If you’ve read The Roundup at all this year, you’ll be aware of my adoration of what Peta Searle and her Saints have done in their debut season. A key part of that season was the way they built their list, bringing together players getting a second chance, accomplished VFLW performers and talented draftees. One of the most impressive of their second-chancers—and now co-captain of the club—is Kate Shierlaw, so I jumped at the opportunity to speak to her about her footy journey and the club’s first year in the AFLW.
I wanted to start with your journey through footy because in the AFLW everyone’s journeys have been the same but also very different at the same time. You’ve had the experience of starting, stopping and starting again. Can you talk me through how you got onto the Saints’ list and some of the choices you had to make to make that happen?
Yeah, well, I guess I was very lucky in year one to be on the list in the first place. Getting signed by Carlton as a rookie from overseas—I was playing overseas in London at the time—so I was really, really lucky. One of the lucky ones, and there were people playing locally here who probably deserved it more than me, but the way that the lists work, there were rookie spots and I was lucky enough to get on that. And being tall probably helped me with that. Really lucky to start with, but then probably wasn’t in the right environment to get the most out of myself. I felt like I probably wasn’t ready to be playing AFLW straight up, and as much as I wanted to believe that I was, looking back now [I] probably wasn’t.
Then once Carlton recruited Tayla Harris and those sort of players it made it a bit harder for me. Then the year that we had year two was really challenging. I was one of the ones that kind of fell out of the team and fell out of favour. I took it really hard to start with but I guess I felt sorry for myself and just thought I haven’t been given enough opportunity to develop and that sort of stuff. But then after a while I realised that I’m actually not good enough yet, I’ve got a lot of work to do. I went to Darebin just to try and enjoy my footy again and play with my mates, so that was a really big call. I was really glad that I did that. I had the choice of going to St Kilda that year because Pete (Peta Searle) was chatting to me then trying to get me over that year. But I knew that [the] Saints weren’t coming until the next year, so I really wanted to have one more crack at last year’s draft.
I thought Darebin was the best place for me, around the corner from where I was living at the time. I loved my time there but didn’t get picked up, so as soon as the draft happened, I rang Pete I said, you’ve lost Rhi Watt, Courteney Munn, all these talls and I said, I’m going to come to the Saints. I was just set on it. And she was like yep, come do a tour, then straight away I was at the Saints. I’d spoken to Aasta O’Connor, I value her opinion on development and footy views and she told me the Saints and Pete are really good for development. I felt like I just needed a coach who would help develop me and so I signed at the Saints.
Peta Searle has been such a hugely positive influence on the AFLW, not just this year but this year was her first chance to really do it at the front lines being a coach of a team. She obviously had a big influence on you not only going to the Saints at VFLW level, but then being picked up.
Yeah, I’ve obviously had a few different coaches in my time in footy already which hasn’t been that long, but she’s hands down the best coach I’ve had and I don’t think she gets the recognition she probably deserves. I can’t wait to see what she can do with the young Sainters going forward and hopefully I can hang on for as long as possible, at my age. Once I got into the VFLW it was just such a steep learning curve with her coaching. I was just learning so much and I still am. Every time I’m at the club, I’m craving more learning just because I’ve got a taste of it so it’s just a constant learning experience and once I started VFLW she gave me a bit more confidence in my game and started to string a few more better games together in the VFLW and then she wanted me for AFLW as well. I guess because I’ve had that experience of coming from Carlton as well so I can help the younger kids as well.
Yeah, but you’ve got to also give yourself credit for the development in your skill level too.
Yeah, I’ve clearly improved from when I was at Carlton, but I think I probably naturally would have progressed a little bit because I’m pretty raw to the game, just even kicking and stuff like that I would have naturally progressed, but Pete’s really accelerated my footy knowledge more than anyone else could have I think.
And then you got named as a co-captain of the club as well. How was getting that call or being told about that?
Initially I was a little bit, like super super proud and humbled especially to be voted by your peers is like pretty special. I don’t know what the right word is, but I was a bit tentative at the start because I just thought other people from other clubs were thinking ‘god she couldn’t even play AFLW last year’. I had all these anxious sort of feelings to start with. Then I started to like to settle down and just think, you know, at the end of the day, the only people that matter are your teammates and the people around the club. To get the confidence from them is really, really special and something I’m really proud of.
