Now in season eight, we countdown the best six AFLW Grand Finals written into the history books so far.
The AFL Women’s competition is well and truly thriving. Starting with just eight teams in its foundational season in 2017, the competition now hosts a full 18 sides, with every men’s club also represented by a corresponding team in the AFLW.
And as expansion has unfolded, so too has the league’s rich history of gripping and dramatic big dances. And since we’ve done the same activity with Grand Finals of the AFL Men’s competition, it’s time to also take a look back and rank the best of the AFLW deciders.
We countdown the best AFLW Grand Finals
6. 2019 – Adelaide v Carlton
Result: Adelaide 10.3 (63) defeated Carlton 2.4 (16)
Perhaps the least memorable of the Crows’ three Premierships, the 2019 Grand Final was nonetheless a clinical display from the AFLW’s most successful club. The stage on which it was played, however, was as big as the league has seen, with the AFL making tickets to the clash at Adelaide Oval free, drawing a crowd of 53,034, which was at the time a record for a standalone women’s sporting event in Australia, and remains the highest for an AFLW game.
A dominant first half saw the Crows take a commanding 40-point lead into the half time break, largely thanks to three second-quarter goals from forward Danielle Ponter. The second half yielded just one goal to the Crows thanks to Erin Phillips, who won the Best on Ground medal for her 18 disposals and two goals, despite rupturing her ACL later in the third quarter.
Phillips’ injury was a dampener on the Crows’ second Premiership, but the win on such a grand stage certainly cemented the club’s reputation of dominance early in the life of the competition.
5. 2022 (Season 6) – Adelaide v Melbourne
Result: Adelaide 4.5 (29) defeated Melbourne 2.4 (16)
If you were to choose one word to describe the Crows’ lifetime in the AFL Women’s competition, ‘clinical’ would be it. It’s also the word you would use to describe the Crows’ Season 6 flag in April 2022 – a Premiership that sealed the first-ever AFLW dynasty.
The Crows were scarcely bothered by the Dees, with the stars of their previous Premierships in Erin Phillips and Danielle Ponter scoring three of their side’s four goals, while Jasmine Hewett, coming into the Grand Final team, booted the first goal of the game. Phillips was among the best performers for the Crows, with 17 disposals and four clearances alongside her goal, but it was fellow midfielder Anne Hatchard who would claim the Best on Ground medal, starring with 26 disposals, 9 marks and five clearances.
4. 2022 (Season 7) – Brisbane v Melbourne
Result: Brisbane 2.3 (15) defeated by Melbourne 2.7 (19)
There were a number of unique factors about the Season 7 AFLW Grand Final, namely that it was the second of its kind in 2022. Another notable factor was that it was the first ever game played at the brand-new Brighton Homes Arena, Brisbane’s just-constructed AFL & AFLW training ground. The Season 7 Grand Final also presented Melbourne with a redemption opportunity having lost the Grand Final in Season 6, while Brisbane had the chance to secure Premierships in consecutive years after winning in 2021.
In a low-scoring encounter, it was the Lions who gained the early ascendancy, holding the Dees to just a solitary point in the first quarter as they booted two goals in two minutes in response. Melbourne hit the front with the next five scores – two of which were goals – before a high-pressure, heavily contested last quarter ended with the Demons ahead by four points. It was an occasion of great relief for Dees captain and AFLW pioneer Daisy Pearce, winning a breakthrough premiership in what would be her final game.
Brisbane defender Shannon Campbell became the first player to be awarded the Best on Ground Medal in a losing side, gathering 19 disposals, eight marks and nine intercept possessions, pipping Melbourne midfielder Eliza West by one vote.
3. 2017 (Season 1) – Brisbane v Adelaide
Result: Brisbane 4.5 (29) defeated by Adelaide 4.11 (35)
A crowd of 15,610 turned out at Gold Coast’s Metricon Stadium for the inaugural AFLW Grand Final, watching the undefeated Lions take on the second-placed Crows. The Lions pipped their South Australian rivals by three points earlier in the season, but the Crows’ strong Home and Away season performance, which saw them win four of their five games by 23 points or more, meant they finished with a higher percentage than Brisbane. The stage was set for an entertaining clash, a fitting end to an historic season.
The Crows made a hot start, booting the first goal of the game just 21 seconds in, maintaining the momentum to take a six-point lead into half time. In true fashion, the ‘Premiership Quarter’ saw Crows star Erin Phillips stand tall as she booted two goals to give her side a 12-point advantage at the final change. The Lions toiled hard, however, their efforts rewarded with a goal that trimmed the margin to just five points mid-way through the last quarter. But the Crows held on, with their inaccuracy proving to be the difference as they claimed the first ever AFLW premiership by six points.
