AFLW: It's time the game is considered on its merits — particularly when it has so many

AFLW: It's time the game is considered on its merits — particularly when it has so many

AFLW: It's time the game is considered on its merits — particularly when it has so many

Updated 5 February 2018, 9:10 AEDT

The AFLW deserved to be nurtured, funded and promoted far beyond its current commercial appeal because its birth had been delayed and its potential stifled by decades of prejudice and neglect, writes Richard Hinds.

The AFLW saved its worst for first.

Friday night's heavily promoted 2018 season-opener between Carlton and Collingwood was a shocker.

The early pace and physical application was encouraging, the Blues' star recruit Tayla Harris shone with her athletic high marking and Collingwood's top draft pick Chloe Molloy made an eye-catching debut.

But after a promising start the prime time marquee game descended into a low-scoring, error prone stalemate in which poor ball handling, wayward kicking and the Magpies' miserly defensive tactics left the scoreboard attendant virtually redundant.

Carlton's 22 to 14 victory came from a combined 11 scoring shots. In the second half just four points were scored.

Carlton 3, Collingwood 1 would be a thrilling half in the W-League. In the AFLW, even allowing for the reasonably close contest and tiring early season muscles, it left those in the crowd of almost 20,000 at Princes Park and the TV audience badly short-changed.

This harsh assessment, it must hastily be noted, is not in comparison with any other sport and certainly not with the AFL's male equivalent.

Carlton-Collingwood was a poor contest in the context of what the AFLW had produced in its rookie season, and what those watching a significant and heavily promoted event were entitled to expect.

It took less than 24 hours for the AFLW to prove this point.

The Melbourne-Greater Western Sydney match on Saturday was an infinitely more skilful and compelling demonstration of what fans can anticipate from the competition's best teams this season.

Which raises a controversial question: Can we say an AFLW game was disappointing?

Is the league ready to cope with the reasonable but sometimes harsh scrutiny professional sports competing for participants and viewers in a crowded landscape should expect?

Not the putrid, misogynist howling of those who would ridicule a woman for leaving the kitchen without a tray of baked scones, let alone for entering a football field with her boots on.

Can the AFLW cope with the robust, informed and reasonable media reports and water cooler conversation that is the lifeblood of sport, and also the entitlement of those who pay for the memberships, tickets (when the AFLW eventually charges admission) and merchandise, and who provide the TV eyeballs that fund our teams and leagues?

From its inception the AFLW has been the beneficiary of a great deal of advocacy journalism.

Many in the media have written and spoken about the league with a sense of ownership and even raw emotion that defies the usual maxim that the media should report on the game, not for it.

This is totally justifiable. The AFLW is a counterweight to years of exclusion and frustration for women who contributed to the game in so many different ways, but who were banished to suburban back blocks after they reached puberty if they wanted to play.

Affirmative action was required. The AFLW deserved to be nurtured, funded and promoted far beyond its current commercial appeal because its birth had been delayed and its potential stifled by decades of prejudice and neglect.

Thus the AFLW would always start in tears. And if some of those were shed in press boxes and commentary booths, then this was merely part of the league's uplifting tale of female Aussie Rules emancipation.

Yet there is another significant if less romantic aspect of the AFLW's story that means it is prone to reasonable assessment as a — to borrow from the sports world's ugly vernacular — ''product'', not just a fairytale.

For all its joyful innocence, the AFLW got its start because AFL executives coveted the hearts, minds and wallets of thousands of women and young girls playing or watching other sports.

The league's ambitious bosses wanted to ensure the next Sam Kerr played her brother's game.

Many bemoan references to footballs "code wars" and wonder why all Australian sports can't just hold hands and get along.

But when you are privy to the complex, highly combative strategies employed by the AFL and its rivals in the fight for entry-level participants and ''first choice athletes'' it is naive, even grossly negligent, to ignore the machinations.

In this regard, if the AFL is to aggressively recruit players from basketball, hockey, football, netball and other sports, and raid their junior programs, then surely those sports are entitled to expect the AFLW is scrutinised in the same warts'n'all manner as their leagues.

Even allowing for the fact the AFLW is in its infancy and the standard will rise dramatically in the next five to ten years when the first wave of Auskick-to-AFLW pathway recruits arrive — something obvious to anyone observing the remarkable surge in participation at junior clubs.

But as you soon learn when critiquing an AFLW game on social media, the league's halo effect is stronger than St Gabriel's.

Even mentioning that Carlton-Collingwood was a stinker is, to some, only slightly less heinous than burning the league's underperforming poster girl Moana Hope at the stake.

However, inevitably, the AFLW will benefit from fair, robust reporting more than constant mollycoddling because, when the emotion drains away, tickets are priced and the TV rights become a commodity rather than an obligation, the criticism will be much fiercer than any tackle and come without the caveats attached here.

Surely the AFLW should get used to being considered on its merits. Particularly when it has so many.