Bombers' season review: Impressive base established as attack shines

WITH the best record of the four expansion sides, Essendon showed off a potency in attack of which even many established sides were envious. 

Coach Natalie Wood crafted a list that was dominated by established players while also heavily featured VFLW Bombers who won a flag while in the throes of the AFLW pre-season. Despite time constraints and interruptions, the chemistry across the list was evident. 

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

Paige Scott celebrates a goal during Essendon's clash against Geelong in round seven, S7, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

Head coach: Natalie Wood 

Leadership group: Staph Cain, Bonnie Toogood (co-captains), Jacqui Vogt, Georgia Nanscawen 

Ladder position: 10th, four wins and six losses, 98.6% 

Debutants: Olivia Barton, Mia Busch, Amber Clarke, Federica Frew, Alex Morcom, Amelia Radford, Megan Ryan, Paige Scott, Renee Tierney, Mia Van Dyk, Ashleigh Van Loon, Steph Wales, Lily-Rose Williamson (AFLW debut), Sophie Alexander, Daria Bannister, Alana Barba, Steph Cain, Joanne Doonan, Ellyse Gamble, Georgia Gee, Danielle Marshall, Cat Phillips, Maddy Prespakis, Bonnie Toogood, Sophie Van De Heuvel, Jacqui Vogt, Jess Wuetschner, Jordan Zanchetta (club debut) 

Milestones: Steph Cain, Cat Phillips (50 games), Ellyse Gamble, Jacqui Vogt (25 games) 

Rising Star nominations: Paige Scott (round one), Steph Wales (round eight) 

Retirements: TBC 

Steph Wales during Essendon's clash against West Coast in round three, S7, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

Best team performance 

In its round three win over West Coast, Essendon kicked the highest score of any team in its first season (84 points) – and the eighth highest in competition history – on its way to a 52-point victory. 

In their third AFLW game, Steph Wales and Paige Scott each kicked three goals, while experienced campaigners Daria Bannister, Maddy Prespakis and Jess Wuetschner each kicked two. With such a spread of goalkickers, the Bombers were simply unstoppable in attack. 

It was a cohesive performance as a full unit, with that spread of impact not only clear up forward, but around the ground five different players won 15 or more disposals, and the side used the ball at a season-high 67.7 per cent efficiency.

AFLW S7 Highlights: West Coast v Essendon

05:57 Sep 11. 2022. 8:08 PM

The Eagles and Bombers clash in round three of the 2022 NAB AFL Women's Competition

Best individual performance 

Sophie Alexander's showing against Sydney in round eight was the dominant performance in attack that Essendon needed when it was really challenged. 

With 16 disposals at 75 per cent efficiency, five tackles, four inside 50s and two goals – all career-best metrics for the forward who was playing her 39th game – Alexander set her side up brilliantly in the forward half. 

It was the strength and intent that Alexander has been threatening over the course of her career, and when it finally broke through it proved to be game changing. 

Alexander gets Bombers off to a flyer

00:37 Oct 15. 2022. 4:25 PM

Sophie Alexander slots through this beautiful running goal to give her side the perfect start to the third term

Most improved 

Daria Bannister made her claim as one of the best small forwards in the competition this season. With her elite footwork making her tough to defend, Bannister has a knack of kicking goals from tricky positions and has an impact in key moments of games. 

Kicking a career-best eight goals, Bannister averaged 10.7 disposals, 2.7 marks and 3.2 score involvements. She is smart and works well at the feet of Essendon's taller, marking forwards, but can also reliably take strong marks herself. 

More Bannister brilliance brings another

00:48 Oct 30. 2022. 2:36 PM

Daria Bannister gets her second goal with a terrific snap finish

Star recruit 

It's hard to go past Maddy Prespakis who not only took out Essendon's first ever best and fairest award, but was also named in the All-Australian team for the third time. What Prespakis does especially well as a midfielder is impact the contest, then push forward and kick goals. 

Improving the defensive side of her game made Prespakis more dangerous than ever, averaging a career-high 4.9 tackles to go with her personal best 23.7 disposals, 4.7 clearances and 3.4 intercepts. 

Maddy Prespakis in action during round eight, season seven, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

Unsung hero 

Essendon's first draft pick, Amber Clarke, had a big impact on the side this season, playing every game as an outside midfielder/half forward. In a role that relies heavily on a player's discipline and footy smarts, Clarke added a lot to the Bombers in terms of structure and support for the strong onball group. 

While she wasn't a super flashy player and didn't necessarily get a lot of the ball, averaging 9.5 disposals, it was what she did with those opportunities that was important. Her classy ball use and attacking mindset resulted in an average 214.1 metres gained, 1.6 inside 50s and two score involvements across the season, and all of that while still just 17 years old.  

Amber Clarke in action during Essendon's clash against Brisbane in round six, S7, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

What went well 

In the attacking half Essendon looked like a dominant side, able to link the strength of the midfield – led by Prespakis – with an overflowing forward line. The Bombers averaged 27.1 inside 50s per game, which lands right in the middle of the competition this season, but once in attack they were the fourth best side at generating shots on goal. 

From this, they averaged the third-best goal efficiency of the season, goaling from 18.1 per cent of their inside 50s, behind only grand finalists Melbourne and Brisbane. Their versatile mix of players up forward, including Daria Bannister, co-captain Bonnie Toogood, Paige Scott and Sophie Alexander, makes them dangerous in various ways while also using some of those forwards through other parts of the ground sporadically. 

Boonie Toogood celebrates a goal against Port Adelaide in round 10 of S7. Picture: AFL Photos

What needs improvement 

At the other end of the ground, Essendon did get exposed at times, particularly when key defender Ellyse Gamble was unavailable through injury. In terms of tall stocks, Meg Ryan was the next option for coach Natalie Wood, but Ryan is raw and focused more on her ruck craft so that move wasn't overly successful.  

Dani Marshall and Mia Van Dyk were also used in those key defensive roles, but don't quite have the reach of Gamble and other tall key backs across the competition. Because of these thinner defensive stocks, the Bombers conceded a goal from 17.4 per cent of their inside 50s conceded and allowed the opposition to take 5.5 marks inside 50 per game. 

Ellyse Gamble in action during Essendon's clash against Carlton in round two, S7, 2022. Picture: Getty Images

Off-season focus 

From here, continuing to build from the impressive base set up this season is likely Essendon's biggest priority. Given what the side was able to establish in such a short period of time, the potential for growth from this start is huge, and much of that is about finding that consistency in attacking ball movement against better sides that are adept at taking away their assets. 

In terms of player recruitment, bringing in more support for that emerging backline should be the focal point during the off-season.