A group of Carlton AFLW players clad in navy blue grin and hug on the ground after a win.

How Carlton is defying expectations in the AFLW

Inaugural AFLW club Carlton made some unwanted history during the off-season, conducting the first-ever review into its women’s program and making wholesale change.

A steady decline since a 2019 grand final appearance and strong 2020 season took place over the subsequent two years, resulting in just two wins from 10 starts last season. This saw head coach Daniel Harford moved on, along with general manager of women’s football Brett Munro and AFLW recruiter Josh Hare.

As a result, there were low external expectations for Carlton coming into the 2023 season under new coach Mathew Buck and, six rounds in, it has exceeded any measure of success for a rebuilding club.

The club has been persistent in pushing a “high-performance mindset” as the backdrop to all this change, while also welcoming a host of new players to the club.

Four different Blues — Marianna Anthony, Dayna Finn, Erone Fitzpatrick and Maddy Hendrie — have made their AFLW debut this season, while another three — Harriet Cordner, Ciara Fitzgerald and Genevieve Lawson-Tavan — have worn the navy strip for the first time.

But positive change isn’t only reflected in the win-loss columns and list rejuvenation. A team-first, all-in game style has been evident, with young talent driving the improvement.

Young guns

Keeley Sherar has been one of the Blues’ best.(Getty Images: Michael Willson)

Keeley Sherar, Mia Austin and Keeley Skepper, who all debuted throughout 2022, have become integral Blues this season through the midfield, forward line and wing respectively.

Between the arcs, Sherar and Skepper are in the Blues’ top four for disposals, inside 50s and metres gained, while Sherar also leads the club for tackles and has won the third most clearances.

After development over the offseason, Sherar has become a regular starter on the ball for Carlton this year. Usually handed a role on the opposition’s star midfielder thanks to her willingness to work hard defensively, her improvement came to the fore last week against the Western Bulldogs with a return of 27 disposals, eight tackles and six intercepts.

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And out on the wing, Skepper has a knack for pushing forward and forcing her direct opponent to defend her carefully. Disciplined in her positioning and with a growing thirst for hitting the scoreboard, Skepper’s round three performance against West Coast — registering three goals, 23 disposals, and 397 metres gained — resulted in a second Rising Star nomination for the teenager.

They are the engine room alongside the more established Mimi Hill and Abbie McKay.

Meanwhile, Austin is Carlton’s leading goal-kicker across the opening six rounds, adept both in the air and on the ground and becoming increasingly difficult to defend.

The trio lead a pack of emerging talent, which includes Irish duo Erone Fitzpatrick and Dayna Finn, alongside state-league finds like Lily Goss and Marianna Anthony, and former Magpie Amelia Velardo.

A newfound attack

A group of Carlton AFLW players clad in navy blue grin and hug on the ground after a win.

Harriet Cordner (centre) played for Melbourne and Richmond before joining Carlton.(Getty Images: Kelly Defina)

Last season the Blues really fell apart up forward. Generating a shot on goal from just 28.9 per cent of their forward 50 entries, scores were hard to come by.

This year that has turned significantly, with the side’s shot efficiency sitting at 40.3 per cent, while they convert at an accuracy of 53.2 per cent — an all-time record in the AFLW.

It hasn’t required a large increase in average inside 50s, recording just 1.3 more per game compared to last season, even with longer game time. Instead, it is all about increased efficiency, doing more with what they already had.

This increased efficiency has resulted in three more goals per week compared to Carlton’s return on the scoreboard last season.

Part of this increased efficiency has been a result of Breann Moody’s extended time spent in attack. With Jess Good largely taking on the number one ruck role, to great effect, Moody has been able to add her contested marking prowess to the forward half.

Between the pair, Carlton is averaging 40.3 hit outs per game, another AFLW record.

Leading the club for contested marks with 13, equal second in the competition, Moody has added an extra link in Carlton’s chain between midfield and forward line. Dominating the air at half forward, Moody has been important in delivering the ball inside 50 to Phoebe McWilliams and Austin as the deep focal points.

A traditional rivalry

As the Blues prepare to face Collingwood this weekend, they are presented with an opportunity to best their traditional rivals for the first time since 2019.

Moody, Good, McWilliams and Austin have the potential to stretch a Pies defence that will be without its two first-choice key defenders for the match due to suspension.

Selena Karlson (180cm) and Stacey Livingstone (176cm) have been the organisers of Collingwood’s backline this year, taking on nullifying roles against opposition key forwards each week.

But against Carlton, they will be absent, and while the Pies have some options – Erica Fowler (180cm), Sarah Sansonetti (172cm), and Jordyn Allen (174cm) – the Blues’ quartet certainly enters the game with the upper hand.

Should Carlton continue its trend of forward efficiency, and focus heavily on playing an aerial game, it has the opportunity to break its four-game losing streak against Collingwood and continue to defy the external expectations of a rebuilding club.

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Author: Russell White