With AFLW season 8 on the horizon, it's fitting to take a look at the building success that has been AFL Womens. From season 1 through to season 7, the women's game has taken giant strides to become a powerhouse in Australian women's sport. Here's how AFLW has improved since its debut season in 2017.
There's no doubt that when it comes to getting better, 'practice makes perfect', or practice will at least make you better. Hence there's no surprise that the basic fundamentals of the women's game are on an upward trajectory.
Kicking efficiency has risen from 50.8% in season 1 to 53.4% in season 7. To have this metric rise despite the introduction of expansion clubs (after which a number of the statistics fell) it can easily be attributed to time in the game, or 'practice'.
Women, and more importantly, girls in the junior ranks, have now had seven seasons' worth of professional women's footy in which they've had more opportunity to put time and energy into their craft.
To align with the rise of kicking efficiency, uncontested marks have also climbed from 27.8 in season 1 to 32.8 in season 7. It affirms the notion that AFLW players are hitting more targets in space, and proves that they're more confident to take 'riskier' kicks. It's a positive evolution from the initial 'bomb it long and hope for the best' style of play we saw during the early stages of the game.
Statistically there are more stoppages in the contemporary game compared to the first season, however the contested possession rate has decreased (53.8% to 49.7%). This shows how the women's game has progressed from a 'rolling maul' to executing greater inside-outside balance with players cleanly winning the ball at the source and effectively disposing it into space, to where it can be used uncontested.
Further, the pressure factor in the women's game is at an all time high (214 in season 7) yet the basic skills of the game are continuing to improve year-on-year. With players thriving, and keeping a cool head under pressure, it's actually creating more attractive football.
Education/understanding of the game
Bringing in my own experience being an AFLW player with Collingwood, there are so many aspects of Australian rules football that I'm yet to understand. Education is fundamental to any footballer's success - it's the basis of any game plan. Without it, you're already behind the eight ball. On-field experience plays a huge part in athlete development, and it's why we see senior players taking young ones 'under their wing' and 'showing them the ropes'.
One noticeable difference coming through the female talent pathway was the lack of opposition and vision analysis. We were always told to 'watch more footy' but without the context of knowing what to look for in specific contests, or for instance, centre bounce setup, it's difficult to learn and grow.
Now being in an elite system, it's a lot easier to build a base of knowledge, thanks in part to weekly reviews, game plan education, tips and tricks from senior players, and overall more exposure to the intricacies of the game.
Mentally, a lot goes into an AFLW player's game day performance aside from their actual skill. There's a lot more strategy in the game, and it's evident looking at the contest and defensive setups in women's footy.
Case in point is scores per inside 50; they're down from 40% in season 1 to 35% in season 7, highlighting the ability for teams to recognise and implement better defensive setups despite the higher disposal efficiency and uncontested mark and uncontested possession rates.
Yes, scoring has remained relatively steady, having reached its lowest point after the 2020 expansion, and then again after the 2022 expansion. It makes sense - fresh teams that aren't littered with existing stars are trying to limit scoring defensively and may not yet have the firepower to hurt opposition offensively.
And this isn't a phenomenon unique to women's footy. Look at St Kilda's season in the men's league; they're entrenched in the top eight playing a defence-heavy style that works best when the Saints limit scoring. Their list isn't the most talented, and they're getting arguably the best out of the players on the park.
Now that there's a clear pathway from junior to semi-professionalism, the emerging talent coming through the ranks are only getting stronger. We've seen similar trends in the men's game with young talents such as Nick Daicos, Will Ashcroft and Jason Horne-Francis taking the AFL by storm with their ability to slot perfectly in and amongst the top performers in the game.
Every year, the female draft class delivers athletes that are increasingly better prepared, which allows for more complex conditioning once they enter the AFLW system, which ultimately impacts the face value of the game from the get-go, enhancing the standard of football.
To illustrate how far the game has come, just look at the difference in workload in the Gold Coast Suns' academy program from 2018 until now.
In 2018 the Suns' academy trained once a week and played two games, both against the Lions' academy.
The 2020 program included one session a week for both U16 and U18 groups but added an additional game against the Northern Territory and a NAB League match in Victoria.
In 2022, the academy played two games against the Lions and one against NAB League side, with up to three days a week of training.
Whereas this year's academy program, the U18 squad has played a total of five games, four against NAB League sides and one against the Lions, and are training three times per week, with a dedicated schedule of Monday review and recovery, Tuesday main session, and Thursday lighter skills and a captain's run.
Imogen Evans is an Editorial Assistant at ESPN, and plays for Collingwood in the AFLW.