(Clockwise from left): Danielle Ponter, North Melbourne, Sabrina Frederick and Kiara Bowers. Pictures: AFL Photos

THE 2024 NAB AFLW season is almost on our doorstep.

All 18 clubs are now wholly in the throes of their pre-season preparations with the hope of improving on their performances last year. But what is the question lurking over each club's head this season?

Is Danielle Ponter the most dangerous Crow?

Last year Danielle Ponter was both Adelaide's leading goalkicker with 20, and centre clearance player, recording nearly 30 per cent of the club's clearances at the reset. It is a rare combination of skills rarely seen so consistently throughout a season and makes Ponter especially difficult to defend. It can be hard to shift focus in a side that boasts All-Australians Ebony Marinoff, Anne Hatchard, Sarah Allan, and Chelsea Randall, while also enjoying the strength of Caitlin Gould inside 50, but Ponter is arguably the most important Crow to shut down should teams seriously challenge Adelaide this year.


How do they become the first side to go back-to-back?

Since the AFLW launched in 2017, no club has won consecutive premierships, but no club has been better placed to become the first than Brisbane. Only two premiership players have left the club – Mikayla Pauga traded to Greater Western Sydney, and Phoebe Monahan's retirement – and the additions are designed to allow established players to grow further. Personnel aside, the way that the Lions were forced to work throughout the season, showing grit and determination, while also being bested at times, is what shapes them as a genuine back-to-back threat. As the competition gets closer, that ability to fight and scrap until the end is vital. Brisbane has that in spades.

Ellie Hampson (second from right) celebrates a goal with teammates in Brisbane's win over North Melbourne in the 2023 NAB AFLW Grand Final. Picture: AFL Photos

Do they have enough ahead of the ball?

Carlton is developing, entering its second season under coach Mathew Buck, but the big concern around its attack remains. Mia Austin and Lila Keck are exciting and will be important cogs for a long time to come, but given their youth, cannot be expected to carry the forward line this year. The club's all-time leading goalkicker Darcy Vescio is slated for a move to the wing, and Bre Moody will spend increased minutes in the ruck again, leaving Jess Good as the foil for Austin in the air. The Blues will rely heavily on their midfielders pushing forward and hitting the scoreboard, something the likes of Abbie McKay, Mimi Hill, Keeley Sherar, and Maddy Guerin are all capable of, but it is still the concern heading into the season.

Abbie McKay (right) celebrates kicking a goal during the match between Carlton and Richmond at Ikon Park in round four, 2023. Picture: Getty Images

Can Sabrina Frederick continue her rise as one of the AFLW's premier rucks?

Last year Sabrina Frederick led the competition for hitouts across the home and away season, averaging 28.7 per game. It was a positional change that seemed to rejuvenate the former Tiger and Lion, offering a handy midfield group first use of the footy. Frederick doesn't have to win a heap of the footy to be threatening, and really forces oppositions to consider her in their planning when facing Collingwood. As the impact of such a specialty role increases in the AFLW – consider the influence of Ally Morphett, Jess Allan, and Tahlia Hickie – this is an area that the Pies can harness as a real strength under a new coach and new system.

Sabrina Frederick celebrates with team mates after kicking a goal during the match between Sydney and Collingwood at Henson Park in round nine, 2023. Picture: Getty Images

Will they improve on their slow starts?

Last year the Bombers were impressive, qualifying for their first finals series in just their second season, but along the way they did drop games as a result of poor first halves. Essendon led at half-time in just three of its 11 games – against St Kilda, Richmond, and Carlton – all of which it won, but it was slow starts in key games that ultimately saw the club bow out of finals. Despite a top four spot still being an option in the second half of the season, poor starts against West Coast in round eight and Gold Coast in round 10 meant an elimination final straight up, in which the Bombers found themselves 36 points down at half-time. Fixing that early lethargy will be the biggest sign of further improvement from Essendon this year.

Essendon players look dejected after their loss to West Coast at Windy Hill in round eight, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Can they cope without Bowers and Stannett?

