Melbourne and Brisbane provide fitting match-up for AFLW grand final

Here we are then. After plenty of twists and turns throughout the season, both on and off field, two teams remain and will face off on Sunday in the second AFLW grand final of the year. Brisbane and Melbourne were only separated by 0.3% at the top of the ladder at the end of the home-and-away season, so perhaps it is only fitting they’re the last two standing.

On Friday night, at their home away from home on the Gold Coast, Brisbane did what they’ve done all season – they piled on the goals. After an arm wrestle in the first few minutes against Adelaide, the Lions never looked like losing despite the Crows remaining competitive. Small forward Courtney Hodder and spearhead Jesse Wardlaw booted four between them in the second quarter to effectively seal the deal.

Adelaide had an unimaginably tough week with the death of former premiership player and army medic Heather Anderson. Anderson played in the inaugural premiership with the Crows, but a second shoulder dislocation during the game cruelly ended her football career at 23. The grief at her passing would have weighed on the players, a number who played with her in 2017.

Former teammate Anne Hatchard spray-painted her hair pink for the match, a lovely tribute to the pink helmet Anderson wore to help her vision-impaired mother spot her when she played.

Melbourne coaches will pore over footage this week to work out how to stem a persistent flow of goals from the Lions. Brisbane got the better of them by 15 points in round four, coming over the top in the last quarter at Melbourne’s unfailingly windy home of Casey Fields. Despite that defeat, the Dees should not be too concerned if they start slow on Sunday – they have been sluggish in both their finals this month, before finding their firepower later to storm home.

On Saturday, Melbourne weathered a storm in their preliminary final and proved too good for North Melbourne by the final siren. The Kangaroos could not capitalise on a dominant third quarter and managed to score just two behinds from 18 inside 50s. Melbourne didn’t allow North to get too deep inside their forward 50 or have many clean marking opportunities, and took their chances at goal where they could.

Men’s coach Simon Goodwin promised Melbourne fans another premiership in 2022, following last year’s AFL grand final victory in Perth. It might not be the men, and it might not be at the MCG, but the Demons could be on the cusp of tasting that success again at Brighton Homes Arena.

Similarly to earlier this year, grand final week’s media coverage in the build-up to the flag decider is expected to focus on Melbourne’s efforts to win the premiership for their captain, Daisy Pearce, as the question of her retirement looms. But this will also be Tayla Harris’s fourth grand final and the Dees’ star is sure to take up her share of column inches too. Just 19 when the inaugural season bounced down, her marking and booming kick have made her one of the faces of the competition.

Harris has represented three different clubs (Brisbane, Carlton and Melbourne) in the decider, but all ended in losses to Adelaide. A left shoulder injury sustained early on Saturday raised concerns, but Melbourne coach Mick Stinear played them down post-match. Having played in the ruck this season, she was able to rest forward after the knock, and the break should provide enough time to prepare to face her first club.

Brisbane’s potent forward line has caused headaches for teams this season. Its pillars – Wardlaw and Dakota Davidson – have controlled the air and combined with smalls Courtney Hodder and Greta Bodey.

The flag decider presents an exciting match-up against a Demon defence that has regularly held competitive teams to lowly scores, with defenders like Libby Birch and Shelley Heath in excellent form. Expect to also see plenty from Melbourne midfielder Karen Paxman, who at 33 seems to just get better and could pose problems for reigning AFLW best and fairest Emily Bates.

The grand final venue has been locked in, with Brisbane’s brand new Brighton Homes Arena set to sell its full allocation of 10,000 tickets. Fans travelling up from Melbourne may need to hire a car, considering the ground is out in Springfield, 25km southwest of Brisbane.

“Brand-new” is no exaggeration. The turf was only laid a month ago, and while the Lions have since moved in, they have been training nearby. The groundskeepers are set for a busy week, as they prepare for its first public outing by installing necessities such as benches and a scoreboard.

There has been a tendency to see Melbourne as the perennial bridesmaids of the AFLW, having been in the premiership mix since the league’s inauguration, narrowly missing out on the final in 2018 and losing earlier this year to the Crows. But the dominance of Adelaide and Brisbane – who have won every premiership bar one between them – highlights just how hard it is to be claim one. Sunday, at the very least, provides an opportunity for another club to join the list of winners and write a new chapter in AFLW history.