Deservedly, Phillips claimed the Best on Ground Medal for heir 28 disposals – 26 of which were kicks – alongside her two goals and 11 inside 50s.
2. 2018 – Western Bulldogs v Brisbane
Result: Western Bulldogs 4.3 (27) defeated Brisbane 3.3 (21)
The AFLW Grand Final came to Victoria for the first time in 2018, with the Western Bulldogs’ dominant season seeing them earn hosting rights. But as of the last round, their opponent was all but decided, with four teams in contention to face them, and Brisbane eventually jumping into second place from fifth on the ladder to secure a second consecutive Grand Final appearance.
In a low-scoring first half, it looked like the Lions were set to exorcise the demons of their Season 1 Grand Final loss, with first-year midfielder Sophie Conway booting a goal to give the Lions a six-point quarter time advantage, which they retained at half time after a scoreless second quarter for both sides. But the Bulldogs came out barking in the third quarter, booting two goals in the opening six minutes to wrest the advantage firmly into their favour. But still they weren’t done for the quarter, with young star Monique Conti adding a third unanswered goal as the Dogs flipped the game on its head to take a 13-point lead into three-quarter time.
There were more momentum swings to come, though, as the Lions finally found their answer two minutes into the final term. In an intense contest, the Bulldogs booted another goal, with Lions forward Jess Wuetschner kicking her second of the quarter just minutes later, but it would prove to be too little, too late, as the Bulldogs celebrated and the Lions mourned a second consecutive six-point Grand Final loss. Thanks largely to her perhaps match-sealing third-quarter goal, Conti was named Best on Ground, with her goal coming alongside 13 disposals (12 contested) and four clearances.
1. 2021 – Adelaide v Brisbane
Result: Adelaide 3.2 (20) defeated by Brisbane 6.2 (38)
With nearly five seasons of the league completed, the 2021 AFLW Grand Final was a flashback to where it all began, as Adelaide and Brisbane faced off in front of nearly 23,000 fans at Adelaide Oval. The Crows had failed to make the finals in the previous season, while Brisbane had been eliminated in the first round, but with the 2020 season abandoned before a Premier could be decided, it meant the Crows were aiming to win their second consecutive flag.
The game looked set to be every bit as exciting as the 2017 decider, with Brisbane hitting the scoreboard early, but a Crows goal late in the quarter in reply saw the scores remain level at quarter time. The Crows made it two in a row early in the second term, but Lions livewire Courtney Hodder replied with an incredible goal – her second of the match – to equalise again. The game looked set to go into half time with a margin of just a solitary point to the Crows, but as no stranger to the big stage, Lion Jess Wuetschner produced something out of nothing to send her side into the break five points up.
As has been the case in many an AFLW decider, the third quarter saw the drama happen, with each side losing its captain as the game went up a gear. With it all to play for, Wuetschner stood up again, converting from long range to give her side a timely boost. But again, just as it looked to be a close game at the final break, veteran Lauren Arnell toe-poked one through with just under a minute left, and young gun Belle Dawes kicking another on the siren to continue the Lions’ surge, as they took a 22-point lead into the break.
The final quarter started well for the Crows, with Eloise Jones converting from a 50-metre penalty 90 seconds in, but Brisbane’s defence was strong, preventing the Crows from scoring again as they claimed a breakthrough maiden Premiership away from home. Adding to the emotion of the day, Zielke and Arnell announced their respective retirements after the game, going out on a high on an emotional day for the club. Thanks to her incredible defensive efforts throughout the day, Brisbane defender Kate Lutkins was awarded the Best on Ground Medal, with 18 disposals, 6 marks and 12 intercepts helping her side to victory.
A brief history of the AFLW’s finals structure
Despite the fact it’s now full capacity, the league has adopted a number of different finals structures over its eight seasons, largely due to the expansion — first from eight teams to 14, and from 14 to 18 ahead of 2022’s season seven.
In its first two seasons – when only eight teams competed – Grand Final qualification was awarded to the top two teams of the season based on the ladder. Once the league expanded to 14 teams, it adopted a conference system for finals qualification for the 2019 season and the 2020 season, which was abandoned before the Preliminary Finals, meaning no Premier was named.
In 2021 and the first season of 2022 (also known as Season 6), the AFLW finals structure saw the top six teams qualify for the finals, before the introduction of the final four teams in the second season of 2022 (Season 7) saw the finals system expand to the traditional Top 8.