This year Fremantle will find out exactly what it is made of. Without former AFLW best-and-fairest winner Kiara Bowers and vice-captain Ange Stannett, the Dockers must learn to lean on the many rather than a few. As a result, this season could be the making of the club, or a big step backwards. If they can hold their own at the contest, the Dockers will be exceptionally well placed for the next five years, and it will be upon the shoulders of young players like Dana East, Gabby Newton, and Orlagh Lally, alongside more established trio Hayley Miller, Aisling McCarthy, and Gabby O'Sullivan. The key is that it will be about the unit as a whole, not one single performer.

Kiara Bowers poses for a photo during Fremantle's team photo day on August 10, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Will they prove they're the real deal?

Geelong appeared to close the gap on the best sides in the AFLW last year, pushing eventual premier Brisbane until the very end in a preliminary final. In the process, the Cats established an enticing attacking game, averaging 44.9 points for, and landing sixth for goal efficiency. They have a style of play that should continue to hold up, but maintaining the balance between that attack, while also remaining hard to score against, will be the real test. Geelong has all the pieces to go just as far, if not further, this year, but it comes down to the mindset in big moments to get it done.

Amy McDonald celebrates a goal during the semi-final between Melbourne and Geelong at Ikon Park on November 19, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Will a new-look defence be key to taking that next step?

Establishing a staunch defence is an important next step for the Suns, with some significant personnel changes across the line. Although the club unlocked its own ability to score last year, it also conceded scores of 40 or more five times from 11 games, including in its final against Sydney. After bidding goodbye to senior defenders Lauren Ahrens and Bess Keaney during the player movement period, the Suns were able to recruit Katie Lynch and Charlotte Wilson in their place. The pair offers the perfect leaping off point to solidify the backline, alongside 2023 All-Australian squad member Daisy D'Arcy, and expert interceptors Vivien Saad and Meara Girvan.

Daisy D'Arcy handballs during Gold Coast's clash against Brisbane in round seven, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Can they balance a want to attack with the ability to defend?

Across his two seasons at the helm of the Giants, Cam Bernasconi has been transparent about his desire to generate a running, attacking game style. While the club has certainly taken steps in that direction, it has been devastatingly opened up the other way. The Giants conceded an average of 59.6 points per game last year – the most in AFLW history – while also setting unwanted records for average inside 50s (37.9) and shots on goal (20) conceded each game. Much of this starts at the contest, where the club also set new records for clearances conceded, and ultimately this comes down to system over personnel. With the side so focused on generating that attack, they have become terribly vulnerable on the reverse, and this must be the area of improvement should they move up the ladder.

Cam Bernasconi speaks to his players during Greater Western Sydney's practice match against Richmond on August 18, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Can a new coach harness the talent of this young list?

The Hawks have a seriously talented contingent of players 22 and under, while also adding four premiership players over the last two player movement periods. With new coach Daniel Webster in charge, he possesses the strategic mind to best harness the abilities across the list, allowing players to settle into their natural positions and excel. There has already been a hint at what Hawthorn will be able to do this year after several AFLW-listed players spent time in the VFLW, and while some inconsistency should be expected due to the youth of the list and fresh gameplan, there is plenty of potential within the group.

Daniel Webster poses in his new club colours after being appointed as Hawthorn's AFLW coach. Picture: Hawthorn FC Twitter

Do they have the personnel to bounce back from last year's straight-sets exit?

Following a straight-sets finals exit in its pursuit of back-to-back flags, Melbourne was a key player throughout the trade period. Four premiership players – Libby Birch, Madison Gay, Casey Sherriff, and Eliza West – who had played 41 of a possible 48 games in 2023 left the club, replaced by youth. Melbourne's system is sound, breaking all sorts of attacking records last year, but when the heat was on, it faltered. Now the question is how quickly the new faces can adapt to the system, particularly given clubs will need to rely heavily on depth this season due to mid-week footy.

Maeve Chaplin and Paxy Paxman look dejected after Melbourne's semi-final loss to Geelong at Ikon Park on November 19, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Is the trend set to continue?

