Blues' season review: Key departures, injuries make wins hard to come by

IT WAS a tough season for Carlton. In an AFLW first, back-to-back draws in rounds three and four proved just how elusive wins were for the side as it attempted to rebuild amidst significant injury concerns.

Something else the Blues did for the first time was enjoy goals from each of their 50-gamers in milestone games, with Jess Dal Pos, Breann Moody, Elise O'Dea, Kerryn Peterson, Gab Pound and Darcy Vescio all joining in on the party.

Over the next few weeks, womens.afl will look at each of the 18 AFLW teams' season's in reverse ladder order.

O'Dea starts off 50th game in perfect style

00:29 Sep 11. 2022. 12:27 PM

Elise O'Dea calmly slots this set shot to give her side the first major in her 50th AFLW game

Head coach: Daniel Harford

Leadership group: Kerryn Peterson (captain), Jess Dal Pos, Darcy Vescio (vice-captains), Mimi Hill, Breann Moody Lucy McEvoy (emerging)

Ladder position: 14th, two wins, two draws and six losses, 74.0 per cent

Debutants: Mia Austin, Keeley Skepper, Imogen Milford, Lily Goss, Taylor Ortlepp (AFLW debut), Christina Bernardi, Phoebe McWilliams, Amelia Velardo (club debut)

Milestones: Jess Dal Pos, Breann Moody, Elise O'Dea, Kerryn Peterson, Gab Pound, Darcy Vescio (50 games), Lucy McEvoy, Abbie McKay, Brooke Walker, Daisy Walker (25 games)

Rising Star nominations: Keeley Skepper (round four)

Retirements: TBC

Skepper scores spectacular goal as Blues steal back lead

01:02 Oct 14. 2022. 7:46 PM

Keeley Skepper kicks a brilliant snapping goal to wrestle back the lead for Carlton

Best team performance

After a spluttering start to the season, Carlton put up its best performance in round seven against St Kilda, where it won by 27 points. Its 44 points was the highest of the season, and that came as a result of controlled, attacking play.

The Blues took 47 marks, got the ball inside 50 42 times, and laid 25 tackles in their attacking arc, enjoying territory dominance for one of the very few times in season seven.

It was largely led by Carlton's experienced contingent. Captain Kerryn Peterson continued her important role on the wing, Jess Dal Pos kicked a Goal of the Year contender from deep in the forward pocket, and noted goalkicker Darcy Vescio played a brilliant role in defence.

Added to this, Breann Moody played her best game of her second All-Australian season, bullying St Kilda's depleted tall division, kicking two goals and winning 22 hitouts.

AFLW S7 Highlights: St Kilda v Carlton

04:26 Oct 7. 2022. 8:24 PM

The Saints and Blues clash in round seven of the 2022 NAB AFL Women's Competition

Best individual performance

After an unfortunate pre-season shoulder injury had ruled emerging youngster Lucy McEvoy out of the first half of the season, she was a shock round one selection - and would go on to play every game of the season.

Not only was McEvoy a surprise selection, but she was Carlton's best against Collingwood in the season opener, working exceptionally hard out of defence, intercepting well, and repelling the ball back out.

McEvoy won 24 disposals and used it at 70.8 per cent efficiency, laid six tackles and won 10 intercepts. It was a strong start to a strong season that was played under duress - both physically as she carried that pre-season shoulder concern, and down back in a team whose defence was under consistent pressure.

Lucy McEvoy in action during Carton's S7 round one clash with Collingwood at Ikon Park. Picture: AFL Photos

Most improved

Abbie McKay was not only Carlton's most improved player, but one of the most improved players across the competition this season. That was rewarded by her second place in Carlton's best and fairest award, behind only midfield star Mimi Hill.

Seeing an opportunity that opened up after some off-season player movement, McKay became a first-choice inside midfielder. She averaged 20.7 disposals (+6.9 compared to last season), 7.4 tackles (+4.1) and 4.8 clearances (+2.6).

