Survival plan: How the Lions and Dees flourished amid expansion

FOR MOST clubs, last May was the AFLW's signing spree.

But rather than splash their clash on shiny imports from rival teams, Brisbane and Melbourne set about retention as their primary focus. The importance of that strategy has been felt through the entirety of the season, culminating in their Grand Final berths on Sunday.

While the majority of existing clubs felt the full brunt of four expansion teams entering the competition and pillaging their lists for foundation players, the Lions and the Demons survived virtually unscathed.

The result has been dominant campaigns where both finished with impeccable 9-1 records, separated atop the AFLW ladder by just 0.3 percent at season's end, and have each comfortably navigated their respective finals series.

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That's not to say clubs didn't try to nab their best players. Brisbane, in particular, was the early target of a rival raid ahead of the biggest expansion sign and trade period in the competition's short history.

Hawthorn and Sydney both made lucrative offers for last season's AFLW Best and Fairest in Emily Bates, while Carlton and a host of expansion teams made a significant push for important Irish star Orla O'Dwyer.

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Nat Grider, Greta Bodey and Jade Ellenger were also at the centre of rival bids throughout the player movement window, but ultimately chose to have yet another crack at premiership success with the Lions.

Melbourne, too, had close shaves with certain players. There had been fleeting nerves among Demons officials that Kate Hore could accept an offer from the Swans, while young forward Alyssa Bannan also attracted expansion interest.

Alyssa Bannan celebrates a goal during the qualifying final between Melbourne and Adelaide on November 4, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

Clubs, both expansion and existing, enquired about a handful of other Melbourne players and their willingness to change colours. However, the majority of those conversations were knocked on their head before discussions could progress any further.

Speaking to before a ball had been kicked this season, Daisy Pearce played down her part in player retention at the Demons. But while the club's captain might not have a direct role in persuading individuals to stay, it's said her influence among the group is a key reason most eventually choose to reject rival overtures.

The on and off-field structure provided by Pearce and coach Mick Stinear – and similarly at the Lions where long-time senior figures like coach Craig Starcevich and captain Breanna Koenen, as well as leadership group members like Bates, Grider and Kate Lutkins – are viewed externally as being the benchmark of the competition.

Elsewhere, clubs in their premiership window suffered as a result of the AFLW's four new kids on the block. Reigning premier Adelaide lost Erin Phillips who, despite turning 37 this year, still kicked nearly 20 per cent of the side's goals in the two seasons prior to her departure. She accepted an offer from local rival Port Adelaide.

Erin Phillips in action during round nine, season seven, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

North Melbourne then lost Daria Bannister to Essendon, Aileen Gilroy and Kaitlyn Ashmore to Hawthorn, and Daisy Bateman to the Western Bulldogs in a blow to the Kangaroos' hopes of challenging for the title.

Fremantle lost Steph Cain to Essendon and Gemma Houghton to Port Adelaide, Collingwood lost Sophie Alexander to Essendon and Amelia Velardo to Carlton, while the Blues themselves lost a host of star talent including Maddy Prespakis, Georgia Gee, Nic Stevens, Charlotte Wilson and Grace Egan among others.

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Such has been Brisbane and Melbourne's overwhelming dominance throughout the campaign, conversation has naturally turned to equalisation and whether the competition would have benefited from both ultimately losing a handful of their stars to struggling expansion teams and some middling existing sides.

But that viewpoint overlooks a series shrewd recruiting moves both clubs have made over a sustained period to put each in the position to target success both on Sunday and in the long-term.

Megan Fitzsimon and Lily Mithen celebrates a goal in the S7 preliminary final between Melbourne and North Melbourne at Ikon Park. Picture: Getty Images

The Lions, for example, rely on the structure provided by players like Phoebe Monahan and Taylor Smith. Both have played every game for the club this season, having previously been delisted by Richmond and Gold Coast respectively.

The Demons, meanwhile, have built their playing group by nailing later picks in the more heavily populated Victorian pool of the NAB AFLW Draft. Tahlia Gillard and Megan Fitzsimon were both third-round selections, Maeve Chaplin was taken with a pick in the 40s, while Shelley Heath dropped to the fourth round. They are just some of the diamonds Melbourne has plucked from the fire.

Both teams' success in finding prospects overlooked multiple times by rival clubs, and then retaining those players when interest forms elsewhere, has been realised this season. For one, it will result in a premiership by Sunday afternoon.

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