Giselle Davies and Holly Cooper celebrate a goal against Collingwood during the VFLW 2024 season. Picture: Sydney FC

GREATER Western Sydney and Sydney have completed their five-week stints in the VFLW competition, but not everything quite went to plan.

Both teams were thrilled with the development gained over the period, particularly for their new and inexperienced players, but most Victorian-based VFLW sides were only fielding a handful of AFLW players – in some cases, none at all.

"The rule we had was you had to do a four-week block of training to qualify to play a game. If you had a holiday or were away and missed a session here and there, that didn't matter, but if you were away for a week, you weren't eligible until you had four weeks of training," Sydney coach Scott Gowans said.

VFLW 2024 Fixtures, results, news

"Pleasingly, most of the group played. We then had a selection policy, flipping the usual model of AFLW of starting with the best players.

"Our first priority was new players, then anyone who was injured or on the fringe last year, they were second. Then the third priority was the better players, and the end piece was if we didn't have 21 at that stage, we'd fill it with academy players.

"I just found out so much. We tried a few things, we had a couple of concepts we tried, but we wanted to get the new players caught up to where we left off, game-plan wise. Once we felt they had a bit of a handle on there, we were able to introduce a couple of things to try, but all our new concepts we won't do till AFLW pre-season.

"I feel like now, we've almost caught up another season (on the wider AFLW competition)."

Ally Morphett in action during VFLW season 2024. Picture: Sydney FC

The Giants have eight new players on their books this year – draftees Kaitlyn Srhoj and Indigo Linde, Lions Mikayla Pauga and Courtney Murphy, Sydney's Aleisha Newman, Blue Daisy Walker, Sun Claire Ransom and Irishwoman Eilish O'Dowd.

Participating in VFLW games was optional, but most – bar a handful of senior players – were keen to stretch their legs in the competition, given round one of the AFLW doesn't start until the end of August.

GWS coach Cam Bernasconi was keen to use the period to work on fundamentals, meaning the side can focus more closely on game plans and tactics during the official pre-season, the squad having already set a cumulative 70 personal bests in the gym.

"It just exposes a lot of players who might be in and out of the AFLW side usually. Even I look at the growth of a Madi Brazendale, Cambridge McCormick, ones that have played W for a few years, but have always been a bit more of a role player, while in this period, they really stand up. I think they've set themselves up to have a big year of W now," Bernasconi said.

"I thought Emily Pease – who has been in the system for a little while as well – to see her growth, she's returned from an ACL last year, and you can see she's adding detail to her game. She looks a lot stronger and cleaner over the ball.

"Our younger players who came to the club – Mikayla Pauga, she's a premiership player but has only just turned 21 and hasn't played much midfield time. Having Mikayla come in and play high minutes in the mid, and learn our way, means she'll make us immediately better. Same with Kaitlyn Srhoj as well."

Kaitlyn Srhoj in action during a GWS VFLW game in 2024. Picture: GWS Giants

Gowans played around with his structures, giving opportunities to younger and less experienced players to develop their positional skill sets under competitive pressure.

"Mon Ham killed it, she did really well. We played her a little bit off the wing, little bit forward and a little bit (inside) mid. There's probably something in that where we can flick her around those three positions this year," Gowans said.

"She did that in tandem with (draftee) Sarah Grunden, who's looking like she's going to be a really good player for us.

"We were able to take Tanya Kennedy out of being a run-with, lockdown, defensive mid, into an attacking mid. I reckon she averaged 18 or 19 disposals a game, which was a bonus.

"Montana Beruldsen, she came into the (AFLW) team almost as a lockdown defender or pressure forward, and we've moved her into the general forward area, so she's playing higher up the ground. She performed really well."

Both coaches said they were disappointed with the low (or in some cases, non-existent) number of AFLW players fielded by their opponents. 

Rd 3

GWS (12) def Carlton (10) by 8

Sydney (18) def Western Bulldogs (0) by 62

Rd 4

GWS (15) def Southern Saints (0) by 62

Sydney (19) def N. Melbourne (0) by 89

Rd 5

GWS (16) def Geelong (3) by 85

Sydney (20) def Casey (5) by 85

Rd 6

GWS (13) def Port Melbourne (5) by 25

Sydney (21) def Box Hill (7) by 63

Rd 7

GWS (14) def Essendon (2) by 47

Collingwood (15) def Sydney by 2 (19)

Number of AFLW-listed players in brackets

GWS averaged 14 AFLW-listed players per match, playing a total of 20 AFLW players across a five-week period, while Sydney fielded an average of 19 and played a total of 27, 15 of whom came against Collingwood alone.

"Playing some of these clubs, you probably would have thought you'd have more than one or two listed, maybe their younger players six to eight (at the bottom of the list) would play, and then you'd get a really good hit-out," Bernasconi said.

"We were probably a bit surprised by the lack of AFL talent that played against us, then you do flirt with not getting anything out of it.

"But we feel like we still did, because we were just trying to practice our way, and celebrate our way, which I think we did. I think you can sometimes go away from the system and cheat and just try and get on the end of it (able to get away with losing structure due to poor opposition), but we were quite proud internally that we didn't do that, our pressure stayed really strong.

"I think we were number one for contest, and number one for (lowest) scores against across our five games, which is something we control. I can certainly see if you do that for too long, you don't get what you want out of it.

"Ideally going forward, we'd love to still be in VFLW, but playing against other AFLW-aligned clubs, with more AFLW players playing, so everyone can improve."

Zarlie Goldsworthy celebrates a goal during VFLW season 2024. Picture: GWS Giants

Gowans managed to swing some positives out of the comfortable victories, even if it didn't allow his defence to experience a series of stern tests.

"I was pretty disappointed the other teams didn't play more AFLW girls, aside from Collingwood. I don't get that philosophy at all," Gowans said.

"The flip of that is what they did do was flood a lot on us. We're a ball movement-based side, so it was interesting to see how we handled teams flooding multiple numbers back to save percentage. We got some really good looks as to how we cope with that, and we came up with a way to counteract it so we can keep scoring.

"From a team defence point, yes (it's not beneficial), but definitely not from a contest or ball-movement perspective. You can't beat connection in a team, and the more you're moving the ball and doing it against players who don't know what we're trying to do, we were able to practice all our different modes of play and got a really good look at it."