Heather Anderson feels lucky.
After undergoing surgery in April in the wake of dislocating her shoulder in the AFLW Grand Final – her second major shoulder injury – the 22-year-old medic in the Army is grateful to have the support of the Australian Defence Force as she faces another round of rehabilitation.
It’s a level of support she wishes was enjoyed by her teammates and colleagues.
One of 10 Adelaide Crows based in Darwin, Anderson recalls the exact moment she dislocated her shoulder in the third quarter of the Grand Final earlier this year.
“I went to tackle one of the Brisbane girls and she sidestepped me – it was a pretty shocking tackle if I’m honest,” Anderson said.
“I stuck my arm out and grabbed onto her guernsey and instead of running past me, she changed direction and ran behind me and ripped my shoulder out of the socket.
“As soon as it happened, I just felt the pain. When it pops out it’s horrendous. It takes you a while to get your bearings.
“The first thing I thought was ‘not this again’. I knew exactly what was going to happen and I knew what the repercussions were going to be.”
When Anderson was drafted by the Adelaide Crows with their second pick in last October’s inaugural AFLW draft, her future was uncertain.
A dislocated shoulder at the end of 2015, after playing five games for Waratahs in the Northern Territory Football League, that required surgery in early 2016 was followed by an inguinal hernia in August that year that required further surgery, and interrupted the midfielder’s rehab.
Anderson was sure she would be out for the inaugural season and had accepted that there was a good chance she wouldn’t be drafted.
“I hadn’t had game experience in 14 months, I was gonna be a high risk to draft.
“Bec [Goddard] very much backed me and really supported me through it.”
Only three days out from the Crow’s first practice match against Fremantle in January, Anderson was told she wasn’t fit to play.
At a second assessment, the day before the match, she was given the go-ahead.
Despite the okay from medical staff, Anderson admits to some concerns going into the first game against GWS.
“Sitting on the [bench] before I went on, I felt physically sick at the idea of it happening again,” Anderson said.
I was picturing in my head situations where it could come out again and what it was going to mean for work if it happened again.”
Throughout her year-long rehab in 2016, Anderson had been medically downgraded by the Army, meaning she wasn’t deemed fit enough to go outfield or on taskings.
“I very much had to improvise when it came to maintaining my medical skills.
“I did a lot of my own study and volunteer work to get my medical experience up, and I was moved into a training role at work.
“I got medically upgraded in December last year to be fit for duty at work, and then spent a good couple of months upgraded this year before I got downgraded again after the Grand Final.”
Late last month, the Adelaide Advertiser reported that fan favourite and Anderson’s teammate at the Adelaide Crows, Sarah Perkins, had been left in financial limbo after exhausting her leave entitlements to accommodate a necessary ankle surgery.
Perkins told the Advertiser that she was taking leave without pay from her day job while waiting for the AFL’s income protection insurance or medical cover to kick in – both important elements of the contract negotiated by the AFLPA prior to the inaugural season.
While Perkins’ management has since said that the issue has been resolved, the fact remains that the AFL left one of the competitions biggest stars in an incredibly difficult situation.
Anderson didn’t pursue the cover detailed in the AFLW player contract, relying instead on the support of the defence force.
“To be honest, I have no idea how it all works with the AFL and their insurance and protection with the girls,” Anderson said.
“I declined getting in touch with anyone and let the club know I was able to handle it all myself.
“The club just told me to approach them [the AFL] if I have any dramas.”
Many AFLW stars have not yet returned to their state-based teams, including household names Moana Hope and Daisy Pearce, the former who has decided to sit out the season to fully recover from the knee injury that hampered her performance last season.
Anderson, Perkins and their teammate Sophie Armistead have undergone surgery, and many players, including marquee Bulldog Katie Brennan and high-profile Collingwood rookie, Kate Sheehan, suffered season-ending injuries early in the competition.
Fremantle’s playing list was decimated by injury, losing marquee Kiara Bowers and Emily Bonser prior to the season, and Kim Mickle, Brianna Green and Tiah Haynes during.
“I wanted to ensure that system was there for the other girls because I know there are quite a few who have had serious injuries and surgery,” Anderson said.
“I just want that system to take care of them.”
In the inaugural season, most players were paid only $8,500 for what was up to a six-month contract.
Questions about the remuneration for players have been consistent since the launch of the competition.
And given so many players, like Anderson, risked their careers to play in what the AFL described as a ‘semi-professional’ league, how much responsibility does the AFL have for the wide-ranging impact of the inaugural season on the players?
Not all players are as lucky as Anderson to have the unwavering support of their employer.
While the Crows have been supportive, Anderson’s future is not assured.
She’s confident of being medically upgraded to be fit for work but being upgraded to be fit for contact sports is not a certainty.
And neither is being re-signed by the reigning premiers.
“I have absolutely no expectation for [Adelaide] to retain me, Anderson said.
“I’d struggle with them retaining me and backing me, giving me the opportunity, then having to turn around and tell them ‘no, I can’t do it.’ I think that’d break my heart.
“If I have to walk away from footy, I can walk away knowing I’ve done absolutely everything I can, and I’ve had an absolute blast the past 15 years playing and I’ve achieved a fair bit.”