2021 VFL Women’s Round 1 preview: Revamped state league returns after lost season

THE Victorian Football League (VFL) Women’s competition returns this weekend, with a revamped structure seeing the season run concurrently with that of the AFL Women’s (AFLW). As somewhat of a reserves league to aligned sides in the top flight, the VFLW features 12 teams in 2021, including Port Melbourne after the Borough took on Richmond’s license. Round 1 sees fixtures spread evenly over Saturday and Sunday, starting at Arden Street as North Melbourne hosts Port Melbourne.

North Melbourne vs. Port Melbourne
Saturday February 27, 10:00am
Arden Street Oval

North Melbourne welcomes competition newcomer, Port Melbourne to the VFL Women’s on Saturday morning as the two sides open season 2021 at Arden Street Oval. While still a proud standalone club, the Borough has taken on Richmond’s VFLW license and will thus have access to Tigers players who miss out on AFLW selection. Likewise, North Melbourne’s top flight alignment will see some senior listed Kangaroos line up in the blue and white each week.

The likes of Richmond forward Christina Bernardi and Melissa Kuys will be among the experienced names set to lead the Borough’s efforts, while an all-Richmond half-back line of Hannah McLaren, Sarah Sansonetti, and Laura McClelland should prove difficult to budge. Murray Bushrangers graduate Sophie Locke is another exciting young talent in Port’s side, named in the back pocket.

New Roo Katelyn Cox is set for a reserves outing in North’s midfield, lining up next to Meagan Kiely and Bethany Lynch with Lexi Hamilton a handy ruck to be roving under. Nikki Wallace, another with AFLW experience lines up in defence and Brooke Brown gets a gig at the other end of the ground. Brown was taken by North Melbourne as a surprise father-daughter selection in 2020.

Expect North Melbourne’s hardness and pressure around the ball to be a real feature, as Port looks to bring an exciting transition style to the fore in what should be a competitive start to the 2021 season.

Geelong vs. Collingwood
Saturday February 27, 12:00pm
Deakin University, Geelong (Waurn Ponds)

AFLW-aligned sides Geelong and Collingwood go head-to-head at Deakin University in Waurn Ponds on Saturday afternoon, looking to start their campaigns on the right foot. Both sides boast a strong mix of youth and experience in their Round 1 lineups, with the Cats benefitting significantly from their alignment to the top flight when it comes to the young talent at their disposal. Collingwood, of course, remains the reigning premier after the 2020 season was scrapped.

Among the exciting brigade of up-and-comers, Olivia Barber has been named at full forward and will spearhead the attack alongside skipper, Michelle Fedele. Paige Sheppard is poised to make her return to football in the hoops, named among an exciting midfield with Cats AFLW youngsters Laura Gardiner, Darcy Moloney, and ruck Rene Caris having all gained experience at senior level.

Collingwood’s tall stocks should trouble the Cats, particularly up forward. Senior ruck Bella Smith takes up the full forward spot with Sarah King set to take the first bounce, while Imogen Barnett is another to watch in Collingwood’s front half. Smith’s former Norwood teammate Matilda Zander looms as an exciting addition from the SANFL, with the Magpies’ forward depth pushing Amelia Velardo to half-back.

The Magpies will look to adopt a similar gameplan to their AFLW side, looking to take the game on in transition with an exciting handball style while also taking hold of the game when required. Geelong will also play an attacking brand, with youthful exuberance and instinct also poised to come into the Cats’ thinking.

Carlton vs. Casey Demons
Saturday February 27, 2:00pm
Princes Park

Another all-aligned clash takes place at Princes Park as Carlton and Casey Demons lock horns, rounding out Saturday’s fixtures. The Blues have hit the reset button on their VFLW program and will look a very fresh side this year, adopting a strong youth focus to help feed their AFLW squad. Casey also has strong ties to its AFLW-aligned team in Melbourne, with a fit and strong Demons unit out to prove just how fruitful their preseason has been.

The Blues will be led from the back with skipper Ally Bild lining up next to vice-captain Jen Lew across half-back, while Carlton-listed speedster Charlotte Hammans completes the line. Coming down from Cairns, Jasmine Ware is another to watch in Carlton’s defence, while Akayla Peterson looms as a high-upside type at the other end. Carlton draftees Winnie Laing and Paige Trudgeon will also get some run into their legs in the front half.

Casey captain Samantha Johnson is her side’s major off-season coup and will anchor the midfield alongside first year Melbourne midfielder, Megan Fitzsimon. Both will benefit from the ruckwork of Maggie Caris, while an all-Melbourne half-back line of Mietta Kendall, Isabella Simmons, and Irishwoman Lauren Magee should prove exciting to watch. Brenna Tarrant also features at full back, with three senior games under her belt this year.