Since the abandoned finals series in 2020, the loser of every AFLW Grand Final has gone on to win the flag the following season. Therefore, history dictates that the Roos are now on track for a maiden premiership. They have made moves in the off season to assist matters, bringing in two-time premiership defender Libby Birch as well as some longer-term development players through the draft. North Melbourne has been a consistently impressive outfit, never having lost more than four games in a season, including finals, but they do have a bogey side in Brisbane. The good thing is that they get to face that challenge head on, playing the Lions in their first game of the season with the aim of getting off to a strong start.

Jasmine Garner celebrates a goal during the 2023 NAB AFLW Grand Final between North Melbourne and Brisbane at Ikon Park on December 3, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Can they live up to their potential?

Port Adelaide has said goodbye to inaugural captain Erin Phillips, with Janelle Cuthbertson named to lead the side this year, but the talent packed into the list even without Phillips has huge potential. Finding a way to harness that talent, which has recently added the likes of Shineah Goody and Kirsty Lamb, and add a level of composure in-game will be the big focus for the Power this year. They made some strides in 2023, but still faltered in key moments, particularly against West Coast and Gold Coast. Success this year is not necessarily about qualifying for finals – although that will certainly be a target – rather, it is important that they become a reliable team game to game.

Janelle Cuthbertson handballs during Port Adelaide's clash against West Coast in round five, 2023. Picture: Getty Images

Was it injuries or gameplan?

Backing up its first finals appearance last year proved too much for Richmond. Injuries did mar the club's season, forcing it to use two train-on players in later rounds, but the reality is that most of their stars played plenty of footy. Katie Brennan, Monique Conti, Kate Dempsey, Grace Egan, and Eilish Sheerin played every game, while Caitlin Greiser and Gabby Seymour played nine and eight respectively. Where the Tigers were really hurt last year was a lack of pressure, averaging the second-fewest tackles and equal-third-fewest tackles inside 50 across the competition, and it's tough to maintain territory if you're not putting pressure on the opposition. This year will tell us whether the injury concerns were truly the reason behind the Tigers' struggles, or if it's something more endemic in their system itself.

Monique Conti in action during Richmond's clash with Fremantle in AFLW round five, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Are finals really just percentage away?

Last year the Saints made big strides, including a four-game winning stretch and missing finals by just 4.6 per cent come round 10. But with the off-season feeling being that they are just a couple of goals away from their first finals series, it is important to note that St Kilda beat just one side above it – eventual premier Brisbane. This year, with a reasonably generous fixture whereby the club only leaves Victoria three times, and avoids last year's finalists Geelong and North Melbourne, will they be able to build on that momentum gathered in 2023, or will we see its growth stall?

St Kilda players celebrate a win against Brisbane during round nine, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Can they maintain the rage?

The Swans' rise was the story of 2023, going from winless to finals, but as a result, they go into this year with some expectation to live up to. They've added some important role players, and their guns are all ready to go again, but they simply cannot rest on what got them to the finals last year. The competition is continuing to tighten, and improvement across the board is necessary once again. The most important area for the Swans to step up is in defence, after conceding the fifth-highest average inside 50s, regularly leaving their backline in vulnerable positions. Becoming tougher to score against will be the biggest indicator of success for Sydney this year.

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

Is the Eagles' list underrated?

The focus around West Coast so far this year has been around Daisy Pearce's appointment as head coach, but what exactly does she have to work with? Since joining the AFLW the Eagles have been consistently poor performers, never winning more than two games in a season, but last year they started to play some genuinely good footy, just proving unable to put it together across four quarters. With the likes of Charlie Thomas, Ella Roberts, Lauren Wakfer, Bella Lewis, and Sophie McDonald creating a strong spine, Pearce has all the pieces to be a competitive side, it is now simply about bringing them together.

Ella Roberts in action during round nine, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Do they need to go backwards to go forward?

Of the four new coaches in the AFLW this year, Tamara Hyett arguably has the toughest task ahead of her. She has taken over a very young and inexperienced list that has been in a near-constant state of flux in recent seasons. This year is a chance at a fresh start, but re-establishing themselves as an AFLW powerhouse will not take a linear path. Hyett will need to lean heavily on inexperienced players like Kristie-Lee Weston-Turner, Elaine Grigg, Brooke Barwick, Zimmorlei Farquharson, and Rylie Wilcox, and while the group has immense talent, putting all the pieces together will require patience and a focus on the little wins.