NO MORE BACKWARD STEPS

 

The development of women’s footy in Queensland: Part Two

By Kirby Fenwick & Gemma Bastiani

The history of women’s Aussie rules is marked by intervals. Pauses. Hiatuses. For every league that got off the ground or team that achieved sustained success—or even just sustainability— there was another that stalled or faltered. Still, this rich tapestry of leagues and teams and players reveals a very simple truth: women have always wanted to play and they’ve always tried to find ways to make that happen. 

In the 1980s, women’s leagues began taking shape in Victoria and Western Australia. Around this time, Karen Russell was working hard to get something up and running in Brisbane. A competition of sorts did happen. Teams were formed and games were played. But it lost momentum and by the end of 1987, women’s football in Queensland retreated again. 

“You sort of say to yourself, was the world ready for it?” Karen says. 

Maybe they weren’t then, but nearly fifteen years after Karen was first drumming up support for the women’s game, women’s football was back on the agenda in Queensland. And this time around, something was different. 

Maybe the timing was right? Or maybe the foundations built by women like Karen, and like Kate Guy who played in social matches in the 1970s and took up coaching when playing wasn’t an option, had created a solid base for the next generation; that next group of women who just wanted to play.

Bond University Sharkettes. Supplied: Grace Bradley
The Bond University Sharkettes in their early years. Supplied: Grace Bradley

In the mid-2010s there were young women right across Queensland creating their own opportunities to play and, unknowingly, continuing the work of women who had come before them. 

One of those young women was Grace Bradley who—while studying at Bond University on the Gold Coast—decided to start a women’s footy team and enter it into the Queensland Women’s Football Association (QWFA) after seeing her friends playing in an already established men’s side. 

“The club was run by students, it wasn’t an external thing like it is now… it was a bunch of six of us that kind of organised everything and we didn’t have any funding,” Grace says. 

Support from the University itself wasn’t forthcoming in those early years despite the team’s guernseys being emblazoned with the Bond University logo. So this group of determined young women ran the show both on and off the field. They held fundraising events, advertised for players, found coaches and liaised with the QWFA administration. But once they found some success that began to change.

“After we won the premiership in 2017, I think that’s probably when the university’s interests sparked a little bit. Then the university kind of got behind us and that’s when it became an external club. So like anyone [could] come and play for us. You didn’t have to be a student and now that’s how it’s continued to grow. So although we do fall under the university and we have funding and support from Bond Sport, we’re an external organisation so most of our players aren’t actually students,” Grace explains. 

The Sharkettes celebrate their first QWFA Premiership in 2017. Source: AFL Queensland
The Sharkettes celebrate their first QWFA Premiership in 2017. Source: AFL Queensland

That first premiership in 2017 as part of the QWFA earned Grace’s team a promotion to the premier Queensland league, then called the QWAFL. Nowadays there are too many players for Bond University’s two teams. Possibly even more significantly, the University is now a naming sponsor of the QAFLW competition and is a coaching partner of the Brisbane Lions’ AFLW side.

Bond University’s support of women’s footy somewhat mirrors that of many state bodies and sponsors: they might have been a little late to the party, but every bit of support is important and valued.

In 2014, Grace wasn’t aware of women like Sam Mostyn, Julia Price and Jan Cooper who had spent years fighting for a national women’s league in AFL boardrooms. Grace just wanted to play footy because she loved the game, and she knew that women deserved to express that love out on the field rather than be restricted to the sidelines—Grace is not alone in having this desire. This, however, hasn’t limited the impact clubs formed from this desire have had.

The Bond University Sharkettes, while beginning simply as a team for some university students to play some sport, has impacted women’s footy right across the state of Queensland. In 2021 there will be seven players running out for AFLW sides who were drafted out of the Bond University QAFLW team. Seven players who, without Grace Bradley and her five conspirators, may not have made it to the national competition. The existence of the Bond University Sharkettes is a testament not just to Grace Bradley and her hard work, but the moment in time her iteration struck.

Similar origin stories litter not just Queensland but Australia’s history. Women making it happen for themselves, pushing through inconsistency—some teams only survived a season or two—and whatever challenges appeared before them. They’re stories that are evidence of women’s desire to play the game even in the most trying of circumstances. 

WOMEN HAVE ALWAYS WANTED

TO PLAY

One such origin story is the one that lies at the heart of the premier women’s competition in Queensland today: the QAFLW. Despite its many configurations and name changes throughout its twenty year history, the QAFLW’s origin story hinges on that simple enduring fact: women wanted to play and so they made it happen. 

Fifteen years before Grace and the Bond University Sharkettes, a Queensland women’s league didn’t even exist. After a number of attempts to start a league during the previous decades, it was Dee McConnell and Marlo Brack who jumped in feet first in the early 2000s. It’s this attempt that would stick.

Dee McConnell landed in Brisbane thanks to the flip of a coin. Newly married, Dee and her then husband were looking to escape Melbourne’s bitter winters. The choice was between Perth and Brisbane, and fate sealed the deal. The pair arrived in Queensland around 1990 and one of their first tasks was finding a local footy club for Dee’s husband to play with. Redlands would be that club. 

What followed was a handful of years where Dee supported her husband and son’s involvement in Aussie rules. From team manager to umpire, Dee put her hand up for everything. 

“I was pretty fit in the day and I thought well I can run the boundary. And so I did for many years… about seven or eight years. That was a lot of miles!”

It was while doing this often thankless task that the idea that she might be able to play first occurred to Dee. 

“I thought, I wouldn’t mind having a kick. I can do that. I could’ve marked that ball. And so I sort of started sniffing around,” she says. 

