(L-R): Nathan Burke, Sophie Conway and Erin Phillips. Picture: AFL Photos

FOUR coaches departing, two Lions suspended for a "lack of sleep", one superstar of the game retiring - it was an eventful season in AFLW land.

From Brisbane overcoming the odds to win its second premiership to the Western Bulldogs' horror season, it was a season of highs and lows.

With Monday's draft marking the end of the footy year, we've looked back at the 10 biggest stories of the season.

10. Hodder's mark of the year

There were plenty of great on-field moments this season, but one mark will go down in AFLW history. 

Round seven saw Brisbane's Courtney Hodder's take perhaps the greatest mark we've seen in the women's competition.

Running back with the flight, Hodder's effort drew comparisons with Jonathan Brown's famous 2002 mark.

Remarkably, she did not win the fan-voted mark of the year nomination for that round, but was named a finalist for the award before eventually winning it.

The bravery and skill shown by Hodder in taking that mark showed just how exciting and exhilarating the AFLW is.


9. The reigning premier's fall from grace

For the first half of 2023, the reigning premier looked unbeatable. But something changed in the second half of Melbourne's season, culminating in a straight sets finals exit (just like their male counterparts a few months earlier).

Finishing the season in second place on the ladder after a round 10 loss to eventual premier Brisbane, the Dees lost to North Melbourne in their qualifying final, then to Geelong in the semi-final.

How did it all fall apart? Had other teams simply just worked their gameplan out? Questions swirled as the Dees looked like a shadow of their former selves.

The wheels began to turn almost immediately, with four of the Dees' stalwarts traded out in exchange for high draft picks. 

Whether this rebuild on the run works is yet to be seen, but there will no doubt be plenty of eyes on the Dees in 2024.



8. The super mega trade

It had never been seen before, not even in the AFL. But the AFLW isn't afraid to do things differently, and trade period was no exception.

With just 30 minutes remaining in the 2023 AFLW trade period, several players were still yet to be traded to their preferred destination.

Then came the super mega trade.

Twelve players and 24 draft picks moved between 11 clubs, with some of the competition's biggest names - Maddi Gay, Gabby Newton and Ash Brazill - finding new homes.

It became the largest trade in AFLW - and AFL - history.

7. Two Lions dropped for disciplinary reasons

The omission of Jade Ellenger and Poppy Boltz from Brisbane's round six side raised eyebrows among AFLW fans. The pair had been in good form and were settled parts of the Lions' line-up.

Then came the revelation the pair had been dropped for disciplinary reasons, with coach Craig Starcevich later confirming a "lack of sleep" had been involved.

Mystery swirled as to what exactly Starcevich meant, but the coach refused to elaborate, only saying that the pair had been disciplined for "not meeting our professional standards as a group".

"Every now and then the team needs a bit of a wake-up call as to what's acceptable and what's not, and that's what happened," he said cryptically.

The Lions suffered a loss to lowly Collingwood that week, but Ellenger later said that game marked a turning point on the Lions' road to an eventual premiership.


6. A legend retires

It's unlikely we'll ever see another AFLW player as dominant as Erin Phillips.

The two-time competition best and fairest winner, three-time premiership winner, three-time All-Australian, two-time Grand Final BOG, former captain of Adelaide and captain of Port Adelaide called time on her decorated career in October.

She retired as a true great of the game, with a persona that transcended the AFLW competition.


5. Historic joint pay deal

After months of negotiations, an historic collective bargaining agreement was struck between the AFL and the players' union in September, which would cover both AFLW and AFL players for the first time in history.

The landmark five-year deal saw players receive a 29 per cent pay rise, with the average AFLW player pay increasing to $60,000 for the 2023 season, up from $46,000, and set to rise to $82,000 by 2027.

The deal also gave a vision for the future of the competition, with an increase of the AFLW season to 12 matches by 2025, with the potential to reach 14 games by 2027.

It was an historic moment for the AFLW, the AFL and its players.


4. Swans go from winless to winning a final

Sydney had a tough start to life in the AFLW during season seven, going winless in its inaugural year and being the only expansion side to do so.

But the Swans were busy in the off-season, recruiting superstar players such as Chloe Molloy and Lucy McEvoy, as well as three talented Irish crosscoders.

And it paid off almost immediately, with the Swans recording their first AFLW win in round one against crosstown rivals Greater Western Sydney.

They looked like a different side in 2023, and did enough to not only make finals, but win one.

It was one of the feel-good stories of the year, and a testament to hard work and shrewd recruiting.

Sydney players celebrate after the final siren of the elimination final against Gold Coast at Heritage Bank Stadium on November 11, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

3. Lions win the flag

Expectations were low for the Lions in 2023 after losing the competition's leading goalkicker Jesse Wardlaw and former league best-and-fairest winner Emily Bates, as well as powerful forward Greta Bodey. 

Despite looking shaky at times throughout 2023, dropping games to lowly St Kilda, Collingwood and Richmond, the Lions defied the doubters, putting an end to North Melbourne's fairytale finals series and winning the flag.

It was their second Grand Final win in five appearances, and solidified their standing as one of the most successful teams in AFLW history.


2. Nathan Burke's criticism of his players and eventual sacking

The Western Bulldogs' fall from grace was a major storyline in 2023, and prompted something never seen before in the AFLW - a coach publicly lambasting his players. Across three rounds, Burke said his forwards were merely "hailing cabs", questioned the professionalism of his players, and then took aim at the League's tiered payment system and list sizes.

The Dogs won just one game in 2023, and pressure steadily built on Burke as the season progressed.

His public diatribes started in round four, after the Dogs' four-point loss to the Suns, and continued for three weeks, culminating in a 16-minute press conference in round six after a 19-point loss to Carlton.

Burke was subsequently sacked at the conclusion of the season.

He was one of four AFLW coaches to depart at the end of the season, with Collingwood's Steve Symonds and West Coast's Michael Prior also sacked, and Hawthorn's Bec Goddard retiring, in yet another mark of the evolution of the competition and its rising standards.

Nathan Burke addresses his Western Bulldogs players during round 10, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

1. AFLW legend appointed new Eagles coach

One of the AFLW's most universally admired players re-joined the competition in December as a coach.

Daisy Pearce, a trailblazer for women's football in Australia, had spent time as a development coach for Geelong's men's team after hanging up the boots.

But shockwaves were sent throughout the AFLW and AFL worlds when the premiership captain was unveiled as West Coast's new AFLW coach, replacing Michael Prior.

The Eagles, after five middling seasons, appeared to be turning a new leaf. 

Just how rapidly they can improve under Pearce's leadership will be keenly watched in 2024.

Daisy Pearce upon being unveiled as West Coast coach on December 11, 2023. Picture: West Coast

Honorable mentions