Emma King looks stunned as she runs with her arms out wide

The key to success for the Roos and Lions in the AFLW grand final

All of a sudden, the 2023 AFLW grand final is upon us.

North Melbourne will challenge on the final day of the season for the first time, but must face the most seasoned of grand finalists in Brisbane, who will play the decider for a record fifth time.

While 13 premiership Lions from 2021 are likely to line up in the maroon on Sunday, the Roos will also be bolstered by grand final and premiership experience.

Key forward Tahlia Randall played in the Lions’ first two grand finals, albeit on the losing side both times, and trio Jenna Bruton, Kim Rennie, and Emma Kearney won a flag with the Western Bulldogs in the last grand final hosted in Melbourne back in 2018.

While each side boasts a clear brand and areas where it excels, each also has a specific key to success on Sunday. Nail that, and the win is theirs for the taking.

North Melbourne – Forward efficiency

Much of North Melbourne’s success this year has been built on its impressive defence and star-studded midfield. Where it has faltered at times has still been connection going forward and conversion once inside attacking 50.

Although they recruited what seemed to be the final piece of the puzzle in the off-season with spearhead Kate Shierlaw coming across from St Kilda, the Kangaroos’ forward line has generally been their weakest line this year.

Tahlia Randall’s performance will be crucial to the Kangaroos’ chances in the grand final.(Getty Images: Dylan Burns)

Throughout the season North Melbourne has averaged more inside 50s than any other side with 37.8 per game, but has been just the sixth-best team at retaining the ball in the attacking arc, allowing the opposition a rebound rate of 78.4 per cent.

This rebound rate reached a peak of 84 per cent against Melbourne in round eight, and remained above 80 per cent in each of the side’s meetings with Adelaide.

What this means is that the Kangaroos are the best side in the competition at generating forward entries, but are yet to become the best at retaining that ball in scoring range.

As a result, the Kangaroos are the sixth-worst side in the competition this year at creating a shot on goal from its inside 50s, at just 40.5 per cent, and this bleeds into the side’s goal efficiency, kicking a goal from only 17.4 per cent of those inside 50s.

Emma King looks stunned as she runs with her arms out wide

North Melbourne beat Adelaide by a point to reach its first AFLW grand final.(Getty Images: Michael Willson)

In last week’s thrilling one-point preliminary final win over Adelaide, North Melbourne’s final quarter exemplified these issues in attack. Despite sending the ball into attack 10 times in that last term, the Kangaroos kicked just four behinds. They could have put the game to bed but weren’t able to capitalise on the opportunities they created.

This is why going into the grand final, making the most of their forward entries will become crucial for the Roos if they are to take home an historic first premiership.

Tahlia Randall remains the club’s main target inside 50, with 22 marks in the arc and 21 goals for the season to date. Shierlaw and Emma King are the next most reliable marking options up forward, while Shierlaw and midfielder Jasmine Garner have each kicked 11 goals this year.

A Kangaroos AFLW player roars in celebration with arms spread, as her teammate points after a goal.

Forward line efficiency has not been North’s strong suit this year.(Getty images: AFL Photos/Michael Willson)

Where the Kangaroos have the opportunity to increase this forward efficiency is through the likes of small forwards Bella Eddey, Alice O’Loughlin, and Niamh Martin. Their positioning at the feet of tall forwards Randall, Shierlaw, and King has the potential to make or break the game for the Roos.

Brisbane – Flexibility

The Lions come into their fifth grand final with key forward Dakota Davidson under an injury cloud, and while Davidson would be a significant loss should she be unavailable, Brisbane is better placed this year than one might have anticipated in the preseason.

Having lost dangerous forwards Jesse Wardlaw and Greta Bodey to Victorian clubs during the off-season, and with Zimmorlei Farquharson inactive, Brisbane has had to rebuild its attack around Davidson, winger Sophie Conway, and supporting ruck Taylor Smith.

Lions players celebrate a goal with disappointed Cats players in the background

The Lions edged over the line in a thrilling prelim against the Cats.(Getty Images: Michael Willson)

But in an ever-changing line for the club, several players have rolled through the Lions’ attack, pointing to the new-found flexibility they have leant on throughout the season.

Inaugural defender Shannon Campbell looms as the most crucial player for Brisbane come Sunday’s grand final, often chosen as the one to swing into attack when a gap is created. This was the case when the Lions and Kangaroos met in round four — a game which Davidson missed through suspension — as well as last week’s preliminary final. In both games Campbell went on to kick the match winning goal.

When approaching North Melbourne’s attack of Randall, Shierlaw, and King, keeping Campbell in defence to combat the trio seems the obvious option, but because of the development of two Lions throughout the season, flexibility in Campbell’s positioning remains.

Poppy Boltz and Jennifer Dunne, both standing at 178cm, have improved progressively throughout their debut AFLW seasons, strengthening the Lions’ defence and specifically, the club’s ability to combat tall key forward options such as those at the Roos

Other moves have also been made by Brisbane throughout the season, including captain Breanna Koenen’s increased midfield minutes, so too Courtney Hodder’s, and coming up against the best defence in the AFLW, unpredictability is Brisbane’s friend.

In addition to this, combating that defence will require thoughtful ball movement by the Lions stationed higher up the field.

A group of Brisbane Lions AFLW players sing the club song after a win.

The Lions are into their fifth AFLW grand final, but they so far only have one premiership to their name.(Getty Images: Bradley Kanaris)

Brisbane averages the sixth-fewest disposals across the competition this year, instead working to gain ground with run and carry and opting for direct ball movement going forward. Because of this, the Lions average 16 metres gained per disposal, the second in the AFLW for 2023 and the most of any finalist.

Direct, economical use of the footy when they do win possession means they are generally able to get it forward quickly, trap it there with pressure, and create scoring opportunities from there.

Against North Melbourne’s defensive structures, that direct use of the ball must be thoughtful, and not simply long kicks to space in attack because the likes of Jasmine Ferguson and Sarah Wright for the Roos will mop it up with ease.



Author: Russell White