Panthers prepare for youth focus “rebuild”

AS the most successful team in South Australian National Football League (SANFL) Women’s history, South Adelaide Women’s has a different focus this year. Off the back of a number of departures due to various reasons, returning Panthers head coach Rick Watts said said the 2022 season would be more of a “traditional rebuild”.

“We had a large turnover of players, mainly due to pregnancy and a couple through other unavailabilities so that’s kind of thrown us out of whack a little bit,” Watts said. “We’ve got four girls who are pregnant at the moment or on maternity leave, and we had a girl unfortunately do her ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) and a couple of others who had to leave due to their work, prioritising work over football.

“It’s left us in a little bit of a challenging situation, especially comparatively to other teams. “But outside of that, we’re pretty happy with how the rest of the preseason gone outside of losing a few players.”

Though the Panthers have strong ties to the AFL Women’s competition having supplied a high volume of players to the Crows through the draft, Watts admitted there would not be much time for the “eight to 10” elite level players to return to the club, or those that do would be late in the season. Instead, the South Adelaide coach said the side would “heavily focus” on local talent and young players coming through the Panthers’ pathway.

“We’ve been up the top, we’ve made finals every year, we’ve won a couple of grand finals, we’ve made another one and lost by a kick,” Watts said. “I think this year is probably our turn to learn and develop and grow and probably not take the wins and loss columns as a reflection of how hard we’re working. “But we’ve always focused heavily on development, so this year’s another good opportunity to do that and get some really good minutes into our young and inexperienced players.”


South Adelaide has played two trial matches in the lead-up to the 2022 SANFL Women’s season, taking on last year’s minor premiers Norwood, as well as the young and exciting Sturt.

“We played Norwood first and they really touched us up early and then we came late and kicked 2.8 in the last quarter and made the game really competitive,” Watts said. “Then we played Sturt on Saturday and they have so many young, enthusiastic and powerful girls in their squad, they really bounced us from the start. “We were really competitive, they got on top of us and outscored us and beat us by two or three goals.”

Watts said the matches had given the coaching staff a “bit of a reality check” and that the largely fresh-faced playing group would be still “finding our feet” for a while. With Round 1 just days away, Watts said he wanted the team to put in a competitive effort each and every week, and stick to the gameplan.

“We’re really coming into this weekend with the understanding that we need to play our best footy and play our best style of footy even to be competitive this year,” he said. “We’re under no illusions where we’re at this year. “We understand this year that probably premierships isn’t going to be our focus, our focus is going to be that the girls understand our gamestyle and our gameplan to every game that we play. “We really just want to be competitive this year and it’s not about us focusing on premierships or even finals we’re just wanting to be competitive in each game that we play.”


Despite having a largely new-look playing group, Watts said he still wanted the Panthers to play with the famous “expansive game” that had made South so successful over the journey. A change in rules to reduce the on-field numbers back to 16-a-side would enable that, but he also realised that it would put more pressure on turnovers in the defensive half. Watts conceded that the playing group was still looking to improve its footy IQ of the style.

“We’re still working with them (playing group), they’re still new to it, and there’s a lot of change and turnover of our players,” Watts said. “We’re still understanding our ball movement and we’re probably in our two practice matches that we’ve had, we’ve been cutting off a little too much, change lanes and move the footy aggressively a little too much and getting scored heavily against because of that, but it’s a real positive that the girls are able to understand that we want to move the footy fast, we want to get it to space, we want to use the outnumber.”


The SANFL Women’s has adopted a new 16-a-side rule and increased quarters by three minutes. Instead of playing 17-minute flat quarters, the total game time will increase from 68 minutes to 80 minutes, with 20-minute flat terms. Watts said the changes had been noticeable during the trial games.

“The 16-a-side has really opened the game up and plus 20 minutes, the added three minutes, we’ve noticed scoring especially late in the game, I think in the last quarter there was three goals in the last three minutes of our game, and most quarters there were late scores put on,” Watts said. “Just because of the fatigue level and teams being able to open up the ground and open up the field, and one less in each arc or two less players in each arc really opens up the game, and hopefully will make it more exciting and more high scoring.”

The other major change to the competition was the addition of a reserves grade, known as the Development League. Previously players had to go back to local clubs, or for the first half of the season, rely on training performances without any match fitness to earn a spot or a recall in the senior side. Now the teams will be able to see how they fare against their gameday opponents’ reserves side, something that Watts describes as “absolutely fantastic”.

“The timing’s probably just right and I think it really gives us coaches and opportunity to get games into girls who are just on the cusp on making our senior team, and those developing girls as well,” Watts said. “I feel that the last two or three years have been really challenging to coach because of not being able to support those girls and give them opportunities and having to tell them each week ‘just wait your turn, your time will come’ and now being able to have those girls play and show us their wares is absolutely fantastic. “The Development League from our perspective even if it’s only the six or seven games is absolutely fantastic and those girls can flow back to their local team.”


Though 2022 might be a rebuilding year from the Panthers’ perspective, there are still plenty of talented players to keep an eye on. Watts flagged that utility Lauren Clifton would move forward, a role she took up with both the Port Adelaide Academy and South Australia’s state team at the AFL Women’s Under 19s Championships. Alongside her inside 50 is former Glenelg player Jess Waterhouse. The cousin of Fremantle’s Clive, Waterhouse is one who could really step up as a mature-age recruit.

“She’s been fantastic for us up forward, and she’s got a lethal kick on her, uses her left and right side really well, and can probably kick about 40-50 metres, so really damaging in our competition,” Watts said of the soon-to-be 25-year-old.

Another new face who has joined the program from a mature-age perspective is Nari Wright. Watts said she had already caught the eye and was quite buoyant about what she could produce.

“She’s been absolutely fantastic for us,” he said. We found her through our local competitions and she was probably our best on ground in our practice match on the weekend. We’ve absolutely found a gem in her.”

As for the teenage portion of the list, Watts said there was “a lot to choose from”, and selected a couple of keep in mind for future years. The first was Shae Archibald who slotted three goals in the trial matches and though she still has plenty to learn is a raw talent.

“She’s a local talent from Willlunga. Left footer, really strongly built forward who was pivotal in Willlunga’s premiership campaign this year, and already she’s shown for us and she’s ready to go Round 1,” Watts said. We played a practice match and she bobbed up with a couple of goals and the week before she kicked 1.3 I think it was. So she’s got a fair bit to learn, but she;’s really a prospect of the future.”

The other is Esther Schirmer, the sister of former AFLW Academy member and current South Adelaide talent, Gypsy Schirmer. Though only turning 15 last year, Schirmer is another one who has plenty of time to develop, and looks set to get a role straight into the midfield.

“She’s only 15, she’s through change of personnel has bobbed up as an inside mid for us, and she’s really showing that she can match it with the best of them,” Watts said. “The last two games we’ve thrown her onto the wing, and then right into the mix on the weekend as an inside mid, and she’s really powerful, really strong, a real competitor, really fantastic tackling and great skills and great decision making, so she’s another one we’re really buoyed with working through our junior program.”

South Adelaide locks horns with Central District on Saturday from 12:50pm at X Convenience Oval.

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