THE 2021 VFL Women’s finals series has arrived, with the top six teams set to battle it out for premiership glory after 14 enthralling home-and-away rounds. After a year away, the competition was reformatted to see the AFLW and NAB League seasons run concurrently with Victoria’s state league, seeing players from both the aforementioned leagues filter into all 12 teams in different ways.
This year’s finals campaign sees three sides take part in their maiden finals series, with Port Melbourne among them at the pointy end of its inaugural VFLW season. Reigning premier, Collingwood remains the hot favourite to take out this year’s flag, having become just the second-ever team to go through the regular season undefeated. We preview all three of the week one fixtures, with comment from key players of each team.
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2ND ELIMINATION FINAL
Casey Demons vs. Essendon
Saturday July 3, 12:00pm
Casey – 4th, 8-6, 155.96%
Essendon – 5th, 8-6, 155.95%
Round 2 – Casey Demons 3.4 (22) def. by Essendon 4.7 (31) @ Casey Fields
Casey – 2-3
Essendon – 2-3
It is only fitting that Casey and Essendon begin their respective maiden VFLW finals campaigns against each other, as they lock horns at Casey Fields on Saturday afternoon. This is the tightest matchup of the lot after 14 home-and-away rounds, with the two sides boasting equal 8-6 records and separated by just 0.1 per cent on the ladder. They are also both 2-3 across their last five outings, with their only previous meeting in 2021 seeing the Bombers salute to the tune of nine points at the same venue.
Plenty has changed since then, though, according to Demons midfielder Eliza West.
“[Essendon] was so physical and I think it surprised us and we weren’t ready for that level of physicality,” West said. “But now after playing for a little while we’ve obviously improved on that because we’ve had to focus on it, and I think coming into the game this week that’ll be a big point for us. We’ll go in ready to play hard and win the footy.”
Bombers skipper Georgia Nanscawen, who has enjoyed a stellar season in the engine room, says calling the matchup close is “pretty spot on.”
“Our matchup against them earlier in the year was a very close game,” Nanscawen said. “When you look at the ladder, I think there was 0.1 of a percent [difference] or something. You can’t get much closer than that so it should be a cracking game.”
While they are incredibly closely matched, there remains a key point of difference between these two adversaries. Essendon is the lone purely non-AFLW aligned team to feature among this year’s finalists, making for another landmark to be “proud” for Nanscawen and her standalone squad of Bombers.
“I’m really loving my time at the Bombers and for our first finals campaign as a club, it’s certainly special to be a part of,” she said. “To be the non-aligned club shows that we can match it with those aligned clubs and hopefully we can have a good finals series.
“We’ve come back refreshed after the break, we’ve had a really good couple of weeks and we’re feeling great so I think anything can happen on the weekend.”
While the Bombers may not be able to lean on its own group of currently senior-listed stars, its emerging crop of youngsters has plenty of fans and pundits alike eager to see how they fare. Having blazed her own trail through the NAB League pathway with Calder Cannons, Essendon forward Alana Barba is excited to see what the next generation can produce come finals time.
“It’s really exciting to see some of the prospects coming through,” Barba said. “A lot of them have done pretty well on their debuts, and going up against the bigger bodies they’ve held their ground and they’ve really come in strong. “It’s exciting to see where they go in the future, whether that’s at the Bombers or anywhere on an AFLW list, they’ll do well.
“I guess I try and take them under my wing a bit because I’ve come through the same pathway as them. But they hold their ground pretty well and they’re very keen as we all are, so it’ll be exciting to see how they go.”
Nanscawen also pointed towards an AFLW draft pick one candidate for her choice of a potential “difference maker”.
“We’ve got Georgie Prespakis who had a great game last week,” she said. “That was her second game for us and she’s improved across the two games already, so we’re pretty excited to see what she can do in a finals series.”
On the flip side, Casey will field up to 10 AFLW-listed players on Saturday and have been able to take plenty from the senior Melbourne side – including an exciting gameplan. Demon Ally Kirkwood says her side is excited for the opportunity to implement it throughout the finals campaign.
“I think the gamestyle we want to play is really exciting,” Kirkwood said. “It’s definitely something the Melbourne AFLW girls implemented and it worked for them through finals. “Unfortunately they didn’t make the grand final but I think we will. That’s what’s really exciting for us; we’re all prepared to play [the gameplan], we’ve been training it for the whole season and we’ve gotten really good at it.”
