots and kicking more accurately, while the Power is conceding the highest goal accuracy in AFLW history, with their opponents converting 51.8 per cent of their shots on goal. Unless Port Adelaide can force a more frantic, pressured attack from the Swans, the ledger will equalise.
Tip: It might be Port Adelaide's home, but the Swans will own it on Saturday. Sydney by eight points.
Brisbane v Collingwood at Brighton Homes Arena, 7:15pm AEST
Another matchup that reaches its 10th edition, Brisbane has won its last five games over Collingwood, including two crucial finals. The Lions are particularly good at winning centre clearance and attacking directly from there, and once in attack they are one of the best teams at keeping the ball inside 50, averaging an AFLW record 19.8 tackles in the forward arc. While the Pies were glad to get Lauren Butler back into their defence last week, still no Ruby Schleicher puts even more pressure on the Collingwood backline to not only prevent the Lions from scoring, but to also generate attack out of the back half.
Collingwood, already struggling to win consistent uncontested ball, will have a tough time improving that metric against Brisbane, which expertly prevents its opposition from winning the outside ball. Instead, the Lions force opponents into highly-contested situations, limiting any sense of time or space with the ball, which makes them incredibly tough to play against. The Pies need to start well because Brisbane warms into games, playing really consistent, attacking second halves, while the former is yet to win a final quarter this year.
Tip: The slog continues for Collingwood. Brisbane by 23 points.
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 8
Essendon v Geelong at Reid Oval Warrnambool, 1:05pm AEDT
The battle of the Prespakis sisters will be reprised this weekend, albeit for the first time since Maddy joined Essendon. Both will also be celebrating milestones in the game, with Maddy reaching career game No.50 and Georgie career game No.25. But while the Prespakis sisters are very different kinds of players, their teams are generally trying to play in a similar style. Getting the ball to the outside to play kick-mark, possession footy is the go-to for both Essendon and Geelong, ultimately wanting to send the ball in to their marking key forwards. Both teams are averaging 51 marks per game, but what the Cats have been better at this year is applying pressure to take away that uncontested possession from their opposition.
Last week co-captain Bonnie Toogood kicked all three of the Bombers' goals, so this one may be as simple as stop Bonnie, stop Essendon for the Cats, with Claudia Gunjaca and Meghan McDonald likely to each spend some time on her when playing deep. Meanwhile both Melbourne and North Melbourne have shown this year that completely shutting Chloe Scheer out of games is more than possible, with the Cat registering just three disposals and no goals against each side. What Geelong has in its favour, however, is a deeper attacking line, with Jackie Parry, Aishling Moloney and smalls Darcy Moloney and Kate Surman each having their time in the sun this year.
Tip: The Cats will get back on the winners list. Geelong by 15 points.
Richmond v Gold Coast at Ikon Park, 3:05pm AEDT
The battle of the young midfield duos is the key matchup to watch in this game, with Monique Conti and Grace Egan set to go head-to-head with Charlie Rowbottom and Claudia Whitfort. With that duo, Gold Coast has found a really attacking clearance style compared to the Tigers. Whitfort, in particular, plays with an attacking mindset, averaging five inside 50s per game, placing her fourth in the competition this season for players who have appeared in more than one game. Conti sits just behind her with 4.8 inside 50s per game, but what has hurt the Tigers is the heavy reliance on Conti to do it all. While the Suns have Whitfort sending the ball forward from her 6.2 average clearances, they also have Rowbottom averaging 8.2 clearances per game. For the Tigers, Conti is also their leading clearance winner with 7.8 per game, making her the lynch pin of their midfield success.
This season Gold Coast has found a much better balance between its contested and uncontested possession, with 52.7 per cent of its possession uncontested compared to 47.6 per cent last season. This has allowed it to send the ball forward with more purpose and better advantage forwards Jac Dupuy, Tara Bohanna and Jamie Stanton. Richmond, however, still hasn't found that consistent chemistry with its new forward group, and everything gets that much more difficult with its long injury list.
Tip: The Suns will solidify a place in the top eight. Gold Coast by 13 points.
Fremantle v North Melbourne at Fremantle Oval, 2:05pm AWST
Still no Kiara Bowers for Fremantle spells danger this weekend, as it comes up against the best clearance team in the competition. North Melbourne, thanks to the work of Jasmine Garner, Ash Riddell and Mia King, has averaged 35.8 clearances per game, which makes the lack of Bowers' defensive pressure through the middle a concern. The Kangaroos look to attack quite directly coming out of clearance, which has the potential to put the Dockers' defence under some real pressure. What the home side must do is force poor forward entries.
North Melbourne, despite boasting Tahlia Randall, Kate Shierlaw, and Emma King in its forward line, is generating a shot on goal from just 37 per cent of its inside 50s. This is something Fremantle needs to exacerbate, limiting any genuine opportunities at goal for the Roos. But what the home side cannot do is focus purely on defence and not maintain structure ahead of the ball to attack through when they do win the footy back. And a big barometer for Fremantle is its first quarters this season, with every game that it has won its opening quarter eventuating in the four premiership points.
Tip: The Kangaroos will be a hair too strong. North Melbourne by six points.