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How Suns and Bombers made the leap to become AFLW top-four contenders

Gold Coast and Essendon will open the final round of the 2023 AFLW regular season in what is shaping as a potential top-four clash.

The winner is likely to leap into fourth spot, should Brisbane lose to Melbourne on Saturday evening. It is a long climb from last season, when the Suns and Bombers finished ninth and 10th respectively.

Should Gold Coast make it through it would be its second finals series, while Essendon would qualify in just its second year in the competition.

Historically a highly contested team, Gold Coast has not lost that ability to compete this season, instead just finding more balance between that strength and its transition to an outside running game.

Lucy Single (right) has been one of the Suns’ best this season.(AAP: Matt Turner)

From the engine room of Charlie Rowbottom, Claudia Whitfort, and Lucy Single, the Suns are working the ball more thoughtfully out of the contest by hand to more effectively find that outside space.

In the past they have been guilty of winning the footy and quickly slamming it on the boot to gain ground, but this year they have found a method to that clearance work.

As a result, Gold Coast’s handball numbers have skyrocketed this season, as have its disposal efficiency and average running bounces.

This is evidence of a clearer balance between inside and outside footy.

Off the back of more considered ball movement through the middle of the ground, Gold Coast has had the composure to better hit up targets in attack.

With the likes of Tara Bohanna, Jac Dupuy and the return of Jamie Stanton as focal points inside 50, the side has found more regular marks inside 50, leading to increased goal accuracy and nearly two more goals per match compared to last season.

Significant improvements in the output of midfielders Whitfort and Single has helped to drive this style of play.

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Whitfort leads the Suns for inside 50s and metres gained this season, while sitting second at the club for clearances and disposals, and third for score involvements.

Meanwhile, Single has become the premier run-with player of the AFLW, limiting the output of star midfielders while playing genuinely attacking football herself.

But it is also a pair of understated new faces who have had a significant impact on Gold Coast’s fortunes this year.

Gaelic football star Niamh McLaughlin hit the ground running – literally – playing every match of the season to date, providing a crucial link between defence and attack.

Her 17 bounces are not just the most at Gold Coast this year, but the most across the AFLW.

And contributing significantly to the side’s intercept game is Meara Girvan, added via this year’s supplementary draft.

Girvan sits sixth in the competition for intercepts this season, despite missing a match through injury, as she repeatedly thwarts her opposition’s attacking forays.

Bombers find control

Joining the AFLW just a year ago, Essendon was the clear pick of the final four teams added last year.

This season the Bombers have gone from strength to strength, developing a more controlled, attacking style of play that also works to take away the opposition’s strengths.

Winning more of the footy directly out of stoppages, the Bombers have found clean disposal on the outside with a kick-mark game as they work the ball into attack.

That is not to say the side has lost its willingness to defend. Essendon is forcing its opposition to use the ball poorly, conceding a season-low disposal efficiency of just 59 per cent.

Much of this has been led by co-captain Bonnie Toogood, who is having a career-best season.

Typically starting matches as a key forward, her increased fitness has allowed her to move higher up the field to compete and become another link to a deep attacking unit.

Toogood has also been a reliable presence inside 50, currently second in the competition for contested marks, equal third for marks inside 50 and equal third for goals.

What has been crucial for the Bombers this year has been the addition of some depth in defence, including Brooke Walker, Brooke Brown, and underrated pick-up Georgia Clarke. This trio has helped to solidify the backline and generate attacking launches from their rebounds.

What this means for Friday’s clash

The fourth-best intercept team in the competition, Gold Coast, will face the forward efficiency of Essendon.

It is for this reason that the match in Mackay will be won or lost in Essendon’s attacking half.

Rowbottom’s absence will no doubt hurt the Suns, with the star midfielder responsible for nearly a quarter of the side’s clearances this year, and 14.6 per cent of its tackles.

But thanks to the growth of the midfield unit as a whole this year, they are better placed to cover Rowbottom now than they have ever been before.

But it will be a tousle between the likes of Gold Coast’s interceptors Vivien Saad, Girvan, Lauren Ahrens, and Daisy D’Arcy, coming up against Essendon’s attacking group of Toogood, Sophie Alexander, Paige Scott, and Amber Clarke.

Whichever side can gain ascendancy here will ultimately claim victory and potentially the double chance come finals.



Author: Russell White