Siren

THE STATE OF PLAY

 

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

By Kirby Fenwick & Gemma Bastiani

In the early afternoon of February 22nd this year, 42 women—33 of them locals—made Queensland footy history by playing in the inaugural AFLW QClash between the established Brisbane Lions and new kids on the block, the Gold Coast Suns.

The match was an arm wrestle that eerily seemed to reflect each club’s journey in the AFLW. Brisbane came out strong and kicked two early goals. Kate Lutkins had complete control of the game, directing the Lions’ play out of the defensive half like an orchestra’s conductor. The Suns, however, weren’t content with simply rolling over and allowing their more established opponents to run away with the glory. 

An impassioned plea from star Suns midfielder Jamie Stanton at half-time spurred little sister on to control the second half. Kalinda Howarth bobbed up to kick three goals against her old side, while Jade Pregelj—who wouldn’t have been on the field if it weren’t for the aforementioned Kate Lutkins—proved to the nation why she was considered alongside stars Katie Brennan and Aasta O’Connor in their junior days. Gold Coast threatened to take the Lions’ mantle. They fought hard for the lead only for the match to dramatically, and somewhat appropriately, end in a draw.

It might have been the clash’s first iteration, but the rivalry was already well established. Sure, eight of the new Suns were in fact ex-Lions, but these women had been battling it out against one another through their academies and community clubs for years before they landed at Metricon Stadium.

The AFLW’s expansion to 14 teams in 2020—the fourth year of its existence—saw the addition of a Gold Coast Suns women’s team. This split the local elite talent in Queensland. But with another team in the state, more Queenslanders were drafted. This year, they made up 13 percent of all signed AFLW players across the country—55 players spread across eight different clubs—with the largest contingents unsurprisingly occupying the Brisbane and Gold Coast lists—25 and 23 players respectively. 

While well known Queenslanders Tayla Harris, Aasta O’Connor and Katie Brennan had long headlined the expat list, there was only a smattering of other Queenslanders on lists outside the state. This began to change when Elisha King was signed to North Melbourne via free agency ahead of the 2019 season. And then Tarni White joined the Saints via the draft in 2020. For the first time a Victorian club had targeted a Queenslander straight out of the U18 talent pool and lured her south. 

Recruiters were now looking to what is seen as a non-traditional footy market in Queensland to secure top level talent. This is a testament to the pathways, investment and development AFLQ and its community clubs have long provided women and girls.

Kath Newman has been working at AFLQ since 2012, moving between a number of roles in northern Queensland. Most recently Kath was the state’s Female Talent Manager and has seen firsthand the talent being fostered. She reiterates the idea that AFLQ aren’t just developing girls and women to feed directly into Queensland’s two AFLW sides. They are simply developing as much talent as possible. 

“We really don’t care where they go and play, if they spread themselves out around Australia.”

With only two state teams and plenty of young talent, “the Queensland girls are going to have to be looking elsewhere for spots,” Kath says.

The Suns’ forward line was led by Kalinda Howarth in 2020.

This investment and development put Queensland in a good position when the AFL shortened the timeline for the AFLW’s launch. Originally slated for 2020, AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan took everyone by surprise when he announced in 2015 that the competition would in fact begin in 2017.

“That’s pretty powerful when the highest ranking person in the game does that, it’s kind of subtly just saying to everybody, the 800 people that work at the AFL, that this is really important and we need to make it happen. And it did,” AFLQ’s Brad Reid says. But he knew that Queensland footy was ready to “pivot” once the announcement was made. 

Prior to that announcement, AFL Queensland’s focus was largely on developing the capacity and professionalism of their women’s leagues, strengthening the youth pathway in the process. Once there was an AFLW deadline, however, AFLQ needed to shift focus slightly, while still maintaining their other programs.

“That’s a big part of the strength of women’s footy in Queensland is being able to phase the approach. Being able to change the strategy [so] we have the right strategy at the right time and then by doing that, when 2017 came, Queensland was ready,” Brad says. 

Brad recalls acknowledging that they needed to “get really, really professional” around preparing their most talented players in readiness for AFLW, and investing in strength and conditioning programs, which had not been done previously.

While on an administrative level Queensland footy was confident they would be ready for the national competition in just six months time, players at community level admit they panicked slightly. Sam Virgo puts it plainly: “that was chaos. It was like this really underlying sense of panic, like, we’re not going to be ready.”

Each player vying for an inaugural list spot took their fate in their own hands in some respects. Players moved to the highest-level state clubs they could reach and hired personal trainers or strength and conditioning coaches to get them in the best possible form ahead of the draft. 

 

Sam Virgo in the Lions' inaugural season. Image: Steph Comelli / She Scores
Sam Virgo in the Lions’ inaugural season. Image: Steph Comelli / She Scores

An AFLW license wasn’t a given. AFL clubs had to pitch for a team. At club level, the Brisbane Lions took a different approach to those in other states. Heavily involved in the Lions’ pitch for an inaugural team, AFL Queensland’s Bree Brock made the move across to clubland. 

“I helped the Lions write their proposal,” Bree explains. “The concept of writing proposals to get a licence, you had to have somebody who was independent and a passionate driver of women’s stuff that could get the rest of the business on board. And you couldn’t have someone doing women’s and then being a team manager for men or anything to do with men’s. [You] really have to have someone whose sole focus is to drive this program. But that’s sort of why we have a very different structure than most other clubs. Unlike other clubs where women are under another department, we’re our own department.”

Bree was appointed Women’s CEO of the Brisbane Lions in May 2016—“The AFL weren’t very happy about that apparently,” according to Bree—a role yet to be replicated at any other club five years on.

Bree Brock amongst Lions players thanking their fans post-game.

Having someone like Bree Brock heading up their women’s program put the Lions in a particularly good position once the AFLW kicked off. Bree had been involved in women’s footy right back to her playing days, and worked during the mid-2000s to keep the state league ticking along when it began to falter. Her no-nonsense, logical approach and passion for the game really shines through and this has made her widely admired within the footy community.

“I would say I admire her,” says Gold Coast Suns coach David Lake when discussing his move away from Bree’s Lions in mid-2019. “That’s why her and I got along, we were brutal to each other. But she’s nice. And she runs a good ship. As long as we both stay competitive. That’s the secret, I guess.”

Emma Zielke came to footy in 2007—the same year that Bree was part of a competition restructure—and saw first-hand how determined she was to ensure women had the opportunity to play.

“Her passion is women’s footy. I played against her in a couple of games when I was really young, when I first started and she was a bit older at Zillmere. She’s sort of been through it all as well and I think having her passion coming into the program really showed, she just tried.”

This passion and desire bled through the club and has left an indelible mark on its culture. Originally from Victoria, Lauren Arnell made the move up to the Lions ahead of the 2019 AFLW season and immediately noticed that culture.

“The level of competitiveness, particularly within the AFLW group of girls, that want to just perform for the team at the Lions is higher than any other team I’ve played in. Girls who just want to compete and play their role in a team,” Lauren explains.

“We’ve got a really even spread of talent across our group. Craig [Starcevich] will tell you we don’t really have traditional superstars. But what we have is a really even spread of talent, which gives us a really positive team culture because we need everyone to contribute. But we also don’t have any big egos or anything like that, everyone cares about each other and turns up and performs for each other.” 

