(L-R): Lauren Young, Eliza West and Chloe Molloy. Pictures: AFL Photos

WITH an AFLW season that runs for less than a third of the year, and players' increasing desire to improve, how different clubs structure their off-season programs is evolving.

Part of this off-season programming includes participation in respective state league competitions, but perspectives on what these can offer AFLW teams differs from club to club.

As it stands, no state currently runs a second-tier women's competition in conjunction with the AFLW season. Western Australia and South Australia's respective leagues, the WAFLW and the SANFLW, began in the first week of March and will host their Grand Finals on July 6. Victoria's league, the VFLW, kicked off later in March, with its Grand Final to take place on July 21, and Queensland's QAFLW started two weeks ago, its decider slated for August 25.

Additionally, alignment to AFLW clubs across these leagues varies. In Victoria, every club has a second-tier program, or affiliate team as is the case for Richmond and Hawthorn, meanwhile across WA, SA, and Queensland, if participating in their respective state league, players are distributed out amongst the competition's teams.

For Sydney and Greater Western Sydney, their participation in state league footy is a five-game invitational to the VFLW this year, their first inclusion in the league since 2019.

As a result of this, each club opts to utilise state league competitions in varying ways in its off-season. This includes getting new players comfortable in a new system, providing players valuable game time in the nine months between AFLW seasons, and developing players in off-field roles.

Amber Schutte in action during VFLW round one, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

Fast-tracking a game plan

Currently sitting atop the VFLW ladder four weeks in, Hawthorn's affiliate side Box Hill has done so by blooding experienced AFLW players.

Former AFLW Best and Fairest winner Emily Bates played the opening two rounds, so too new recruits Eliza West and Casey Sherriff. Others like Jasmine Fleming, Charlotte Baskaran, and Lucy Wales have also featured as the side has included at least eight AFLW-listed players over each of the first four rounds.

This has been a very specific approach by the club, with new AFLW head coach Daniel Webster joining Hawthorn in February and determined to get the group adapting to a new game style ahead of his first season at the helm.

"For us, with a new coach, it's about our players getting used to a new style of play," Hawthorn GM of Football Operations Max Bailey told AFL.com.au.

"Getting Eliza West into the midfield alongside Bates, Fleming, and Wales… getting used to playing with one-another."

Over the coming weeks the AFLW players running out for Box Hill will change as different groups of players notch up some game time. Something Bailey also notes is the whole list's enthusiasm toward playing in the league, given the long layoff between AFLW seasons.

A relaxation on the cap of how many AFLW-listed players may be selected in the VFLW in any given week has allowed for such a strategy this year. There is now no limit on AFLW-listed players selected in a VFLW side during the home-and-away season, and to qualify for finals selection, players must have appeared in at least one home-and-away game.

Part of this shift in selection rules has also allowed NSW clubs Sydney and GWS to focus wholly on developing AFLW players together over their five-week stint in the VFLW.

In round three, their first game of the season, the Giants opted to play 11 AFLW-listed players, including new Irish recruit Eilish O'Dowd, 2023 No.3 draft pick Kaitlyn Srhoj, and 2023 Rising Star Zarlie Goldsworthy. Last week, they played 15 AFLW-listed players.

Of Sydney's selected 21 in round three, 18 were AFLW-listed players including former No.1 draft pick Montana Ham, 2023 All-Australian Laura Gardiner, and last year's draft pre-selection signing Holly Cooper. That number was increased to 19 last week against North Melbourne.

"We don't play for points, we play for development," Sydney co-captain Chloe Molloy said.

"It's a good chance to iron out a couple of things. You know, what are our standards going to be? Do we need to shift that standard? Do we need to change this or that?... when the AFLW season comes you want to hit momentum pretty quickly because otherwise you can derail your season, and we've got five games ahead of a lot of clubs to build foundations for our 2024 season."

Chloe Molloy in action at a Sydney VFLW training session in April 2024. Picture: Sydney Swans FC

 Risk v reward

For clubs in WA, SA, and Queensland, links to state league competitions work differently. Unlike in the VFLW, clubs don't have direct affiliates meaning players involved are split up amongst a host of sides.

Not only are players not developing together, but AFLW programs don't have as much oversight over the style of play and roles individuals are growing in.

For Port Adelaide, who allowed a select group of players to feature across the opening five rounds of the SANFLW, it has felt the harsher side of getting more game time into young players.

