It’s been a tumultuous year, to say the least. Australia heralded the new year with half the country on fire, and as we began to find some normalcy—normalcy for many meaning heading to the footy on the weekend and dissecting the games during the week—everything suddenly stopped. We’ve heard from many perspectives: AFLW players who exchanged their guernseys for PPE, others who simply had no part-time job to return to, and many who went back to their home states to weather the storm. One of those returning to their family home was GWS midfielder Tait Mackrill.
Staying with her parents in a rural South Australian town, the now-Sydneysider was “trying to find stuff to do” in between online uni classes. We joke that isolation is the perfect time to get an animal. I suggest cows for her parents’ house on the assumption that their rural property had some land, but Tait laughs “we could probably fit one cow in the backyard… a single cow.” While I’m still all for the idea of Tait Mackrill getting a single cow as something to do during the isolation period, this exchange tells me what I need to know about her. She is a down to earth, easy going and genuine person, who just happens to also play footy for the GWS Giants.
Tait Mackrill has had a turbulent AFLW journey, somewhat similar to teammate Rebecca Privitelli and St Kilda co-captain Kate Shierlaw. Drafted in 2017 ahead of the 2018 season, she wasn’t able to break into the Giants’ deep midfield for a senior game.
“[I was] trying to get in better shape and just work on my fitness. Trying to get, I guess, game ready. Obviously didn’t play a game in the end so it was like a very extended preseason.”
But it was the disappointment of the 2018 season that prepared her for life as an AFLW player.
“Everyone wants to play games. Not playing games is very character building and I’ve learned so much from that year when I didn’t play. And I guess this year. I didn’t play as many games as I would have hoped. I think it’s been great for me to develop my resilience off field and on field, and it definitely helped. So when I did play, it put me in a good position.”
This resilience is something Mackrill attributes to a lot of female athletes.
“You’ve got full-time teachers, you’ve got physios, you’ve got people that are unemployed or people that work part-time or casually, so everyone’s faced with their own challenges. But I think that’s what’s so good about us is we rally around each other and rally together.”
But the Giants face some unique challenges in the AFLW competition, being the club that sees most players dissipate across the country during winter. While most other clubs are able to keep a large group of players together for most of the year—whether it be them simply living in the same state, or playing together in state leagues—the Giants see many players return to their home states and play across many different teams, particularly in the VFLW competition.
“It can be quite difficult, even just the social side of things. You go from seeing everyone six, seven days a week during the season, to not seeing them at all for six months because they all move on. So it does feel like a bit of a disadvantage, but I also feel like that’s what makes us such a close knit group at the same time.”
And it was this tight knit group that welcomed the youngster into the fold initially when she landed in Sydney, with Courtney Gum the only familiar face. Mackrill describes how Rebecca Privitelli and Pepa Randall organised to pick her up and take her to the first club function for the season.
“From the moment I walked through, it was a sense of family and sense of community. Obviously the debut video, not just for me, for everyone over the past few years, I think it’s pretty evident from the outside looking in that’s the kind of culture we’ve got building at the moment.”
That strong culture aside, difficult decisions must be made at club level every year, and some of those difficult decisions include delisting players. This was a new challenge Mackrill faced at the end of 2019.
“It’s kind of a hard one because you can get insight, but you can’t be given any promises. I knew what I had to work on during the off season and I knew if I worked on it and tried to succeed in those areas I thought I would have a pretty good opportunity of getting picked up. But until I got called out again on draft day I couldn’t be certain.”
Getting a run in the middle
A natural midfielder, the depth of the Giants’ onballers has meant Mackrill was recruited to spend more time forward, but this year some injuries opened up an opportunity late in the season for her to team up with close mate Alyce Parker at the contest.
“[Alyce is] one of my closest mates up in Sydney, so I guess it kind of just transferred. Off field friendship to that on field connection. I found when I played in there, everyone knows their role and you don’t have to think twice about anything.”
Some of this comfort on the ball also came from her connection with new ruck recruit Jess Allan, formerly of the Adelaide Crows.
“I grew up playing all my rep footy with Jess. We’ve known each other since we were about 10 or 11. I played most of my footy with her tapping the ball down my throat in the midfield for South Australia, so it was nice having her out there.”
And that midfield depth hasn’t just impacted Mackrill, but a number of players on the Giants’ list.
“It’s hard to break into. It’s been great for girls because other people have been able to find different roles. Roles that they may not have necessarily thought were suitable to them, but they’ve just jumped into it and play[ed] some unbelievable footy.”
Once she got into the midfield, though, Mackrill took the opportunity with both hands, playing the best game of her career against Adelaide in round six—gathering 20 touches, earning two votes in the competition’s Best and Fairest count and a Rising Star nomination. But just as she began to gather some momentum, the season came to an unceremonious end.
“It was a bit disappointing overall, the finish to the season. I mean, we would have had a really good run into finals had we had the last two rounds and then hit finals with a few back-to-back wins hopefully, and some nice momentum. But, I mean, you can only control what you can.”
Looking ahead to 2021 and beyond, Mackrill is excited at the challenge the competition-wide improvement throws up.
“Look at the competition, how it’s growing and expanding it’s like, well, things are getting pretty damn good. As a player I look at it and I’m like, this is incredible. Imagine being a kid now and growing up being like, it’s going to take a lot to get to that level, which, you know, five years ago some people were just making up the numbers. If you don’t grow with the game, you’re not going to succeed. We know that we’re going to have to keep on rising, which means the benchmark rises every year”.