The aura surrounding Leah Kaslar this season shone bright and strong.
A no-nonsense skipper who led a team of young Queenslanders into the cauldron of AFLW footy and emerged with them tempered by the heat of a debut final, this image illustrates just what the former Lion is made of; with sweat-beaded brow, full-voiced connection to the huddle around her...this is Kaslar in her element.
Plenty of water has gone under the bridge since the Suns faced Fremantle and in a continuation of TWG’s behind the image series, we talked to Leah about just what makes the leader behind the image tick, alongside perspective on her team, town and what we can hope to see in the future.
On leadership conceptually and personality, Kaslar was forthcoming and fulsome about the importance of a skipper linking with others and in turn bringing them to the table:
“The most important thing in leadership is understanding the team around you and how they work...knowing what your team is trying to achieve overall and culture you’re trying to drive.
It’s far from a one-woman show at the Suns. In addition to another former Lion in a formal leadership position (Sam Virgo) Kaslar points to a number of others who shape where Gold Coast are headed in unique and profound ways.
“Sal Riley as our ‘culture captain’ really knows the right things to say at the right time to bring the group together.
“Tiarna Ernst is a great one...I think her diligence in what she does – not only football, but off the field – makes her a really respected person in our group.
“[With] Jamie Stanton, a lot of her leading is through her actions...I know that the younger girls admire that. From our young players Serene Watson has had a big impact on the group; it’s not just her drive in how she trains...but how she builds camaraderie; she invests in doing things for the team. Be it social activities, games played before training...she tends to draw people in and engage them.
“As a young team you want to build connections with the more mature leaders while also building underneath – we’re quite lucky that we have a few of those.”
Though the Gold Coast local has a wealth of experience at the top level, much of her praise flows to players at the very start of their AFLW careers; as much for the ability to teach as to learn.
“Serene for example, if I’m doing something out of line at training she’ll pull me up.
“It doesn’t work in leadership that the people at the top are always saying ‘This is how you need to do it’ you need buy-in and input from the younger, less experienced players.
“If you squash that, if you don’t allow that to come out, you actually miss all these really valuable parts of your team that can make you great. I think that’s something we’ve really tried to build into our culture and we’ve had some success.”
There are many ways to measure success, but undoubtedly significant marker comes in the form of finals football. How does she reflect on the game itself?
“Honestly, there wasn’t much about that that was normal! We didn’t know halfway through the week where we were going or what we were doing.
“In that photo I was trying to instil confidence and belief– coming up against the top of the ladder with travel for the third week in a row...it’d been a pretty gruelling few weeks on the road.
“Unfortunately they were too good for us...our team had the heart, determination and hunger going into that game; we probably didn’t have both the physical and mental resilience that you need to get yourself over the line in those high-pressure games.”
“Having that experience as a team shows us where we need to be. I know the year before Fremantle had a similar game – in a sense – at the end of their season. You get to that point where you’ve been acceptable then you just don’t have enough fuel left in the tank...That’s taught us how to prepare, which I think is a really valuable thing.”
Prepare they will; at what is an exciting and dynamic time for the Suns and indeed Queensland women’s footy, the next level is surely not too far away.
“I think there was a time a while ago that we were behind Western Australia and Victoria, but I think we’ve stepped up…the investment into coaching and playing pathways is really showing.”
Leah points to a couple of examples of what has changed even in her relatively brief time in the game.
“Having the two AFLW teams obviously makes it more attractive for the AFL to invest.
“Attracting quality coaches to community clubs, some of the funding that’s been allocated to upgrade facilities...investment into competition requirements: physios, strength and conditioning, umpiring...has a flow-on effect.
“Nicole Graves: previously head of women’s football at Carlton and a three-time premiership coach at Swan Districts; she’s now coaching at Coolangatta.
“I think we’re in a good place in Queensland – that also comes from good leadership from people like Dean Warren, Craig Starcevich, David Lake.”
Having plied her trade exclusively in the Sunshine State, Kaslar also plays a key role in all things north of the Tweed River. Make no mistake though, despite having enjoyed her time playing at Brisbane immensely, nothing beats home.
“Brisbane is Brisbane and the Gold Coast is my home. I always loved playing up there, but it was very tough personally since I spent so much time in the car driving back and forth… and to hang out with the girls, it was all up there. I missed out on some of the social stuff. I was always trying to find a balance between work and football, family and friends.
“Coming to play at the Suns has been great.”
“But it’s also a challenge, because through this first season we’ve had to figure out where people fit together on the team, which positions they play best…
“It was also tough to leave the Lions, so close to a premiership. You have a really tight bond and you think ‘Do I want to play out my career here?’ Or go to the Gold Coast where I know that we’re going to have to really work...but that’s what I love doing, so that’s the option I chose.
“I feel at home and it’s a chance to give back to the game.”
As our conversation wrapped up, the ever team-focused Kaslar again amplified the spotlight on the side who stand beside her and had plenty of fans sitting up noticing in 2020.
“Regardless of the outcome of that particular game, the excitement, passion and commitment that our girls showed across the season was exceptional and I think that was visible to people all around the country.
“I’m proud of what each of them brought...as the season unfolded we saw talent emerge as confidence and belief grew; Kahlinda [Howarth], Jacqui Yorston...our younger players like Stanno [Jamie Stanton].
“We’ve now seen the benchmark and I know that our girls are committed.”