In the AFLW, the wing has traditionally been seen as a stepping stone role for midfielders. It’s almost a rite of passage: Develop more strength and one-on-one ability and you’ll graduate to the centre circle.
What is becoming more evident as the competition evolves, however, is that some teams are utilising their wingers to make best use of the ground’s width and change angles in attack.
This makes not only the players who excel in the role exceedingly valuable, but also brings the best out of clever inside midfielders who excel at recognising the connection with those outside runners.
As this role develops and is used more efficiently by teams, the control of uncontested possessions has become a significant indicator of how a team is tracking.
A clear turning point was during the 2020 season, where the competition averaged more uncontested possessions than it did contested possessions for the first time in its history, with the gap widening in the 2021 season.
Average possessions have steadily increased across the five years of the AFLW competition, with the increase in uncontested possessions last year indicating that a clearer game style and outside ball use are being employed by more teams.
Just the Melbourne Demons averaged more than 50 per cent uncontested possessions in the inaugural 2017 season.
This has steadily turned, with just Fremantle, Gold Coast and Melbourne finding more contested ball in the 2021 season.
Notably, North Melbourne has adopted a clear uncontested ball approach to their game style since entering the competition in 2019.
Typically, if the Kangaroos are to win the uncontested possession count, they are more likely to win the match. Of their 24 games played since round one, 2019, just five games have bucked this trend.
Therefore, it is no surprise that North Melbourne is one of the teams to make the best use of their wingers.
Makings of a good winger
The best wingers in the competition possess similar attributes: They are reliable endurance athletes who are able to read the play well but, above all, they are patient.
Typically, the most effective wingers transition from a half-forward role and possess an attacking mindset, focused on gaining territory and getting the ball inside the forward 50.
Much of what a winger does in-game can go unnoticed, given the way the game is broadcast, as well the heavy focus on disposal numbers, but the most important aspect of the wing role is the restraint to stay outside of the contest, rather than dive in.
Maintaining space to provide an outlet at contested situations is vital, which means the best wingers in the competition are the most disciplined players.
For most footy players, the natural instinct is to hunt the ball but, when assigned to the wing, players must fight that instinct and, instead, trust that their inside midfielders will win the ball and feed it out to them.
This is another key part of the role: There needs to be chemistry between inside midfielders and those outside runners.
Ball-winning midfielders need to be aware of, and make use of, their wingers sitting outside the contest. Otherwise all that patience and positioning is wasted on a midfield group that looks to just win the ball and kick quickly and desperately out of the contest.
In the 2021 season, there were two players regularly lining up in the traditional wing position who stood above the rest, thanks to a combination of their willingness to stick to the role, and their midfield’s awareness of them as an outlet.
They were North Melbourne’s Kaitlyn Ashmore, and Collingwood co-captain Steph Chiocci.
Working in tandem with an elite midfield comprised of Brianna Davey, Brittany Bonnici and Jaimee Lambert, Chiocci has developed in the wing role since the AFLW’s inception in 2017.
As in the first image above, Chiocci covers a lot of ground to always be within a handball of stoppages.
Wingers often commit to a lot of unrewarded running, and are typically the first player cut out of frame when broadcasters zoom in on a contest.
Across her five seasons in the competition, just 34.1 per cent of Chiocci’s average possessions are contested, and she averages two score involvements at 2.2 inside 50s a game.
In 2021, Chiocci averaged a career-high 199.2 metres gained each match.
Ashmore has developed in a different manner since 2017. Largely running off the half-forward line in her two years at Brisbane, her move to North Melbourne in 2019 saw her regularly stationed higher up the field.
As in the screenshot above, Ashmore is one of the most disciplined and patient players in the wing position, always lurking around the stoppage and ready to use her run once the ball comes her way.
After spending the 2020 season in the forward pocket, netting nine goals, Ashmore returned to the wing in 2021 and averaged a career-best 233.5 metres gained per game, with 66.7 per cent of her average possessions uncontested.
Future of AFLW wing role
In 2022, Chloe Dalton will return to the competition after a year of inactivity.
Young players such as Eagle Mikayla Bowen, Lion Sophie Conway and Demon Casey Sherriff are all developing in wing roles, complementing strong midfield groups.
More than ever, outside running will be a true highlight of the coming season as teams find the value of the ground’s width in transition and become more settled in their game structures and plans.
Expect to see more heated one-on-one winger battles, as we did in the 2021 qualifying final between Collingwood and North Melbourne, where Chiocci and Ashmore went head to head, parallel to the play.
Chiocci and Ashmore lined up on one another for much of their Qualifying Final battle this year and, while Chiocci’s Magpies got the win, Ashmore arguably won the head-to-head.
Once you zoom out and see the way sides are structuring up outside of the close quarters of a stoppage, it becomes clearer that the best teams are taking on more nuanced and strategic approaches to the AFLW.
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Gemma Bastiani is an AFLW analyst, music business lecturer and co-founder of Siren: A Women in Sport Collective.