Brisbane players celebrate during the 2023 AFLW Grand Final against North Melbourne at Ikon Park. Picture: AFL Photos

THE DEVELOPMENT of AFLW was on full display throughout 2023, with some of the best games we've ever seen taking place.

There were close finishes, big comebacks, impressive individual performances, and thrilling finals to top it all off.

But what were the best 15 games of the season? Here's our countdown.

15. Hawthorn v Brisbane (round five)

Brisbane 8.11 (59) def. Hawthorn 5.2 (32) at Kinetic Stadium

For the first time former Lions Emily Bates and Greta Bodey faced their old side and started with a bang. Bodey kicked the opening goal of the game in impressive fashion, as her Hawks applied intense pressure. Bates was setting the standard defensively, ultimately laying 14 tackles for the day, and Hawthorn took an unexpected lead into half time. Belle Dawes shifted momentum Brisbane's way early in the third quarter, however, with a big tackle on Kaitlyn Ashmore to win a holding the ball free kick, resulting in a goal, and from there it was all Brisbane.


14. Brisbane v Adelaide (round eight)

Brisbane 5.1 (42) def. Adelaide 6.3 (39) at Brighton Homes Arena

As one might expect from the two most successful teams across the competition's history, this one started as an arm wrestle, before the Lions broke out to a 14-point lead at half-time. A big third term from the Crows saw it swing back their way but in the end it was the home side that hung on – no thanks to its poor conversion in front of goal. Danielle Ponter was immense with three goals from 14 disposals, as was Ebony Marinoff with 34 disposals and nine tackles. For the Lions, Sophie Conway had a career-best game with 26 disposals, 701m gained and six inside 50s in an important performance.


13. Melbourne v Adelaide (round six)

Adelaide 8.8 (56) def. Melbourne 7.4 (46) at Casey Fields

Both teams came into their round six game undefeated, billed as the battle of the titans, and it was a battle that lived up to expectations. The Demons and Crows broke even at half-time, each held to one scoreless quarter, their first of the season, before Adelaide took charge in the third term. Not even five goals from Eden Zanker was enough to get Melbourne over the line. Anne Hatchard became the first player to register 30 or more disposals and kick two or more goals in a game – finishing with 33 and two – while Ebony Marinoff was just as damaging with 27 disposals, two goals, and 14 tackles.


12. Greater Western Sydney v Carlton (round eight)

Greater Western Sydney 8.1 (49) def. Carlton 7.5 (47) at Henson Park

Based on where these two teams finished the season, this match had no right being as nail-biting as it was, but with the lead changing five times and the margin never exceeding 10 points, this was anyone's game until the dying moments. An impressive Jodie Hicks goal 18 minutes into the final quarter to ultimately win the game for the Giants was overshadowed by huge performances by two players. Carlton ruck Breann Moody had a big day with 23 disposals, 46 hitouts, 12 clearances, and seven inside 50s, doing all she could to keep the Blues in touch, while eventual Rising Star winner Zarlie Goldsworthy became the youngest player in AFLW history to kick five goals in a game, to go along with her 24 disposals and 12 tackles.


11. Richmond v Gold Coast (round six)

Gold Coast 5.6 (36) def. Richmond 5.5 (35) at Ikon Park

Despite being hard-hit by injury, to the point where it needed to play train-on player former-Sun Shannon Danckert, Richmond was performing well at its makeshift home of Ikon Park. Gold Coast snatched the lead in the third quarter before Danckert put the Tigers back in front with four minutes left on the clock. Down to the last minute scores were tied up and the ball landed in the hands of Gold Coast captain Tara Bohanna 50m from goal, who went on to kick the most important behind of her life. Charlie Rowbottom and Claudia Whitfort were immense through the middle for the Suns, combining for 56 disposals and 20 tackles, while Richmond winger Kate Dempsey did everything in her power to get her side the win.


10. Adelaide v Brisbane (qualifying final)

Brisbane 6.3 (39) def. Adelaide 5.7 (37) at Norwood Oval

It was the game that blew the race for the Grand Final and, ultimately, the premiership wide open. The stars were on show in tight with Ebony Marinoff and Anne Hatchard as dominant as ever at the contest, while Lion Cathy Svarc was the one who turned the game for her side. As Brisbane struggled to get the ball to its outside runners as it so likes, Svarc was the one whose power allowed her to break free of congestion and utilise those in space. Orla O'Dwyer impressively slotted a goal from the pocket, while Eloise Jones did all she could to drag the minor premiers to yet another preliminary final, equalling the finals goalkicking record of four. But in the end, it was a cumulative five-point loss to Brisbane for the Crows across their two games in 2023.


9. North Melbourne v Brisbane (round four)

Brisbane 5.5 (35) def. 5.3 (33) at UTAS Stadium

Without Dakota Davidson due to suspension, the Lions had to throw the magnets around including sending stalwart defender Shannon Campbell into attack. Thanks to the ever-impressive work of Jasmine Garner (30 disposals, seven tackles, one goal) and Ash Riddell (31 disposals, six tackles, six clearances), and two goals from Emma King, North Melbourne held control, leading from the 10-minute mark of the opening quarter. But with seven minutes remaining, Campbell bobbed up for a crucial goal to put the game back within the Lions' grasp. An impressive performance from Brisbane captain Bre Koenen to disrupt the Roos' onball brigade helped sway the game back within the visitors' reach, and ultimately become the first team to beat North Melbourne in Tasmania.