In terms of the key players to watch for Casey, Kirkwood gave West a good pump-up while standing by her side on Monday’s finals launch day. West had a player of her own in mind, and both promise to provide the sort of ball winning intent that Casey is looking for this weekend.
“Eliza West… she’s always there in those [clutch] moments and it’s really great that we have her here at the club,” Kirkwood said.
“We rely on a lot of players in all areas of the field but I really think Meg McDonald,” West followed. “Since she’s come into being an on-baller, she’s added another level of physicality and toughness. She lays hard tackles, she plays her role really well and I think she’s helped us a lot. “She’ll be one to look out for because it’s hard to beat her – if she’s tackling you, it’s hard to break one of those tackles so good luck to whoever it is.”
Collingwood vs. Geelong
Saturday July 3, 12:00pm
Collingwood – 1st, 14-0, 297.1%
Geelong – 2nd, 10-4, 174.3%
Round 1 – Geelong 6.6 (42) def. by Collingwood 7.2 (44) @ Deakin University
Round 14 – Collingwood 3.5 (23) def. Geelong 0.4 (4) @ Victoria Park
Collingwood – 5-0
Geelong – 3-2
Collingwood and Geelong face off for the second time in as many weeks on Saturday, opening the 2021 VFLW finals series with a top of the table clash. The two sides jostled in two close encounters during the 2021 regular season, with the Magpies coming out on top amid their 14-0 campaign. Having completed the home-and-away rounds unbeaten, the reigning premiers became the second-ever side to do so and are in the box seat to defend their crown. But the Cats have proven their credentials as a top-tier team, sneaking into second having consistently found a way to win.
Geelong deputy-vice captains Breanna Beckley and Tamara Smith both spoke towards a strong team-oriented culture which included players listed at AFLW level, the NAB League, and local competitions. With the big job of overturning two previous losses to Collingwood at hand, Smith said her side has “so much more to give.”
“We’ve just got to keep playing our way, our style of footy and back our girls in,” Smith said. “Between the start and end of the season our girls would’ve changed and they’ll probably change again going into next week.
Beckley supported the notion, and hopes it’ll be a case of third time’s a charm for the Cats heading into Saturday’s clash, putting previous results behind them.
“We dropped a couple early against really good sides but it was good to see we had the fight from the start,” Beckley said. “Now coming up against Collingwood [in Round 14], although it wasn’t the result we wanted, I think we still held our own and kept them to a pretty low score as well which was really helpful.
“One of our biggest things that we pride ourselves on is our culture. “What we as a leadership group have tried to instil in the girls is that we’re all here as one no matter where you’re coming from – whether that’s AFL, VFL or local leagues. “Culture is the biggest thing no matter how old you are or your background, and it’s something we’ll keep priding ourselves on towards finals.”
With senior, state league and junior competitions running concurrently in 2021, the Cats have also benefitted from having a number of high-level NAB League graduates filter through the team. Smith was particularly glowing in her review of them, while Beckley knows the Falcons products well having worked with the program as talent manager.
“Chloe Leonard’s a big one,” Smith said. “She’s played three games for us, we love Chloe. It’s just the good vibes she brings, she’s so confident but she just asks questions and is always wanting to learn. “You give her something to do and she just does it, plays her role so well.
“Annie Lee had a few games with us, she takes strong marks down back. She’s a bit quieter than Chloe but it’s the same thing, she just plays her role and slots into the team.
“Renee Tierney played a couple of games as well, she played against Southern Saints in a really wet game but she just held her own, backed her skills in. “It’s awesome to have those NAB League girls through because as much as they’re there to learn, they also have so much to give so it’s a really good opportunity for them and for us.”
While the spades of talent across a good range of age groups would make it easy to individualise parts of the squad, Smith maintains the Cats will rely on a team effort, rather than look to a few to get the job done.
“Obviously we have really talented girls in the side and ones which will step up, but as a whole I think we’re all ready for the challenge,” she said. “That’s one thing, if we can all step up together it’s going to make a huge difference across the ground. “I don’t think that we should be relying on just one girl to get the job done or have an outstanding game, if we can all lift and do our part for the team that’s where you get the job done.”
Collingwood also has a raft of stars which will look to make a difference on Saturday, none more so than unbelievably timely inclusion, Chloe Molloy. The dynamic senior-listed forward qualifies for finals after playing just one game in 2021, and will be one of the (up to) 10 AFLW players afield for the Magpies. Should she line up in attack, Molloy could form a deadly partnership with competition leading goalkicker Imogen Barnett and boom recruit Matilda Zander.