Boom recruit Lauren Young ruptured her ACL playing for West Adelaide over the Easter long weekend.

"It's a little bit difficult because the girls are getting drafted, and if they don't play in the SANFLW – and even some of the players that have been playing AFLW for a year or two – if they don't play any SANFLW footy, it's like eight or nine months between being drafted and actually playing any footy," Port Adelaide Head of AFLW Shane Grimm said.

"Do we potentially say to the players 'you've been drafted now, you won't be playing any SANFLW footy, you're just going to train with us, we're going to get you physically prepared for AFLW football in eight months' time'?

"Unfortunately, that's just the way it is."

Lauren Young celebrates a goal during the match between the AFL Academy Girls and Under 23 All-Stars at Marvel Stadium on June 18, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

It's a tightrope clubs must walk, and one that proves trickier for younger clubs like Port Adelaide, Gold Coast, and West Coast compared to their more established counterparts Adelaide, Brisbane, and Fremantle.

Younger, less experienced sides must balance the want to get players match-hardened, while weighing up the risk of serious injury.

Gold Coast has opted to tread a different path this year. Not included in the invitational weeks of the VFLW like the NSW teams, the Suns are keen to develop their group together. Choosing not to play any of their AFLW-listed players in the QAFLW this year, the club has instead organised three of its own scrimmages against strong opposition through late April and early May.

"We see the value of the QAFLW, we think it's really important… (but) particularly with a young list we think playing together as a team is really important for our development," Gold Coast Head of Women's Football Fiona Sessarago said.

"Part of it is team cohesion, learning our structures, learning a game plan."

With eight new players on Gold Coast's list this year, including five draftees yet to make their AFLW debut, fast tracking that team cohesion is vital should the club better its elimination final exit of 2023.

Kiara Bischa and Sienna McMullen pose for a photo after being drafted by Gold Coast. Picture: AFL Photos/Getty Images

Off-field development

For Sydney, participation in the VFLW this year has also opened up an opportunity for players to develop in off-field roles.

In the side's 62-point win over the Western Bulldogs in round three, Molloy acted as the midfield coach, Rebecca Privitelli took charge of the forwards, and Maddy Collier was the runner.

"First and foremost, not playing is so hard," Molloy said.

"Stepping into a coaching role, I think for me, I see a lot more off the ball. It's an opportunity to get a grasp on how the whole team's going on game day. If you're playing, you can get a bit engulfed in getting around your line… and I think coaching provides an opportunity to connect with players on a different level."

The Swans see these other roles not only as a chance for rehabbing players to stay involved with what is happening, as is the case for Privitelli and Collier, but a chance to provide new perspectives for when they return to the field.

"You almost have to shift your mindset because it's like 'well, I can't go and impact physically. I can't go get the ball and do this or say that.' So, it's almost like learning a different sort of patience as well," Molloy said.

"It actually provides an opportunity for me to pass on messaging and what I would be feeling in that moment for them to interpret how I might do it. You don't get those chances when you're playing."

A ready-made talent pool

As some clubs are still looking to add players to their lists as inactive replacements, having four major state league competitions running at this time of year allows those clubs to closely observe the talent available around the country.

Gold Coast, which currently has a list spot open as a result of Sienna McMullen being moved to the inactive list, having the chance to see what sort of players could fill that gap is a blessing.

"It's one of the benefits of the timing of the state league competition," Sessarago said.

"We know all the players that nominated for the draft and are eligible to be signed, so we can go and watch them play."

In recent years, players have been plucked seemingly from obscurity out of the state leagues, including current Sun Meara Girvan who had an immediate impact for the side last year in her first season.

Another who made good use of the second-tier competition to earn another chance at AFLW-level was Hawk Kristy Stratton. After 11 games in four seasons at Collingwood, Stratton was delisted and went back to Box Hill to develop under Hawthorn's nose.

Taken by the Hawks with pick No.18 in the 2023 Supplementary Draft, Stratton played every game last season, establishing herself in the best 21.

So, while there can be risks involved in having AFLW-listed players featuring across the country's state league competitions in the lead up to preseason's official start date of June 3, there are also countless positives to be garnered.

And for fans, it is a chance to quench the AFLW thirst in the long layoff as they wait for the late August start of the 2024 season.