South Australia’s reaps rewards of long-term development focus

IN the space of four years, South Australia went from battlers to a juggernaut in the female footballing pathway. It is almost incredible to think that in the 2018 AFLW Under 18 Championships, the Croweaters had to combine with Northern Territory to form the Central Allies, and even then, were smashed by the Eastern Allies – NSW-ACT and Tasmania – Vic Country and Vic Metro up on the Gold Coast. Four years on, and it is South Australia who is handing out the smashings, with only Vic Metro coming within 50 points of them at this year’s carnival.

Rewind all the way back to 2018, and South Australian ruck, now Adelaide Crows young gun Montana McKinnon was the sole AFLW Under 18 All-Australian. In 2022, there were seven, with top-age talents Hannah Ewings, Amelie Borg, Sarah Goodwin and Sachi Syme all drafted by Port Adelaide, Keeley Kustermann heading to the Crows, and Matilda Scholz and Georgia McKee set to join them at the top level in 2023 and 2024 respectively.

South Australia’s development program enables the brightest young talents in the competition to play their club football at a senior level. They are more readymade, and, with plenty of current and ex-AFLW players and coaches within the system, the talent coming through the South Australian pathway is more readymade than ever before. The SANFL Women’s itself increased from four teams in its inaugural season, to the full complement of eight sides, and seeing those AFLW players who are not selected for the Crows come back to the state league was one of many reasons why Adelaide has won three flags in six AFL Women’s seasons.

Heading into 2022, South Australia had just the three AFLW Academy members in Ewings, Kustermann and bottom-age star Lauren Young. The fact that South Australia won the AFLW Under 18 Championships without their best future star is credit to the depth of the team, the coaching and development staff. In 2023, Shineah Goody is a monty to make the AFLW Academy and though she missed her chance on playing in the AFLW Under 19 Championships as a 15-year-old like Young did, it was clear she was destined for big thing.

The depth of the South Australian squad was not just in its top-age group, but in its future as well. McKee could well be the top pick in a couple of years, though 2024 is looming as a bumper draft crop and one that every women’s football fan should get excited about. Incredibly, along with McKee, India Rasheed made players up to three years her senior look silly, while Lucy Boyd, Shae Archbold and Charlotte Riggs all received opportunities on the big stage. Two more Under 16s players – Jemma Whitington-Charity and Violet Patterson – did not manage to play a game, but Whitington-Charity dominated the Under 16s carnival in South Australia, taking out the Most Valuable Player (MVP) award.

One aspect of the pathway that might often be overlooked is the success of past graduates making their way into the AFL Women’s. Over the last couple of years, the likes of Rachelle Martin, Amber Ward and Abbie Ballard earned contracts with AFLW clubs after initially missing out, and then this year, Jade Halfpenny and Alex Ballard received their chance. Even Kiera Mueller – a past State Academy representative who missed out on selection in her top-age carnival due to injury – had a massive 2022 and earned a spot as an overager, resulting in her heading to the Crows.

The success of the SANFL Women’s has also attracted players from interstate. Tasmanian Lily Johnson was a shining light for West Adelaide when she took the chance to head to the country’s best state league, and now she will don the teal at Alberton. Subiaco sisters McKenzie and Abbey Dowrick both opted to head to Adelaide, where McKenzie was selected as an injury replacement player for the Crows, then eventually re-drafted, while Abbey ended up on Port Adelaide’s list, which could be a Showdown in more than one way. Regularly players come from interstate to test themselves at SANFL Women’s level, and it is easy to see why, with the success rate of not only drafting, but of sheer improvement to go on to bigger and better things.

South Australia has already been used as a scouting ground for interstate clubs, and expect that to continue into the future as the Croweaters development grows from strength to strength. The state might have only had three players in the AFLW Academy in 2022, but that should at least double for 2023, as it looms to be the team to beat at the 2023 AFLW Under 18 Championships.

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