Both North Melbourne and Brisbane have had highs and lows over the past few seasons. Picture: AFL Media

JUST who is the David and who is the Goliath ahead of the 2023 NAB AFLW Grand Final?

Both Brisbane and North Melbourne have been through their own trials and tribulations, not just this season, but over the last few years.

It's what makes Sunday's sold-out contest at Ikon Park so intriguing, and cuts to the core of sporting contests in general – the human element.

Brisbane: Regeneration amid rival raids

Brisbane has not only survived three expansion raids, but thrived, even with the public consternations of coach Craig Starcevich, who has just signed another contract extension, taking him to 10 seasons in the job.

As a sole team in a two-club state, Brisbane was able to initially capitalise on having exclusive access to Queensland talent, which has stronger pipelines for the women's side when compared to the men's.

Like Fremantle when West Coast entered in 2020, the Lions lost a bulk number of players to Gold Coast in the same expansion window.

What has been most galling, however, is losing talent to non-Queensland expansion sides.

You can nearly make a best 21 of the talent Brisbane has lost to expansion raids over three windows – the 2019, 2020 and season seven-eight periods.

This isn't inclusive of players like Tayla Harris and Jesse Wardlaw, who left through trades to non-expansion teams.

FB: Sam Virgo (GC), Leah Kaslar (GC)
HB: McKenzie Dowrick (WC, WA-born), Indy Tahau (PA, SA-born), Britt Gibson (NM, Tas-born)
C: Paige Parker (GC), Jacqui Yorston (GC), Kaitlyn Ashmore (NM, Vic-born)
HF: Nat Exon (StK, Vic-born), Tahlia Randall (NM), Greta Bodey (Haw)
F: Kate McCarthy (StK), Sabrina Frederick (Rich)
Fo: Lauren Bella (GC), Emily Bates (Haw), Jamie Stanton (NM)
Int: Maria Moloney (PA), Tori Groves-Little (GC), Emma Pittman (GC)

Starcevich has questioned why players would leave such a successful program, and players have countered it's not just about the on-field group, but inclusive of reasons such as returning to family, already living on the Gold Coast, work opportunities and other off-field commitments.

It's no doubt frustrating to have players regularly leave, but the Lions have prospered regardless, with Sunday's decider the fifth time Brisbane has featured in an AFLW Grand Final out of the seven premiership contests.

Brisbane players look dejected after their loss to Melbourne in the AFLW Grand Final on November 27, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

Of their previous four attempts, the Lions have won one flag, against Adelaide at Adelaide Oval in 2021.

Given the incredibly strong foundations of Brisbane, no one expected them to drop off a cliff after the most recent string of departures and unavailability (AFLW best and fairest winner Emily Bates, All-Australian forwards Greta Bodey and Wardlaw, the pregnancy of Kate Lutkins).

Most estimates had them dropping back to the pack somewhat, but still comfortably in finals contention, which is exactly what happened.

It's been a rockier home-and-away season for Brisbane – dropping matches to Richmond, Collingwood and St Kilda, none of whom made the finals this year – but a somewhat caged Lion proved to be the most dangerous version.

Jade Ellenger, Shannon Campbell and Poppy Boltz celebrate a goal during the preliminary final between Brisbane and Geelong at Brighton Homes Arena on November 25, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

The Lions finished fourth despite the upsets, on the back of sterling efforts against fellow top-four sides Adelaide, North Melbourne and Melbourne during the season, and had the best record against the top eight of any finalist.

Once again, Brisbane has been blessed with an almost clean bill of health for the entire season, the work of their strength and conditioning team a key feature in their success over the years.

Jade Pregelj tore her ACL in round three, fast-tracking the development of Irish key defender Jen Dunne, but Pregelj herself wasn't selected in the AFLW team at the time of the injury.

Brisbane has always loved embodying the spirit of the underdog – their most emphatic wins this year came after their worst losses – but can you truly be a David when you have their record against the best?

North Melbourne: Redemption after years of falling short

Like Brisbane, North Melbourne's ups and downs have been well documented, especially in recent weeks.

When the Roos burst onto the scene in 2019, they were the villain of the competition, having embarked on an aggressive recruiting spree, with players attracted to the club's history of involvement in women's footy prior to the introduction of the AFLW.

They won their first match by six goals, unveiling a neat and quick game-style that few sides could emulate at that early stage of skill development within the AFLW.

The infamous conference system didn't work in their favour in 2019, and they qualified for a preliminary final before the cancellation of the 2020 season due to the fresh COVID-19 outbreak.

Seasons five to seven followed a similar pathway, comfortably accounting for those below them but struggling with the very top sides.

Even this year appeared to be going down a similar path, losing to Adelaide, Brisbane and Melbourne.

The Lions loss down in Launceston saw the Roos continuing with what key forward Kate Shierlaw earlier this week termed "pretty footy".

The ramifications of the loss to Melbourne in round eight saw a shift in mindset. Never again were the Roos going to be punchline of the top four.

They came agonisingly close against Adelaide in round nine, and the loss stung badly. But it gave them hope.

North Melbourne players look dejected while Adelaide players celebrate a win during round nine, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Now, the stage is set for the perfect reversal of fortunes.

First week of finals, North Melbourne crossed Melbourne off its list in emphatic fashion.

Last week's one-point preliminary final win over Adelaide was sweet revenge.

Only one of the big three remain in the Roos' revenge tour – Sunday's opponent, Brisbane.

Even though North Melbourne has turned its fortunes of late, the Roos could argue their previously horrible record against the top three prior to the last few weeks puts them squarely in David territory.

North Melbourne will be playing in its first Grand Final in the AFLW – its first as an entire club since 1999 – and just three players on Sunday have played in a decider before.

Oddly enough, Emma Kearney, Jenna Bruton and Kim Rennie were all playing for the Western Bulldogs in the 2018 Grand Final, against Brisbane at Ikon Park. Their now-teammate, Tahlia Randall, was playing for the Lions.

Emma Kearney (left) and Jenna Bruton celebrate the Western Bulldogs' premiership win on March 24, 2018. Picture: AFL Photos

So who's David and who's Goliath?

The Roos have had more than their fair share of wobbly moments over the years, just like Brisbane this season.

It opens up the Grand Final to a wide range of possibilities between two very evenly matched sides.

And it's likely we won't know who the David is and who is the Goliath of this contest until the final siren.