Precision, pace, power: How the Demons won the Grand Final

ON SUNDAY, Melbourne won its first AFLW premiership after getting agonisingly close to that ultimate success in recent seasons. Coming up against the powerhouse that is Brisbane, the Demons played a strategic game with buy-in from each and every player to get the job done.  

No one decision or plan won Melbourne its first flag; instead it was the culmination of several small choices throughout the course of the game. 

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Take away Brisbane's territory game 

This season the Lions have been one of the most prolific attacking sides in AFLW history, averaging 52.5 points from 36.6 inside 50s per game. In partnership with this, tackles inside 50 have been an indicator of Brisbane's success throughout the season, averaging a record 17 per game. 

Against Melbourne on Sunday, however, it was able to kick just 15 points from 19 inside 50s - Brisbane's lowest inside-50 count since round five, 2019 - and laid 10 tackles in the forward arc. Seven of those 19 inside 50s, and eight of their 10 tackles inside 50, were registered in the opening quarter where the Lions kicked their only two goals of the game.  

In that first term, the Lions were able to exit stoppages - particularly centre stoppages - cleanly from the front, immediately getting the ball into the attacking half and locking it in there.  

They were playing the Brisbane way. 

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Brisbane earns the opening major of the Grand Final after a solid mark and set shot from gun forward Dakota Davidson

From quarter-time onward, Melbourne took this away from Brisbane, suffocating the latter's ability to score as freely. 

Running wingers like Sophie Conway, Orla O'Dwyer and Jade Ellenger are vital in the way the Lions move the ball, but in order to best utilise the trio they need to transition from inside the contest to space on the outside. So, the first port of call for the Demons was to prevent Brisbane from getting the ball to that outside space. 

As a result, almost a third of Conway, O'Dwyer and Ellenger's combined uncontested possessions came in the opening quarter, as that uncontested ball became much harder to come by after that. 

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Key to trapping the ball inside the contest was forcing Cathy Svarc to play a far more defensive role. Svarc had a powerful opening quarter, driving the Lions with five disposals, four tackles and three clearances to the first break. Afterwards, however, Svarc registered just two more disposals and zero clearances, but laid a whopping 12 more tackles. 

This was largely thanks to Demon Tyla Hanks spending more time marking Svarc, not necessarily in a lockdown tag, but just paying a little more attention to Svarc's movements around stoppages. 

By taking away Svarc's ability to clear the ball with speed and strength, Melbourne was able to slow the Lions' movement into attack and, in turn, take away the territory control the home side had found in the first quarter. 

Olivia Purcell knocks the ball away from Cathy Svarc during the S7 Grand Final between Melbourne and Brisbane at Brighton Homes Arena on November 27, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

Force stagnant play 

On the stats sheet, Brisbane's 43 marks - 16 more than Melbourne on the day - suggests the Lions had control of the ball around the ground and, typically, this would be a fair assessment. On Sunday, however, those marking numbers were an indicator of the Demons forcing more stagnant movement from Brisbane. 

The Lions were able to take marks in the defensive half and switch the ball with ease, but when it came to moving higher up the ground, Melbourne refused them opportunities to play on with any kind of speed, instead forcing Brisbane to move back off the mark and kick long to contests. 

Despite the heat, Melbourne's fitness and will to shut down space and even if unable to win the one-on-one, the ability to slow play and give its defence time to set up proved key to limiting Brisbane. 

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Speed in attack 

After last season's Grand Final loss, Melbourne coach Mick Stinear noted that he was too late in adding more speed in attack - Irishwoman Sinead Goldrick graduated to the forward line in the final quarter against Adelaide.  

This time around, Stinear loaded up his front half with speed in the second quarter, completely changing the dynamic against a stoic Brisbane defence. 

With Alyssa Bannan, Casey Sherriff, Blaithin Mackin and Goldrick each spending plenty of time in the front half and on the wing, the Demons worked hard to create space inside 50 for their speedsters to run on to. 

Brisbane defenders Nat Grider and Phoebe Monahan both worked well alongside those runners in defence, but it ultimately wasn't enough to combat all the leg speed the Demons brought, particularly when so much space was created close to goal. 

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Quick thinking 

Part of Melbourne's mindset of backing itself in is about making quick decisions and executing. There is no second-guessing, once a choice is made action is taken, and no player represents this mindset better than Tyla Hanks. 

An inside midfielder, Hanks is able to find plenty of separation from her opponent and space outside the contest thanks to her quick thinking. Hanks spent much of the game going head-to-head with Brisbane's most dangerous midfielders - rotating against Svarc, Emily Bates and Ally Anderson - and repeatedly moved through or away from those opponents with relative ease. 

The Demon finished the game with 230 metres gained from 14 disposals, three inside 50s and three score involvements because of that readiness to be on the move and commit to quick decisions, often leaving her Lions opponents trailing or giving up on the chase all together. 

Tyla Hanks tackles Sophie Conway during the S7 AFLW Grand Final between Melbourne and Brisbane at Brighton Homes Arena on November 27, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

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Considered match-ups 

Neither side committed to many one-on-one match-ups throughout the game, instead backing in their tried and tested systems. There were, however, two key battles that raged for the duration that proved crucial. 

In a reprise of recent games between Brisbane and Melbourne, the dangerous Courtney Hodder was marked by quick lockdown defender Shelley Heath. Held to just four disposals - her second-lowest tally of the season - Hodder struggled to get involved in the game after three tackles in the opening quarter. 

The benefit for Melbourne was that when Hodder was sent up around the ball in the second half to see what sort of impact she might be able to have, Heath was able to go with her after time spent through the middle of the ground at various times this season. 

Another vital direct match-up for Melbourne was emerging key defender Tahlia Gillard on the season's leading goalkicker Jesse Wardlaw. Standing at 190cm - the equal-tallest player in the competition - Gillard's exceptional reach made life difficult for Wardlaw all day. Able to repeatedly spoil the ball out of Wardlaw's grasp, Gillard held the Lion goalless for the first time all season. 

Tahlia Gillard in action during the S7 AFLW Grand Final between Melbourne and Brisbane at Brighton Homes Arena on November 30, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

Not only was she able to suffocate Wardlaw close to goal, but Gillard moved up the field with ease, winning the ball at ground level and never looked panicked even when surrounded by Lions. 

The young Demon finished the game with nine one-percenters - just two off the AFLW record - to go with her five disposals and four intercepts. 

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It was just four points separating the sides on the scoreboard at the end of the day, emblematic of the arm wrestle that played out between the two best sides in the competition.

And several small, clever decisions by Melbourne were the reason those in the red and blue finished the season with medallions around their necks.