Battling border closures, floating fixtures and expectation, Fremantle has had plenty to contend with. Hayley Miller and Trent Cooper share the story of their season.
This interview was meant to happen a year ago. March 2020. Fremantle’s AFLW side was in Melbourne ready to play the Western Bulldogs and I was looking forward to meeting with head coach Trent Cooper and young ruck Mim Strom.
In the space of 24 hours, however, plenty had changed. The pandemic was fast becoming a reality. Crowds were no longer going to be allowed for the coming round, and my in-person chat was now a phone interview. A small inconvenience in the scope of the year, and it was still a great interview.
A year on, I wanted to try again. Thankfully, Fremantle, Cooper, and midfielder Hayley Miller obliged.
As I set up, we talk about how they’re used to doing plenty of phone interviews, given they live on the other side of the country to most footy media. Cooper jokes that I “like interviewing [their] rucks,” referencing a podcast I recorded with Hayley last year, where she mentioned having to spend time in the ruck in 2019.
“That one time. We’re still holding on to that one time,” Miller laughs. “I did go up for a ruck actually on the weekend. I couldn’t help myself.”
Miller was the first player drafted to Fremantle in the inaugural 2016 draft. Pick number four. She has been a key cog in their machine in the five years since, but has emerged as a particularly dominant midfielder in recent years.
She is open and frank when I ask about her own development, particularly when it comes to the internal challenge of comparing herself to Victorian midfielders, statistically.
“The good players will continue to improve and there are always things you can improve on. Especially as an inside mid. I don’t get the disposals and things like that, that some of those other Victorian midfielders are.”
Miller says this, but she is in the top 10% of players this season when it comes to winning the ball, and has laid the tenth-most tackles in the competition. On an individual level, she is also averaging a career-best possessions (14.1) and tackles (5.4) this year.
So, really, it comes down to belief.
“I think personally, going back and just finding the confidence that I can go up against some of those players, where previously I probably would have been like, ‘well I’m down here and they’re up here,’” she motions with her hand. “I’ve sort of closed that gap a little bit in my head. And the way I think about it, my main thing coming in was I wanted to make an impact.”
I mention that her good form is noticed, but when skeptical looks adorn their faces, I add “by some people, anyway” which causes Cooper to chuckle.
He explains, “it’s hard for our midfielders, I think, to pick up the paper, first thing you see is the stats and the opposition: 24, 22, 20. And ours might be 16, 14, 12. They will have way more touches than us, but the big one for me is metres gained.”
Funny thing, that. Miller recorded the fifth-most metres gained in competition history last year against Gold Coast, and averages 231.1 metres gained in her career.
“We need to go quicker, so Hayley’s perfect for our game style because she breaks lines,” Cooper says. “We’ve seen that with Hayley, and now we see it at a really consistent level. And her minutes haven’t changed, she still plays the same time.
“Hayley worked really hard on fitness this year, her running capacity away from the group. And that’s, I think, improved her skill more than anything just because she’s quite skillful, but if you’re tired, you can’t execute your skills.”
It’s her breakaway speed from stoppages and subsequent delivery forward that is particularly valuable for the Dockers, and like Cooper, Miller credits her improved fitness for her ability to do this on a more consistent basis.
“My biggest strength is obviously my speed and power over those first few steps, so to not use that would be a waste. When you’re not as fit, you can do that once or twice, but then you’re completely gassed and you can’t go anymore,” Miller says.
“I think building that aerobic capacity helps you to be able to do those things more, and then it’s going to become more noticed if you’re doing it once or twice in a game, compared to three, four or five times in a game.”
It’s not just physical development, either. A focus heading into 2021 was leadership.
“I’ve taken some steps in my leadership, which I think has also helped me play some better footy. When you’re not focused solely on what you’re doing, and how you can be better when you’re trying to bring other people up around you, you instinctively often play better in that respect as well.”
I look to Cooper and he quickly concurs, “her leadership is really solid in our group.”
Leadership and maturity on the field is one of the reasons why Fremantle has been such a powerhouse of the AFLW in recent years.
“[Against Carlton] Janelle Cuthbertson went down,” Cooper explains, “and I could see it. By the time I was on the phone, Ebony Antonio already covered [Cuthbertson’s] player and a forward had come up to cover Ebony’s wing. So that’s the on field leadership.”
Miller is quick to express the importance of this awareness of one-another on the field.