Someone at Redlands pointed Dee in the direction of Alexandra Hills Football Club, just a few suburbs over. 

“I actually went down [to Alexandra Hills] because I drove past it every day on my way to work, it’s just in my neighbourhood. And I dropped in there, I just went down and I said, ‘have you guys got a women’s team?’”

Dee was told she’d better speak to Tracey Anderson or Marlo Brack. Tracey wasn’t there that day, but Marlo was. 

“[I] just introduced myself and told her my story and she was rapt. [She said] we can get the oval here… they’re good here, we can play here on a Sunday morning, or wherever,” Dee says.  

Marlo Brack grew up in a footy family. Her parents were from Victoria and so footy was just a “part of life”.

“It’s one of those things that has just been instilled in me, it’s always been part of who I am.” 

Marlo Brack

Marlo’s dad started playing for Moorooka, a local club in Brisbane when Marlo was about four or five. She soon joined the junior boys teams and played from U7s through to U10s until she was forced to give the game away. 

“That’s when they were saying that the girls couldn’t play with the boys once they got to a certain age. So I stopped playing [and] went into the umpiring side of things. Umpiring and coaching, so coaching U8s and things like that as well,” Marlo says. 

After being pushed out of the game as a junior, Marlo would come back to football as a player in her early twenties. At 24, she was the driving force behind the Alexandra Hills team and she’d play for a decade across three clubs, collecting league best and fairests and premierships along the way. 

“I started at Alex[andra] Hills and then, if I remember rightly, we merged with Redlands for a year or so. Then we sort of didn’t have enough players and I ended up going to Logan.”

It would be a few months after Dee and Marlo first met before their inaugural season would begin. By then, Dee recalls that there was a team from Surfers Paradise, which was spearheaded by Eve Kranz. Marlo recalls there being four teams in this first season. 

“It probably took us until about April or something to get going and we would have finished well by August. And sometimes there would be no game because of Easter holidays or something,” Dee says. 

She recalls that they played only a handful of games, maybe eight or nine in that first season:

“They had their ups and downs. You start off going real strong and happy and enthusiastic and then you get a wet, cold Sunday morning and eight players show up. None of the other team really want to play for us and none of our extras—if we ever had any—would want to play for them. But we all did because it just made a game. 

“That’s what you do if you want to get the game happening. You don’t want to go there and not have a kick or not have a game,” Dee says. 

Dee was in her early forties when she started playing football. She’d play for five seasons before retiring after the 2005 season and returning to umpiring.

As the fledgling competition found its feet, player numbers every weekend was only one of their concerns. Where they stood in the hierarchy of football in Queensland presented another snag. 

“You’re at the bottom of the pecking list,” Marlo explains. “So you’re below the under sevens or eights, put it that way.”

Marlo recalls that in the early years of the competition while the league supplied umpires for finals, in the regular season it was up to the teams themselves. 

“For the first couple of years, it was just yeah, supply yourself a field umpire and away you go. So very raw, very scrappy. But I mean, it was the start. You have to start somewhere, don’t you?”

“And back then it was none of this recovery or anything. You had a shower and a beer, and that was your recovery basically.”

“So yeah, it was definitely very different. But I loved those days, they were easy days. You played footy with your mates.”

Marlo Brack

DINOSAUR ATTITUDES

Murray Bird, who worked at AFL Queensland from 1989 until around 2005, says that those early years of women’s football can be best described as a “battle”. 

“A lot of the clubs thought women’s footy was rubbish. A waste of time. A joke. That was not the attitude of every club. But that was the attitude of many. But there were others that [said] this is a fantastic opportunity for the sport. There was support from the central body and Charmaine and then Julia’s appointments were testament to that. But it was a battle.”

“Dinosaur attitudes towards women playing sport and dinosaur attitudes to women playing contact sport, that’s the number one and then if you could get over the dinosaur attitudes then you still had to get ground time, you had to get umpires, you had to get footy jumpers, you had to get a good coach.”

Murray Bird

Murray says that while he’s proud to have been involved in giving the fledgling women’s competition in Brisbane some support, he says AFLQ probably didn’t do enough. 

“It wasn’t token,” he explains, “But it was fourth or fifth or sixth priority. And I think as the 2000s wore on… it became more of a focus.”

Even those clubs that fielded women’s teams held onto some reservations. Dee says that some of the bigger clubs were concerned about the women chopping up the grounds before the senior men’s games. 

“There was no threat of that,” she says. “It was pretty rugged going. And in those days, we couldn’t kick the ball off the ground. We had a modification to the rules, otherwise it would just become like soccer. The girls would feel the threat of someone chasing them and kick the ball. No one would have bothered to have the skills or to develop the skills to pick up the ball on the run, which is hard to do when you’ve never done it before. So we had a rule that you couldn’t do that so  that sort of helped that skill develop.”

Those modified rules aside, the quality of the competition began to improve as women from different sporting backgrounds—including rugby and round ball football—and fitness levels jumped on board.  

“When we started to get some better players, those that were not just backyard sort of rustic charmers, but you know, serious, semi-serious sports people really and that was that sort of big leap in the skill section going from just falling over and hearing the whistle because you kicked the ball off the ground to you know, taking a good strong mark and learning to kick properly and stuff like that. It all took a while, but eventually it came together,” Dee says. 

Karen Russell was in her late 30s with two children when she discovered this newly formed women’s league. 

“My mother cut something out of the paper and she just showed it to me out of interest because she knows I’m interested,” Karen explains. “And she sort of said, ‘Oh, look at this’. And so what happens is I go, ‘oh my gosh, there’s a competition now! I’m going back to play’. So I did in my late 30s.”

