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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Rana Hussain

AFLW’s first dynasty is born as Crows reap rewards of investment

Erin Phillips, Ebony Marinoff, Danielle Ponter, Marijana Rajcic, Stevie-Lee Thompson and Nikki Gore of the Crows celebrate with fans after the AFLW grand final at Adelaide Oval.
Erin Phillips, Ebony Marinoff, Danielle Ponter, Marijana Rajcic, Stevie-Lee Thompson and Nikki Gore of the Crows celebrate with fans after the AFLW grand final at Adelaide Oval. Photograph: Dylan Burns/AFL Photos/Getty Images

A third premiership won on Saturday by the Adelaide Crows, who now boast more trophies than the club’s men’s side, is just reward for their investment in women’s football, the ability to retain star players and the importance of sound leadership.

Adelaide were amongst the first AFL clubs to feature in the inaugural AFLW season – beneficiaries of the hard work of Gina Dutschke and others who established women’s football in the state after founding the South Australian women’s football league in 1990. Many doubted the state’s ability to produce a quality women’s side when the AFL announced plans to fast track a competition in 2016 and there were legitimate concerns over the talent pool, but Adelaide began building their pathway programs in 2015 and 2016 in collaboration with the SANFL.

By March 2017, the Crows were featuring in the AFLW’s first grand final, where they started as underdogs against the undefeated Brisbane Lions, but emerged as champions. It was their first foray into footy folklore – the first ever premiers of the AFLW.

After a disappointing fifth-placed finish the next year, Adelaide surged back to prominence in 2019 under the leadership of new coach Mathew Clarke and a second premiership arrived in 2019 following a 45-point grand final victory over Carlton.

The win was marred by a heartbreaking ACL injury for Erin Phillips. In a game where she played only three quarters, Phillips still managed to win best on ground and with it came confirmation that not only was she a champion of the game but also the key to Adelaide’s enduring success. The success of 2019 was the first sign a legacy was brewing in South Australia.

Strong leadership, the envy of the league, has been a feature for this side since the inception of the league, after captain Chelsea Randall and Phillips were both recruited as marquee players for the inaugural season. “In those formative years,” coach Mathew Clarke says, “Erin and Chelsea drove the culture and the standards and taught the players how to be professional … how to be good.”

The most obvious testament to the duo’s work ethic is their journey back to a grand final, having both missed last year’s defeat to Brisbane. If pre-game steely stares and post-match interviews are anything to go by, it seems for Randall delivering her team a third premiership was the completion of significant unfinished business. And for Phillips, perhaps closure.

A potential departure to Port Adelaide for Phillips brings some melancholy to an otherwise euphoric moment. With three premierships under her belt, Philips could well be looking for a new challenge at a club where her father, Greg, played; a club where she can build yet another legacy, this time perhaps off the field. Intriguingly, a move to Port will provide an answer to the question many have asked over the past six years – who are the Crows without Erin Philips?

Anne Hatchard was best-on-ground in the 2022 AFLW grand final.
Anne Hatchard was best-on-ground in the 2022 AFLW grand final. Photograph: Dylan Burns/AFL Photos/Getty Images

In a league where consistency across fixtures, season starts and playing groups continues to prove elusive, the steadiness and maturity of experienced players such as Randall and Phillips have been crucial. As has continuity, with the Crows managing to also retain to date, Ebony Marinoff, Justine Mules, Stevie-Lee Thompson and Saturday’s best-on-ground Anne Hatchard – all now triple-premiership players. Whether it be the early investment, their ability to manage a stellar list, the fight to come back from injuries or the team’s strong culture, the Crows have set the benchmark for the heights an AFLW side can achieve.

For the Demons, there was triumph in making it to their first grand final. For Adelaide, it was clear they were playing for bonafide success, the kind that’s etched in stone. On Saturday, the Crows took their moment yet again and while many inaugural teams and their champions deservedly have the word “trailblazer” attached to their names, it is Adelaide alone who can claim the word “dynasty” – for now.

The true test for the Crows may still be ahead of them with cross-town rivals Port Adelaide entering the league alongside the other three remaining clubs. For the first time South Australia will field two AFLW sides, which will see both clubs competing for talent and membership base. The Crows are now faced with a potentially damaging sign and trade period where new clubs will eye off their premiership talent.

Regardless, after a dream run to date, Adelaide’s future success now hinges on their ability to both retain star players, develop new talent and ensure there is the kind of belief in the Crows’ brand of women’s footy that wards off up and coming sides eager to replicate their dominance. For now though, the Crows have a few months of basking in the triumph that has cemented their position as the force to be reckoned with in the league’s most groundbreaking era.

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