Lauren was the inaugural captain of the Carlton Blues, played in the famous lockout that launched the AFLW competition and is a well-known Victorian footy name. When she moved to Queensland and joined the Lions, she brought some much needed experience after the club lost a hoard of players through the AFLW’s expansion. With that experience, Lauren also brought a different perspective.

 

Lauren Arnell spent two seasons at Carlton. Image: Megan Brewer
Lauren Arnell spent two seasons at Carlton. Image: Megan Brewer

 

Similar to the expectations of the Lions’ team in 2017, much of the emerging talent in Queensland flies under the radar. Media coverage of Aussie rules isn’t prolific in Queensland—let alone the coverage of women’s footy—so the talent of players like Sophie Conway, Cathy Svarc, Maria Moloney and more goes largely unappreciated. 

“I think from a Lions perspective you notice—obviously coming from Carlton to the Lions—it’s a huge jump in terms of media coverage and prime time games on TV. I don’t think even the AFLW public get to see a lot of what we do and the talent that our younger girls possess. You’re talking about players like Lily Postlethwaite, Isabel Dawes, Natalie Grider, Jesse Wardlaw, those are all athletes that I think would be very underrated around the AFLW community, but Queensland born and bred and those girls are really going to be the heart and soul of the Lions for a long time.”

There’s even more of this to come with stronger talent pathways leading to more established talent being drafted every year. More athletes playing the sport at community level means more talent to choose from, and in turn a higher level of competition when it comes to selecting the best of the best young talent come draft day. 

BUILDING THE LIONS’ INAUGURAL LIST

Along with an AFLW license comes the inaugural list. The Lions compiled their playing group with well known footy names in Queensland, on whom head coach Craig Starcevich had kept a close eye in the preceding years.

There was Emma Zielke—a priority selection ahead of the draft—who had been working at the Brisbane Lions while starring at club level for Coorparoo. She had a “pretty good relationship with Craig and Bree” due to her involvement in the Queensland state team, including captaining the side for a couple of years. This relationship meant Emma was also involved in the Lions’ initial pitch for an AFLW license.

“I was pretty ingrained in the whole thing in Queensland footy. They picked me up as a priority pick before the draft had gone ahead, so I knew before the draft that I was going to be a Lion,” Emma says. 

Emma became the club’s first captain and has not missed a game in her AFLW career.

Brisbane also nabbed one of the most well-known female footballers in the country—Tayla Harris—as a marquee selection before the Lions’ AFLW license had even been confirmed. 

Brisbane Lions CEO at the time, Greg Swann was excited at having such a big name join the club, “Tayla is one of the most talented young female prospects in the country, her signing is critical to the development of Women’s AFL in Queensland,” he told Brisbane Lions Media. 

Tayla Harris signing a fan's footy in 2017. Image: Megan Brewer
Tayla Harris signing a fan’s footy in 2017. Image: Megan Brewer

Not only a marquee player for the club, Tayla was also going to join the Lions as their Communications and Community Coordinator, with a focus on driving female participation in footy. While colloquially ‘the photo’ refers to one taken in 2019 by Michael Willson after she had moved south to play for Carlton, Tayla was in fact the subject of another famous photo, taken during the exhibition series that preceded the AFLW. This photo now emblazons the cover of book Play On! The Hidden History Of Women’s Australian Rules Football by Brunette Lenkic and Rob Hess that shone a light on women’s footy before there was a national league.

The first player ever to be drafted in the sunshine state was Emily Bates. One of the brightest young talents in the country who, as a teenager, chose footy over cricket and never looked back. Ahead of the draft, she was another to draw eyes in the AFLW exhibition games leading into the competition’s launch. Four years on, Emily is a two-time All Australian, Brisbane Lions best and fairest winner and—like Emma Zielke—hasn’t missed a game.

Kate Lutkins was making her career in the army work with community footy, and for her efforts was selected with pick 79 in that first draft. Another two-time All Australian, Kate has earned the respect of the footy world thanks to her leadership and exceptional skill on the field.

Kate Lutkins is one the Brisbane's 'Foundation Eight'. Image: Steph Comelli / She Scores
Kate Lutkins is one the Brisbane’s ‘Foundation Eight’. Image: Steph Comelli / She Scores

There’s Tahlia Randall who was taken at pick 15—the second selection in Queensland. Her performance as a teenager in the exhibition games caught the footy world’s attention. She was one of just three 17-year-olds drafted to those exhibition games, while still playing junior footy on the Sunshine Coast. Craig Starcevich—coaching Tahlia at state level at the time, and also coach of the Western Bulldogs’ exhibition team—was confident in her ability to compete against women, saying that “Tahlia is an incredibly versatile and athletic player”. Tahlia would go on to win the QAFLW’s Rising Star award later in 2017.

Kate McCarthy, selected at pick 82, would make headlines as the first player—female or male—to play Aussie rules at the highest level with a pacemaker. Her speed and skill would see her nominated for goal of the year that season.

It was Sam Virgo—the South Australian who had never even thought about playing footy until moving to Queensland at the age of 25—who the Lions took at pick 66. Sam took it upon herself to ensure she was in the best shape possible ahead of that first draft.

Sam Virgo in action for Griffith-Moorooka early in her playing days. Supplied: Murray Bird
Sam Virgo in action for Griffith-Moorooka early in her playing days. Supplied: Murray Bird

“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 [it] needed to be in.” Sam explains.

And there was Jamie Stanton, one of the final players to be listed ahead of that 2017 season. A tough player who has worked hard to get back from multiple shoulder injuries to now be considered one of the premier midfielders in the league.

THE SUNS SPLIT THE STATE

Three years on, the Gold Coast Suns—fresh AFLW license in hand—began to compile their own list, largely with local talent.

It began with their head of women’s football Fiona McLarty. Getting Fiona McLarty was like the Western Bulldogs luring VWFL pioneer Debbie Lee, or the Lions appointing Bree Brock or Melbourne signing Darebin Premiership winning player and coach Jane Lange as a coach. In other words, it was a huge deal.

Fiona has a long history with footy in Queensland. She played a season in the Queensland women’s league—built by Dee McConnell and Marlo Brack—back in 2001, and has since progressed through various positions in football, including multiple roles at AFL Queensland. She was crucial to the formation of the Gold Coast’s inaugural list. Fiona had been the manager of the Suns’ Academy zone for a number of years, and with an in-depth knowledge of Queensland’s talent she was key to scoping much of the local talent now populating their playing list.

When Julia Price came to AFL Queensland, Fiona McLarty was already entrenched in the development of footy in the sunshine state.

“Well, Fiona McLarty is now the [Head of Women’s Football for the Suns], and when I first started [she was] the Auskick manager with AFL Queensland. But she was keen as.” Julia says. 

“She’s, you know, eight foot tall, had played a bit herself, so she was really passionate. She’d always be coaching one of the Brisbane teams in the under age sort of stuff and she was really, really engaged and involved in it.

“She’s very engaged in the whole process and a very proud Queenslander. It’s just fantastic to see people like that putting into the game and then obviously getting rewards from it by being able to drive the game.”

Fiona began by targeting Brisbane Lions assistant coach David Lake. David, while having coached the Suns in their 2016 exhibition match against the Lions, was preparing to retire from footy and “spend more time in Bali”. But once Fiona reached out with an offer of a coffee, those plans changed.

 

“So we had the coffee. Now I’m the coach.”