This competition was the embodiment of everything Karen had tried to get off the ground in the 1980s, so her age or body wasn’t going to prevent her from hitting the field.

“It was amazing, because it’s what I’ve always wanted to do. And when I tried for it [in the 1980s], I only did it for a year and a half or so and then it sort of fizzled out. It was like, ‘oh my gosh, now there’s a competition I can play.’ So yeah, I went back and played and in some ways it was a disaster because I wasn’t fit enough and I actually did my ACL… stupid me, I’d had two children and had no fitness”

“After six months or so, I went and bought myself this massive brace. I doubt anyone wears them anymore, but I wore this massive brace and then went and played footy again. And on that very first day back, we were playing down at Redlands, I think we were playing Victoria Point and this whopping big girl tackled me and landed on top of me. I cracked some ribs that day and I think it suddenly made me realise that I had a responsibility as a mother. So I just sort of decided that I should give it up.”

Karen Russell

An ACL injury, some cracked ribs and “a number of other injuries” later, Karen had to finally give up her playing dream, but no one can take from her that brief time playing in a legitimate women’s league.

 

The 2002 Kedron Lions. Supplied: Karen Russell (Slinger)
The 2002 Kedron Lions. Supplied: Karen Russell

Despite the challenges, Dee says that the opportunity to play that game she’d grown up watching and supporting and loving is something she values to this day. 

“It was just great. I just loved it [and] I thought, you know, this is great. And all the girls who played, they loved it too. And I thought we’ve got to just start pushing this to be a little bit more professional, more well known—or even just known.”

Early on the women running the competition began reaching out to AFL Queensland for help. Like they’d done more than a decade earlier, AFLQ offered to promote the women’s game in the records for the men’s competitions. 

“I think we approached them, from memory—I mean, this is 20 years ago—we approached them for a little bit of assistance,” Dee says. “I think we asked them, get this, at half-time at the Gabba can you put something on the scoreboard to say ‘if you’re interested in women’s football, call this number’. And they just thought ‘oh no, we’re not going to do that’. We might put something in the footy record but we’re not going to have, you know, it held 35,000 people then, it’s a bit bigger now. But what if you know, one in 10 women call us? That’s a lot of calls that we’re gonna have to field so we won’t be doing that.”

In 2001, ALFQ appointed Carla Hardy to provide the league with some administrative assistance and Dee recalls her being helpful and supportive: “Carla Hardy, she was the lady from AFL Queensland at the time, she came from a background in rugby administration. So she sort of knew the ins and outs of player registration and all that sort of stuff. So she was an enormous help,” Dee says. 

Marlo concurs, adding that Carla “did everything she possibly could to push it, that we got the funding, that we got support and things like that.” 

Later, Bianca Misson would take over providing administrative assistance to the league, assisting with umpires and grounds but according to Brad Reid, AFLQ hadn’t always given much thought to the women he calls the ‘pioneers’. It’s a sentiment shared by Murray Bird. 

“We supported it a little bit and probably not as much as we should have,” Murray says. “But we supported it. And the competition grew. I mean, I remember going and watching games and the skill level varied, but there were five or six women there that would have had no problem playing in today’s AFLW. Shelly Gale, Marlo Brack, Juanita Mottram, Peta Ferguson, Monica O’Brien, they could all just play, they were just naturals.” 

Marlo isn’t surprised that support from AFLQ wasn’t always easy to come by in the early days. 

“I mean, at the beginning, I think it was still a male dominated sport. So it wasn’t that women weren’t allowed in. But I think it was just something that I don’t think they ever thought would happen either,” she says.  

“So it was just one of those things that, it’s not that they didn’t support us, I just think they didn’t think that we took it seriously.”

By all accounts, those early years were tough going. Finding grounds and umpires, making sure there were enough players to take to the field every week. It was far from a walk in the park. But if dedication is often a good indication of the value we place on things, then for the women playing in the early 2000s, the league was priceless. 

“We’d have to play either early before the men’s games, or late after the men’s games. Or Sunday morning, a lot of the games were Sunday morning, when the grounds just weren’t being used,” Dee says. 

“It was very, very rare to see a woman playing football back then.”

Dee McConnell

“It was hard,” Dee says. “Just juggling it all. Getting the players and getting volunteers so we could actually have a match. Finding umpires, we’d get the same few that would support us [and] would come out and we’d get to know them. But there’s a lot of people, it takes a lot of people to get a game happening on both sides.

“We were working full-time as well and weekends were just totally absorbed by footy. Ringing around in the morning, you know, ‘are you sure you’re going to be there, do you need a lift’ and all that sort of stuff. And yeah, it was hard,” Dee says. “It took a lot of hard work and it took a lot of dedication. But at the end of the day, all we wanted to do was play footy.” 

Women’s footy umpiring has come a long way from those early days.

While nowadays girls are separated from boys in junior footy around the age of 14, as a kid Marlo Brack’s footy stalled at just 12 years old. Seemingly lost to the game for more than a decade, Marlo’s return to footy started at Alexandra Hills, but her state league career really took hold three years later when she moved to the Logan Cobras. Her passion for the game reverberated across the club.

“Oh, I just, I loved it,” Marlo explains. “It was two hours out of your day where you didn’t have to think about anything else in the world. It was just two hours, you’re out on the field, you’re kicking a footy, you’re with your mates. And that’s all you thought about.”

Marlo treads the line between being humble and bluntly—and rightly—proud of her achievements. Murray Bird touts her as the best player in Queensland in the early 2000s, but she is quick to mention that, while that may have been the case, she was certainly assisted by teammates.

