Cautious excitement abounds as the AFLW's fifith season gets underway, with club captains leading from the frontline.
AFLW is back for a fifth year and the theme for many is ‘unfinished business’.
After the league made some attempts to limp towards a conclusion in their Covid-19 affected finals series, the pandemic struck the cruellest of blows, robbing a highly skilled and tightly contested season of its denouement as the AFL made the call to end the season early on March 22nd.
Emma Kearney of the North Melbourne-Tasmania Kangaroos knows better than most the heartbreak contained within 2020’s curtailed season. The former Bulldogs premiership player, league best and fairest and inaugural skipper of the Roos headed one of the most exciting and offensively damaging sides in the 14-team competition, tipped by most to claim a grand final berth.
Despite this, the gun midfielder is circumspect on the emotional rollercoaster that followed.
“The first lockdown was a bit of a novelty, I went back to my parents’ farm and spent three months there. That was something that I’d never normally do.
“[Plus] our team is full of introverts and I’m leading the charge on that! We’re quite a shy bunch. We really enjoyed the break from footy, from normal life I guess...more time to spend with partners or family members.”
One unforeseen outcome of the pandemic was the loss of coach Scott Gowans, whose contract was not renewed after the economic effects on the club began to bite in June, this despite an enviable win-loss record and long term relationship with much of the playing group tracing back to their VFLW alignment with Melbourne University. Kearney offered her perspective.
“I suppose going back to when Scott got moved on, some players took it really hard. They had a very close relationship with him. It was really difficult as a playing group because we were all isolated from each other.”
The initial shock gave way to acceptance and an embrace of the club’s decision, made in the most difficult of circumstances.
“After about a week, we got in contact with Crock [Darren Crocker] our new coach, we thought, ‘He’s the right guy to lead us to success’. Since pre-season started it’s been business as usual. He’s been awesome. [He] creates a really fun environment for the girls, but also an environment where they feel they can develop a lot more. Hopefully we can see some of that in the way we play.”
Geelong’s brand new captain is the 29-year-old Meg McDonald, who follows on from the recently retired Mel Hickey. Having only been announced as leader last month, McDonald inherits a side who has promised much, but delivered mixed results so far.
Off field, McDonald has been a key voice in guiding the direction of the AFLW as it has navigated the chaotic seas of growth following its beginning in 2017. Fresh issues face the entire league in 2021, something which is clearly front of mind for Meg.
“I’ll start by saying I think we’re all thinking of the GWS team, they’ve had some significant challenges not only due to borders, they’ve [also] had injuries along the way.
“To be away from home and in a hub just like the men’s season, we know that it’s going to be a challenge – we trust that the communication lines are open with the AFL and the AFLPA and that we can communicate our needs and circumstances.”
McDonald’s side are also no strangers to injury, young superstar Nina Morrison infamously ruptured her ACL for a second year running in 2020. Even with the added pressure of a pandemic, she believes her club’s specialised staff are as well placed as ever to deal with the scourge of soft-tissue injuries.
“I’m very lucky to be at a place where the impact of Covid-19 on our strength and conditioning, the way that the club operates as a resource for the players has not been impacted.
“Our strength and conditioning and prevention programs are continuing to grow...Nina’s doing really well and we’re confident that we’ll do whatever we can to prevent further injuries.
“We’re part of a club that’s very good at recognising...if you come into training and you’ve had a tough day, feeling tired...all that sort of stuff that we know is so key to injury prevention.”
Taking part in the second game of the season to kick off her team’s highly anticipated second season at the iconic Moorabbin ground, St Kilda’s Rhiannon Watt is rapt to see the early response to a long awaited competition, particularly in the high volume of tickets sold so far.
“I remember our first game down at RSEA Park at Moorabbin; we had over 7,000 there. I think it’s just so humbling.
“We know that the footy is great, we know it’s a different environment to the men’s; it’s really family-friendly and got a great community vibe about it.
“We understand that some things are ‘slow and steady’ and at the start it was about getting people to come along and watch us, so we could tell everyone ‘we’re here and ready to go’ - to now see it [ticketing] progress and still get the turnout that we want, is fantastic.”
One thing that will be newly ‘slow and steady’ is the fixturing for the remainder of the season. After border issues with WA caused a last-minute shake up of Round 1 and 2’s games, the rest of the year will unfold in a floating fixture of sorts, part of Nicole Livingstone’s stated aim of crowning a champion in 2021 come hell or high water. Watt notes that some within the playing group appreciate the unique situation where taking it ‘one week at a time’ is the only viable option.
“We take it day by day! If this past year has taught us anything, it’s about being adaptable and being flexible.
“We’ll focus on the Doggies this week and come Saturday our mind will be set on the Kangas and then we’ll see what happens. I think it’s a positive to not have that anticipation – you might stress about what’s coming up.
“We don’t know who we’re going to be playing, it’s just play each game as it comes, give it your absolute best and wake up the next day, look at the calendar and go from there.”
Limited tickets are on sale for all remaining games in Round 1 besides tonight's St Kilda v Western Bulldogs at Moorabbin and Sunday’s Richmond v Brisbane clash at Punt Road which are sold out, though fans will need to purchase a seat for each attendee online.