David Lake’s team managed to lure seven Lions players—Lauren Bella, Tori Groves-Little, Leah Kaslar, Paige Parker, Emma Pittman, Sam Virgo and Jacqui Yorston—to the coast under expansion rules. 

From the outside, Jacqui Yorston was one of the brightest young stars at the Lions in 2019, averaging eight tackles across her four games, but the reality was that she struggled to get that first game. David worked closely with the midfielder at the Lions—even talking her out of retirement at one point—and when he landed the job at the Suns he was sure to advocate for her before making the move from the Lions. 

“The last thing I did before I left was [get] her in selection, her getting a game. And I guess our relationship formed out of that. So when I left, she was never not coming,” David says. 

Going hand in hand with Jacqui was close friend Lauren Bella, who also “was never not coming”. David’s relationship with this young contingent was an important part of the inaugural list build.

“They were young, I had their trust. The key,” he says.

The Suns were also able to get Jamie Stanton back to Queensland after the midfielder spent a year playing for the Kangaroos in Victoria. David and Jamie’s bond is a close one, with the coach stating that she’s one of his three closest relationships in women’s footy.

And then with Jamie Stanton, the day before I got the job she said she’d heard a whisper I’d applied—I don’t know from where—and said, ‘if you get the job, I’ll be your first signing’.”

Like Jamie, Tiarna Ernst was returning to her home state after a number of years playing in the VWFL down south and spending three years at the Western Bulldogs, winning a premiership in the process.

 

Tiarna Ernst gets a kick away. Image: Megan Brewer
Tiarna Ernst gets a kick away. Image: Megan Brewer

It was a second chance for Kalinda Howarth who was drafted to the Lions at the end of 2017. Kalinda struggled with her mental health that year and she was delisted after just one season at the Lions having not played a game. David was close with Kalinda, remaining in touch with her after her delisting.

“We spoke regularly. And when I got the job, she was the first one on the phone.”

During the season it was little moments of communication that engineered Kalinda’s impressive debut year. David says that “in those first two games, she looked threatening” but she couldn’t quite break through.

“I’d heard a whisper that she was disgruntled because she felt like she was ending up on the bench all the time. And she hadn’t come to me, so I pulled her up in team photos and said, ‘you are struggling Kindy, what’s going on?’ She said ‘every quarter you start me on the bench and I can’t get myself started and I’m not sure what to do’. 

“I said ‘I didn’t realise I was actually doing that to you, how about I promise you right now that I’ll start you on [the field] at the start of every quarter this week against Brisbane’. So she started on and she tore them to pieces.”

In her first year at the Suns, Kalinda earned herself an All Australian spot and led the goal kicking for the club with nine goals—three of which came in that game against the Lions.

Rounding out the Suns’ inaugural list was Jade Pregelj, whose much celebrated return to footy was all but complete when she was drafted with pick 86.

Jade had been focused on her army career for nearly five years when she happened to catch one of the first AFLW games on TV, “I was like holy shit, they did it. Good on them”. But it wasn’t enough to pull her out of her intense work schedule—that was a job for two-time All Australian Kate Lutkins.

 

Kate Lutkins starring for Wilston Grange. Supplied: Murray Bird
BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA – AUGUST 26: Kate Lutkins of Wilston Grange kicks during the QWAFL Grand Final between Wilston Grange Gorillas and Coorparoo at Leyshon Park on August 26, 2018 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images) Supplied: Murray Bird

 

Also balancing a career in the army and her footy life—playing both AFLW and in the QAFLW—Kate called Jade and convinced her to come down and play a game.

“I played one game and didn’t touch the football and embarrassed myself in front of Craig Starcevich. So, that was really fun. It was absolutely atrocious,” Jade recalls. 

It wasn’t just the Lions’ head coach watching on at the time. Also on the sidelines was Brisbane’s assistant coach David Lake, who was on the verge of taking the Gold Coast head coaching job.

“She felt her body couldn’t cope, but she almost got her start the year before.” David recalls his early interactions with Jade.

Jade was concerned about her body’s ability to get to this new elite level.

“I found my skills are a little bit cleaner. But in terms of fitness, I just could not keep up. All the girls were so elite and I was like, ‘holy shit’. Because I didn’t even really watch a game of AFLW. I mean, I’ve seen it, but it just was never a priority. I was definitely impressed.”

The former ‘best player in Queensland’ found the development in skill to be a motivator, “and wanted to know if [she] could just set [her] own little challenges.” 

“I wonder if I could do that. Surely it can’t be that hard. You used to do it with all those girls. So maybe. And then yeah, when I embarrassed myself in front of the Brisbane Lions coach, I was like, okay, that stings a little bit.”

A twist of fate saw Jade stationed in Brisbane for 2019 and Kate Lutkins wasn’t done encouraging her to come back to footy at the elite level.

“I actually played [Aussie rules] with the army and trained up and got into the Army Roos squad, which is really good. I got to play with Lutsy [Kate Lutkins], and Rheanne Lugg from the Lions, Phoebe Monahan because she’s an engineer in the army, as well as Celine Moody. Those girls were in defence and playing footy and I was like, ‘Look, if you girls can do it, then I’m sure I could get there’.” 

Jade’s Army Roos coach sent some footage of her season to the Gold Coast Suns’ head of women’s football Fiona McLarty which earned her a spot in the Suns’ winter series. As another surprise, the only familiar face in that team was Leah Kaslar—ex-Lion and now Gold Coast co-captain—with a host of talented younger girls making up the rest of the team. Jade describes her experience of that series as having “survived”, but despite this, the Suns signalled their intention to draft her.

“It was initially daunting,” Jade says, “I’m in a completely different headspace now, but I’ve survived it. And I use the word survive because that’s what it felt like I had to do at the start of preseason last year.”

It was more about managing her body than anything else when it came to getting Jade up to the elite AFLW level. She worked with David Lake on developing a modified program to get her through training with the rest of the team without fatiguing, “because once you’re sore, you’re fatigued, and once you’re fatigued your skills go to shit,” Jade says.

 

Jade Pregelj playing for the Gold Coast Suns in 2020. Image: Megan Brewer
Jade Pregelj playing for the Gold Coast Suns in 2020. Image: Megan Brewer

 

David was very conscious of her drive: “I still remember the first night of training, because she’s highly driven and I had to try and hold her up, because she was going to break herself. If she’s going to do something, she’s 110 percent. And I said to her, it’s going to be like running up a hill, and it’s going to take a long time to get to the top of it. So you’re just going to have to be patient with yourself. You don’t need to break yourself. So you’d have to pull her out of training, tell her to stop. And when she gets sore tell her that was enough.”

In fact, this modified program was what engineered Jade’s move into the backline. As a teen, she was known across the state as a first class midfielder, but once she hit AFLW level, her body simply wouldn’t allow her to run through the middle. 

 

“I’ve always considered myself to be more of a defensive player anyway, probably because I can’t kick a goal to save my life. I’ve been trying and it’s honestly embarrassing. So you know, I’ve always thought of myself as more of a defensive midfielder, backstop and then, because I hadn’t been playing footy really very long with people watching you and analysing you and providing the feedback, I guess I wasn’t aware that I have pretty good one-on-ones—I don’t like to lose the ball.”

She moved to defence, was able to nurse her body through the season and create a formidable partnership with fellow key defender Lauren Ahrens, seeing them share the runners-up award at Gold Coast’s best and fairest.