“Yeah, yeah I was. But, I mean, it always helps with the people you have playing around you,” Marlo says. “It’s one of those things that if you put your mind to it, you can do what you want. I loved it and I put everything I had into it. And I won’t lie, I always wanted to be the best. But by the end of [my career], there were a few other girls coming in and the [best and fairest] point counts at the end were quite close. I remember I won one by a point and that was only because Aasta [O’Connor] missed a game in the season.

“So yeah, I was good. I’m very humble about it, though. It’s not one of those things that I go around sprouting or anything. But I mean, we won five premierships in a row at Logan so it’s another thing that I’m so proud of.” 

 

Logan celebrate their 2006 Premiership. Supplied: Murray Bird
Logan celebrate their 2006 Premiership. Supplied: Murray Bird

Talent, hard work and passion led Marlo to really push the Cobras into their era of success. In four of those five premiership years Marlo wasn’t just a star player either, she also coached the side from the field. Again, though, Marlo is quick to point out the assistance she had around her that made it feasible.

“It also shows the support that we had around us, that I could have someone on the bench as my eyes that when I came off they could say, ‘this is what I’m seeing’. And I could say, ‘well, this is what I’m seeing’. And we could work it from there.

“It was hard work and I wasn’t easy on the girls. I’m sure they look at things I did then and now they see why I did it. But yeah, we won five and we were stoked. It’s, I think, a very rare feat these days.”

Marlo swiftly identifies the calibre of talent she had to work with at that time, too.

“I had players like Aasta O’Connor. I had Jade Pregelj. I had Katie Brennan. I had young girls coming through that I could coach, and that was the biggest thing—I could coach them. I knew what their strengths were and I knew what their weaknesses were and I had to put that to my advantage. And I did, I’m not gonna lie, I did.

 

Aasta O'Connor and Marlo Brack in their state guernseys. Source: AFL Queensland
Aasta O’Connor and Sarah Brady in their state guernseys. Source: AFL Queensland

“Those three girls, they brought other people into the game. Whether you were skilled or not, they knew how to bring you into a game that you played your role. At the end of the day, that’s what they all do now isn’t it? You go out and you play a role. 

“It’s one of those things I look back on now and I’m very proud of it because I coached and played at the same time.”

Aasta O’Connor was one of the star players Marlo coached at Logan. As a teenager, well before she pulled on a Cobras guernsey, Aasta was star struck by Marlo. She recalls heading along to a local round robin day and being taken by Marlo’s pinpoint left boot.

“I remember watching this player, her name is Marlo Brack. I remember watching her and she was a left-footer and I thought, ‘oh my god, who is it that? She’s really good. I want to be like her’. I sheepishly went over to introduce myself. I went over and I was like, ‘Hi, I’m Aasta’. 

“I wasn’t a shy kid, I was a pretty confident kid. But I was quite struck to meet Marlo Brack. And then I guess she ended up being one of my, well she is one of my really good friends. But she was my coach for a long time. I was a pretty rebellious sort of kid and Marlo was a huge influence on me finding my place and learning how to work hard and not just relying on your talent. So yeah, she was really great to me Marlo.”

It was fortuitous for Aasta that Marlo was at Logan. After a season with the Glasshouse Mountains and another at the Kedron Lions, Aasta was looking for a club that would logistically suit her better and Logan was it. It helped that she also wanted to be coached by Marlo. Essentially, Aasta’s move to the Cobra’s was a two birds, one stone scenario.

“I definitely wanted to be coached by her and learn from her,” Aasta explains. “I was still at school and I was on my Ps or whatever at the time driving down in my little Honda Civic and playing my hideous music probably at the time driving to training.”

Aasta’s footy came a long way under the guidance of Marlo, and she was a key part of the Logan team in the era when they won five consecutive premierships. While she would leave Logan—and Queensland—at the end of that era, the example and leadership Marlo offered to Aasta set her up for a long footy career, at both the playing and coaching levels. 

Marlo would finish her career with the Logan Cobras having cemented her name in the story of women’s football in Queensland.

Jade Pregelj returned to footy via the Gold Coast Suns in 2020.

“She, to me, is Queensland footy,” Gold Coast Sun Jade Pregelj says admiringly of Marlo.

Throughout the mid-2000s Jade Pregelj was widely considered the ‘Queen of Queensland footy’ and one of the most talented players in the state while part of that five-time premiership winning team and playing alongside the likes of Marlo, Aasta and Katie Brennan.

She came to Aussie Rules through Auskick as a primary school student, “I took a flyer home to mum and dad and said I wanted to play”. Auskick led to playing club footy with the boys—two years of under 12s and two years of under 14s—but it was here that she hit a roadblock. Girls weren’t allowed to progress to under 16s teams with the boys.

“I wrote a letter to AFL Queensland and said ‘Hi, I really want to play with the boys. Can I please play under 16s?’ and they said no,” Jade says.  

Fortunately her club, the Logan Cobras, did have a women’s team who 15-year-old Jade had never seen because they trained on another night. The women’s team got wind of a junior girl who wanted to keep playing so they reached out and encouraged Jade to join their side.

As a teenager playing against women, Jade says she learned to use her body differently when playing footy, using momentum when playing against bigger bodies.

“I think it was almost a leg up because I do recall hanging off the back of some of the stronger women, and them just running down the field with me holding onto them,” Jade laughs. “That adolescent strength and a little bit of mongrel was helpful.” 

These lessons put her in good stead, and not only for when she reached AFLW level—”I have pretty good one-on-ones, I don’t like to lose the ball.

“I think it’s given me a lot of my skills and confidence today in every aspect of life. Being able to train and play with older people, you can learn a lot as a young person, how to conduct yourself… I wouldn’t be who I am today without it.”

