Crows V Demons: Why the AFLW grand final shapes to be an epic encounter

History is up for grabs in the 2022 AFLW Grand Final at Adelaide Oval.

The season decider pits the competition’s most successful club, the Adelaide Crows, against Melbourne. The Crows will be shooting for their third flag in six years, while the Demons aim to become the first club to simultaneously hold the AFL Men’s and Women’s premierships.

The Evolving Crows

The Crows have long been known for their attacking footy, but this year they’ve added defensive steel. They suffocate opposing teams by dominating possession and territory.

The Crows employ a true team defence, and have faith in each component.

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Adelaide likes to play the game in its own half, making it hard for the opposition to score, while also creating opportunities for repeat attacks from turnovers.

ABC Sport AFLW expert Gemma Bastiani says the Crows’ ability to control the ball and field position is critical to their success.

“They create attack from an abundance of opportunities,” Bastiani said.

The Crows are also equipped to launch quick counter-attacks through their skilled ball users such as Chelsea Randall, Sarah Allan and Chelsea Biddell. They’re able to intercept the ball both in the air and on the deck, with Allan’s ground defense in particular proving to be a highlight this season.

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The Crows also have one of the best inside 50 differentials in the competition, giving them more effective scoring opportunities. This puts pressure on opposing teams.

In their match against Melbourne earlier this year, three of their four goals came from turnovers in their attacking half. The other came from a turnover in defensive midfield. This pattern was repeated in their Preliminary Final victory over Fremantle, with four of their seven goals coming from the front half.

When the ball does penetrate their press, no side is better than Adelaide at limiting the damage. The Crows have kept their opponents to the fewest points per inside 50 of any side this year, which is a dramatic improvement on previous seasons. They used to blow sides off the park with their attacking dominance but now they strangle them into submission.

An AFLW player clenches her fist after handballing the ball ahead of her while defenders trail behind her.
Many of the Crows’ goals have come from turnovers in their attacking half of the ground.Getty Images / AFL Photos: Will Russell

“We work together as a unit,” Allan said.

But that’s not to say that their attack has been diminished in any way. Their forward line is led by 2022 AFLW leading goal-kicker Ash Woodland (a former Demon) and two-time AFLW best-and-fairest Erin Phillips. They also have a host of other noted goal-kickers, who are given silver service from the midfield by the likes of Anne Hatchard and Ebony Marinof.

“They average the second-most inside 50s and shots on goal, and also the most marks inside 50,” Bastiani noted.

It was Phillips who did the damage in their meeting earlier this year, breaking the game open with two early goals. Keeping the star Crow quiet will be crucial for the Demons.

Erin Phillips puts her hand on Anne Hatchard's shoulder as the two leave Norwood Oval
Anne Hatchard (left) and Erin Phillips (right) have been consistent for the Crows this year, getting the ball to where it needs to go.Getty Images: Mark Brake

Melbourne’s moving parts

While Adelaide has been the AFLW’s pacesetter, Melbourne’s journey has been punctuated by near misses. The first two seasons of the competition saw the Demons fail to qualify for the finals by percentage only. But after six long years, they’re primed to finally taste success.

Melbourne is led by Daisy Pearce, a player who has achieved nearly everything in the game. Pearce won seven best-and-fairest awards in the VWFL/VFLW – leading to the award being renamed partially in her honour. Pearce claimed her first All-Australian guernsey in 2005 at the age of 16, and her latest this year at the age of 34.

Daisy Pearce shakes hands and smiles with Melbourne Demons teammates after an AFLW win over Richmond.
Demons captain Daisy Pearce (centre) is one of the game’s biggest names and top performers.Getty: Kelly Finale

Pearce knows that getting to the Grand Final is only half the battle.

“It was a great day on Saturday, but we’ve got a bigger job this coming week,” Pearce said earlier this week.

On the field, Pearce is a model of composition and intelligence.

Melbourne coach Mick Stinear uses Pearce like a Swiss Army knife, able to solve whatever problem the team is faced with. Her willingness to accept this role is a sign of her team-first nature.

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If Adelaide’s hallmark this year has been its defence, Melbourne’s has been its attack. The Demons are the most dangerous side in the league when going inside 50.

Boom recruit Tayla Harris has become a key piece in the Demons’ forward line. She will be playing in her third Grand Final for a third different team — all against the Crows. Harris has been the most effective key position forward in the league this year.

Harris leads the competition in contested marks. She’s able to take the ball cleanly from the toughest contests. She causes panic among opposition defenders, forcing them to gravitate towards her, which in turn creates space for her teammates.

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“She’s rarely outmarked. She’s either taking it or bringing it to ground. (Tegan) Cunningham was their previous target but her opponents would often take the mark. It came to ground far less.”

Melbourne also generates a lot of attacking opportunities from its midfield, led by Lauren Pearce. The taller Pearce was named this week in the All-Australian team, which was well-deserved recognition for a dominant season.

“Pearce’s clearance work at the contest is important, but even more important is her positioning after the stoppage,” Bastiani said.

Kate Hore, Lauren Pearce and Eden Zanker hug and smile.
Lauren Pearce (centre) has been dominant in the middle for the Demons this year.AFL Photos via Getty Images: Michael Willson

Lauren Pearce leads the Demons for clearances, but is well supported by a deep midfield that includes Karen Paxman, Tyla Hanks, Eliza West and Lily Mithen. This unit was able to generate three goals from clearances against Brisbane in the preliminary final, which proved to be the difference in a close game.

Regardless of how they win the ball, the Demons look most dangerous when they attack at speed. This forces opposing defenses to answer difficult decisions quickly. Pace was their best weapon in their round four match against Adelaide, and will be crucial to breaking through the Crows’ press.

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“The slow, considered movement in the back half then a willingness to pull the trigger to those runners once they get half way has allowed Melbourne to attack from more reasonable positions inside 50,” said Bastiani.

“They’ve kicked more than 80 per cent of their score this year from practically directly in front, which has improved their accuracy dramatically.”

The battle

In their earlier battle this year, the Crows dominated from the opening bounce, running away 14-point winners at Norwood Oval. Overall, the two sides have split their six AFLW encounters 3-3.

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The grand final shapes as a battle of styles and strengths. In round four, the Crows were able to play the match on their terms and recovered the rewards. If Melbourne can win the ball from stoppages and move it with speed, they’ll like their premiership chances.

In contrast, if the Crows can trap the ball in their half and deny supply to Harris, they’ll have one hand on the cup.

In the classic battle of attack versus defence, which will win out?

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