AFL running out of options to deliver complete AFLW season amid Covid-19

The weekly game of fixing the fixture has administrators chasing their tails, and solutions are scarce

North Melbourne supporters
North Melbourne AFLW supporters attempt to watch the Kangaroos from behind locked gates as Saturday’s match against Melbourne played out at Casey Fields with no crowds. Photograph: Michael Willson/AFL Photos/Getty Images
North Melbourne AFLW supporters attempt to watch the Kangaroos from behind locked gates as Saturday’s match against Melbourne played out at Casey Fields with no crowds. Photograph: Michael Willson/AFL Photos/Getty Images

Last modified on Sun 14 Feb 2021 11.32 EST

One of the best matches in the AFLW’s short history was played on Saturday night but it happened in front of an empty grandstand and bare boundaries. The Demons and Kangaroos both entered their round-three game undefeated after strong starts to the season, so it was always going to be a compelling game. The lack of fans, however, was an eerie reminder of the final rounds of the 2020 campaign before it was abruptly cut short.

As Victoria went into a snap five-day lockdown from midnight on Friday, the weekend’s three fixtures in Melbourne played out behind closed doors while interstate games in Sydney and Adelaide went forward with crowds. The third round of the season had already seen changes, with games originally scheduled between Richmond and West Coast, and Collingwood and Brisbane, switched. Removing crowds is one way to deal with a lockdown, but rolling border closures and restrictions will undoubtedly cause more headaches for the AFL. At some point, it will simply run out of options.

As it stands, the AFLW season is a shapeshifter, with administrators scrambling to deal with a constantly changing landscape. We know the culprit is Covid-19, who like an annoying younger sibling continues to pull at the AFL’s shirtsleeves. It is an unenviable situation for league bosses and likely an increasingly complex and fraught one for players. With the Brisbane and West Coast game shifted to Monday – also played sans crowds – some players have been forced to take leave from their day jobs.

On the ABC’s Outer Sanctum this week, Fremantle coach Trent Cooper said that the team assumed they would be away from home for a number of weeks. It’s a situation we witnessed before the season even began, with the Giants forced to relocate from Sydney to Albury on 1 January before heading to Adelaide two weeks later. Cooper also suggested that many of the team’s support staff would not be coming with them into what he described as a “hub situation”. Away from home and families and having to figure out work and study seems like exactly the kind of situation that would necessitate more support staff, not less. But many of those same staff are in a similar boat to the players in that they work part time.

The Giants have since returned home and Fremantle will not be facing a “hub situation” just yet. The fixture for round four was released on Sunday afternoon and the Dockers will head home to host the Gold Coast Suns. However, if the first three weeks of the season are anything to go by, there are simply no guarantees.

Before the season began, flexibility and adaptability were the buzzwords. With no clear path to a vaccine and the unpredictability of playing in the midst of a pandemic, what the fifth AFLW season would look like was anyone’s guess. What was not shrouded in a hazy mist was the pressure on the AFL to deliver a complete season. It is a pressure that has not abated – though many fans hold some sympathy for the AFL and the complicated game of fixing the fixture they’re being forced to play every week.

The reality is, solutions are scarce. A hub, not unlike what was arranged for the AFL last year, has been floated but the part-time nature of the league makes that far from a straightforward solution. More border closures and restrictions could see teams take extended road trips, but that too could easily bump up against problems.

What makes this season all the more extraordinary, despite being only three games in, is the way in which the players have rolled with the punches, taking each fixture change and all the uncertainty spinning around the competition in their stride and somehow still continuing to deliver on-field.

Melbourne piled on six goals in a quarter to upset the Kangaroos at Casey Fields. Carlton finally got on the winners list. Fremantle demolished the Crows at Norwood Oval and continued their winning streak, now up to 10 games—an AFLW record. And even though they lost, the Tigers showed plenty of promise against the Pies. You could have watched the footy this weekend, from the stands if you were really lucky or at home if you were in Melbourne, and for just a moment you could have forgotten about the drama that unfolded this week as the league’s best laid plans unravelled.

On-field, witnessing the likes of 2021 debutant Jess Fitzgerald stream towards goal for the Bulldogs or seeing Kiara Bowers do what Kiara Bowers does, or watching Maddie Prespakis collect 24 disposals and a goal, the focus widens from the immediacy of this round and the next to what this unprecedented set of circumstances says about the competition. The AFL has asked plenty of the women of the AFLW from the beginning and they have never faltered in their response. If the season continues to dip and dive like a ship in choppy waters, the question becomes how much longer can the AFL continue to do so without making some serious steps towards further professionalising the competition. The women of the AFLW have certainly earned it.