Last week, the grounds at the Chirnside Park Football Club, in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, were a hive of activity as teams got their Thursday night training sessions underway.
The air turned cool as the sun set, hinting the winter footy season was not far away. The atmosphere hummed with the sounds of a busy family club – parents and members in and out of the clubhouse, boots striking footballs, friends sharing greetings and the audible heavy breathing from the members of the veterans’ team who were starting with a jog around the boundary.
The chatter in the middle of the second oval drifted across the ground confirming the senior women’s team were preparing to put in a couple of hours of hard work.
Coach Glen Murray was milling in the centre of it all, letting his charges settle as balls were being kicked, handpasses shared and greetings exchanged before the serious business of the night began.
He set the group off on a lap or two of the oval to warm-up and then took a moment aside to relate the impact of the recent revolution in Victorian women’s football, and in the broader Australian footy landscape, on this local club.
“We’ve got a bigger list now. We probably have an average (age) of 23 but we do have one lady out there who’s 43 and we have a lady who’s 35. We’ve got a lot more new girls and everyone’s worrying about playing time because we did push to get a second (Reserves) side but we haven’t got the grounds; we haven’t got the facilities,” he said.
Murray added the club is in talks with the local council and a new building is on the drawing board and should, hopefully, only be a year or two away.
“A lot of the teams we’re playing have a premier division side and a second division side, we’ve only got us at the moment (but) we’ll hopefully expand. We’ve come a long way and we’ve got a good bunch of girls (and) a good leadership group, so we can only go forward,” he said, adding with some pride that this team had been promoted from fourth to second division for this coming season.
“We’ve got a few girls that really want to go as far as they can. We’ve got a few girls (even) going to the ANZAC Day clash; two of ours have been nominated to go - so they’ll play,” said Murray with some pride.
It’s All Part of the Bigger Plan
The catalyst for this growth in both interest and participation has been the introduction of the AFL Women’s Academies around the country – the largest of which is the Victorian one.
All the players involved have now returned to their local clubs for the 2016 VWFL season which kicks off this month across the state.
It’s a new season and a new outlook for women’s Aussie Rules with preparations underway for the first national competition, proposed for early 2017.
That’s the big picture story with AFL Clubs currently going through a tender process, bidding to be among the handful of teams vying to be part of history as Women’s footy - in the code which is uniquely Australian - gets female representation on the big stage.
The proposal which has been officially outlined by the AFL in recent weeks is to have an initial two month season running through February and March 2017.
This plan has come in for a lot of initial criticism as many envisaged a competition which would parallel (in its most basic form) the AFL Men’s competition timing and structure. This proposal is far from that.
When the blustering by women’s sports pundits is set aside, the proposed format could be the most sustainable option - a first step for growth on what will be a long road to success for the viability of a National Women’s competition.
AFL Victoria Women’s Football (VWFL) competition manager Darren Flanigan believes this.
“There are a 100 players coming out of the State League to play in a national competition next year which is 18 per team (if you have six Victorian teams in the competition) which means the whole State League falls over," Flanigan said.
"Let’s say a smaller club can only provide three or four then the bigger clubs will have to provide up to 15 players. That’s a whole senior team – out of our State comp.
"As part of the bigger plan for women’s AFL, what becomes apparent is that it needs to start slow and small. It needs to be able to evolve and not become the cause of its own demise," he said.
This enables the women playing elite level footy in the new national competition to return to their home clubs to continue playing in the normal season, for the survival of the state league and the local footy competitions.
Flanigan believes this will enable growth and an improved skill-set of that State League, in the coming years, producing talent that will then feed the national competition via the elite performance academy. Without this pathway, grassroots footy will be depleted, Flanigan says.
“The 100 that will go into the AFL clubs will improve enormously because they’ll be within a structured football environment with amazing facilities and coaching. The girls that are left behind – the ones playing in the State League without these (AFL) girls in it – the gap will be enormous in a very short space of time – between them and what’s required by the AFL,” he said.
He points out that once a critical mass of players in the elite ranks is achieved, then the structure and timing of the national season can be reviewed.
“At the moment, anyone who is half good is going to get on an AFL list. Once we get into a situation where you have to be very good, the ones who are missing out but are good, are still playing a high standard of footy (in the State League). You would then have the ability to move your competition away from the pre-season and to the in-season base,” Flanigan said.
The weight of the men's AFL season
The other consideration around the timing of the inaugural women’s national fixture is the immense weight the regular AFL season carries, particularly in Melbourne. According to Darren Flanigan, if the women’s competition had to compete with the men’s it would be completely overshadowed in both media coverage and public awareness.
“You’ve just got to be a little bit careful because the AFL is so dominant in the media that women’s footy may get lost. The other thing about that window they’ve picked around … the NAB Challenge (is) there’s not a complete saturation of footy,” he said.
The support from the AFL clubs is also evidence that the women’s game is growing and is a highly rated market.
At least six of the Victorian based clubs have expressed interest in tendering for a franchise and most have been more than willing to assist with resources and support for the work of the Women’s Academy over the past six months.
“We’ve been really pleased with the way it’s all been perceived and received,” Flanigan said.
The players have also given a lot of positive feedback, according to Flanigan, with virtually everyone reporting increased playing fitness and strength and with a much greater skill set than when they started.
“The good players, they’ve become exceptional; their skills are so much better and look like hardened athletes now, so it’s gone from a social kick around to a seriously athletic competition in a very short period of time,” he said.
“And these players have gone back to their local clubs and taken drills we do on the Tuesday night at the Academy, to their club training on the Wednesday or the Thursday. And they virtually did it from day one - they didn’t need any encouragement.
“There’s obviously a strong need from these girls to really want to improve and really want to play at a high level. And I don’t think we can underestimate that. The level of commitment is outstanding," Flanigan said.
Glen Murray agrees. He is impressed with what he’s seen since taking on women’s football coaching.
“Girls want to learn. Once they get to know you and respect you as a person and a coach, they’ll listen to you. I’ve really enjoyed it. I used to coach for a few years and I started not to like it and they’ve made me want to do it again. I love it - they’re not girls, they’re footy players.
"They turn up and they’re all focused on footy, so they’re a footballing bunch of women.”
Exhibition AFL games on this weekend:
Saturday, 9 April 2016
- Sydney Swans v GWS Giants, SCG 1.40pm AEST
- LIVE on Fox Footy: Fremantle v West Coast 3.05pm WST/ 5.05pm (AEST), Domain Stadium
Sunday, 10 April 2016
- Northern Territory v Tasmania. Peanut Reserve, St Kilda 12.10pm AEST