I really love how diverse the three captains are as well. I should have prefaced this by saying I’m a big Melbourne supporter. So seeing Cat Phillips go to the Saints was heartbreaking, but it was great to see three really different types of player be voted into that role as well. Do you think that really helped the leadership of the club?
I think if you look at our list we don’t have the big superstars or big names that you’d go suddenly, you’re the captain of the team, and you’re the one who will drive and carry the team in your shoulders. Rhi’s one of the most amazing people-person that you’ll ever come across. She’s warm and bubbly. She connects with every single player on the list from 18-year-olds to 35-year-olds. She’s got a good relationship with the coach and the staff, very mature. Cat’s a bit more of a quiet achiever and she sets really high standards on the track and she’s another one who, it doesn’t matter who you are and where you sit, there’s no pecking order so she’s really good at driving standards for that sort of stuff. She speaks her mind. I know that the stuff around the PA when we’re trying to get the bargaining agreement done, she was unbelievable advocating for the women. She definitely gets what she wants and doesn’t stand for anything else.
You mentioned the list just then, that was something else that I was really keen to chat to you about. It’s been interesting the past two years seeing the way expansion clubs have built their lists. This year, it seemed like a very clear distinction between how maybe the Saints and the Suns did it, as compared to Richmond and West Coast. The Saints have such an even spread, and it seems like you’ve gone after a lot of role players, is that kind of the attitude around the club is that everyone just has to play their role. It’s not about a single star. It’s about everyone doing the little thing and it makes a big difference overall?
Yeah, I think that’s that’s probably what the leaders have definitely tried to drive from the start. Looking at the list they’re not super, super, superstars. There’s plenty that will be superstars. We’ve just got to try and keep a lid on them and keep them just playing their roles like the rest of us and they’ll go a long way to helping us be really good. It’s really powerful when you actually feel like you’re contributing and fulfilling your role in the team, even if it’s just bumps and tackles. It’s really invigorating when you don’t have to be the one getting all the ball and all the goals, as long as you’re getting recognised for doing what you’re meant to be doing. Internally, it’s really, really important for our group.
We’ve talked about Peta Searle, and we could talk about Peta Searle all day, but I’ll try to keep a lid on it. It wasn’t just her though. Paddy Hill came into the club and how much of an influence do you think he had on that sort of attitude as well?
Oh, yeah, he’s the forward line coach so I had a lot to do with him. He’s really, really, really strong on doing the team thing. He often will highlight unrewarded running or the bumps and the tackles and stuff that really drive the team. He’s huge on that. He’s probably pushed Pete even further in that area, I’d say.
You also had, I think it was—I could be wrong on this—the biggest contingent of Hawthorn VFLW players drafted into your team as well. I want to talk about Rosie Dillon because we get really excited about Georgia Patrikios in the middle and Olivia Vesely. They’re incredible. But Rosie Dillon’s hard work and just in and under, unrewarded kind of stuff has gone a really long way in your team. Is that something internally that you’re really aware of?
Yeah, definitely. She’s massive for us. Probably the first time she really stood out to me was in one of our match simulations and I was just like, she is so special. It’s unreal. And when she keeps building her fitness base she’s going to be an absolutely unreal player. She’s probably the most footy smart out of our whole team. The more confident she gets and more games she plays she will probably become even better in terms of helping set up other girls and that sort of stuff, becoming more of a leader as well because she just sees the game so well, so it’s gonna be really special.
That’s a terrifying prospect heading into next year I’ve got to say.
Yeah, if you look at how young our midfield is, even she’s only young and raw to this level. So it’s really exciting I think.
It’s scary! The other thing—I spoke briefly to Tilly Lucas-Rodd about this on Kick Like A Girl for Triple R—it was really interesting to see for a lot of the year it was a very defensive game style that worked very, very well and was very locked down, but it can sometimes prove a little bit hard for you guys to get it on the other end and score. Whereas in that Carlton game that I actually tweeted you about recently, it felt like a really big shift and the only thing that didn’t quite come off was maybe accuracy in front of goal but everything else looked really, really good. Was that a concerted shift across or was it your game plan finally getting the breakthrough that maybe you hadn’t quite yet had earlier?
