'A new norm': AFLW skippers celebrate burgeoning game at season launch

FOURTEEN clubs and their leaders came together on Tuesday to celebrate the start of the fourth AFLW season, fuelled by the news female participation in the game is at an all-time high.

As the expanded season and its opening game between Richmond and Carlton on Friday night nears, the buzz surrounding AFLW could be heard across Melbourne University at the competition's official launch.

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In an atmospheric presentation underneath the University's grounds, captains were unveiled and intentions declared; North Melbourne the skippers' favourite to set the competition's pace.

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Watch AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan's speech during the launch of the fourth NAB ALFW season

And, after the formalities ended and eyes turned towards Friday night's Ikon Park blockbuster, the AFL head of women's football Nicole Livingstone said last year's figures showed over half a million women and girls nationwide (around 587,000) are now participating in Australian Rules.

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It's a timely revelation, given four new teams – Gold Coast, Richmond, St Kilda and West Coast – will enter the league for the first time this season.

"It changes the competition by having more opportunities for more women," Livingstone said, of the expanded fixture.

"It's really exciting for us. We now have 420 women playing the game and at our induction camp recently we had 147 new to AFLW.

"To see the amount of support there is for women's football … we're creating a new norm.

"The face of AFL, Australian football, is changing, it has changed forever and women now play an integral role in Australian football, which is really pleasing and we're really proud of it."

You didn't have to look far for inspiration at the morning launch.

Adelaide's Chelsea Randall represented the premiers despite a November knee injury ruling her out for the season, and fielded more questions about her co-captain Erin Phillips' chances of playing in round one than about herself.

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Melbourne skipper Daisy Pearce spoke of how she was set to embrace the challenge of returning to a stronger competition after giving birth to twins Sylvie and Roy last year.

"I've had my doubts at times and questioned whether I was kidding myself to try and get back and play with everything else going on at home," Pearce said.

"But once I get to the club and get into the session and now that I'm here, it's been worth it because it's a great outlet and something I really love.

The returning Daisy Pearce stands surrounded by the 2020 AFLW captains. Picture: AFL Photos

"What inspired me and motivated me to get back was that I wanted to be part of the competition now it's at this level and see if I'm still up to it.

"I'm not afraid of that, it's kind of what I love about it."

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The launch was attended by the clubs' coaches and their hierarchies, AFL figures including CEO Gillon McLachlan and AFLPA CEO Paul Marsh, and key members of the media.

As the interest in AFLW booms, the inevitable question about when the remaining four clubs without women's teams – Hawthorn, Essendon, Port Adelaide and Sydney – will be given a passage into the league.

Livingstone said while it remained the "ideal" goal, building a "sustainable" competition was the priority over further expansion.

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"There's plenty of examples of leagues going too big, too quickly and not surviving," she said.

"I think it's really important for us to embed these four [new] clubs.

"What we found going from eight to 10 is that there are some things the clubs need to get used to, the players need to get used to … these are professional environments.

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"The other clubs are very keen to get involved in AFLW and we continue that dialogue with them, but it's important for us to get these 14 clubs thriving and firing and the 2020 season to be successful.

"While I understand more clubs see the value in AFLW, right now we're settled at 14 clubs and want to make sure we can get them away really well in 2020."

Former GWS captain Amanda Farrugia was named as this year's premiership cup ambassador; a role held by Jan Cooper in 2019.