Can the impressive Dockers fight their way into finals from the outside? (Photo: AFLW Facebook)

AFLW: All on the line in race to finals

We’re one week from commencing the finals series of the 2019 AFL Women’s season, and much has already been made of the difference introduced by the league’s new conference system.

As the top two teams from each of the two five-team conferences qualify for semi-finals, rather than the top four sides overall on the table, it remains a genuine possibility that the Brisbane Lions, with a 2-4 record and a percentage below 70, could keep their season alive with a strong result at Victoria Park against the winless Pies.

Mathematical oddities aside, however, Conference A has it all to play for as four contenders remain in the picture to fill their two finals places. With Adelaide, North Melbourne and Fremantle separated by percentage only, and Melbourne lingering a win behind (while boasting a better percentage than two of the three sides above them) with a do-or-die clash with the Crows lined up on Saturday, this weekend’s fixtures hold immense value across the board.

Hatch’s Jesse Robertson previews a critical set of five games commencing with AFLW’s return to Friday night lights in Sydney:

Friday, March 15, 7:15pm: GWS Giants vs Geelong, UNSW Oval

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Greater Western Sydney have little left to play for and will face a crisis of morale after another hiding at the hands of Adelaide last week. With their percentage dropping to a meagre 58.8 (worst in the competition), Alicia Eva couldn’t find the answer in an outworked GWS midfield, her team-high 20 disposals only effective half the time.

Ruck Erin McKinnon continued to battle through with a leading average of 26 hitouts per game but her followers have lacked in polish. Two extra injuries including the loss of Jacinda Barclay further hinder the end of a disappointing campaign.

The Cats aren not yet guaranteed finals football but will be mathematically home safe with a win or draw on their interstate trip this week. They did, however, suffer the heaviest defeat of round six at home to Fremantle in a thoroughly dismal penultimate performance. Meghan McDonald was a standout even in a less than stellar backline, picking up 22 touches at 78 per cent efficiency with six rebound-50s.

Hatch predicts: Geelong by 21 points. Greater Western Sydney have struggled to come up with the answers to almost any opposition and the Cats can be expected to book their finals tickets early.

Saturday, March 16, 4:45pm: Melbourne vs Adelaide, Casey Fields

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It’s all or nothing for Melbourne as they seek not only to stop the rampaging force from South Australia by a decent margin, but count on a very tight fixture between the Dockers and Kangaroos later that night. Karen Paxman remains a member of the elite group of just six women averaging 20 or more possessions a game in 2019 but faces the enormous task of opposing two other members of that class. Captain Elise O’Dea was also instrumental in creating a winning streak for the Dees at the Bulldogs’ expense with 21 touches and eight tackles.

Adelaide know all they need is a win by any means (or a draw) to secure their survival in Conference A and the league’s most in-form side made yet another statement last week, claiming the Giants’ scalp for their fifth straight victory.

Best and fairest odds-on favourite Erin Phillips interestingly lines up at full-forward for the clash in Cranbourne, after another crucial effort produced 24 disposals, matched by Ebony Marinoff (keeping in line with AFLW’s best average of 23.3), as the two also combined for eight marks and 13 tackles. The midfield duel between the likes of Marinoff and Hatchard against Paxman, Lily Mithen and co. should make or break both sides’ finals hopes.

Hatch predicts: Adelaide by 9 points. A potential thriller that acts as a mini-final in its own right, all eyes will be on the key battles in the middle.

Saturday, March 16, 7:15pm: Fremantle vs North Melbourne, Fremantle Oval

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If the Saturday twilight game is considered a mini-final, the clash between these two sides in Western Australia should also earn the title with just cause. Though the Dockers’ major ball-winners were mostly short on effectiveness on the ball, the convincing manner of their six-goal humbling of Geelong originated mostly through the extraordinary tackling efforts of Kiara Bowers.

The 27-year-old marquee signing racked up an insane 12 tackles in just a half of football on her way to a stunning tally of 19, ending an especially physical evening with more tackles than touches! North have more than one headache on their hands, though, with dangerous forward Kellie Gibson returning from concussion in place of Alex Williams, out with a torn ACL.

The return of defender Nicole Bresnahan to the fold following a three-week injury layoff will be important in managing the threat of the aforementioned Gibson as the Roos enter this week’s sudden-death fixture with the slight percentage boost, enabling them to start in a finals position unless Melbourne knock off the Crows.

Jasmine Garner’s 13 disposals (nine effective) featuring four inside-50s, three tackles and two goals were impressive on a day where the usual stars such as Emma Kearney were perhaps not quite as influential as we’re accustomed to seeing.

Hatch predicts: Fremantle by 4 points. Could be one of the games of the season but in such a tight tussle, there’ll be little to separate these two teams come the final siren.

Sunday, March 17, 2:05pm: Collingwood vs Brisbane Lions, Victoria Park

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Collingwood have had a shocking run this season, languishing as the league’s only winless side as well as the lowest-scoring, and should find mercy at the end of proceedings Sunday afternoon regardless of their final outcome.

Brittany Bonnici was ferocious and added some spark to a quiet overall year, pushing relentlessly against North Melbourne with 21 touches (16 contested) as well as 10 tackles. Ash Brazill (19 disposals, six rebound-50s) put in her usual steely shift but ultimately the Pies have been found lacking adequate replacement for several departed players.

Brisbane, with a less than fantastic season record themselves, and needing a win as well as at least one other result in their favour, enter the home-and-away season’s conclusion as perhaps the most unfanciful finals candidates. Nevertheless, they return for a second consecutive Victorian game and are presented with the best possible chance at four points at the best possible time. Their plans have hit a minor snag on the teamsheet, though, with captain Leah Kaslar again struck down by injury. They’ll need to rely on Emily Bates and Alexandra Anderson as has often been the case after they combined for 42 possessions in the Lions’ gallant defeat against Carlton.

Hatch predicts: Brisbane by 21 points. The odds favour AFLW’s first ever 0-7 season at Collingwood’s expense, and Brisbane have the stronger key personnel to overcome. How far it takes them beyond Sunday, though, is unclear.

Sunday, March 17, 4:05pm: Western Bulldogs vs Carlton, VU Whitten Oval

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The season that could have been is the story of the reigning premiers’ flag defence, as the hopes defined by a sturdy and resolute opening fortnight crumbled in the face of four damaging defeats. As time went on, a defence that once looked unshakeable en route to 2018 honours became unrecoverable. Ellie Blackburn has remained a shining light despite her side’s fortunes and continued to make an individual case in the loss to Melbourne with 22 possessions, half of those contested.

Fascinatingly, though, the inclusion of Celina Moody in their extended squad presents the chance of Celina against her twin sister Breanna in the ruck.

The Blues have strung wins together for the first time since early 2018 and at the best possible moment, very nearly locking in a top-two place in Conference B. Their 14-point win over Brisbane at IKON Park was again the Maddy Prespakis show, almost doubling her closest teammates’ tally with a weekend-high 27 disposals while her Rising Star likelihood continues to firm.

Hatch predicts: Carlton by 13 points. The Blues should take advantage of the new finals system to book their first-ever appearance beyond the home-and-away season.