A COMPETITIVE EDGE

Craig Starcevich was working hard not just on the AFLQ talent pathway by 2016, but also at crafting that inaugural Lions’ list. He wasn’t the only one, with a number of key names focused both on state programs and the Lions’ entry to the AFLW.

“It was a bit of an all-competition effort because we were getting ready for basically one team out of Queensland to join the national league,” Craig explains, with the Lions essentially representing the state at national level as their representative teams had done in the past.

With the 2020 inclusion of the Suns, however, the collaborative approach between those working in women’s footy recruiting and development needed to change. Brisbane Women’s CEO Bree Brock explains, “[Craig] continued to work at AFL Queensland part-time. So when AFLW was finished, then he’d go back and do his talent role and then when the Suns were coming, they were a bit funny about him being the head of talent. And yeah, I suppose they were worried he was going to pinch everybody to the Lions so then he came over to the Lions full time.”

Similarly, with Brisbane’s assistant coach David Lake scoring the top job at the Suns, his relationship with players and AFLW player expansion rules made things a little uncomfortable.

“Starc got a bit edgy about that—he’s quite protective—knowing that we could take eight players. It’s all funny when they say it’s eight, but when you put names to them, it’s not that funny. So he struggled through that, him and Bree, because Bree’s competitive.”

This internal dialogue is something David battles with, shifting between what is best for the growth of women’s footy across the state and what is best for his club and their rivalry with Brisbane. He shares a recent example of this back and forth, discussing Courtney Hodder’s return to footy—Courtney signed as a rookie with the Lions for the 2021 season.

“I sent Starc a message and said: ‘mate, great’. But because she was only gone two years, should she be a rookie? Good on you for finding her [but] do I block it? Or do I look at the big picture? She comes back, she plays our game, we get a talent back.” 

David’s acknowledgement that Craig and Bree have spent years building the women’s game in Queensland which has given them a “greater knowledge” of the talent floating around the state is one he shares with great respect, but a competitive edge.

This is the reality of such growth. No longer can the state channel all their talent into a single side and so relationships shift, allegiances change. But the overarching positive is that there are now more opportunities for the state’s growing talent.

THE RIPPLE EFFECT

Queensland’s talent pool is growing exponentially, not only thanks to the pathways that now exist, but also due to the visibility AFLW brings to the sport. With more women and girls playing, and a visible goal for them to aspire to, there are simply more athletes to choose from come draft day.

Community clubs are seeing unprecedented demand for girls’ and women’s teams, allowing them to build out the age group pathways and find players to field these teams. The demand is supported by the structures and planning set up years earlier by Charmaine Ferguson, Julia Price, Bree Brock and their teams.

When Sally Young and Emma Zielke made the move to Coorparoo in 2012, there was one U18s girls team—who Emma would coach—but since then the club has established two U11s teams, an U13s team—”who are winning by like 150-points,” according to Sally—and an U15s and U17s side. This means girls who join the club as a junior can remain loyal to their club and teammates all the way through their playing career if they so desire. These teams could not have been established without that demand, without the young girls who now see footy as an option for them.

“Because I’ve been at the club for so long, I’ve seen the really little ones now being in the 15 or 16-year-old group,” Emma says. “I’ve seen them come through, which is exactly the reason we put our hand up to say ‘let’s join Coorparoo’. They don’t have to change clubs once it gets to U15 and go to another club that has a women’s program. 

“Now they can be one club players and see the pathway and we’ve got I think about eight or nine AFLW listed players in our team which I think is really important for those young girls to see that we’re all playing at their local club. That to me just says, ‘well, if they can do it, that can be me one day’ and we’re always down at their training. 

“I was down at their training on Tuesday just helping them run drills and they’re all shy and a little bit like ‘oh my god’, but it’s the best like, you’ve got to [do that]. I think all of us do it really well. Give back to the girls and keep encouraging them to come back and that’s the best bit about community footy. They’re right there and they can see you training. You can see them training and it sort of helps encouragement and participation.”

The visibility of senior players and the pathway that exists today stands in stark contrast to the experience of many former and current players. Fifteen years ago when Jade Pregelj was playing in a junior boys team at the Logan Cobras, she had never seen the club’s only women’s team train. 

“My club actually had a women’s side at the time. They trained on a different night so I didn’t really see them.”

Jade joined Yeronga South Brisbane in 2019 after a number of years away from the game, and she is impressed by how many sides the club accommodates, the number of girls and women involved in the club and the ownership they feel.

“It is very much like our club. I love our club Yeronga. We’ve got juniors all the way through to senior mens. We’ve got at least two junior girls’ sides [at each age group] as well.”

The AFLW carries much of the credit when it comes to the visibility of the sport for women and girls, understandably given the national exposure the league garnered. The preceding exhibition games, however, which took place between 2013 and 2016, really did prove to be the precursor to what that sort of exposure could offer the sport. Emma Zielke was playing state level footy around that time for Coorparoo, while also being selected in Queensland’s National Championships side and drafted to play in the exhibition series.

“Once those exhibition games came in, the numbers increased. Not as much as it has increased since AFLW obviously, but the numbers were steadily increasing every year, which meant we could start creating more teams and divisions, which then obviously helped the standard of the league get to where it is now. 

“Every QAFLW team—which is the premier league—has to have a development team. Back in the day, you might have to forfeit the game because you didn’t have enough players, whereas that’s never going to happen now because of that system that they’ve got in place. So it has gone leaps and bounds since from the first time I started. Definitely.”

Kate Guy has been working with the Mt Gravatt Football Club’s girls and women’s program since 2011 and was until recently the club’s Female Football Director. She says the AFLW has had an enormous impact on the growth of the game in Queensland at the grassroots. 

 

Kate Guy's U15 Mt Gravatt Youth Girls Team of 2011. Supplied: Kate Guy
Kate Guy’s U15 Mt Gravatt Youth Girls Team of 2011. Supplied: Kate Guy

 

“The kids come in and yeah, the smiles on their faces, just hearing young girls talking about, ‘Oh I’m going to the footy, this is my favourite player, you know, I love this one’. And getting all their footy gear.“

“They’ve got the vision that if they’re good enough and they’re hungry enough that, you know, that’s them in a few years time.”

Kate Guy

This year, Mount Gravatt won their first ever female premiership, with the U17 girls team bringing home the cup. It’s just reward for the effort and commitment of people like Kate. 

“[It] was pretty special. So those are the girls that are into their fourth or fifth year playing now. So it’s been really special going through that journey with them because I’d sort of coached most of them”

The female football program at Mount Gravatt exemplifies the way women’s and girls’ football at the grassroots has grown. Kate says that in the early years, they struggled for numbers and some years, they simply didn’t field any girls teams. She would lend a hand with the boys teams at the club and even spent a year coaching the U17 girls team at Springwood, a club just down the road from Mount Gravatt. 

“But I kept going, and then we thought okay, we’ve got to do something. Because you know, people would ring and say, ‘do you have a team?’ And we’d say ‘oh you know, we don’t know’.”

When Mount Gravatt decided to get serious about having a female football program, Kate stepped into the role of female participation coordinator.

“We just said, ‘Yes, we will have teams. It’s happening, come here if you want to play’. And then from that, it’s just exploded. Now we have teams in every age group, and two women’s teams. About 150 women and girls are playing at the club now.”

