From humble beginnings to the SCG, Sarah Groube gives Zela and exclusive, personal account of the history of women’s footy in Sydney.
Sarah Groube

1 Apr 2016 - 7:55 PM  UPDATED 26 Jul 2016 - 7:38 AM

On 1 April 2000, the first match in the Sydney Women’s Australian Rules Football competition was played.

Now, 16 years after that initial bounce of the ball, women will kit up for the first ever match between teams affiliated with AFL clubs in NSW. It’s Sydney Swans v GWS Giants.

It’s funny to think back to the early days and how everything started. Much has been said in women’s footy circles of the role of Yvette Andrews, Patrice Ladson, Lucy Burgmann and others from the Western Wolves who gathered a group together, started training, and even held a match against players from the newly formed ACT Women’s League in 1999.

But there’s another story that hasn’t been heard. And that’s the one that suggests the Sydney Olympic Games had a lot to do with pioneering women’s AFL in Sydney.

When you think of all the legacies of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games – the venues, the major event management expertise, the inspiration of a generation through the success of our athletes – you don’t think of Aussie rules…

But Karen Taylor, now living in Edinburgh Scotland, remembers the formative years of Sydney Women’s AFL.

“The early days of setting up the league in Sydney followed on from the set up of ACT in 1998 as we had a league of about 5 teams. I played for Ainslie and now and again we would play a match against the only Sydney team, Wests,” she recalled.

“When I moved to Sydney in 1999 to work for the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG), I used to train with Wests. They had a team for about two years and really hadn't done anything about expanding.

“I travelled (from Eastern Sydney) to training for a while until I announced at training I was setting up a team in the East to see if there was interest. There was, so I found coaches and approached the University of NSW to get on board and set up the second team in Sydney.

“I convinced Ray Stoddart, also from SOCOG and Kevin Heidke to coach us. Through conversations with other SOCOGers, we got another team up at Sydney Uni and that sparked the formation of the league.”

Sydney University’s women’s AFL founder Meredith Gray agreed “The legacy of SOCOG lives on through Sydney women's footy. Karen Taylor was my unexpected intro to the game. I was so hooked from my first game in 1999 at that training session with Wests, that the Sydney Uni Women's AFL Club was formed. Lachlan Worthy, another SOCOGer came to the party as Sydney Uni coach, and of course you too Groubes.”

I was the Football Tournament Administrator at SOCOG – something tells me we were at a happy hour when a new staff member, Karen Taylor, asked a few of us if we knew of an AFL team she could join. When we responded that there wasn’t a competition in Sydney, she couldn’t believe it. And looked quite proud that Canberra had beaten Sydney to the punch.

I had played AFL as a junior in Canberra with Ainslie. I had to quit the sport at age 11, like the handful of other girls who played back then in the 80s, when the boys moved to the tackling version of the game. Most of my best mates were in the team, and it was sad to leave the game I loved. I was proud of the guys who went on to play at higher levels. A young James Hird was in the age group above me. Whatever happened to him I sometimes wonder? So, like others, I took up basketball, then volleyball, then soccer, and finally AFL knocked on the door again…

The first season of Sydney Women’s AFL in 2000 was one of the best. All the clubs were working together to figure it all out. How would we recruit players? Where would we train? How could we arrange playing gear? Would anyone be available to umpire us? Early calls to Sydney AFL went unanswered so we were on our own, drafting a sporting constitution that was inclusive of our community.

We were fairly confident. We were organising the Olympic Games – surely we could organise a local footy comp! And we did. Playing on half fields with reduced player numbers, goal posts made of white polypipe, hand-me-down guernseys from men’s teams, training on the dark corners of the blokes’ training fields. We were all pretty proud of ourselves.

Recruitment turned out to be a breeze and team sizes grew and grew in the early years. Most players had a second sport they were also playing, and they would bring players from their other teams to play footy.

We had players from the national teams of soccer, rugby league, basketball, rugby union, volleyball – it was an eclectic mix, but a winning group of women who pioneered the game in Sydney. And who could forget throwing on the sky blue guernsey and playing at the Nationals? Our one big aim for the first few Nationals was to get a score, major or minor, on the board against the Big V of Victoria! Footy seemed to be a sporting outlet that didn’t contain the politics of our ‘other’ sports, and our footy clubs became our go to social scene.

As the seasons wore on, competition grew more fierce and rivalries started to form. After winning the second season with Sydney University (we lost the grand final in the first year to Wests in double over-time!), a small group of us broke away under Jamie Robertson (formerly Jamie Rosman, who played in the Matildas first ever international match in 1979) to form the Newtown Breakaways, the first club to stand alone without a local men’s club.

With financial support from Sydney business-woman Donna Assensio, who had always dreamed of owning an AFL club, we went out on our own. In the first season we had custom made strips, a medic, our own sponsors, a small budget to pay a coach, and even team bags. But training grounds were still hard to come by.

“Councils still didn’t get it when it came to equality for women in sports,” Robertson said in The Official History of the Sydney Women’s Australian Football League.

“Only thanks to the efforts of Yvonne (Balmain) and Yvette (Wests), we managed to get by. I think we trained at five different venues throughout the year – two of which were patches of public parks. We also had a couple of coaches that year – Jack, my trainer at the local gym, and Shauna McKenna – who had a great understanding of the game.”

Ultimately though, the autonomy gave us the facilities, the professionalism, and the associated confidence, to grow as a club, winning four flags in a row under Robertson who took over the coaching of the Breakaways in the first season. Looking back, we probably looked like the silver-tails of the league, but we unapologetically wanted to raise the bar each year, and I think we did.

Sixteen years have passed, and the Breakaways are defending premiers again, after a period of ‘re-building’. Last year was a defining one for the club, having lost one of our foundation players and the best full-forward the Sydney league has seen in Rebecca Burridge, to leukaemia in May. Bec scored four goals in her final game the previous season. Old and new Breakaways re-united to send her off with a cheer and a standing ovation, and the team went on to win the flag with Bec’s jersey and photo in the change room and on the bench with them, and her family in the stands. There’s just something about footy that other sports can’t emulate when it comes to club spirit.

Things have certainly changed since those early years.  Sydney has move on from the Olympic era - the seemingly ever present sky-blue line of the Sydney Olympic marathon course has well and truly faded, and all bar a handful of those original players remain in the League today.

The clubs of the Sydney Women’s AFL voted unanimously to join Sydney AFL in 2012, with the competition expanding to two divisions. Junior pathways for girls are starting to solidify. Women are landing coaching gigs, umpiring on the big stage, and now the elite playing pathway to the top is taking shape with a view to an introductory national league in 2017.

To all those lacing up the boots for the Sydney Swans v Greater Western Sydney Giants on 9 April 2016, I salute you. Thank you for all the training I know you are doing, and the sacrifices you are making to make this great game even better.

And to those who went before you – I salute you and thank you too. The Olympic credence of ‘faster, higher, stronger’ certainly fits the journey women’s AFL in Sydney has taken since the 27th Olympiad of 2000.

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