She can clearly recall being surprised by some significant development in talent in girls football during her teenage years.

“I was happy living in my little world of ‘Jade Pregelj’s a female footballer and she’s killing it’. I really enjoyed just playing footy with my team, and because I was one of the better players on my team, I was loving it. And then when there was the [women’s] comp, I was like, why are all these girls playing football? It’s my thing.”

Jade’s Cobras were a dynasty team and she enjoyed this success in her formative years alongside friends like Aasta O’Connor and Katie Brennan, winning back-to-back league best and fairests in that time. She played because she loved footy and was having fun, “and that’s all [she] needed”. At that time an elite national competition wasn’t an idea she even entertained.

“Probably because there wasn’t the opportunity, I never felt the urge to go any further with it. I wasn’t jealous of the AFL players or anything like that because I was just happy doing my thing.”

But as Logan’s success began to wane, footy became a chore.

“Aasta O’Connor decided to head down to Victoria. She was the ruck and I was the ruck-rover, she was like my idol. So [when] she was like ‘well, I’m following footy down to Victoria’. I was like, ‘well, you’re a loser, see you later’ because I was madly loyal to my club. And then Katie Brennan, who played something like 150 plus games at Logan, decided to head up to Yeronga for a season.”

It was around this time that Marlo Brack—a player and coach Jade hugely admired—was hanging up her footy boots, too. No longer playing alongside her best friends and finding it tough to organise all the other things that go into keeping a community club afloat—funding, volunteers to run the canteen, umpire or run water on game day—Jade switched her focus to her education and career.

“After I finished my teaching degree, my intent was always to go join the Army. So 2012 was the last season where I played a little bit at Logan, filling in numbers and stuff. I remember going back to one game, and just the soreness after not playing or training for a while, feeling like you’ve been hit by a mack truck. Like every muscle just aches. And that’s probably when I stopped.”

With no higher competition to aspire to, and little coverage of the growth of girl’s and women’s footy across the country, Jade left the game a little burned and skeptical about the prospect of an elite national competition.

“I was like, ‘oh yeah, that’s nice’. I couldn’t see the general demand for it, I couldn’t see all the girls playing footy and the fact that we’re still growing and stuff.”

Jade Pregelj

Jade’s timing, in retrospect, could not have been worse. She was leaving on the cusp of one of the biggest growth phases women’s footy in Queensland would see. 

That year the South East Queensland women’s league split into two divisions—QWAFL and QWAFA—it was a move designed to allow new players space for development while also allowing the state’s best talent to go up against one another. Brisbane Lions Captain Emma Zielke confidently admits that “it was much more professional and more serious” come 2013. Bree Brock’s move to AFL Queensland coincided with these changes.

PROFESSIONALISM HARNESSING ENTHUSIASM

Four hours north of Brisbane, and perched on the banks of the Burnett River is the city of Bundaberg. Synonymous with rum and ginger beer, Bundy—as the city is known to locals—is also home to Emma Zielke. Now the captain of the Brisbane Lions, she was a late convert to Aussie Rules. 

“I basically grew up playing soccer [and] netball and barracking for the Brisbane Broncos,” Emma explains. “I didn’t really even know AFL existed when I lived in Bundaberg to be honest.”

The Brisbane Lions’ men’s team won three flags in a row in the early 2000s—coincidentally at the same time that a women’s competition was finding its feet in the state—but Emma says she wouldn’t have had a clue about any of that. 

“It was definitely rugby league central. Brisbane Broncos. I’d watch that every weekend with Dad.”

It was a move to Brisbane at 18 that introduced a young Emma to the game. 

“I lived with my best mate at the time, who’s an absolute crazy West Coast Eagles fan and she sort of dragged me around to watch the games… so I sort of started watching a little bit and then she’s like, why don’t we go play at a local club [and] I said yeah, I’m a bit over soccer, so yeah.”

“I picked it up when I was 19 and never looked back.”

Emma Zielke

When Emma joined Morningside in 2007, the women’s competition was still searching for stability. Just five clubs were fielding women’s teams in the competition when Emma began playing and she recalls those early days were marked by inconsistency. 

“The league itself was pretty unprofessional just with some of the stuff that was going on, on the field and even the sort of bottom of the barrel umpires… at that stage the girls took it quite seriously, but no-one around us really did externally,” she says.  

“First of all, it was definitely quite amateur in terms of the skill range so it literally was from someone that had never played to quite talented girls on the field and they were all on the same team because obviously, back then there wasn’t a reserve team. You’re basically just scraping to fill one team at that time.”

The willingness to share facilities and provide resources and support for a women’s program didn’t come easily to some clubs, which saw many women’s teams fold.

“So the club that I was at, Morningside, we ended up folding… After eight or nine years we had to leave the club because one, they weren’t that inviting and it was all about the men’s program. And then two, we just didn’t get enough numbers to continue to play at that club.”

 

Early days at Morningside. Note Emma Zielke in the bottom right. Supplied: Sally Young
Early days at Morningside. Note Emma Zielke in the bottom right. Supplied: Sally Young

Sally Young was at Morningside with Emma and also recalls the lack of support for the women’s program.

“We had no assistance in recruiting or as players. We lost a couple of our senior players that kind of ran things, so we were a bit lost in like, what do we do? How do we get new players, what are ways that we can build our team back up and stuff like that. So we, at the end of that year, we were like, we can’t do anymore.”

Bree Brock was also playing club footy in Queensland at this time. She recalls that the senior women’s league was precarious with no guarantee that your team would exist the following year. The problem being that no single issue seemed to be the cause for each team’s demise. 

