Moving On Up: 6 AFLW Players Taking Their Game To The Next Level

With the commencement of each AFLW season we find the subjective list of the top 10-to-20 players to be ever-changing and increasingly difficult to evaluate.

Once again, a new year has started with another level of brilliance shown by some of the competition’s youngest and most exciting talent. Indeed if Round 1 was anything to go by we're seeing the continued elevation of quality within the league, with massive strides being taken rather than the baby steps we saw in the competition’s infancy.

Of course, there’s natural progression and development that takes place.

Melbourne's Eden Zanker has been a favourite since being drafted with the 6th pick of the 2017 National Draft and if her first game of 2022 is anything to go by, she’ll be one of the most valuable players across the entire competition this season.

At 183 centimetres, she naturally started as a key forward, kicking 9 goals in her first 14 games before playing higher up the ground, using her natural athleticism as a tall midfielder around the outskirts of the contest in 2021, averaging 13.5 disposals, nearly 3 clearances and intercept possessions a game while kicking 2.8 for the season.

To prove her true “unicorn” status, Round 1 saw Zanker finished with 20 disposals, 17 contested possessions, 9 intercept possessions, 5 inside 50s, 6 score involvements and a goal, playing an incredibly vital role in midfield and even drifting into the defensive side of stoppages to help her teammates out.

It’s an incredible tick of approval for the 22-year-old in her fifth season playing different roles that she has emerged as the best player on a premiership contender, but this is the baseline sort of performance we can expect from Zanker moving forward.

RELATED: AFLW 2022- Who's Best Placed To Win It All?

While the competition is still in its formative stages, people will continue to create rankings of their best players in the league both to show their expertise, but to also educate those looking to learn more about AFLW.

It feels inevitable that Eden Zanker will be a consensus top-15 player by season’s end at the very least.

While many have been eagerly following the trajectory of the Demon, it feels as though Monique Conti has gone largely under-appreciated and perhaps slightly underrated as a star of the competition.

Having only just turned 22 herself, Conti was the star performer for Richmond in Round 1 against St Kilda, finishing with 29 disposals, 9 clearances, 7 tackles and leading the team for metres gained with 296.3.

Perhaps it has been the consistency of Conti over the last few seasons that has capped the public perception on her ability, while playing for a new club that has only won few games to kick off its life in AFLW hasn’t helped either.

2022 looks the season that Richmond takes that big step forward and Conti is most certainly at the forefront of it, really emerging as the face of the club.

The former Bulldog was quite clearly worth the Number 1 draft pick Richmond gave up for her in 2020 and at 22, has already been best-on-ground in a Grand Final, won three best-and-fairest awards and twice been named in the All-Australian team.

Perhaps winning the MVP award will establish her as a top-five player in the competition, a reality if she plays as she did in the first round.

RELATED: Will Conti's Tigers knock off Zanker's Demons this week?

Then, we can focus on a certain group of players that seem destined to take their games to another level in 2022 and in the process, establish their names as stars for their respective teams, which is the first step to league-wide recognition.

Collingwood’s Sarah Rowe is one player that may receive the opportunities opened by Brianna Davey’s devastating knee injury.

A consistent, albeit low-key contributor whose natural athletic traits honed in Gaelic football have been on show over the past three seasons. The Magpies used Rowe as far more of a focal point through the middle and on the outside transitional play in Round 1’s win over Carlton, which saw her finish with 21 disposals at 81% disposal efficiency, 352 metres gained, 3 rebound 50s and 2 clearances.

The naturally skilled 26-year-old should continue to be a weapon used outside of stoppages and perhaps in clearance situations moreso in 2022, as Collingwood looks to improve their ball use going forward from the midfield while covering the almighty absence of Davey.

And if Brisbane face some time without Dakota Davidson after injuring her ankle in Round 1 against Adelaide, then Jesse Wardlaw has the raw attributes to be one of the most devastatingly influential tall players in the competition.

The soon-to-be 22-year-old has already had a season with 9 goals but has more recently settled into the second key-forward/ruck role, which has allowed for her to step up in moments, rather than be a dominant force on games.

Round 1 was the sixth time Wardlaw finished with more than 10 disposals in a game in her career, as well as the sixth time she had 4 or more marks.

Encouragingly, despite the loss, she had 2 intercepts, a tackle inside 50, a mark inside 50 and three score involvements to go with her 11 disposals and 107 metres gained. 

If the Lions use her as the focal point once again, the former pick 61 can use her athleticism to run the opposition ragged and take contested marks.

RELATED: Can Brisbane make up for last week's debacle and beat Carlton?

Finally, if we’re talking about potential new entries into the league’s best 30 players, we cannot overlook the impressive debuts of Charlie Rowbottom and Georgie Prespakis, the top two respective picks in last year’s National Draft, to the Suns and Cats.

Rowbottom had 11 disposals, 9 contested possessions and 6 tackles in the loss to GWS and will quickly establish herself as the exciting face of Gold Coast footy. Powerful, tall and brilliantly damaging offensively, the 18-year-old represents the new-age AFLW footballer who has aspired to participate in the competition for their entire childhood.

Georgie Prespakis led an impressively valiant Cats in their narrow loss to North Melbourne with 20 disposals, 7 clearances, 6 tackles and 5 inside 50s. She's extremely well-rounded and racked up awards as a junior, with her potential to match her sister Madison for talent being scary.

It’s an extremely exciting time to follow AFLW with the level of talent rising quicker than we’ve seen before.

These 6 players are just a select few of the talented individuals that will make a name for themselves in 2022 and it’s well worth following each game to see who else can emerge into relative stardom.

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Dem Panopoulos

Dem is a lover of sport with a keen eye for analytics. A passion for statistics that defies logic given his MyCricket numbers, you can see and hear him share his thoughts and views on Twitter @dempanopoulos

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