What to expect from the final AFLW expansion

The third and final expansion is currently underway in the AFLW, with the last four teams -- Essendon, Port Adelaide, Hawthorn and Sydney -- set to join the competition next season and round out all 18 clubs.

You've probably already seen headlines of big names switching to rival clubs across town or brand new coaches coming through to take the helm at new sides forming.

AFLW has gone through two previous expansion periods -- after starting with eight clubs in 2017, the league then expanded to 10 teams in 2019 and 14 in the 2020 season -- so, we have some idea of what's in store in terms of league commotion.

However, how it all will play out, including who will go where and how all the eighteen clubs' playing groups will look heading into next season, is unknown still to most. Rumours are circulating, there's a lot of fan speculation, and many conversations are being had within the walls of clubs.

Basically, there's a lot that's about to go down and all will reveal itself in the coming weeks and months. Yet, what we do know the basic outline of what to look out for. So, here's some of what to expect from the final AFLW expansion.

And yes, get ready for some chaos.

A lot of new signings

With four new clubs coming in, there are going to be a lot of new player signings right across the league.

Expansion clubs will have access to players through five different avenues: open-age, under-18, expansion period signing, trade and sign period, and the draft.

With open-age signing, clubs can sign any player who has previously nominated for the draft and isn't currently listed with any AFLW club. For example, Essendon VFLW co-captain Georgia Nanscawen -- who was announced as the club's first AFLW signing -- has previously nominated for the AFLW draft, meaning she should be eligible as an open-age signing despite opting out of 2021 to remain at the Dons.

And for under-18 talent, clubs can sign under-18s from their NGA region prior to the draft. This will be limited to a certain number, which the AFL is yet to confirm.

Then there's the big one: the expansion signing period. Here, each expansion club can sign up to a maximum of 14 AFLW listed players who are currently signed with an AFLW club. For example, Fremantle's Stephanie Cain has committed to signing with Essendon, Melbourne's Brenna Tarrant has requested a trade to Sydney and Gold Coast's Janet Barid is expected to sign with Hawthorn.

After that, there's the usual sign and trade period, which is where you can expect to see player movement not just to the new clubs too. For example, Carlton's Grace Egan has committed to joining Richmond's ranks.

Finally, there's the NAB AFLW Draft, where the expansion clubs will receive the first eight picks based on random selection. The remainder picks will be based on the existing club's 2022 finishing positions, with Adelaide and Melbourne at the top and West Coast and St Kilda at the tail end.

Chaos and colour changes

Within all those new signings and players trading colours, the first thing fans can expect is some chaos. There is going to be a lot of player movement in a very short period of time, which will create quite a bit of disruption across the board.

Previous expansion periods have seen clubs had to essentially rebuild after being depleted by new clubs coming in. For example, from the past two expansions, the Brisbane Lions lost 16 players in just over 12 months, including many star players. They lost eight players to the Gold Coast Suns when they came in, and then a core chunk in Kaitlyn Ashmore, Tahlia Randall, Jamie Stanton and Brittany Gibson headed to Victoria to start-up North Melbourne. Lions CEO Bree Brock told women.afl that emerging from this period felt like, "we were almost starting again".

A similar fate could await previously-sole-state competitors GWS and Adelaide as cross-town rivals Sydney and Port Adelaide are coming in and will be looking at local talent. Three Giants players -- midfielder Lisa Steane, Rebecca Privitelli and young ruck Ally Morphett -- have already given their intentions to join the Swans, while three-time premiership player for the Adelaide Crows Erin Phillips will be heading over to Port Adelaide due to family connections.

Like Phillips, the expansion period will see other inaugural players and leaders of certain clubs switch guernsey colours for various reasons. For example, league best and fairest and dual Carlton best and fairest Maddy Prespakis has committed to leaving the Blues for Essendon. This means Carlton's midfield will have a very different look and feel come next season.

Difficulty for existing clubs and fans

This expansion will no doubt be difficult for many existing clubs - we're already starting to see pain points revealed and fan frustration with player movement.

Although players switching sides is a common and given part of footy, the scale of expansion can be exceptionally hard for current clubs, players and fans. Losing a large number of players -- especially stars -- can disrupt team cohesion and connection, playing style and morale. Brisbane Lions head coach Craig Starcevich recently took aim at the latest and final round of expansion, saying the big offers from new clubs were often too difficult for existing clubs to counter.

Similarly, many Western Bulldogs fans have announced their dismay across social media as players announced their departure. Previously they have lost key players such as Katie Brennan and Monique Conti to Richmond, Libby Birch to Melbourne, Emma Kearney for North Melbourne and Jamiee Lambert for Collingwood.

Now, stars Bonnie Toogood is leaving for the Dons and Izzy Huntington has informed the club of her wishes to explore options with GWS. One fan commented on Twitter that losing Toogood was "another kick in the guts. Bulldogs pillaged by expansion clubs once more."

Having lost a total of 17 All-Australian selections since the league began in 2017, fair to say Bulldogs have a reason to feel dismayed by expansion.

However, it's not all bad news.

New talent coming through

Disrupt the disruption to the league and all existing clubs, expansion means a lot of new talent will have a chance to come through the ranks,with four whole new teams worth of players, across all 18 clubs, able to take to the field.

And this has proven a good thing in the past. When the Lions lost a number of players and had to rebuild, they unearthed Dakota Davidson, Cathy Svarc, Greta Bodey and Maria Moloney from Queensland talent pools, and scouted Orla O'Dwyer from Tipperary's Gaelic football and camogie teams.

What's more, is as some stronger teams in the competition have been previously full of mainstays, such as Adelaide and now Brisbane, meaning players on the cusp rarely, if at all, got to see games. However, with player movement and expansion, spots may open up on playing lists creating opportunities to get some game time.

Dust can settle

Then, after the last expansion period is over, clubs can finally settle without the question of any upcoming expansions lingering over them. For example, it will take away some lingering questions over players and how their allegiances may shift with new clubs coming in. It's commonly known that Erin Phillips's father, Greg Phillips, is an eight-time premiership player for Port Adelaide, including premiership captain in '92. Given this family history, throughout Erin Phillips' playing career, there was the everpresent looming question of whether she'd stay with the Crows or leave them when Power came in.

Well, now we know the answer. Similar questions about players can now be put to rest after this final expansion period, such as whether the Giants' Jess Doyle, who was a product of the Sydney Swans Academy, will stay or move to the new club.

Clubs, playing groups and coaches can build their teams knowing a new expansion won't come in and deplete them or take away the talent they have poured so much into - and fans can feel more reassured that all their stars won't leave in one big swoop.