Kate says Mount Gravatt approached their program with a ground up approach, developing a junior and youth girls program that could feed into a senior team. 

“We had the vision to say, let’s start from the ground up, get the kids here, bring them through the club. And then we’ve got kids feeding through to our women’s team, instead of going the other way around and just saying we’ll have a women’s team and then we’ll find kids. 

“It’s hard sometimes because you see some clubs who want to have a women’s team. But you think, where’s your youth players? You know, you’ve got to have a solid base,” Kate says. “I mean, some clubs have been up there, then they’ve disappeared, then they’ve come back but they’ve still got no youth players. They’re just relying on people walking in off the street or, you know, word of mouth.”

After establishing their junior and youth girls programs, Kate says the next task was establishing a women’s team. 

“We had the growth in the youth girls over the last few years [and] we needed to work on a women’s team,” Kate says. “[And] we got the women’s team going in 2018.”

Mount Gravatt’s strong youth program means that one senior team has quickly grown to two. 

“Next year, there’ll be seven from the U17s who will go up into the women’s age group. So that’s why it was important that at the end of last year, we made the decision that we’d go for the two women’s teams to cater for everyone. Because we’ve got the talented young ones coming through [but] we’ve got a good core group of 20-30 something-year-olds and then we now have a lot of interest from the mums, anything up to 60. So we have quite a number of these mature aged ladies that are playing the game and they just love it.”

It’s something Kate says was an unexpected benefit of the AFLW at grassroots—the number of older women wanting to play. In fact, Kate pulled on the boots again herself, more than thirty years after she first played in social matches for the club in the 1970s. 

“I made a comeback in 2018 because I thought I’ve done all this groundwork, we’ve got our women’s team, I thought I’m not passing up this opportunity. So I had a few games in 2018 to make it official,” Kate says.“I had to get the old contact lenses and a mouthguard and footy boots [but] I thought, I’m not missing this.”

For Kate, who has loved the game her whole life but spent much of her time on the sidelines, the experience playing was something she’ll never forget: “It was awesome. It was fantastic.”

“And even now, like I spoke to one of the ladies on Sunday whose son plays in our U16s and I said, ‘How did you enjoy it?’ She said ‘I loved it. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done’. I think these ladies are finding out that it’s the camaraderie and everything else and the teamwork. I mean, they train hard but they just love the atmosphere and everything that goes with it.

“I remember looking back at some of the emails, when we first started advertising for women’s players, and I’d get emails saying ‘Hi Kate, I’m 32, never played before. Do you think I’m too old, can I do this?’ And I said ‘you’re never too old. If you want to do it, come and play’. Everyone’s welcome and everyone has a role to play.”

Now, the conversation is shifting towards a competition for those older women, the ones just now getting a chance to play the game they’ve long loved. 

“Now there’s my generation and we’re talking about ok we’ve got to get a masters team up here. Because I mean, when I played my opponent was 18 and she said to me ‘when was your last game?’, I said ‘oh, 35 years ago’. She just looked at me, but they still marked you as if you’re a youngster, you know and you still get tackled. They don’t care how old you are, if you’re on the field, you’re out there to play so you’ve got to be ready for that. And quite often the mature aged ladies will give it back a bit too.”

According to Kate, while the growth at grassroots has been dramatic that comes with some growing pains. 

“There’s clubs all the time applying for new licenses to get women’s teams going. But you’ve got to be able to, I suppose, have a bit of a proven track record and jump through some hoops to make sure you’re sustainable.”

Kate says Mount Gravatt had to put together a proposal to demonstrate they had the facilities and the people to run a women’s team. 

“Because back in the day, I think there used to be four or six teams and that was it sort of thing. Clubs would come and go. And I know a few years ago, AFLQ [introduced] more stringent rules for clubs, to make them sustainable because they didn’t want to see teams forfeiting and that sort of thing.

“But it’s just growing and every year there’s clubs nominating to have women’s teams so now they’ve got to try and fit in and finding the green space is hard. That’s what we found at our club. We’ve had a thriving club with every age group and senior men’s teams now you throw 150 females playing and we’re a one field club.”

Despite the challenges, Kate says having women and girls at the club has had a positive impact on the atmosphere. 

“The crowds we get into women’s games, everyone just loves to come out and watch them. All our mums and our nanas and the youth girls are coming to watch not just the AFLW players but they’re coming out to watch our local women’s teams.

“And, the kids, the girls that started in, say, 2014 or 2015 they’ve sort of come through the club now and have had a full three, four or five years playing footy. So, the standard and that now is so much better because these kids have been playing now since they were younger.”

For Kate, one of the defining stories of the development of the female program at Mount Gravatt is collaborating with other clubs. She says for the game to continue to grow, that needs to happen more. 

“This is what I’ve always tried to say to clubs, we’ve got to help each other. The two teams that played in the U17s grand final, [Mount Gravatt] and Wests, three years ago, neither of us had enough players to form an U17s team, so we combined. And [the Wests] President came up to me at the game on Sunday and he said, ‘if we hadn’t done that these kids wouldn’t even be playing footy, some of them. They would have walked away’. And that’s what you do, you make some sacrifices. It’s not all just about your club. There’s got to be a bigger picture. If there was more of that, that’d help clubs too.”

CHALLENGES AT STATE LEVEL

In an effort to push the development of the women’s game, the QAFLW season now runs concurrently with the summer AFLW competition. Emma Zielke speaks to AFL Queensland’s willingness to try new things and “be quite innovative in that area”.

“It’s just an opportunity for those girls that aren’t getting picked in the AFLW team to go and play back at their local club. It also helps the league, having AFLW players in it. Eventually the league will be fine by itself without AFLW players and that’s the most promising part because the first couple of years, you’re still heavily relying on those AFLW players to return to their clubs to make the standard better, more exciting. But it’s slowly getting to be a league where they don’t need the AFLW players for it to be a quality standard. So I can only see it getting better and better as it goes on with the quality.”

Leah Kaslar playing for Coolangatte-Tweed in the QAFLW. Supplied: Murray Bird
Leah Kaslar playing for Coolangatte-Tweed in the QAFLW. Supplied: Murray Bird

 

The short length of the AFLW season—too short many say—means that even with an aligned state league, the back half of the QAFLW exists outside of the national season. So many players return to their QAFLW sides to play once their AFLW year is finished.

Similar to the rest of Australia—excluding Victoria—state league teams are effectively community clubs. These clubs have grown year-on-year since the AFLW’s launch, meaning some clubs have multiple teams competing, and many compete in multiple divisions.

“When we come back, we take some girls spots who were playing in the top level, which is hard,” explains the Gold Coast Suns’ Jamie Stanton who returns to Coorparoo post-AFLW. “It’s the girls who are on the fringe of the top team [who] I think at times probably find it a little bit harder.”

For Grace Bradley, one of six players who began the Bond University Sharkettes who compete in both the QAFLW and its respective development league, there are both positives and negatives.

“I think it’s good and bad. Obviously, it’s good for the girls that get to play at that top level for those first however many weeks because there’s more slots. So they get an opportunity to play on that stage. 