Above all, McKay's work rate was what came to the fore, with her willingness to work both defensively and in attack that set the Blues up well at the contest, and the partnership with Hill made both young midfielders better.

Star recruit

Taken with pick No.17 in the draft, Carlton's first selection, Keeley Skepper showed sparks of something special across her nine games. As a midfielder/winger who spent plenty of time up forward, Skepper kicked three goals from her average 10.9 disposals, 2.7 inside 50s and 2.7 tackles.

Deservingly earning a Rising Star nomination for her round four performance against Fremantle, where she registered 384 metres from her 14 disposals, Skepper gave Carlton fans a glimpse at what is to come from the still-teen.

Skepper, a midfielder in her junior days, offers run and carry and line breaking when playing higher up the field, and will no doubt develop a formidable core at the Blues alongside Hill, McKay, McEvoy and Mia Austin in the coming seasons.

Skilful Skepper steals a ripper

00:48 Oct 7. 2022. 6:40 PM

Keeley Skepper kicks the opening goal of the game with this brilliant finish coming from a perfect steal

Unsung hero

While Breann Moody made the All-Australian team for the second time in her career, it was second ruck Jess Good who played an important supporting role this season. In just her second season - and first year - of footy, Good took on the varying roles handed to her and dug in.

This was most evident in round nine where she was thrown into defence against Gold Coast and played the best game of her young career. Using her 15 disposals at 73.3 per cent efficiency, Good won five intercepts and four clearances while also registering 12 hitouts as supporting ruck.

Her quick, neat hands out of the contest have also proven to be valuable when playing forward, setting up teammates for scoring opportunities, and her impact will only continue to grow as she settles further into AFLW.

Jess Good and Rebecca Ott compete in the ruck in the S7 round seven clash between St Kilda and Carlton at RSEA Park. Picture: AFL Photos

What went well

Coming into the season there was a general consensus that Carlton would struggle around the ball given the loss of both Maddy Prespakis and Grace Egan. That, however, proved to be unfounded as Mimi Hill and Abbie McKay got to work in the midfield and led the side to an average of 24.4 clearances per game - the sixth most across the competition. This strength was established even with emerging midfielder Maddy Guerin tearing her ACL in the Blues' round three draw with Port Adelaide.

While Carlton did get hit hard by injuries - especially in attack - the lack of player availability forced coach Daniel Harford to experiment with players in different roles which proved fruitful. Kerryn Peterson showed what she was made of up on the wing, assisting around the ball and providing leadership up the field. Darcy Vescio used their clean skills and contested marking ability to bolster the defence. Gab Pound offered structure and unpredictability ahead of the ball.

Although likely a stop gap with significant numbers of players unavailable, that newfound versatility has set the Blues up well to build into next season.

Darcy Vescio in action during round two, season seven, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

What needs improvement

The biggest blight on Carlton's game this season was an inability to firstly get the ball forward, and secondly generate shots on goal once inside 50. Averaging 27 inside 50s per game - the eighth fewest in the competition - Carlton scored from just 30 per cent of those entries, the lowest in competition history.

While yes, some of that was a result of injuries to forward targets Mia Austin and Phoebe McWilliams which caused a lack of cohesion ahead of the ball, but the Blues simply could not find a solution to the personnel problem.

Both Serena Gibbs and Imogen Milford were tried in those key post roles but weren't able to take charge inside 50, and with no key forward options to work at the feet of, players like Darcy Vescio weren't as potent as they have been in the past.

Mia Austin in action during Carlton's clash against Essendon in round two, S7. Picture: Getty Images

Off-season focus

Carlton is at a stage where growing its young contingent as a cohesive group is at the top of the priority list. Working on getting those players working well together will be the biggest improver for the Blues heading into season eight.

In terms of recruitment, finding another developing forward to create a partnership with young key Mia Austin will serve Carlton well for the long term.