“You can lose a couple of goals in that time, especially if everyone’s confused about who’s supposed to be where… and it may only be ten, fifteen seconds, but you’ve got yourself covered for that time.”
Given 66% of Fremantle’s scoring this year has come in second halves, it’s also about being able to wrestle back momentum in games. Roxy Roux’s performance against Melbourne in round eight is my first thought, and Cooper agrees.
“She was amazing, Roxy. She can do things that no-one else can do. I think she was the same height as Melbourne’s smallest forward… She definitely helped change momentum with a few of her efforts. She’s not a high possession player, but a high impact player.”
Throwing in a mention of Roux’s ruck work, he laughs, “it gives Hayley a bit of confidence, too for a few years.”
Maybe Miller won’t have to chop out in the ruck again any time soon.
Talking about the Dockers’ game style, the importance of their defensive line is clear, but the overarching theme is that defence is a priority for all 21 players selected each week. As a team, they generate plenty of attack from turnovers, which requires pressure and defensive acts across the field. Obviously Kiara Bowers’ tackling is a huge factor, so too Miller’s, but the return of Tiah Haynes to the AFLW has also contributed to this.
Haynes was selected as a defender at pick 26 in that same 2016 draft as Miller, but managed just six games in two seasons, with persistent injuries seeing her delisted at the end of 2018. Redrafted this past October, Haynes has played every game this year as an inside midfielder, averaging 2.3 clearances and 4.1 tackles a game.
“I said, ‘it’ll take you a while to get back to AFLW level,’ but she goes, ‘it’s not that, it’s different,’” Cooper says. “It’s changed completely in the two years she was out. So it wasn’t the case of finding that old level, it was finding a totally new level that she’d never been part of.”
Miller cannot speak highly enough of Haynes, and her contribution to the team. “Everyone was just so stoked for her to get that opportunity again. She’s a good person, and that’s what we like. We like good people at our club.”
Haynes’ return, however, also highlighted the transformation Fremantle has gone through since the off season she was delisted. In that time, Cooper has taken the reins as head coach, Kiara Bowers made her long awaited debut, and 21 new players have joined the list. Just eight inaugural Dockers remain—including Haynes. This made the return not just to the AFLW, but to the club an intimidating prospect.
“Well, more than fifty per cent of your group is different now, and the systems and processes we have in place are completely different as well,” explains Miller.
Those changes are certainly working for the Dockers. In their 14 games across seasons 2017 and 2018, they registered just four wins. In their 24 games since the start of 2019, however, they’ve lost just five.
Because the Dockers made the finals in 2019 and 2020, they were better equipped than most when it came to adapting to the floating fixture clubs experienced throughout the 2021 season. For players, it’s not being sure where they’ll be on the weekend—and for Fremantle, whether they would be returning the day after a game, or end up on the road for three weeks. For the coaching staff, however, preparing for specific oppositions became tricky when some games weren’t announced until just days before.
“In advance, I watch as much as I can,” says Cooper. “But we’ve got our opposition coach in Lisa Webb. She digs deep into the exact opposition, so it’s been harder for her because she has to wait until [the fixture] comes out, the last three weeks have been easier for her, she can actually get it in advance. But before that, it was ‘okay, who are we playing? Now let’s get started’.”
As Miller explains her process as a player heading into each round, the precautionary elbow brace she is wearing squeaks and the physical reality of what AFLW players contend with is apparent.
The navigation of border closures and an ever-changing fixture has undoubtedly weighed more heavily on non-Victorian sides given the overarching feeling that they might need to pack up and leave at any moment. This is combined with the need to maintain work outside of footy—often physical work that can be impacted by the smallest of niggles obtained on the footy field. Evangeline Gooch has spent much of the season juggling her footy with her job as a firefighter, made even trickier given the recent WA fires. Kiara Bowers works as a carpenter and Miller herself is a physiotherapist. All are taxing on the body before even arriving at training. This is the reality of playing in the AFLW. While often the realisation of a childhood dream, it also requires a remarkable amount of sacrifice both at work, and at home.
As I pack my things and we prepare to leave, Cooper tells me that they’re headed to the MCG while in Melbourne—”Mim [Strom] has never been”—and he asks how I expect a certain team to line up in the coming round—”will they push up onto the wing, you think?”—and I’m reminded why they make these sacrifices. Why they juggle work and family and footy. Why they deal with the uncertainty, pain and exhaustion. Because footy’s pretty great.