 

The Bond University Sharkettes celebrate a win in the rooms. Supplied: Grace Bradley
The Bond University Sharkettes celebrate a win in the rooms. Supplied: Grace Bradley

 

“The difference between the Development League and the QAFLW is actually quite big. Most girls that are playing development [league], they’ll go up to seniors and it’s a huge shock. It’s just a faster pace, it’s stronger. You’re playing against girls that have obviously got the talent and the skill and they will smash you. I think it’s good in the sense that it gives people a go, but then obviously when everyone does come back those girls will get dropped down and so AFLW girls will fill the team. It makes it a lot more exciting because the level of skill is actually really great.”

While Sam Virgo can certainly see how this is an issue for community club players, she suggests that improved communication from QAFLW coaches and clubs would go a long way toward settling the discontent.

“It causes huge unrest, because the coaches and people in the community clubs don’t have the skill set, or they’re just not prepared for what impact that has. You ask anyone who would be willing to tell you the truth at any QAFLW club, everyone’s having the same issues. Disgruntled players who have been in the top team for all the practice matches, and all the games up until the AFLW players get back and then they’re dropped in the Development League. And they’re thinking, ‘well, this isn’t lined up with what I was thinking’.”

While there are still some teething issues when it comes to these elite players returning, there are also plenty of positives. Given the lack of funds many clubs face, a full coaching panel is unfeasible, but “everyone knows one coach isn’t enough” David Lake says. With AFLW players returning to these community clubs, they generally provide coaches with assistance in running drills and communicating ideas to their teammates.

“Someone asks a question or a drill is explained and they don’t quite understand, you just see all the eyes sort of look at Emily Bates or Sam Virgo, just sort of glance in their direction and wait for them to add their two cents on [and] that makes it click or make sense to them. I do exactly the same. I’m like, ‘What?’ and I walk around and look at Sam,” Jade Pregelj explains.

“When you think about it, instead of just having one coach or two coaches or three coaches—if you’re lucky enough to have line coaches—at Yeronga, you’ve got about eight girls running around the field at the AFLW level. And, you know, they’re demonstrating all this stuff. So you’ve got eight plus the head coach, and I’m always providing him some tips. I don’t know if that’s because I’ve got a teaching background, or because I like the sound of my voice. But I like it and I enjoy it ’cause [the] girls appear to appreciate it.”

Doing that extra work wasn’t always something Jade was too interested in: ”at first I turned my nose up and was like, ‘oh, effort again’”. But while the star Sun sat out of this year’s state competition in an effort to preserve her body, she still returned to her club Yeronga South Brisbane and worked with the defenders.

“I rocked up to training and I trained, probably did about 70% to keep the legs ticking over and I told them I wasn’t playing. But I was there every game day because, you know, you get committed, you feel obligated. And then the girls really froth it when you yell from the sidelines… the backline is my baby.”

Jamie Stanton agrees that the players are able to have a positive impact at. 

“We obviously fly in and are there to train but we also provide a little bit of extra support in terms of the one-on-one coaching. The coaches can’t do it all because there are so many girls that they have to manage so we’re able to help in that regard as well.”

These players are essentially—for short periods of time—helping to fill some of the coaching gaps that under resourced clubs are facing. Although Sam Virgo explains that the long term impact of this simply isn’t there because AFLW players don’t have enough time to work with state level players. The co-captain of the Suns is herself a coach at junior levels, as are a number of other current AFLW players.

“[We] weren’t there preseason at all and we just come in and play. And not that it’s segregated, I mean, we do a great job of making sure it’s not segregated. But the skill acquisition part just from seeing, learning, talking to AFLW players—I don’t think there’s that saturation of time that you need for that to actually transfer. Yeah, it’s good in theory, but it doesn’t actually happen that way. It’s more that the responsibility lies with the coaches. We certainly lift the competition as a whole. But I don’t know how well that transfers.”

This is why an investment in coaches in the community space is widely considered the next step. Where there has been a concerted focus on player and league development, fewer incentives exist around those looking to enter the coaching side of the women’s game.

 

Sam Virgo coaches both Queensland State rep teams and at her own QAFLW club, Yeronga South Brisbane. Supplied: Sam Virgo
Sam Virgo coaches both Queensland State rep teams and at her own QAFLW club, Yeronga South Brisbane. Supplied: Sam Virgo

 

“It’s a huge black hole in that area. Because it’s not a footy state. We don’t have all the footy heads… The best female coaches in Queensland, 80% of them are still playing,” Sam says frankly. 

Sally Young reinforces this, “the girls that would be great coaches are still playing footy. Once Zilks [Emma Zielke] and people like that retire, and then they get back into coaching, hopefully, that’s when I think the coaching will really take off, and we’ll see what the female coaches can do.”

It’s not simply about getting women into those roles, however. AFL Queensland’s Kath Newman explains that it’s about making prospective coaches see the women’s game as a career pathway.

“It’s women coaching women, but also men seeing that as a valid pathway as well. So look, for example, the state coach that we had last year, who was a state U18 girls coach, at the end of the season was offered a job at the Lions Academy U18 boys program as the midfield coach. And he saw that as a next step where I’m thinking, you’re running a state women’s program, you had ten girls get drafted from your team, and then another five this year, and you see yourself as a line coach for an U18 boy’s program as better. So that’s frustrating. So I think it just needs to be seen as a valid pathway for coaching.”

David Lake is another who is strong on this, determined that coaching—from community level right up to the elite national competition—requires investment to help the women’s game grow.

“I think coaching has got better, but there needs to be a greater investment in coaches, because everyone knows one coach isn’t enough. You need the systems around you. You need to be able to not just generally teach the game, you need to specifically teach it as well.”

BUCKING THE TREND

In the 1970s, there were few opportunities for women to be involved in the game as players, coaches or umpires. Kate Guy bucked that trend. 

Kate had grown up around footy clubs—Mount Gravatt especially—and she loved the game. 

“I was seven or eight-years-old and with two younger brothers. Mum and Dad jumped straight in and got involved on committees. So they were sort of my role models as far as getting involved with things. Dad was president, coach, secretary over the years. Mum did the canteen, so I got involved very early,” Kate says. “I just loved it from the word go.”

“I used to just go and train with the boys but was never allowed to play, which was a bugger.”

Kate did get a chance to play in the social matches for women that Mount Gravatt were involved in throughout the 1970s (and more recently for Mount Gravatt’s women’s team). But despite harbouring a desire to continue playing, nothing eventuated from those games. So she turned her attention to other roles around the club. She carried water and did the typical jobs at a local footy club but “in my late teens I wanted to get more involved”.

“I used to see a lot of the dads obviously coaching the younger boys. And, you know, they’d always be yelling and I thought there has got to be more to coaching than doing that… I just thought I could see a role there of taking on coaching.”

Kate Guy coaching junior boys back in the 1970s. Supplied: Kate Guy
Kate Guy coaching junior boys back in the 1970s. Supplied: Kate Guy

Kate was 19 in 1979 when she started coaching junior boys teams at Mount Gravatt. She says she can’t remember ever seeing another woman coaching at that time. 

“I mean, it’s a long time ago [but] I can’t even remember running into other female coaches,” Kate says. “You know, people would come up and say ‘Are you the manager?’ and, [I’d say] ‘no, I’m the coach’. 

“I was one of the rare females around coaching back in the late 1970s through the 1980s.” 

For Kate, coaching was about far more than skills and strategy. 

“I didn’t go to the high level, I just stayed with the younger boys. I thought well, that was my thing of getting them young and I suppose passing on my love of footy. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do, is just pass on my passion to some other people to get them more involved.”

