Heartbreak is a privilege in 2021, and AFLW finals are gripping devastation

Heartbreak is part and parcel of finals football. At least, for Fremantle and North Melbourne, heartbreak, losing an AFLW qualifying final is a better brand of heartbreak than having not played at all.

Last year, in the face of the proliferating Covid-19 pandemic, the decision was made to terminate the competition’s home-and-away season and eventually also the finals, meaning there was no overall winner.

It was an especially brutal blow for the Dockers, Kangaroos, Carlton and Melbourne, who had progressed to the preliminaries.

One might argue, based on the weekend’s action, that 2021’s return of the post-season has been just as savage. This is the first-ever three-week finals series in AFLW history and the celebrated return of the single ladder structure has made for some welcome tension.

These were tough playing conditions in blustering wind at Casey Fields and 32-degree heat across Melbourne. All sides put bodies on the line in contests and made desperate, game-saving plays, even if for some it preceded the devastating realisation that it was all over.

For Collingwood, who lost their semi-final to North Melbourne by two-points in 2020 before the season was abandoned, it was the sweetest retribution, particularly after losing their preliminary-final berth in last week’s loss to Adelaide. The Pies used that feeling, and the energy from the emerging rivalry with the Kangaroos, to fuel their exhilarating win.

The Magpies and Kangaroos could well be the AFLW’s most exciting and organic rivalry. Commentator Samantha Lane highlighted this on the broadcast, with star players Jasmine Garner, Jess Duffin and Emma King all former Pies making the move to North and Collingwood taking former North Melbourne head coach Scott Gowans fior themselves.

These new AFLW-centric rivalries are exciting. There will always be the natural club-based rivalries which echo from the men’s competition. Yet these are somewhat irrelevant in the women’s game, where fans have allegiances to individual players from their original VWFL clubs and local sides, and are often general supporters of women’s football and the growth of the game. Seeing rivalries and storylines develop in AFLW that are emotive, captivating and unique is a special piece of the development puzzle for this league.

On Saturday, Collingwood’s come-from-behind charge in the final quarter was thrilling football. Chloe Molloy’s mile-high snap to put them back within a point with eight minutes to go swung the momentum back to the Pies and set up a game-winning charge. They will now travel to Brisbane full of confidence to take on a powerful Lions side.

For Melbourne, taking down the Dockers, who many touted at the beginning of the 2021 season as the team to beat, and progressing in finals has been years in the making. After narrowly missing out on chances over the AFLW’s lifetime when top-two finals and conferences kept them out, and a pandemic denied them the opportunity to go on when they finally won a final in 2020, the joy was palpable for the Dees, who set up a prelim date with Adelaide.

It was heart-warming to spy an injured Daisy Pearce on the sidelines with a smile on her usually composed face as Maddi Gay kicked the sealer after a flurry of behinds. As one of the competition’s pioneering women, Pearce would be well-deserving of a premiership cup. Fremantle and Adelaide fans will no doubt feel differently, but the greater collective will have their fingers crossed she will be able to take the field next week.

The result was tougher to take for midfielder Kiara Bowers, a standout for Fremantle.

“Melbourne played the ground really well and have played here multiple times, compared to twice for us,” Bowers said afterwards. “They just knew what to do with the wind and we were a bit shaky at the start and we couldn’t pull it back this time.

“My heart’s probably still out there, so I’ll probably go and pick that up on the way out.”

More hearts than hers have been left on the field this finals series, and they won’t be the last. But in 2021, heartbreak is a privilege.