“Everything was a different issue,” Bree explains. “You ask the girls and the girls say that, you know, this club took all the money we got through sponsorship, this club doesn’t let us on the ground.”

“Every single reason why clubs were folding was different.”

Bree Brock

For the league to survive, those involved needed to think a little differently. In 2007, they changed the fixture to work more like a footy carnival each weekend, which saw all women’s sides play at the same ground. 

“That meant clubs that were struggling for numbers—because in those days, it was like, you’re lucky to get 16 girls to the game—people could fill in. So if you were the last game, you could come early and get another couple of games if you wanted to. And that was just the way that we were able to nurse the competition through that time,” Bree explains. 

As more clubs began to get on board and really show their willingness to invest in women’s programs, more clubs entered the local competition. One of those clubs was recent powerhouse Coorparoo, who Emma, Sally and some other ex-Morningside players approached after their former side collapsed in 2011. Coorparoo was the perfect fit for those ex-Morningsiders as there was already a well established and respected youth girls program.

“We just thought it would be a good pathway if they had a women’s team which they were all in favour of,” says Emma.

 

Coorparoo's girls and women's program received local news coverage. Supplied: Sally Young
Coorparoo’s girls and women’s program received local news coverage. Supplied: Sally Young

 

Sally expresses an atmosphere of relief at the move: “It was so much easier, just having [the] support of the club, not having to do everything on our own. Just advice, help, you know, all sorts of things. So it was really cool that year to find a club that supported us.”

Brad Reid is quick to pinpoint Emma and Sally’s Coorparoo and cross-town rivals Yeronga South Brisbane as the clubs who welcomed Charmaine Ferguson’s junior girls program in the early days.

“They really embraced the idea of having a pathway in place,” he explains, rather than simply fielding a women’s team with no talent strategy at the club underneath. And these clubs have been rewarded for their early investment in women and girls. They’re now flourishing and considered two of the strongest feeder clubs into the elite national level. 

“Coorparoo has been known to be a little bit of a breeding ground for the AFLW which is something they hold really high, and they want to continue to do that,” Emma says. 

2016 QWAFL Premiers Coorparoo. Supplied: Murray Bird
2016 QWAFL Premiers Coolangatta-Tweed. Supplied: Murray Bird

Star Gold Coast midfielder Jamie Stanton is another who spends winter at Coorparoo and has seen the club grow exponentially.

“I’m at Coops at the moment and we have I think 70 girls or something on the list for two teams. So we’re filtering girls out into a different club.”

Growth at the club has been led by players-cum-administrators like Sally who have dedicated the time to build the program. 

“The first year that we started at Coorparoo, [Emma Zielke] kind of did the female football coordinator role and she also coached. We had one under 18s girls team. And then the next year I took over, and then slowly from then we’ve built 11s, 13s, 15s and 17s.” 

“Right now, I think we have two under 11s girls teams, we have a massive under 13s team—who are winning by like 150-points, which is crazy—and there are some cracking girls in that team that will, by the time they get to women’s will be very exciting. And then we’ve got 15s and 17s. So I think that, you know, everyone praises how much support that the female space gets at Coorparoo, so I think they feel welcome.”

Sally further explains the impact of this growth on talent pathways and what young girls have to look forward to that can effectively guide them toward the AFLW level.

“We always have women’s players that come through and whether they’re coaching or they just help out with training and the girls can actually see the pathway right the way through. So I think the support, honestly, is what keeps them there and develops them to stay there.”

“THESE GUYS CAN PLAY”

After getting the ball rolling in 2000, the women spearheading the senior competition in Queensland decided to throw their hat in the ring for the National Women’s Championships. They had only a couple of seasons under their belt at the point, but were undaunted nonetheless. 

Aasta O’Connor was among the Queensland team that headed to the Nationals in 2003. In the days before AFLW, the Nationals were the pinnacle of the women’s calendar. 

“My aim was to win flags with my footy club and also play at Nationals—which were always in the June-July school holidays—and that was sort of the highlight of the calendar at the time. And I loved playing senior Nationals. They were great weeks. I think of that now and, you know, we paid our own way. It was like two or three grand to go. That’s wild, isn’t it?” Aasta says.

“I think we were given a polo and our playing jersey, shorts and socks. And I think that was it. So there was a lot of washing going on. I think back to those times now and it was, yeah, it was a really cool time.”

 

Marlo Brack, one of the pioneers of the competition also had a hand in getting the Queensland state team off the ground. 

“Marlo had a big hand in it. Her brother-in-law was our coach, John Saunders. Him and I had a few good stoushes,” Aasta says, laughing. “He was from Mt Gravatt footy club so we trained at Mt Gravatt, which was a big deal. That was a men’s club [so] we were training on a fancy men’s ground.” 

For Marlo, playing in the Nationals was hard—and not just physically. 

“They were tough. And I guess for me personally, like it was more I thought I was good. But then you see these girls from Victoria and WA and you sort of think ‘holy hell, like they are next level’. And that’s when you sort of think could I, if I was down there, would I be playing top level? And that’s where you really question yourself. And I guess for the girls that really wanted to be the best, that was the line that you had to be up. You had to be in line with them.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Aasta, who grew up thinking that she was “probably the only girl that played footy”. 

“I know that sounds ridiculous now, but you’re kind of closed off to the rest of Australia in a lot of ways. There wasn’t the connection that we see now. And I just thought ‘oh yeah, I’m probably you know, the only girl’.”

While she’d been long dissuaded from this idea by 2003, for Aasta, heading to Nationals opened her eyes even further. 