 

Kate Guy continued to coach throughout the 1980s. Supplied: Kate Guy
Kate Guy continued to coach throughout the 1980s. Supplied: Kate Guy

 

Kate coached for a decade before she stepped away in 1989. But, then, after more than twenty years away from coaching, she got a phone call. 

“So 2011, I got a phone call from someone [at Mount Gravatt] saying they were looking at getting a girls’ team. And I was quite surprised and thought, well, that’s good. The girls will love it but you know, what are you ringing me for? And they said they were looking for a coach. And I said yeah, well they’ll probably want a male coach. And they said no, we’re looking for a female coach. And I thought I haven’t coached for 20 years. But I said give me the details.”

By this time, Kate’s two children were grown and looking after themselves. She says it was an opportunity to get back to something she loved.  

“So, 2011 [Mount Gravatt] got their first girls team, U15s, and I’ve been at the club since then.”

Kate was breaking down barriers for women in football decades before the AFLW. But she says coaching is still something where the game needs to do more work to bring women in. 

“[There’s] probably not enough female coaches,” Kate says. “We still do give the coaching roles to men but if they can pass on as much experience and knowledge to up and coming female coaches, that’s what’s needed.” 

As more AFLW players retire, it’s expected that Queensland will begin to see more female coaches—and more specifically, coaches passionate about the women’s game—filtered throughout community leagues and working their way into the AFLW. Currently, however, finding this talent presents a number of obstacles, the main one being a lack of support in the role.

“It’s such a strain on those people because they’re responsible and have to wear all the hats. But if you look at the AFL Queensland website, our coaching advertisement is still up from January. There just aren’t the people unless you know who you’re looking for,” explains Sam Virgo. 

“And you go out and you take them from another club, which doesn’t help anybody really, there’s no people lining up to support coaches.”

 

Brittany Gibson and Sam Virgo coaching Queensland's State rep team. Supplied: Sam Virgo
Brittany Gibson and Sam Virgo coaching Queensland’s State rep team. Supplied: Sam Virgo

 

Jade Pregelj has perhaps a more cynical view of the job.

 

“Why would you want to go and wrangle a group of 40 plus girls, make them overcome all the challenges that come with trying to teach them something. And then, you know, spend I don’t know, six hours a week? Yeah, it’s a lot.”

 

For some clubs it’s simply about not having the funds to pay their coaches for their time, but for others it’s still about not valuing women’s programs and their coaches highly enough to pay them. The hope is that as more clubs prioritise their women’s teams, more coaches will see a salary to help them progress and reward the time spent. 

The progress Queensland clubs have made in this respect in recent years surprised Jade, who after almost a decade away from footy was shocked to learn her coaches at Yeronga South Brisbane were being paid.

“It blew my mind when I found that our coaches were getting paid. I was like paid by who? But that’s how you get them to turn up and do their job, I guess.”

The standard of coaching at AFLW level in Queensland has certainly put the spotlight on the standard at state level—especially given the number of AFLW players who do return to those teams—and it’s also exposed the disparity in professionalism between the leagues when it comes to looking after players. 

Jade describes herself as a “snob” when it comes to recovery now.

“I only played a couple of games for Yeronga and then went straight into having a physio and having ice baths and having all the stuff you need to do your activation and all that stuff before a game. You go back to club footy and you’re like, ‘oh, I have to bring my own roller’. You know, make sure I pick up a bag of ice on the way home to sit in the bathtub. It’s hard work if you want to elevate yourself above wherever you’re at, because you need to do so much more.”

It’s something that Lauren Arnell recognises as a disparity between her home state of Victoria and where she now plays her footy, noting that in the VFLW there are minimum standards required for a club to maintain a license.

“It almost kicked Darebin out of the VFLW. But it made sure for players coming in, they would get a minimum standard of care and treatment when they arrived at a state league club.”

“So, Queensland clubs—even Yeronga where I am at the moment—it’s a community footy club which happens to play in the women’s state league.

“But I would say that our current state league system is finding its way from community footy into ‘what does a state league women’s competition look like?’ and I think we’re ahead of the curve in the timing of the competition being aligned more with AFLW. But in terms of what clubs have, resources at their disposal and sponsorship and financial support to have quality staff and player welfare in place, yeah they’re behind,” Lauren says. 

“IT HAD TO GET THERE”

The world may not have been ready in 1955 when women first took to the field in Queensland, or in 1973 when Kate Guy pulled on the boots or in the 1980s when Karen Russell was working tirelessly to set up a competition. And the world probably still wasn’t quite ready in the early 2000s when the competition that would become the QAFLW was finding its feet. Stories from the early days of the state league abound with challenges and hurdles. 

“Players had to not just play, they had to sort of invest everything… just the commitment that was required from people, you really do rely on volunteers and you don’t have a plethora,” explains Aasta O’Connor, who was a member of the five-time premiership winning Logan Cobras.

Dee McConnell was one of the women who spearheaded the competition that would become the QAFLW. She says the early years were difficult. 

“We could never get 18 players, never. So it was always a bit of a struggle.” 

“It was tough going. No crowds. Not enough players, you know, bugger all volunteers. I mean, my kids ran water, you know, somebody else would bring their son along, he can do the goals or something like that. So it was really tough going, but it was enormous fun.”

Marlo Brack, who worked alongside Dee to get the competition up and running and who would go on to win five straight premierships with the Logan Cobras says the unpredictability of those early days made them treasure the competition. 

“That was the hardest thing, because every new year, you didn’t know how many teams you’d be up against or even if there’d be a competition,” Marlo says. “I mean, there was at one stage there I remember there were 12 teams. The next year, there were six. That is a big difference from one year to the next.”

“It was one of those things where you had to treasure each season as it came because you didn’t know if there’d be another one.”

Marlo Brack

Murray Bird, who worked for AFL Queensland and co-wrote More of the Kangaroo, 150 Years of Australian Football in Queensland–1866 to 2016, believes that many of the challenges of those early years come down to one thing: dinosaur attitudes.

“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.”

Charmaine Ferguson and Julia Price, who drove women and girls football in Queensland for a decade from 2004 to 2013, faced those attitudes plenty of times. 

“I know for a while in the earliest stages, I’d go to all these club meetings and talk about clubs getting on board with putting a girl’s team in and I’d have a lot of men at the back of the room with their arms crossed, and yeah, not too interested,” Charmaine says. 

“There were heaps,” Julia says of the challenges she faced. “Obviously there was already a perception that all female footballers were gay. There was that whole parents not wanting their girls to play football and then obviously girls getting injured. And then we’re sort of talking about differences between boys and girls playing and why it was okay for a boy to play football and they may get injured. But if a girl plays football and she gets injured, it’s the end of the world.

“Just the traditional barriers that we normally come up against, and the arguments that make no sense just purely based on traditions and what we’ve done in the past of the roles that girls are allowed to play or not play.”

There are stories too that reveal just where women’s football was in the hierarchy. 

“There are different times where you sort of think, ‘oh, that wasn’t quite right’,” Aasta says. “Like, it was a huge deal that the Logan Cobras men’s seconds team gave us their guernseys from the year before. Like that was such a, you know, ‘oh how nice of them’. Like I think of that now and I’m like, ‘oh, my goodness’. These guernseys were oversized, they didn’t smell great, they’d been used but we were grateful because it was something we didn’t have to buy. One less thing we had to purchase.”