8. Melbourne v Collingwood (round one)

Melbourne 10.13 (73) def. Collingwood 4.7 (31) at Ikon Park

It was the first look at the season seven premiership side Melbourne without Daisy Pearce at the helm, and it initially looked a little shaky. Collingwood captain Brianna Davey (35 disposals, 11 clearances, six inside 50s) made a triumphant return from an ACL injury, as did Britt Bonnici, to hold sway across the opening half. But after half-time it was all Melbourne as it found a groove, kicking the last nine goals of the game. Kate Hore's leadership shone through and Alyssa Bannan's speed had the Pies worried as she kicked a game-high three goals.


7. Sydney v Greater Western Sydney (round one)

Sydney 7.9 (51) def. GWS 7.4 (46) at North Sydney Oval

The significance of this game was met by the standard of football played by those out on the field. Not only were the Swans still winless coming into the game, but they were coming up against their cross-town rivals for the season opener, and Sydney coach Scott Gowans threw some extra heat on the fire with some pointed comments before the game. While there was a clear improvement from the Swans compared to their inaugural year, the Giants led the whole way. That was, of course, until Chloe Molloy brought some magic with seven minutes left on the clock. After that it was all about the Swans grinding out the win. Alyce Parker was immense for the Giants with 22 disposals, five clearances, and a goal, while Swans ruck Ally Morphett started what would be an All-Australian campaign well with 18 disposals, 29 hitouts, seven clearances and a goal.


6. North Melbourne v Adelaide (preliminary final)

North Melbourne 4.8 (32) def. 4.7 (31) at Ikon Park

A game of push and pull, the big question was whether North Melbourne could back up its qualifying final win over Melbourne with another defeat of the 'big three'. Danielle Ponter carried the weight of the Crows' forward line, kicking three of their four goals, while Ebony Marinoff was strong in the middle with 26 disposals and 12 tackles. Even with the scare of an Anne Hatchard screamer and goal to put Adelaide within a point with minutes remaining, North Melbourne did what it hadn't been able to back in round nine: hold onto the lead. It was the grit and temerity the Roos needed to earn a spot in their first ever AFLW Grand Final.


5. Brisbane v Geelong (preliminary final)

Brisbane 6.2 (38) def. Geelong 5.4 (34) at Brighton Homes Arena

Another tight one at Brighton Homes Arena, the Cats got agonisingly close to their first Grand Final appearance, but the professionalism of the Lions shone through. Brisbane got the fast start, something Geelong had rarely allowed its opposition to do all season, but the Cats fought back through Jackie Parry and Chloe Scheer. The lead changed six times as the game wore on, and a knee injury to Dakota Davidson opened the door for Shannon Campbell to be the hero once more. Flipped into attack with Davidson off the field, Campbell stood strong to take a crucial mark and kick the neatest of set shots to put Brisbane back in front and, ultimately, into a fifth Grand Final.


4. St Kilda v Collingwood (round four)

St Kilda 7.5 (47) def. Collingwood 5.5 (35) at RSEA Park

Collingwood got off to a flyer by way of ruck Sabrina Frederick, and former Saint Tarni White kicked two goals for the Pies, but St Kilda wasn't going to allow that to be the tale of the day. Down by 26 points, the home side kicked the last six goals of the game, including five in the final quarter, to pull off the biggest comeback to win in AFLW history. It was the beginning of a club best four game winning streak for St Kilda, as Liv Vesely led the way in the middle with 21 disposals, four clearances, and eight tackles.


3. Adelaide v North Melbourne (round nine)

Adelaide 6.5 (41) def. North Melbourne 5.8 (38) at Norwood Oval

A spot in the top two was on the line, and North Melbourne looked like it was finally going to fell one of its key obstacles on the way to finals success. The visitors held off Adelaide's then-typical third-quarter surge, and just needed to finish their work, but all the Crows needed was a moment, and it was a moment Niamh Kelly took. With 90 seconds remaining a slick handball from young Crow Taylah Levy found Kelly who slotted the goal to put the home side up by three points. From there, the Roos found forward dominance, but simply couldn't make it count on the scoreboard.


2. Melbourne v Geelong (semi final)

Geelong 7.8 (50) def. Melbourne 6.9 (45) at Ikon Park

With a place in a preliminary final on the line, the Cats stunned Melbourne getting out to as much as a 32-point lead during the third quarter. Typically prolific midfielder Amy McDonald snuck forward to kick the first two goals of the game and throw the Demons off, while Nina Morrison and Georgie Prespakis were dominant around the contest. But the Demons weren't done, storming home with five final quarter goals to put the footy world on edge. With less than a minute remaining Melbourne ruck Lauren Pearce took a flying shot on goal that dramatically faded late to close the margin to less than a goal, but the Cats found a way to hang on, knocking Melbourne out of finals in straight sets.


1. North Melbourne v Brisbane (Grand Final)

Brisbane 7.2 (44) def. North Melbourne 4.3 (27) at Ikon Park

Unquestionably the best Grand Final in AFLW history, it was a game that had everything. A dramatic early injury, momentum shifts, big individual performances, and scoring breaking open in the final quarter. After important Roo Jenna Bruton was carted from the field with an achilles injury just three minutes into the game, Jasmine Garner looked to put her team on her shoulders. But then it was eventual Best on Ground medallist Breanna Koenen who stole the show, battling with Garner in the middle before slipping forward to kick the sealer. It was a game full of storylines and small but significant moments. North Melbourne's two third-quarter goals to take back the lead, Natalie Grider's 16 intercepts, Dakota Davidson's two momentum-swinging final quarter goals, Belle Dawes' team lifting energy, the Lions breaking the AFLW tackle record. It ended with Brisbane taking home a second premiership after significant offseason player movement, while North Melbourne closed the gap on the 'big three'. It was the perfect way to end a brilliant season.