“That’s when you sort of start to realise that there’s this kind of bigger world out there than just footy in Queensland.”

In those early years, the Queensland team was faced with some punishing losses alongside a punishing schedule. 

“We played every day,” Aasta recalls. “Again, crazy. And yeah, I just loved it. I remember playing Victoria and getting smashed. And I thought ‘oh geez like, these guys are legit, these guys can play’.”

“They would run rings around you,” Marlo says of the more experienced teams at the Championships. 

“You were prepared to get a beating… it was always noted that especially Victoria, they had two [teams] and one of them was going to smash you. Whether it was on the field physically, or just through the goalposts, it didn’t matter. And they were next level, they were tough. But they’d also been playing together for a lot longer than what we had.”

Not unlike the challenges faced by the league, the state team was hardly an easy ride. Marlo says that for the first few years, the team was “just sort of all thrown together”. 

“It was who can afford it, can go. [Then] to get a training session, it was hard, because you would have to get all the girls on one night together. And that was hard, because if they were living up the coast or living at Toowoomba, they’d have to drive sort of an hour for a two hour training session. So it was very difficult, because you had to try and get everyone together when it wasn’t necessary. So it wasn’t easy,’ Marlo says.  

“I guess until we got the funding, and we were taken seriously, that’s when I think the mentality changed as well that we’re going to do this, we’re gonna do it right. If we do it right, then we’ll go places.”

“We were just trying to prepare players and state associations [for] what it was like to play in a league as opposed to a National Championships, and the professional nature of it. That was that 2007 meeting they were definitely talking about it already then. So, you know, there was a lot in the planning. AFLW didn’t rock up, you know, it took a lot of planning for it to suddenly become a thing… that’s what I like about the women’s game is the people. Most of them aren’t talkers, they actually walk the talk, which is great.”

Julia Price

When Julia Price arrived at AFLQ in 2007, the state team was already a few years old and despite being up against teams like Victoria or Western Australia, Julia says the team did quite well. 

“I’m not sure if it was just that competitive Queensland nature and they were probably a little rougher, you know, their tackling technique was probably more rugby league than AFL. But at the same time they had that physical presence over the other teams and they had that will to win. 

“So they sort of every year would come third or fourth in those competitions, in the national championship. So there was always that level of fight in them, but probably just not the finesse that they have gotten now that they’ve worked on for a long time.” Julia says.  

By the time Emma Zielke joined the Queensland team in 2011, things were looking a little different in terms of support for the state team, but it wouldn’t be until 2013 that players selected for the team would have their expenses covered. 

“I just remember in 2013, it was the first time ever we didn’t have to pay to go on a Queensland trip, because AFLQ had secured money or sponsorship to be able to pick the best team instead of the girls who could afford to go playing,” Emma says. 

The 2013 National Championships were held in Cairns. The first time they had been held in Queensland. That year, there were eight teams playing: Queensland, Victoria, Western Australia, New South Wales, South Australia, ACT, Tasmania, and, for the first time, a team called Arafura which included players from the Northern Territory, Far North Queensland and Papua New Guinea. Playing that year in the maroon and white were players like Kate Lutkins, Emily Bates and Leah Kaslar—names that would soon be seen on the biggest stage ever afforded women’s football.

THE ACID TEST

In 2013, a big step toward a national women’s competition was the advent of women’s exhibition games. These games essentially replaced the National Championships in the women’s footy calendar.

Effectively the acid test for the AFLW, these matches drew on nationwide talent and were the first introduction many had to a number of now famous AFLW names. The players would don Melbourne Demons and Western Bulldogs guernseys and play at some of the biggest football stadiums in the country.

 

Peta Searle is now the Saints' inaugural AFLW coach. Image: Megan Brewer
Peta Searle is now the Saints’ inaugural AFLW coach. Image: Megan Brewer

 

The inaugural draft took place on May 15, 2013 at the MCG. Six Queenslanders—Aasta O’Connor, Katie Brennan, Kate Lutkins, Ally Anderson, Emily Bates and Natalie Thomas—were selected by the Bulldogs, and Leah Kaslar found herself the lone Queenslander headed to the Demons.

While Melbourne would end up winning that first game, what was more significant than the result was that women’s footy was on Australia’s biggest stage for the first time.

The following year would see Emma Zielke and flashy teenager Tayla Harris also drafted, but it wasn’t simply players from Queensland joining these teams. Then-coach of the Zillmere Eagles’ QWAFL team, Jacob Simmons-Bliss joined the ranks at the Bulldogs, assisting head coach Peta Searle. 

Emma explains how Peta and Melbourne’s head coach, Michelle Cowan, would make their way to Queensland to scout talent and “maybe have a chat to you or not”. At the time, these games were seen as the pinnacle of women’s footy.

 

Michelle Cowan was West Coast's forward line coach in 2020. Image: Megan Brewer
Michelle Cowan was West Coast’s forward line coach in 2020. Image: Megan Brewer

“It [was] the one thing that you were building up for all year. You’re trying to train and get better just for that one game which I find quite funny now. That was the be-all-and-end-all of footy at the time, but that was the game you wanted to be a part of.”

Queensland’s contribution to these exhibition games continued to build as years went on, with Craig Starcevich taking over as head coach of the Bulldogs’ exhibition side in 2015.  

Once it had been confirmed that AFLW would begin in 2017, the exhibition series was expanded in an effort to ramp up to AFLW through 2016. This saw ten games played right across the country—beginning and ending in Victoria—and included a Brisbane v. Gold Coast game that April.

