Amongst the overwhelming support for the opening round of AFL women’s, there were some pretty disappointing (and yet utterly predictable) opinions doing the rounds.
The players were tough-as-nails, but some less-charitable armchair experts chose to focus on the skill errors and low scores as evidence that the concept is doomed.
So this is an invitation to those people.
Let’s go on a journey together, to an alternate reality.
In this Alternate Australia, a boy called Johnno plays footy, and a girl named Sarah plays netball.
So far, pretty standard.
But now let’s imagine that at 14, Johnno gets told “Sorry mate, I know you love the game, but we don’t run U-16 competitions in AFL. You’re going to have to go to tennis or swimming if you want to keep playing top-level sport.” He fights the system, but it’s no use. There are no AFL programs for older teenagers.
Meanwhile Sarah signs up to U16 Netball. No problem. She’s pretty good, too. Her local club has a network of coaching staff who are able to nurture her talent.
Johnno plays footy in his spare time at the park, but it’s not really the same. He keeps looking for an organised league that will let him play, but doesn’t have any luck. He asks around for other blokes willing to have a kick, but most have given the game away. They’re focusing on studies or family or career or a different sport altogether. But Johnno loves footy, he’s determined to find a way to play.
Meanwhile, Sarah struggles to juggle the requirements of TOO MUCH organised netball. She balances School Netty and Saturday morning Club Netty. It’s 6 sessions a week, but thankfully it’s not costing her parents too much because the Club Netty has a major sponsor on board to cover travel costs and equipment. They even have a former Australian Diamond as their coach, which helps Sarah refine her skills.
Johnno reaches 17 or so, having not played a game of organised AFL in a couple of years. He’s always wanted to play, but with no organised league he’s had to just try and play with mates at the park. He hasn’t had any coaching or skills training since he was 13. His school isn’t much help, they’re too focused on the upcoming Netball finals, which has the entire community buzzing.
Meanwhile, Sarah is a good enough netballer to be chosen for State-Level Netty, which is great, but it’s even more workload… Thankfully her school and the Old Girls Netball Club are just rapt that she’s ANZ Championship prospect, so they allow her a lot of leeway in terms of training times and schedules. She misses School Netty a bit, but her play at State Level is turning heads. Her sister sends her a link showing that she’s considered a possible Top Ten Draft pick.
Johnno hits 18, obviously not having had the chance to play AFL properly between the ages of 14 and 18. A local competition starts up, so he gets a chance to once again, after four years off, pick up a Sherrin and play an organised game. He does well enough that the Collingwood Magpies give him a call.
(They can’t offer him any salary, of course, but they want to know if he can make it to a training session or two as a trial. They’ve miraculously managed to book some time on Gosch’s Paddock during the Netball Offseason.)
Meanwhile, Sarah’s made it! She’s been drafted to the ANZ Championship! She’s taken at Pick #5 by the Melbourne Vixens. She signs a rookie deal worth $240,000 a year. As she’s walking from the 55,000 Seat Melbourne Netball Stadium to her Lexus (provided by the Vixens since they’re the major sponsors), she spots Johnno and the Magpies training session from across Gosch’s Paddock.
Johnno is a bit frazzled cos he was late to training because he didn’t get out of his 9-5 office job until closer to 6pm, and training started at 6pm so he didn’t have a chance to prepare properly. Having not played competitively for years, and having finished his full-time work only a few minutes prior, and in his first training session for the financially-struggling Magpies… Johnno shanks his kick during the Magpies’ kicking drill.
The next time his turn comes up, Johnno drops a mark.
Sarah keeps walking to her Lexus.
She mutters under her breath.
“Pffft. Their skills are a bit crap.”
So next time you watch the AFL Women’s, consider the fact that the women kicking that ball had to fight damn hard to get that chance.
They did so despite social pressures and despite having no leagues, coaches, grounds, clubhouses, sponsors or any of the advantages male AFL players have growing up.
The AFL Women’s League is in its infancy. The intensity and commitment is already there. The skills will undoubtedly improve. The scores will steadily rise. The level of play will be better.
And the naysayers will look like idiots for having doubted the drive and dedication of the women involved, who’ve already kicked so so so many goals just getting the idea off the ground.