This, however, is changing. In her time working at the AFLW Academy, Aasta has seen first hand the opportunities and resources afforded girls coming through the pathway—resources far more impressive than a second hand men’s guernsey.

“I laugh because I sort of see the opportunities afforded to young girls and women now. And I mean, I don’t say to them ‘you should have seen what was like in my day,’ but it’s so different,” Aasta explains. 

“And it should be different. But you know, girls come into the AFLW Academy now and they get two free pairs of boots from Nike, they get their own Sherrin, they get kit—they’re basically decked out like AFL players. And that’s how it should be. But it’s so funny when I think back to how it was.” 

 

Match-used Sherrin from the 2017 AFLW season. Image: Megan Brewer
Aasta O’Connor says that AFLW Academy participants are kitted out well nowadays, including their own Sherrin. Image: Megan Brewer

 

A lot has changed in 15 years, for the better. As Aasta says, “it had to get there… it should be like that.”

“WHO ON EARTH EVER SAID GIRLS CAN’T PLAY FOOTBALL?”

Women’s football in Queensland is a rich tapestry held together by one very simple truth: women have always wanted to play.  

While this three-part series is not the defining story of women’s Aussie rules in Queensland— there are simply too many people and memories missing for it to ever be that—we have tried to capture some of those people and memories here to tell this history. 

From the very first interview to the last, what we found were stories of hard work and dedication and of friendships forged on footy fields. Stories that ask ‘why not?’ instead of ‘why?’. Stories of success and frustration, of finding a way when it seemed impossible. Stories of some truly remarkable women and stories too of the men who put their hand up to support them. 

Women have taken centre stage here and we do not apologise for that. Because this story belongs to women. The memories these women treasure are different and varied. Some return to a specific game, or to a more recent memory of a young girl kicking a footy in a park and for others it’s something deeper and more profound that is hard to put into words. Regardless of the shape or form of those memories, what persists is the lasting impact, the indelible mark, the feeling that never fades. What stays is the love for the game. 

For Aasta O’Connor, it’s a mid-2000s grand final against now Gold Coast Suns co-captain Leah Kaslar, and the full circle feeling when playing against her at AFLW level.

 

Leah Kaslar was
Leah Kaslar was “wild” and tough according to Aasta O’Connor. Image: Megan Brewer

 

“I remember playing, I think it was the 2007 or maybe 2008 Grand Final. I was playing against Leah Kaslar and she was playing for Surfers Paradise at the time. She was wild Leah, like this beast of a player, just physically dominant and I was—I wouldn’t say I was scared of her, but I was certainly aware of where she was on the field. 

“And it was in the rain and it was goal for goal and Marlo played on the halfback line that day, hilarious because she can’t defend. She did not man up all game, but she gave us that beautiful left foot bounce off half back. And we end up winning by a point. 

“But I remember that physical tussle with Leah Kaslar. And this is like 13, 14 years ago now. And it’s funny, you’re playing AFLW but every now and again, you still have these moments where you look over at Leah or players that have sort of been around for a long time, you just think ‘yeah, you were there in the beginning’. It’s pretty special.”

Marlo Brack references Leah Kaslar, too, when reflecting on the impact of the state league she began in the early 2000s with Dee McConnell.

 

“When I was finishing, Zilks [Emma Zielke], Batesy [Emily Bates], all those players, they were just coming through. Leah Kaslar, I had a couple of years with her as well in state. So yeah, girls like that, that I see now playing, I just look back and think, ‘oh my god, who would have thought this would have happened 10-15 years ago when we were just playing club level.” 

 

Emily Bates is one of the star midfielders of the AFLW. Image: Steph Comelli / She Scores
Emily Bates is one of the star midfielders of the AFLW. Image: Steph Comelli / She Scores

 

“I was just lucky to be a part of it and to start it. The girls that I played with, again, would probably have had no idea—the same as me—that what has come of it now has come of it. 

“I look at the young girls like Katie [Brennan] and Jade [Pregelj], who are probably late 20s now that have got the opportunity. I mean, I know Aasta would probably be coming towards the end of her career, I would say. But you know what, they were part of a new generation where they’ll look back the same [as] I did and go, ‘this is what we helped make, we helped make this AFLW dream become a reality for young girls now coming up that in 10 years time, they’ll be playing it’.

“Just watching young girls come through now and the fact that they can just so easily find a team, I think is phenomenal. They don’t have to struggle. They can just go and play.”

Marlo Brack

Bree Brock is one of many who have spent time both at AFL Queensland and within clubs. For her, the early days of the Brisbane Lions women’s program are significant, and so too are their inaugural players that are still kicking on at the club.

“I think for both Craig and I, you know, the club had been on its knees for a few years, and languishing down the bottom of the ladder, and for us to be able to come in and be this new team and you know, we won five games straight, went to a grand final in our first year. We went undefeated that year.

“It was like we could just bring a little bit of pride, I suppose, back to the club and people felt that it was a good thing to be part of the Brisbane Lions, cheering for the Brisbane Lions and I know it certainly helped lift the club’s morale and dust itself off a little bit.

“So yeah, that was really, I guess a really nice memory to kind of look back on and there are so many great little moments that we’ve had along the way. But I think mostly, we call them the ‘foundation eight’ and they’re the girls that have been with us from the start. Seeing the kinds of players that they’ve all become now and forming the core of our team. Some of them are dual All Australians, club Best and Fairest winners, they’ve been very successful. 

“It’s just watching them grow and develop and just live their dreams like that. It’s an awesome thing to get to say that my job is I get to help people do that.”

Bree Brock

Bree’s predecessor at AFL Queensland, Julia Price enjoys a moment of pride when she sees girls kicking a footy in a local park—something she rarely saw before her time at AFLQ. 

“I actually am quite proud about it, but at the same time I’m not sitting here patting myself on the back. It’s quite comforting just to know that girls are out there playing footy all the time. And every time I drive past the park and I see a girl kicking the footy with her dad or her mum, I’m just like, I love that. I just think ‘yep, that’s brilliant’. 

“Girls have now got that opportunity from the work that we did behind the scenes so that’s great.”

Julia Price

And for Kate Guy, who coached in the 1970s because she had no opportunities to play, it’s the people she’s been able to work with, the friends she has made that leave the lasting mark. 

“It’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my life. And the opportunities it’s given me, coming through with AFLQ, I’ve been involved with the representative teams—either as manager or assistant coach—been up to Cairns with the representative teams as team manager. 

 

“Just the people and the friends you meet along the way, it’s certainly changed my life for the better.”

In the 1980s when Karen Russell was fighting to get a women’s league off the ground, the idea of a national women’s competition or of a community football landscape overflowing with players and teams and talent was beyond even dreaming about. For Karen, who was the first employee at the Brisbane Bears, her lifelong love of the game has been validated by the sheer number of girls and women now playing. 

“I think what’s happened is it’s proven that girls always wanted to do this. It’s like, once the doors were opened it’s sort of like there’s been no holding back. There’s just girls everywhere wanting to play. 

“I’ve got two nieces who play at Southport and they’re passionate about it and it’s sort of like why wasn’t this always the case? Who on earth ever said girls can’t play football? And why, and what was their right? I just think this is just sport. Why wasn’t football open to girls? Why was the door shut for so long? And now that it’s been opened, it’s been proven that it is popular.”