Brisbane forward Greta Bodey said it best: “Springers is going off!”
But Sunday’s grand final at the new Brighton Homes Arena in Springfield, southwest of Brisbane, didn’t “go off” the way the Lions would have hoped. Instead it was Melbourne, with Irish players Blaithin Mackin and Sinéad Goldrick in their ranks, who reached the pinnacle, coming out winners 2.7 (19) to 2.3 (15).
The four-point victory will be sheer relief as much as excitement for Melbourne, having lost to Adelaide in the season six grand final earlier this year. But finally, after seven seasons in the mix, Melbourne and their beloved captain Daisy Pearce are AFLW premiers at last.
Both teams were hungry from the beginning, with plenty of scrappy play. But, having played in four of six grand finals, the Lions were proving every bit the powerhouse. Brisbane’s tackling was relentless, and the longer they had the ball in their forward 50 the more likely it seemed they would convert.
Eventually, after seven minutes, the Lions’ Nat Grider took an intercept mark and hit up a leading Dakota Davidson, and she struck truly for the first goal of the grand final.
There was no respite for the Dees, as at the next centre bounce the Lions kicked straight back into their forward 50. There were cries for a high free kick for the Lions; just 30 seconds later Cathy Svarc was tackled around the neck, a free kick was given and she converted.
Melbourne steadied in the last few minutes of the first, but just when they thought they had broken through for a goal, Grider ran Megan Fitzsimon down in a tackle that was instantly rewarded.
In the second quarter, Melbourne swung the momentum back in their favour but inconsistency hurt them as they scored 1.3 with another out on the full.
Brisbane’s Shannon Campbell, as the last line of defence, and Kate Lutkins, just months after she ruptured her ACL, provided strong and steady hands as Lions captain Bre Koenen spent time on the sidelines getting attention for a right knee issue before returning in the second half.
At the other end, Demons defender Tahlia Gillard spent the first half keeping 2022’s league-leading goalkicker Jesse Wardlaw quiet, playing in front with success. It inspired Melbourne to break through for their first goal of the game through Blaith Mackin, ably assisted by Alyssa Bannan.
It was four seasons in four quarters in “Springers”, with beaming sun and heat giving way to thunder before the start of the match. Then rain hit during the half-time break, which had already been extended to 20 minutes under the heat policy.
The third quarter was an arm-wrestle, but neither team took their opportunities.
Maddy Sherriff hit the post after a golden run, and Eliza West received a free kick in the Dees’ forward 50 that looked like a goal opportunity. However, a kick to Tyla Hanks that didn’t go the required 15 metres ended in a contest.
Melbourne went to another level, though, and were left far too much space. Tayla Harris marked in the goal square and scored her second-ever grand final goal in her fourth decider.
Meanwhile, Brisbane’s Dakota Davidson took a mark just on three-quarter time, with Demon forward Kate Hore unhappy not to receive a free kick for a push in the back. It didn’t matter, with the kick missing just to the right.
In the final quarter, despite some tense moments, Brisbane had no answer to Melbourne’s tactics. The ball largely lived in Melbourne’s forward half, and they were able to mop up the Lions’ bombs into the centre.
A late moment of confusion between umpires over a free kick to Davidson saw Melbourne’s Bannan lay a crunching tackle, and there were calls for a 50m penalty. In the end the kick was retaken by Davidson, but to little effect.
A force early in the game, Melbourne veteran Karen Paxman went down in the fourth quarter and struggled to get off the arena. She was ecstatic on the final siren, as the focus moved to Daisy Pearce’s future in the game.
Next to her on the premiership dais was Tayla Harris, perhaps ready to take up Pearce’s mantle as the face of the game.