With new coach Peter Mercoulia also embedded in Melbourne’s coaching staff, Casey will look to play fast and put heavy scoreboard pressure on. Carlton is led by a new coach of its own in Luke O’Shannessy, who should be able to extract great things from the Blues’ young talent with his vast pathways experience.

Western Bulldogs vs. Hawthorn
Sunday February 28, 10:00am
Whitten Oval

The Western Bulldogs kick off their 2021 campaign at home as Hawthorn rolls into town on Sunday morning, looking to take a big scalp early. The Bulldogs have built one of the best young AFLW lists, with the vast array of talent spilling into its reserves side and making for an exciting squad on paper. The standalone Hawks are also strong on youth, but have attracted some big-name experience with Bec Goddard set to take the reins as head coach for the first time since 2018.

An embarrassment of riches sees the Bulldogs’ forwardline stacked with five AFLW-listed talents, including Isabella Grant, Gemma Lagioia, and the experienced Lauren Spark. Mary Sandral is the lone VFLW-listed player to start in attack, though the likes of Nicole McMahon (ruck), skipper Riley Christgoergl (half-back), and vice-captain Katelyn Betts (centre) will be consistent VFLW figures this year. Under McMahon, the likes of Isabelle Pritchard, Brooke Hards, and Britney Gutknecht should be served well in midfield.

Some well-renowned names in female footballing circles will provide invaluable experience to Hawthorn’s fledgling side, with stalwart Meg Hutchins poised to take on a number of roles aside from her forwardline listing, while Abbey Holmes is a tough body at the contest who will rotate forward through midfield. Skipper Jess Trend is another with AFLW experience who should impact greatly, while Northern Territory recruit Dominique Carbone has serious potential. She is set for her VFLW debut on the same weekend the Darwin Buffettes play finals back home.

The Hawks should prove a well structured side under Goddard and will be sure to crack in hard, though the abundance of promising young options for the Bulldogs will be incredibly tough to overcome. Should they not rely on too few, the Hawks will be ultra competitive in the face of the Dogs’ rawness and fierce style.

Essendon vs. Southern Saints
Sunday February 28, 10:30am
The Hangar

Essendon is set to unveil its shiny new facilities at The Hangar on Sunday morning, hosting the Southern Saints in what should be a competitive clash. Gunning for an AFLW license, the Bombers remain standalone but have built a strong list with more continuity than other sides heading into 2021. The Saints have their St Kilda alignment to lean on, but are looking strong in their own right after a solid preseason.

Anchoring Essendon’s side will be skipper Georgia Nanscawen, who is part of a terrific spine in the red and black. Cecilia McIntosh lines up down back, while Courtney Ugle provides some grunt, and Mia-Rae Clifford gets a fresh start up forward. Of the up-and-comers, Eloise Ashley-Cooper and Alana Barba have already performed well in the sash, with a host of young prospects set to filter through Essendon’s lineup as the season progresses.

Tara Bohanna (full back) and Deanna Jolliffe (rover) will lead the Saints out as co-captain Frankie Hocking has not been named. Georgia McLean is one to watch off half-back having crossed from Casey, while Poppy Kelly and Alice Burke are the only St Kilda AFLW players to feature in the lineup – both named on the interchange bench ahead of three emergencies from the senior squad.

The Saints have not put a ceiling on their potential and promise to open the game up with unpredictable ball movement. The Bombers’ continuity as a group and greater poise with such experience could well play a factor in this clash, with both sides backing their cohesion after so long away from competitive action.

Darebin vs. Williamstown
Sunday February 28, 11:30am
La Trobe University, Bundoora

Pioneer club, the Darebin Falcons take on Williamstown in Round 1’s closing fixture on Sunday, set to play out at La Trobe University in Bundoora. Both proud standalone clubs, these two sides will be made up purely of VFLW-listed talent early on before gaining access to NAB League and potentially even AFLW talent as those seasons are run and done. The two sides already faced off during preseason, with Williamstown winning by 11 points at the same venue.

Led by the returning Stephanie Simpson, Darebin has a bunch of leaders set to build the standards under coach Mitch Skelly. In defence, Gena Lawson-Tavan is one who promises to do exactly that as vice-captain, while fellow leaders Cherelle Byrne (centre) and Alyssa Mifsud (full forward) are other leaders littered up and down the spine. One Falcon to watch is Stephanie Elarmaly, a youngster who has come through Darebin’s youth system.

2019 premiership coach Penny Cula-Reid crossed from Collingwood after her flag triumph, and takes over an exciting standalone squad. Skipper Erin Meade has locked in a spot at half-back, with reigning best and fairest winner Megan Williamson set to resume her midfield duties. Asha Price and Eliza Straford should be good value up forward, while Scarlett Dunell, the sister of former Seagull Sam lines up in defence.

There is often a great unknown around the standalone sides, especially after so long away from competitive action, but the two sides will know each other well after their preseason meeting and will get a good assessment of their 2021 chances in this bout.

Image Credit: Kelly Defina/AFL Photos

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