Natural-born players: Why the draft class of 2023 will set the AFLW alight

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As the AFLW prepares to welcome its newest players in Monday night’s draft, the impact from its inaugural season in 2017 is already showing.

AFL talent ambassador Kevin Sheehan said 600-700 women have entered this year’s draft and throughout the elite pathway, it was clear the seeds sown at the early seasons meant many draftees played footy throughout their youth.

AFLW draft prospect Mikayla Williamson in her under-12 days playing football for Carrum Patterson Lakes (left), and more recently as a Victorian Country representative.

“We are progressing to the stage where many of the girls have played all through their teenage years,” Sheehan said.

“We are eight years into the AFLW, and [this year’s draft prospects are] girls who were 10 or 11 back then, who decided there might be a future in this game.

“You are seeing a growing number who look so natural with their hand-to-foot skills, their knowledge of the game and their fundamentals – they are very, very good players.”

This year’s draft is the last one in which the four most recent expansion clubs will get to pre-select players before the draft. South Australian prodigy Lauren Young, who starred at under-18 level as a 15-year-old, is already heading to Port Adelaide along with Molly Brooksby and Shineah Goody.

Kristie-Lee Weston-Turner as a 12-year-old (left) when she played for Sunshine Heights, and (right) kicking long for Victoria Metro.

Hawthorn picked up All-Australian Laura Stone, Jess Vukic and Hayley McLaughlin, while Sydney picked up Holly Cooper, and Essendon signed Amy Gaylor.

The father-daughter rule will also be in play on draft night – in AFLW, a fathers only needs to have played one game for a club for his daughter to be eligible to join that team.

Two players in Sheehan’s top-30 players are potential father-daughter selections: Jemma Rigoni, daughter of former Melbourne player Guy Rigoni, and Geelong VFLW star Charlotte Simpson, daughter of former Geelong and St Kilda player Sean Simpson.

“It’s a terrific rule, as anyone who grew up in an AFL family can join the club that dad played for,” Sheehan said.

“Into the future, I have no doubt we will see the daughters of women who played in this comp emerging as well.”

Simpson, also the sister of former Cat Sam Simpson, was not taken in last year’s draft, but shone with Geelong’s VFLW team this year as an inside, ball-winning midfielder.

Simpson, 19, was a joint-winner of the Lambert-Pearce Medal with Jordan Mifsud and Akayla Peterson, as the VFLW’s best and fairest. She also won the Debbie Lee Rising Star as best young player.

“The girls who might not have played [enough] at that top junior level, might just need that extra year or two to get through to the AFLW, so I think the senior state leagues will start producing a lot more AFLW players,” Sheehan said.

Tasmanian midfielder Brooke Barwick has impressed Sheehan with her skill and explosive speed despite coming off a knee reconstruction, while GWS academy flyer Cleo Buttifant has breakaway speed and the dare to use it.

Western Australian dual athlete Georgie Cleaver is an Australian under-19 netballer as well as a promising ruck or key forward who reportedly intends to “do a Monique Conti” and play both sports.

Victorians Mikayla Williamson and Kristie-Lee Weston-Turner impressed this year with their ability to run and create.

This year’s draft will also be the first where players can opt to go anywhere in the country, not just their home state and Sheehan said around 70 per cent of the pool was available to move states.

The draft has been shoehorned in between the end of the AFLW season – Brisbane Lions won the premiership a fortnight ago – and Christmas.

That will mean the players selected will have a gap between being drafted and pre-season training for next season, although some may also play at state league level to gain experience before the 2024 campaign.

Queensland continues to be a hotbed recruiting ground for AFLW players, as is South Australia, which has had a number of youngsters dominate at the national level in recent years.

Sheehan sees more big leaps to come in the women’s game with the under-16 national titles established and some exciting prospects emerging for 2024, 2025 and beyond.

“We picked an under-18 All-Australian side this year, and 11 of them were bottom-age players – so next year’s player pool will be brilliant again,” Sheehan said.

“We are really excited by what we are seeing evolve this year and progressing into the years after.”

The AFLW draft will be held at Marvel Stadium on Monday at 7pm (AEDT).

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