It was the moment the AFL — and Adelaide fans — would have been dreading.
In the early minutes of the Crows’ 18-point victory over an inaccurate Melbourne in Saturday’s opening AFLW preliminary final, skipper Chelsea Randall and Melbourne’s Eliza McNamara brutally collided.
Shortly after, Randall was ruled out of the game by her club doctor.
Earlier this year the AFL announced that players who were concussed would be forced to miss a minimum of 12 days of football, with previous rules allowing them to return after six days (and therefore potentially play the week after a concussion).
This rule change applied to both the men’s and women’s competitions.
While elsewhere it has been reported that women may be at greater risk of concussion and take longer to recover, the science on this issue is not conclusive. At least one literature review in the British Medical Journal, for example, suggests that women may simply be more honest about reporting injuries, including concussion.
The AFL’s announcement about the change to its concussion rule also came after several former prominent men’s players were found to have suffered significant mental health issues as a result of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease better known as affecting NFL players.
One clear implication of the rule change was that if a player was concussed during the preliminary final, they would miss the grand final.
As (bad) luck would have it, Randall’s head knock is a cruel blow for the inspirational skipper who in 2021 is the sole captain of her side for the first time, after star Erin Phillips stepped down from her co-captaincy (and any leadership) role.
She was ruled out of the grand final late on Monday afternoon as per the AFL’s concussion protocols.
Adelaide’s 2021 AFLW leadership group consists of Sarah Allan, Ange Foley and Eloise Jones, however none are officially vice-captain.
As Foley told ABC Sport after the Crows’ win over the Demons, there is no clear stand-in captain for the grand final.
“[Chelsea’s] aura and her leadership would be missed, but we’ve got plenty of leaders in our group,” said Foley, who is one of the potential candidates for grand final captain.
“That’s why we do all the hard work and get around each other during the year … but [if Chelsea misses] that will just give us a bit of fire in our belly, I reckon”.
Crows, Lions walk different paths
AFLW season 2021 has widely — and rightly — been lauded as the competition’s best yet.
It has also been one of the most even and unpredictable, with any of last Saturday’s four remaining preliminary finalists worthy of a spot in the grand final on regular season form.
Ironically, however, the two teams to make the decider — Adelaide and Brisbane — have played in three out of the competition’s four deciders (while AFLW is in its fifth season, it has had only four grand finals, with 2020 cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic).
The Lions’ thrilling win against Collingwood at the Gabba also ensures a repeat of the competition’s inaugural grand final, in which the Crows triumphed over Brisbane on the Gold Coast by six points.
While Adelaide, as two-time premiers, and Brisbane, as two-time runners-up, may now be seen as the competition’s dominant sides, both have trod very different paths to success.
From inception, Adelaide has had the advantage of being the representative of a one-team state, aided by Port Adelaide’s decision not to bid for a licence prior to the competition beginning, and again when the AFL announced the competition would expand in 2019.
For several years, the Crows also benefited from access to Northern Territory talent, having originally made a joint bid with AFL Northern Territory for an AFLW licence. With AFLW having a state-based draft, this alliance gave the Crows exclusive access to both South Australian and Northern Territory talent.
In 2019, however, this partnership was ended, with the AFL later announcing that the Gold Coast Suns would instead align with AFL Northern Territory from 2020.
Based on 2021 form, the latter at least has not affected the Crows, who continue to be the dominant force in AFLW, and will go into Saturday’s decider as favourites for a third premiership.
Lions succeeding against the odds
The Lions — by contrast — have been hit hard by the competition’s expansion.
In 2018 this included losing four of their stars in Kaitlyn Ashmore, Tahlia Randall, Jamie Stanton (now at Gold Coast) and Brittany Gibson to North Melbourne.
Then, in 2019, they were dealt a hammer blow when eight players joined Queensland’s second side in Gold Coast, including former captain Leah Kaslar and vice-captain Sam Virgo.
Compounding that was the loss of marquee signing Sabrina Frederick to Richmond, and both livewire forward Kate McCarthy and runner-up in their 2019 best and fairest, Nat Exon, to St Kilda.
Against the odds, however, the Lions have kept apace with the rest of the competition — making finals in the shortened 2020 season and appearing for the third time on the biggest stage of all in this season.
It’s a fact not lost on foundation Lion Shannon Campbell, who told ABC Sport Brisbane had consistently been “underrated” externally.
“Everyone underrates us,” Campbell said.
“It’s good for us though, we like to fly under the radar.
“We’ve flown under the radar for five years, so we’re happy to keep doing it.”
And, after two seasons of grand final heartbreak, the defender said the team had added motivation to clinch its maiden premiership.
“Obviously, [being runners-up twice] will be a motivating factor, but we’ve also got a brand new team pretty much from those two years, a far more exciting team that I think can definitely take it to Adelaide,” Campbell said.
“We’ll go in there as underdogs, and hopefully take it away from them.”
The success of Brisbane’s AFLW team — and the hosting of last year’s AFL men’s grand final at the Gabba — has also coincided with an increase in participation and interest in Australian rules football in Queensland.
Such support was evident in the Lions’ preliminary final, with a vocal home crowd of 4,435 willing their side to a four-point victory on a hot Brisbane afternoon.
“They definitely lifted us today, and got us over the line,” Campbell said.
“Their roar at the end of the game was magnificent.”
AFLW hoping to repeat record turnout
The crowd won’t be with the Lions this weekend, but the AFLW grand final will return to Adelaide Oval, the same venue that attracted a record-breaking 53,034 spectators to the most recent decider in 2019.
The biggest match of the AFLW season has also been given a standalone slot, with the AFL moving the men’s match between the Bulldogs and Suns from 1:45pm to 4:35pm on Saturday.
It’s a welcome reversal of fortunes for the AFL women’s competition — which usually plays second fiddle to AFL men’s — which will give the final the best chance of attracting the crowd and attention it deserves.