 

Craig Starcevich addresses Lions players at halftime of the 2016 Queensland exhibition match. Supplied: Michael Swann / Bond Sport
Craig Starcevich addresses Lions players at halftime of the 2016 Queensland exhibition match. Supplied: Michael Swann / Bond Sport

 

Coached by Craig Starcevich and David Lake respectively—both would go on to form key parts of the Lions’ inaugural AFLW coaching panel—more than twenty thousand people witnessed Brisbane win by 14-points at the Gabba. It was the precursor to the QClash.

Nearly five years later, those same two men are coaching those same two teams, this time in the national competition.

 

David Lake coached the Suns in the 2016 Queensland exhibition match. Supplied: Michael Swann / Bond Sport
David Lake coached the Suns in the 2016 Queensland exhibition match. Supplied: Michael Swann / Bond Sport

UNINTERRUPTED PATHWAY

The unbroken talent pathway for girls really took hold in Queensland in 2017 and Gold Coast Suns co-captain Sam Virgo attests to the leap in skill since that significant change.

“The kids are ridiculously good. So I’ve coached in the state program for the last four years. The jump was three years ago when the uninterrupted pathway started. There was a significant difference in that time, where it wasn’t just the top ten or 15. And then, you know, raffle the other ten spots for the side. It was across the board and 20 girls missing out who you could include.”

“The uninterrupted pathway broadens the talent significantly. It’s just so, so much better.”

Sam Virgo

At the Lions, Emma Zielke can see the impact that this pathway is having on the club.

“The young girls that we just picked up last year, gee they’re smart, they know their footy. And that’s incredible to see an 18-year-old who’s got so much IQ in footy. They’ve just got the footy smarts of an experienced campaigner.” 

“So that is the most positive thing where they’re all just living and breathing footy, they’re watching footy. And that’s priceless, instead of coming in quite new—which was what was the case a few years back in Queensland.”

The unbroken pathway is effectively an evening of the playing field with states where footy is culturally ingrained in young kids.

“We’ve always been that one step behind everyone else, because we’re starting at 15, not eight or nine. I think that’s shifting now. I’ve seen a shift in the younger generation now picking up a footy instead of, you know, soccer or netball,” Emma says. 

But the visibility of the AFLW, combined with the increased professionalism of the state league is driving girls at local clubs to be better, to garner attention and, ideally, an AFLW list spot.

“The girls that are playing now at local leagues that might not be on a list are striving to be on a list, so they’re becoming more professional. The culture is shifting a little bit, where they’re not going out every weekend and not recovering properly. They’re really taking it a bit more seriously.”

Emma Zielke advising her teammates on the sidelines of the 2018 AFLW grand final.

Getting to that point certainly wasn’t easy, however, as keeping female athletes within footy programs was tricky given—prior to the announcement of the AFLW—the highest level of competition for players to aspire to was the annual National Championships.

Craig Starcevich was appointed AFL Queensland’s Female Football High Performance Coach in late 2014. He was tasked with developing the best female talent in the state and he says a large part of that role was simply selling the game to some of the state’s best athletes.

“You’re selling them some sort of dream that didn’t exist… I know from the outset I was more of the appreciative side you know, I’m so glad you’re playing AFL where you could have chosen netball or soccer or basketball or any other high level female sport, you could have gone down that path. But from my point of view, I’m just thankful you’ve chosen our sport.”

When Starcevich joined Bree Brock’s team, female talent development at AFLQ fell under the purview of a single, underfunded department. While progress has certainly been made amidst the focus on participation growth within the sector, often talent development was simply a lower priority.

“We didn’t have a youth academy and we didn’t have a senior academy at that point. That was the end of 2014. We did have a pretty active regional program though, with a State Carnival every year for under-seventeen kids, so that was strong. I’m going to say that was at least three or four years established before I got into my role,” Starcevich explains.

“After that we got a state academy squad together for under-eighteen kids in preparation for Nationals, so that was the best 40 or 50 kids across the state. Not all of them would play when it came to Nationals, but we’d keep them in an academy system for the year. And there’s a lot of those kids now that are on AFLW lists across not only the Suns or Lions, but also across the Melbourne teams.”

This talent was all being developed in preparation for an AFLW competition many expected would launch in 2020. So when the goal posts shifted and it was announced that an elite national women’s competition would begin in 2017, it didn’t phase AFLQ. In fact, Queensland was well placed to field a team in that inaugural year because of all this groundwork in the years leading up to it.

Of course, different people responded to the announcement in different ways. Sam Virgo—playing at community club Moorooka at the time—is frank when sharing her reaction.

“Everyone shit themselves,” she says. “It was chaos. How are we going to get ready for this? We were ready for three years and now we’ve got to be ready in six months? So, I left my community club and went to Yeronga because it was the highest level I could play at. I went and got a private coach to get my body in the condition that needed to be in. Whether it was more training or different training, we had to adjust pretty quickly.”

On a more reflective level, Emma Zielke was grateful for the shortened timeline.

“Gil McLachlan said, ‘yep, it’s going to happen in 2020’. And obviously—because I was older—I was doing the math like, ‘oh, geez, how old am I gonna be then? Am I even going to be able to get a game?’ So for them to pull it forward three years, that was a blessing to hear that.”

But for some, even the 2017 announcement was too late. 

Karen Russell, who worked hard to get a women’s league off the ground in the 1980s, was emotional seeing the AFLW—”It was a long time waiting for this moment of women to get their go at it so it’s quite incredible”. 

Marlo Brack, a star player and coach throughout the 2000s was unfortunate to miss out by a handful of years. 

“Oh my God, if I was like ten years younger!” Marlo says.

For AFL Queensland’s Brad Reid, however, it was simple:

“Well, you pivot.”