A common argument against the rapid expansion of the AFLW is that it spreads talent too thinly.
After the league’s maiden season in 2017, the key factors in the AFL Commission’s decision to delay its expansion by 12 months included wanting to grow the talent pool, as well as easing concerns about its elite players being spread too sparsely across the league.
With four new clubs entering the competition this season, which begins in August, there are 120 new spots in the incoming Essendon, Hawthorn, Sydney and Port Adelaide sides.
This has already seen some stars of the league swap guernsey colours, including league best and fairest Maddy Prespakis, who has moved from Carlton to Essendon, and three-time premiership player Erin Phillips, who has headed across town from Adelaide to Port Adelaide.
However, the other side of the coin is that more opportunities for new talent to be unearthed will emerge, including players who have previously been overlooked in drafts or those rising up through the ranks.
While that new talent will include many fresh faces from the draft, it should also give mature age former AFLW or VFLW players — who haven’t been able to break into a side — a chance, an endeavour that has proven beneficial for clubs and players in the past.
For example, Tilly Lucas-Rodd was delisted by Carlton in 2019 then picked up by St Kilda for their inaugural side, in 2020.
Last season, Lucas-Rodd polled 11 votes in the league’s best and fairest, despite the Saints winning just two games.
A chance for some snubbed at previous drafts
Another success story who rose from draft snubbing to stardom is North Melbourne’s Ash Riddell.
The midfielder was overlooked in the 2016 and 2017 drafts.
Then, when North Melbourne entered the competition in 2018, she joined the club as a free agent during the expansion club-signing period.
In her second season, she was named in the All-Australian Team and in the 2022 season, she was selected as an All-Australian midfielder, polled fourth in the league’s best and fairest, was her club’s best and fairest and set a league-high game disposal count of 42.
“It was fantastic back then that someone like Ash, who was overlooked in two drafts, was able to find her way into the system,” Darren Crocker — senior coach for North Melbourne AFLW — told the ABC.
“Then, [Riddell] has been so driven to continue to improve to the point where she’s one of the premier midfielders in the comp now.”
VFLW players get a chance to be developed
Gold Coast Suns’ Tara Bohanna — who had a similar success arc as Riddell — said expansion would also give a lot of players from the VFLW and local leagues more opportunities to develop their craft at AFLW level.
Bohanna was overlooked in six AFLW drafts while playing for the Southern Saints VFLW side before Gold Coast picked her up as an injury top-up player last year.
In her first season playing at the highest level, Bohanna was named in the 40-player All-Australian squad after booting 13 goals across nine games, making her one of the top-five goal kickers in the competition.
“It was such a surreal season and I couldn’t have asked for it to be more, I think, except if we made finals,” she said.
The 27-year-old credits her success in her first season to the support of the Suns and the experience of playing at AFLW level with elite physiotherapists and facilities.
“You’re given every opportunity to kind of flourish and do good things,” she said.
“It gives you the avenue to be able to push yourself a bit harder.
“Which is why it’s so exciting to see all these girls that I’ve been playing against, from your Essendons and your Hawthorns [VFLW sides], get a go — and I’m excited to see how they go.”
Essendon has signed a flock of players from its VFLW side, including Georgia Nanscawen, Joanne Doonan, Federica Frew, Danielle Marshall and Jordan Zanchetta.
Similarly, Hawthorn has signed players from current VFLW lists, including Sophie Locke, Bridget Deed, Eliza Shannon, Tahlia Fellows, Dominique Carbone and Jenna Richardson.
Cusp players to get more game time
Expansion also means that players who have been on the cusp of starting each week may see more game time as talent spreads out, helping them to develop their skill set.
Women’s chief executive at the Brisbane Lions Breeanna Brock said clubs such as Brisbane, Melbourne, Adelaide and Fremantle had such maturity and depth on their active playing lists that, each week, their line-ups were full of mainstays.
That means that players on the cusp — such as under-18s or emergency picks — “can’t quite break into the side”.
“Maria Moloney is a great example,” said Brock, referring to the former Brisbane midfielder who signed with expansion club Port Adelaide.
“She’s 28 years old … in and out of the side, [been] emergency more times than she can think of. So, for her to be able to play properly for the next two to three years of her career, the reality is she would need to go somewhere else to do that.
“For someone like her, expansion is so great because she’s getting another opportunity to play her main role, which is as an inside mid.
With the final stage of expansion underway in the AFLW, the upcoming season will give myriad new players the chance to try to cut their teeth on the big stage, including those such as Moloney.
Some former AFLW stars will be able to have another go in the league, just like Lucas-Rodd did, and VFLW players will have the opportunity to shine at the highest level, as Bohanna and Riddell have done.
Source: AFL NEWS ABC