(Clockwise from left): Jasmine Garner, Tahlia Randall, Emma Kearney and North Melbourne celebrating. Pictures: AFL Photos

THE TIMING felt right for North Melbourne to be aggressive.

As the club considered the approach it would adopt for its initial AFLW list build ahead of its entry into the competition in 2019, a list of closely considered factors pointed towards taking the boldest of all.

The League had been running for two years by the time the Kangaroos entered. It meant the club's AFLW hierarchy had two years of research on what players had risen to the level, which could get there in the right environment, and who might be unsettled if a rival team came knocking with a good enough offer.

Rather than attack the draft – a tactic employed by most other expansion sides to have followed North Melbourne, as well as one used by Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney as the most recent expansion teams in the men's competition – the Kangaroos instead wanted to use the AFLW's two years of evidence to target ready-made talent above all else.

It's an approach that brought about immediate results, and this weekend could still yield the ultimate success. Having gone 5-2 in its first year – and made finals in five of its first six seasons – on Sunday North Melbourne will become the first AFLW expansion side to play in a Grand Final.


Internally, the Kangaroos had noted with intrigue last week that both they and the Cats had progressed as far as this season's preliminary finals. After all, both North Melbourne and Geelong entered the AFLW competition together as the League's first expansion teams back in 2019.

But where the Cats zigged with their first list build, the Kangaroos zagged. Geelong adopted a heavily draft-focused strategy, while North Melbourne went for experience and an immediate return. The Kangas signed 13 players from rival clubs and traded for two more, while the Cats lured just seven in total from fellow AFLW clubs.

North Melbourne, meanwhile, started its first ever AFLW Draft at pick No.25 due to the sheer number of established players the club had brought in. Geelong, by the time the night had weaved its way to that point, had already selected six times and had welcomed Nina Morrison and Sophie van de Heuvel with picks No.1 and No.2 respectively.

But it was that aggressive strategy – and the core of players North Melbourne welcomed as a result, many of whom still remain at the club – that has the Kangas on the cusp of premiership success this Sunday.

North's AFLW brains trust – which then comprised of list manager Rhys Harwood, head of football Laura Kane, coach Scott Gowans and operations boss Matt Bolitho – were tasked with the Kangaroos' initial build. Their first priority was recruiting from the midfield out, and the club started by targeting the best of the best.

Scott Gowans coaching North Melbourne in 2020. Picture: AFL Photos

Emma Kearney, fresh from winning the AFLW's best and fairest award in 2018, was exactly that. Her signing, which was confirmed just days after she was officially named the competition's premier player, was a statement moment for the club.

It was followed by a host of other shrewd additions with North Melbourne also adding Jenna Bruton from the Western Bulldogs, Collingwood ruck Emma King and defender Danielle Hardiman from Carlton among a crop of nine additions when the expansion signing period officially opened that May.

The Kangas had initially hoped to follow the landmark addition of Kearney with a series of other significant signings. Her former Western Bulldogs teammate Ellie Blackburn was another serious target that was heavily pursued in the lead-up to their first season, however she ultimately couldn't be lured to Arden Street.

North Melbourne's Emma Kearney poses for a photo in 2018. Picture: AFL Photos

Jess Dal Pos, fresh from an All-Australian season at Greater Western Sydney, as well as Carlton's Maddi Gay, had also been eyed as potential top-tier targets but couldn't be secured by North Melbourne officials. Chloe Scheer had also been chased as an open-age player, but ultimately elected to move to Adelaide.

So, instead, the club went to phase two of its list build approach. If they couldn't attract any more of the very best players, they would use their two seasons of data and research to identify who could one day become that in a different environment.

Collingwood's Jasmine Garner had all of the potential, but had been thrown around positionally in a struggling Magpies team. It was a similar story for Brisbane's Tahlia Randall, who was being deployed as a defender during her first years with the Lions.

Garner has since become the League's best midfielder and will be the centrepiece of North Melbourne's Grand Final side on Sunday afternoon, while Randall is now among the League's best and most dangerous key forwards.

Jasmine Garner kicks the ball during Collingwood's clash against Greater Western Sydney in round three, 2018. Picture: AFL Photos

North Melbourne might have been one of the first AFLW expansion sides, but most to have followed since have found out that you can easily identify targets. The harder part is attracting them. For the Kangaroos, the key was to find a connection with the players they wanted and use that to their advantage.

In Gowans, a former coach at Diamond Creek at VFLW level, and Kane, a former player, coach and board member at Melbourne University, as well as the club's ties with Tasmania, its list management team had varying links to some of the game's best players.

Jess Duffin, lured from Collingwood, had previously played at Diamond Creek. Kearney, Ash Riddell and Kaitlyn Ashmore all had history at Melbourne Uni. Daria Bannister and Britt Gibson, signed from the Bulldogs and Brisbane respectively, had initially been recruited out of Tasmania.

The solid foundation of senior and ready-made players North Melbourne was able to build from the outset has enabled the club to be immediately and consistently competitive, meanwhile many of its initial signings still remain. Kearney, Garner, King, Randall, Bruton and Riddell are among those set to lead out the team at Ikon Park this weekend.

Ash Riddell looks on ahead of North Melbourne's preliminary final against Adelaide on November 26, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Having gone about collecting its first ever list, North Melbourne has never made it a priority to continue being aggressive in the trade space. Instead, almost immediately after the team's inception, it shifted its focus to adding when and where it was necessary rather than continuing with an all-out approach to recruiting.

Kim Rennie, signed from the Western Bulldogs, as well as former Brisbane player Lulu Pullar and ex-Carlton and St Kilda forward Kate Shierlaw, weren't bombshell additions but will each arrive at Sunday's Grand Final as key pillars in North Melbourne's side.

The club was also among the first to place an emphasis on targeting Irish talent to fill out its list. Erika O'Shea and Niamh Martin will both play this weekend, Vikki Wall remains part of the club's long-term plans despite remaining at home this season, while Aileen Gilroy had been a pivotal player before being lost to Hawthorn as part of an expansion raid of its own last year.

Niamh Martin, Emma Kearney and Erika O'Shea sing the team song after North Melbourne's win over Adelaide in the preliminary final on November 26, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

The culmination of that work has resulted in the Kangaroos stringing together a 36-15-1 record in home and away matches since their first appearance in AFLW competition, with a win-rate of 69.2 per cent. In contrast, the Cats – who entered the League at exactly the same time – have gone 21-31 in that time at a win rate of 40.4 per cent.

Meanwhile, the nine other expansion teams have a combined record of 104-202-6 at AFLW level at a win rate of just 33.3 per cent, highlighting the difficulty North Melbourne has never faced in getting its new side off the ground.

Despite that consistency and that relative success, the ultimate glory in terms of an AFLW premiership has so far eluded North Melbourne. Finally, though, that could all change on Sunday afternoon.