Off-field issues cloud on-field brilliance of AFLW finals


There is less than three minutes left on the clock in the first quarter of Saturday afternoon’s AFLW preliminary final at Ikon Park.

Carlton’s Bri Davey has the ball fifty-five metres out. The Blues captain kicks in the direction of the goal square looking for one half of her team’s fierce forward line duo in Darcy Vescio and Tayla Harris.

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As the ball flies through the air, Harris sprints across the ground and takes a diving chest mark. Moments later, using her signature kicking style, she slots the Blues first goal. The crowd roars, the noise swirling around the ground.

After a turbulent week, Harris’ performance on Saturday afternoon mirrored her reply to the abuse she received in response to what is now an iconic image. She was resolute. She was strong. She never backed down.

Coverage of the storm around Michel Wilson’s photo of Tayla Harris kicking the opening goal of the Pride Game in round seven went national and then international. But it was also a reminder of a persistent problem that the league nor its broadcasters seemed willing or able to deal with.

As Kasey Symons wrote last week, “We need the league, the player association and the broadcasters to rally and ensure they are not just adequately prepared to monitor their social media, but understand the gravity of pressing ‘delete’ when it comes to how women are represented in sport.”

The sexist, homophobic and transphobic abuse directed at Harris and at women’s football more broadly looks set to become a watershed moment. A defining moment. A game changing moment. But in the lead up the competition’s first ever preliminary finals, it was also yet another moment where the focus was pulled off the field.

From its very first iteration, discussion around the AFLW has been as much about scheduling, resources, the introduction of conferences and missing strategic plans as it has been about the feats on field. Too often, the focus of fans and commentators alike is pulled away from the action.

In a week when we should have been discussing the first ever AFLW preliminary finals, we were forced to deal with the sexist abuse leveled at AFLW players and the problems of the conference system. And we look set to continue the theme this week, as the scheduling of both the preliminary finals and round two of the AFLM has forced the AFLW Grand Final into a Sunday afternoon timeslot.

Sunday afternoon will likely not worry the Adelaide Crows, whose dismantling of the Geelong Cats at Adelaide Oval in front of 13,429 fans yesterday was a sharp reminder of just how good the Crows are.

Adelaide were ably led by stalwarts Erin Phillips, Chelsea Randall and Ebony Marinoff. But impressive contributions from their young guns were likewise instrumental.

Eighteen-year-old Danielle Ponter, who picked up a rising star nomination in round four, booted three majors. While round five rising star nomination, Chloe Scheer, kicked two goals. And Anne Hatchard continued her scintillating form, finishing with 19 disposals.

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The Crows looked scary good, leading in nearly every metric, noticeably in tackles, where they nearly doubled the Cats efforts.

But the Crows will face a Carlton team who seemed galvanised by the off-field week of forward Harris and will be up and about after their dismantling of Fremantle, who many had expected to see continue into the last game of the season.

Instead, it was the Blues who led the way for four quarters with impressive performances from the likes of Lauren Brazzelle and the every reliable, Bri Davey.

Carlton too enjoyed the spoils of their youngsters, with round two rising start nomination Madison Prespakis shining and rookie signing, Chloe Dalton kicking two goals, including one booted from well outside the fifty-metre arc.

Next weekend, the Crows will be looking to repeat the glory of their inaugural season and become the first AFLW team with two premiership cups in their trophy cabinet. But the Blues too will be hoping to make history for their club, despite their unlikely path to big stage.

As Adelaide and Carlton battle it out next weekend, however, questions about the scheduling of the grand final will no doubt simmer just below the surface. And so too will questions of just how the AFL arranges their two elite competitions and what their plans are for the future of both.

In 2020, four new teams – Richmond, West Coast, St Kilda and the Gold Coast – will join the competition. The league was reluctant to play a full home and away season with ten teams, thus conferences, so it seems unlikely to be enthusiastic about doing so with fourteen teams.

Regardless of what happens next weekend at Adelaide Oval, of who marks their name in the history books, the same questions the swirled around season three are unlikely to disappear. While the AFL stumbles in its management of the AFLW, off field issues will continue to cloud the incredible feats on field.