Up the other end, Lauren Butler also returned just in time to qualify for finals, while Mikala Cann carries in terrific form through midfield. With such a strong senior-listed and VFLW core, promising NAB Leaguers like Stella Reid and Eliza James look to have been squeezed out, though tough midfielder Olivia Meagher has been named on the Magpies’ bench.
1ST ELIMINATION FINAL
Port Melbourne vs. Southern Saints
Sunday July 4, 2:00pm
Port Melbourne – 3rd, 10-4, 128.7%
Southern Saints – 6th, 7-7, 115.2%
Round 10 – Port Melbourne 4.4 (28) def. by Southern Saints 8.7 (55)
Port Melbourne – 2-3
Southern Saints – 3-2
In Sunday’s standalone finals fixture, Port Melbourne enters its maiden finals campaign against the Southern Saints having enjoyed a remarkable inaugural VFLW season. After starting the year with a blistering 7-0 run, the Borough ended their regular season at 10-4 – good enough for third spot having occupied one of the top two places for nine rounds. Most intriguingly, one of those losses came at the hands of their weekend adversaries. The Saints have gone 7-7 thus far and went 2-2 after that win against Port, but did enough to claw onto sixth spot and earn a finals berth.
Saints co-captain Deanna Jolliffe says her side is “[peaking] at the right time” after two promising wins in the run-in to Sunday, while youngster Melanie Bertuna outlined the desired approach to knocking Port off for a second time.
“I think our last two weeks of footy have really proved what we’re capable of,” Jolliffe said. “Hopefully we can just continue to play the same sort of footy that we have over the last couple of weeks and bring that in on Sunday against Port Melbourne.”
“Playing a really strong four quarters of footy [is what it takes to beat Port Melbourne],” Bertuna said. “Just not dropping off our pressure and sticking with it the whole game, sticking our heads down and getting the work done.”
The same four-quarter approach was also a theme in Borough captain Melissa Kuys‘ path to victory, as her side looks put together the high-level form they previously found on a more consistent basis. As a leader in Port’s first VFLW finals campaign, the experienced utility is also proud of how much development the competition newcomers have shown this year.
“We just need to play four quarter of good footy,” Kuys said. “We’ve been playing patches unfortunately in the last couple of weeks so we’ve just got to bring that brand of footy we know we can play for longer than them, and hopefully we’ll get the job done.”
“At the beginning of the season we probably [didn’t] think that we would’ve gotten this far, so it’s super pleasing that we are where we are. “It’s been a lot of hard work but we’re super excited to have our first finals.”
Both sides have also had a raft of promising NAB Leaguers come through the respective programs, with a bunch set to line up for either team on Sunday. Having gone through the pathway herself, first year Port Melbourne player Olivia Barton said they have been “really good contributors” overall.
“We’ve loved having the NAB League girls come through,” Barton said. “They’ve all brought something special to the team in their individual ways and obviously our senior players have been really good with teaching them the ropes.”
Jolliffe gave similar praise to the Saints’ next generation of talent, while also giving a nod to the AFLW-listed players who have “lifted” the squad in an all-round learning experience.
“I think the [NAB Leaguers] bring a lot of depth to the team,” she said. “With their young bodies and they’re able to get in and under the ball and they’re just keen to learn and always striving to do better. “I think that also brings a lot of culture to our team because we want to do better for the them, and also want to be able to teach them things.
“Since the AFLW girls have joined our training sessions the intensity has definitely lifted, there seems to be a lot more voice out on the field. “The experience they bring is second to none so we’re all just enjoying that and learning from them as much as we can.”
As the Southern squad looks to implement its ferocious and unsociable “Saints footy”, Jolliffe and Bertuna promise there won’t be any one player carrying their effort.
“The way we’ve always played is Saints footy,” Bertuna said. “Every week that’s always what we want to come back to and play our way, so we’ll come out strong, respect the team we’re going up against and bring our best.”
Kuys and Barton identified a couple of key difference-makers among the Port Melbourne squad, though the spread of contributors is set to be just as even.
“I’d probably go with Courteney Bromage,” Kuys said. “She’s a player that gets in-and-under and she really uses her body and that inspires me to go harder.”
“Claire Dyett on the wing,” Barton said. “She’s always going hard at the ball and running hard for us both ways, so she’d definitely be one to step up. Her heart’s right in the team so she’d definitely do it for us.”
Image Credit: Dylan Burns/AFL Photos