Cautious optimism heralds start of new AFLW season after crushing 2020 | AFLW

Adaptability and flexibility will be the twin themes of the 2021 AFLW season, as Covid-19 continues to wreak havoc with even the most carefully laid plans.

The premature end to the 2020 season was not just disappointing; it was a crushing blow. With only two rounds of finals remaining, including the grand final, the AFL abruptly cut the competition short. No premiership was awarded.

Yet still, there is a feeling of cautious optimism spinning around the league on the eve of its fifth season, even if it is a hard-fought optimism, given the tumultuous lead up.

Last year, as Victoria lived through one of the hardest lockdowns in the world and border restrictions cut many off from loved ones, fans and players alike waited on tenterhooks for news of the AFLW. Would they? Wouldn’t they? The bitterness that lingered after the asterisk that was 2020, combined with a truly unprecedented national and international situation, made hope a challenge.

“The absolute commitment from the AFL remains to complete the season and award an AFLW premier in 2021,” AFLW boss Nicole Livingstone said, echoing comments from AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan earlier in the year. Finally there was space for cautious optimism.

But any collective concern for the AFLW is far from an overreaction, given the many times the AFL has been lacklustre at best in its support of the league. A case in point was the limited advertising and promotion of the league that has again continued into 2021.

In truth, after pulling out all the stops to get the 2020 men’s competition up and running, the AFL is under significant pressure to deliver a complete women’s campaign. Anything short of a full season would reveal significant cracks in that commitment.

Richmond’s Sabrina Frederick and her teammates huddle before a pre-season match against the Western Bulldogs. Photograph: Kelly Defina/Getty Images

The signs so far are promising, with the opening two rounds of the competition efficiently changed to deal with border restrictions. More changes are probably on the cards given the unpredictability of the current situation. However, there is some comfort to be found in the familiarity of the opening game on Thursday, when Carlton and Collingwood play at the competition’s spiritual home in Melbourne, Ikon Park. But while the guernseys and many of the faces will be recognisable, there will be much about the 2021 season that is new.

The much-maligned conference system with its dual ladders has finally been given the boot. However, the season structure – nine home and away rounds and three weeks of finals – continues to prevent all teams from playing each other once and remains a sticking point for those seeking fairness.

The 2021 season also brings with it something fans have been asking for since the earliest iteration of the competition: paid ticketing. Even so, venue capacities will be reduced in line with Covid-19 protocols, so a heaving Norwood or Whitten Oval is likely off the cards. Social distancing and the use of assigned seating will also have some, albeit wholly necessary, impact on the AFLW experience fans have become so accustomed to. It is unclear if the income produced by ticket sales will be funnelled directly back into the women’s game, but there is no doubt this is a positive step forward.

Many of these off-field changes are welcome, but what the season looks like on the field is difficult to gauge. The cancelled VFLW season impacted half of the playing group meaning many have not played a game in nearly a year. Some international players, like Katy Heron from the Western Bulldogs, Yvonne Bonner from the Giants and Clara Fitzpatrick from the Saints, will sit out the 2021 season. Pre-seasons have been disrupted. The Giants were forced to relocate from Sydney to Albury and then to Adelaide and clubs have had to coordinate smaller training groups and enforce strict safety protocols. What all this means for the on-field performance of the individual teams is impossible to predict.

Whatever challenges lay in store, whatever uncertainty remains about what the next 12 weeks look like, this may be the most highly anticipated opening round in the league’s short history. Will Chelsea Randall make her comeback? Can Fremantle continue the form they perfected last year? Which of the expansion teams will step up their game?

The 2021 AFLW season will rely on the resilience of the players, alongside coaches and support staff and fans, too. It needs their willingness to make sacrifices and their hard work and dedication. It should not be disappointed – over the last four seasons, the women who play this game and the people who support them have demonstrated that resilience, willingness and hard work over and over again. They have made it work, even under the most trying of circumstances and will do so again.

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