If the fourth season of the AFLW competition needed a slogan, it could be called the Season of the Unknown.
Here we are, just two days out from the season opener and even the most fervent AFLW supporter would be unsure of what lies ahead.
Most of the uncertainty surrounds the four new teams.
Joining last year’s 10 teams are St Kilda, West Coast, Gold Coast and West Coast Eagles.
While we can take a guess at the quality of these expansion lists, it is impossible to accurately predict how they will play.
Not only because we don’t know how the talent will gel, but we also don’t know on what the new coaches will base their game plans.
Will they be fast-running attacking teams or dour defence-first teams?
Maybe a combination of both, but until we see them in action it is impossible to tell.
When you have four new teams, you also need new players.
All up, there are about 100 new AFLW players more than in season 2019.
There are those who say that is too many, and are concerned for the quality of play in 2020.
The standard of the game does not concern me.
First of all, the existing players have another pre-season under their belt, working on their fundamentals and improving their skills.
Second, the young players coming into the league are more footballer than athlete.
These young women have been playing for four, five or six seasons non-stop and come with a level of skill most older players would die for.
It’s the reason why we at the Bulldogs drafted eight 18-year-old players.
These young footballers not only have the athletic ability to cope in a tough game but have been through the elite pathways set up by the AFL, which prepares them fantastically well.
The head start they have had over players late to the game is enormous.
We can’t discount the talent emerging from state-level competitions, which continue to take drastic leaps forward in their standards year on year.
The need to grab a cross-code athlete and teach them how to play is diminishing due to the talent pool of footballers growing rapidly.
Having said that, the influx of internationals – primarily from Ireland – add an exciting dimension to the game.
And let’s not forget Danielle Marshall, the first player from the USA playing for the Bulldogs.
While we surmise the standard will continue its rapid rise, we can’t be sure until we witness it first hand.
This is the last time we will see the great migration of players from one team to another.
This phenomenon caused by expansion has meant keeping track on which player is at what club is nigh on impossible.
This adds to the intrigue as nearly every club can use the words ‘new-look team’ in 2020.
Continuing the unknowns will be the conference system, which I think everyone would agree wasn’t effective in identifying the top two teams in 2019.
We now have seven teams per conference, with the top three in each progressing to a three-week finals system.
We can only judge how effective it is when we eventually get to see the two finalists and whether they are indeed the best two teams in the league.
Last season Adelaide was far and away the best team in the competition.
Unfortunately the Crows have been hit with a spate of pre-season injuries, including a season-ending ACL to skipper Chelsea Randall.
With several stars like Erin Phillips and Chloe Scheer coming back from knee injuries, they will struggle to field a team close to their best.
The same holds for Melbourne, a team many fancy to do well in 2020.
It seems every week there has been bad news coming from one club or another about a serious injury.
The hope is the AFL is watching and will allow the clubs more time over pre-season to build the players’ fitness over a longer period.
Squeezing everything between late November and the start of February is too demanding on the players.
What won’t be in question is the fervour of the ever-growing fan base.
More than ever they are eagerly waiting for the 2020 season to get under way.
This is despite the lacklustre promotions conducted by the AFL itself to date, but that’s another matter.
Nor will be the energy and passion displayed by the players be in question.
This year I have seen this passion up close and personal as the new head coach of the Western Bulldogs.
I am sure they are representative of players from all clubs who are sacrificing time, sweat, blood and their bodies to put on a show for their fans.
All in all, it will be a season of intrigue and unknowns mixed in with high-octane entertaining football and I can’t wait for it to start.
Nathan Burke is a former St Kilda captain who played 323 AFL games for the Saints, winning three Trevor Barker Awards as best-and-fairest player