Nothing really changed with the actual game plan. I think the more connection we have as a group between particularly midfield to forward. I think we struggled a little bit, the midfield were winning the ball, but the connection just wasn’t quite there. And as you’ve seen a couple of times in the Melbourne game, even I’m trying to think back, the Adelaide game, we can slingshot the ball so quickly when we do get the connection. I remember in the practice game against Carlton we scored some unbelievable goals from one end to the other, switching it around the other side. We’ve got ridiculous leg speed in the team so it’s one of our strengths. I guess after six games playing together, it’s hard to build up that connection. Hopefully moving forward we can string it together a little bit more than we did this year. But really, our defence is unheralded and so strong this year and probably kept us in every single game.
One hundred percent and I didn’t realise how fast Clara Fitzpatrick was.
Yeah, she’s an unreal athlete. She is an incredible athlete and what a talent she is. She’s only played ruck, played a full VFLW season in the ruck and one VFLW season in defence. Yeah, she’s a ridiculous talent. I’ve had to play on her all pre-season. So yeah, she’s not an easy defender.
I actually made that joke with Sarah Perkins about her having to play on Chantella Perera so it seems like that’s quite a common thing across the AFLW is not wanting to play on your own defenders.
Yeah, on one hand you want to play on the best defender to challenge yourself, but she doesn’t make it easy.
Well, she was brilliant against Freo, particularly with Gemma Houghton who’s notoriously athletic as well. So good to watch those one on ones. Tayla Harris as well!
She’s a perfect match up for those athletic key forwards really. She’s competitive. She just gets the job done. She doesn’t want any attention she just does her job, which is what we want.
Amazing. And we can’t speak about the Saints without mentioning Caitlin Greiser.
Yeah, the G train.
How was it playing in a forward line with someone that just could pop up and do the craziest stuff?
I was lucky enough to play with her in the VFLW season as well so I’ve seen what she’s been doing all winter and you kind of get snippets of what she can do and it’s pretty scary so I think she’s still got so far to go and I just think the end point where she can get is just so good. It’s gonna be scary, she continues just to keep working and improving because she can play tall, she can play small and as she continues to work on her hands and stuff like that which are already good, I think that can become even better. It’s going to be really scary. It helps me. At the start of the season I was probably having a few more of the main, bigger defenders and then as she started to pop up, the defence focus started to shift towards her and it just makes our forward line harder to guard when you’ve got you know, Kate McCarthy and all the quick girls running through there as well. We can have multiple options and she’s just another one that can just pop up when we need her, particularly against Melbourne which is pretty amazing.
I know it’s so hard to appreciate just how good it was when it’s against your team!
It’s funny because she practices kicking from outside 50 non stop at training and I always say to her mate, we know you can kick 55 metres, let’s practice on the angle or in from 30 you know, here and there, but she just wants to kick her long ones, which is great. Then the game, she marked the ball where she did, and I remember trying to lead out and she did this one (waves hand to signal stopping the lead). I was like yep, all right, I’m not going to waste my energy. I’ll go back to the goal line and shepherd through and then didn’t need a shepherd. And I was like, this is unreal.
It was just the most perfect context again, ignoring the fact that was against Melbourne. It was the perfect context to the Saints first win. At Moorabbin, pride game as well, and late in the game, I do want to mention just for the sake of the interview, the fact that Shelley Scott kicked a very similar goal earlier in that game. It was amazing and she’s amazing.
She’s a star and I don’t think she gets enough credit. I think with a lot of AFLW media I think it’s all about the timing and when you kick a goal, like G Train kicks the same goal but she wins the game. So she’s all over the media and Shelley Scott kicks it in the middle of the game and you kind of don’t hear about her and she’s just one of those players that as an opposition, you know exactly what she’s gonna do. But she doesn’t get enough recognition, that’s for sure.
Her marking on the lead this year was incredible. Just every time she was leading out, it’s like, yep, it’s gonna hit her on the chest. She’s gonna take that mark. Very good. I do want to ask one really annoying question before we finish it off. Who is the hardest opposition defender to play against? Because I’m referring back to your top five lists on Twitter and you haven’t done this one.
Oh definitely for me Sarah Allan. I didn’t get to play Meg McDonald, Tahlia Randall, a couple of others that I rate as well, but I didn’t get to play them this year and since I’ve come back into the league so I’m going to go with Sarah Allan. She’s one of my all time favourite players. I think Sarah Allan’s so much quicker than she probably looks. She’s so quick, just so competitive and really smart and she just doesn’t really get beaten. Yeah, she’s really good.
I did cop a few aggressive messages about not having included her in my All Australian team. So I feel very guilty about that now, but it’s written, it’s done.
You can’t fit everyone in.
Thank you so much. I really appreciate you having a chat to me!