An untimely end for three cornerstones of Victorian women’s footy

For anyone who has been involved in top tier Victorian women’s footy, it almost seems surreal that three cornerstones of the competition will no longer take their places in 2018.

The Eastern Devils, St Kilda and 2017 VFLW runners-up Diamond Creek will no longer field teams in the VFL Women’s competition, joining Cranbourne and Seaford in bowing out, and also following the exit of North Geelong and Knox the year prior.

Diamond Creek’s Katie Loynes celebrates a goal in the 2017 VFLW Grand Final. Image: Daniel Pockett/AFL Media

The move is part of AFL Victoria’s plan to align the current and future AFLW teams with VFLW sides, as became evident in 2016 when the Geelong Football Club took over North Geelong’s VFLW licence, and the Hawthorn Football Club/Box Hill took control of Knox’s.

Seven new teams will join the VFLW in 2018: St Kilda (as the Southern Saints), Melbourne (as the Casey Demons), Carlton, Collingwood, Essendon, Richmond and Williamstown.

The only surviving clubs from the VFLW days are the Darebin Falcons, who are fresh off a fifth consecutive premiership and 10th in 12 years, Melbourne University (now working closely with North Melbourne) and the VU Western Spurs (closer ties with the Western Bulldogs).

12 teams overall will feature.

Though the Devils, Sharks and Creekers were given the opportunity to stay on by AFL Victoria, there was no real sincerity in the offer, nor the half-hearted thank you from AFL Vic competitions manager John Hook.

The feeling in all three camps is that the clubs were given no option but to reconsider their plans for 2018, and in some cases were gently nudged in AFL Vic’s desired direction.

It is believed that one club in particular was prepared to continue in the VFLW in 2018, but was faced with unnecessary challenges due to the AFL’s desire to keep the competition to an even number of teams.

While it is recognised that this move is designed to ensure consistent talent development at the top tier in Victoria, it is hard to believe that the only option was to push existing teams out the door, particularly when both the Spurs and Mugars will continue on under the North Melbourne and Western Bulldogs banners respectively.

All three clubs have been graceful and respectful in the acceptance of their fate, but rest assured, there is plenty of disappointment amongst the state’s top players and club officials.

And as a media outlet, there is just as much disappointment in our camp.

Since 2013 – a regrettably short period upon reflection – we have had the honour of observing the Devils, Sharks and Creekers, and since 2014 as part of Girls Play Footy’s weekly radio coverage.

All three were always extremely accommodating for us, and made it an absolute pleasure to interact with players and officials, as well as take up some space to broadcast games amongst their often small but passionate fan bases.

A common theme amongst all three clubs was their fighting spirit that allowed them to bounce back from adversity, which bodes well for them moving into the future.

We quickly realised how instantly likeable the Eastern Devils were.

Though the team struggled mightily in 2014, only posting two wins – both against lowly Bendigo – there was something about the club’s positive approach to football, both on and off the field, that was irresistible.

Things changed in 2015. Propelled by the unmistakable figure in veteran defender Meg Hutchins and buoyed by a cast of young, budding future AFLW stars in Sarah D’Arcy, Jaimee Lambert, Katherine Smith and Hannah Scott, the Devils fell one win short of returning to finals.

Another player, who would emerge as a cult figure in the AFLW, also took her chance to move up from reserves football to become one of the league’s most unstoppable forces. Watching the development of Sarah Perkins was a treat.

That willingness to bounce back from what could’ve ultimately been a telling drop-off characterises the Devils, who returned to finals in the first season of VFLW in 2016, and would’ve been back there again in 2017 had it not been for a string of narrow losses.

The memories of taking up a spot in front of the club rooms at Mulgrave Reserve, and more importantly taking refuge in the bar on a freezing cold day after games to talk footy over a few beers, will stick with us forever.

Similarly, it was hard not to fall for the rugged charm of the bruising St Kilda Sharks, a team which you’d be remiss for thinking were always a contending side.

The Sharks made finals in all four years that we covered them as part of GPF Radio, but as anyone involved with the proud club will know, it was a long slog to get to that position, particularly after 2012 when the team experienced 14 straight defeats, even losing twice against Scoresby which dropped out the following year.

But the team was reinventing itself. The Sharks drew closer to finals in 2013, and made an incredible breakthrough in 2014 thanks to the leadership of the legendary Shannon McFerran, the imposing duo of Mia-Rae Clifford and Penny Cula-Reid, an emerging future star in Jenna Bruton, and the returning Moana Hope.

Brittany Bonnici becoming a star midfielder and the inclusion of former Matildas goalkeeper Brianna Davey helped the Sharks back-up in 2015, and it’s impossible to forget the incredible 2016 season during which Hope kicked an unbelievable 106 goals, and Jasmine Garner bagged 41 of her own.

But maybe most memorable of all is the season just gone by. Without Moana Hope, the Sharks found a new identity, and for the first time in their string of finals appearances were victorious in a final, and finished within a kick of making the Grand Final.

It feels like there is unfinished business for the Sharks, and it’s a shame that we will never know whether the club had it in them to continue the surge towards a historic premiership.

But what we are left with are memories of an underdog team headed for elite status, getting their business done at a typically windy Peanut Farm Reserve, with the umpire’s whistle breaking up the clattering of the old Scenic Railway roller coaster at Luna Park just two blocks down the road.

And finally, Diamond Creek. The famed Diamond Creek. Most fans will admit they wouldn’t have a clue what the club’s team name is. Apparently it’s the Demons, but anyone who knows of the club simply refers to them as the Creekers.

On a personal note, the first women’s Aussie Rules match I ever saw was the 2012 VWFL Premier Division Grand Final, during which the Creekers sneaked home against the Darebin Falcons after overcoming the fancied VU Western Spurs – or St Albans as they were then – by four points the week prior.

That game is what made me fall in love with this sport and ultimately led me to dedicating the next five years and counting to Girls Play Footy, so Diamo will always have a special place in my heart.

Despite their success in 2012, you could consider Diamond Creek the bridesmaids of top tier Victorian women’s footy. Led by the inspirational Steph Chiocci (after five years, I’m almost certain I’ve finally got the pronunciation right: key-otch-ee), the Creekers were a powerhouse in the years to follow, and more premiership silverware would’ve been attained had it not been for the pesky Falcons winning everything in sight.

For all their success in that six-year period, what stands out most is the 2016 season in which a Creekers line-up ravaged by injuries missed out on the finals for the first time in what seemed like forever.

To come back in 2017 with Chiocci back at her best and a mass of AFLW talent in the likes of Katie Loynes, Lauren Brazzale, Lauren Morecroft, Shae Audley, Tiarna Ernst, Amelia Barden, Emma Grant – you get the idea – and newly discovered talents in Chloe Molloy and Sophie Abbatangelo all putting in work, was a sight to see.

But above all else, we will cling to memories of some of the greatest slogs Australian Rules footy has ever seen. In what can only be described as a weird kind of football poetry, Plenty War Memorial Park after a night of heavy rain was able to reduce some the most skilled women’s teams to ever grace a field to a collection of desperate, muddy bodies bashing into one another. It was pure magic.

It’s important to remember that all three clubs are not gone, but their resignation from top tier Vic women’s footy marks the end of an era.

The biggest shame of all in hindsight was the old VWFL being closed down by AFL Vic in 2016, having taken over the competition in late 2013.

Had the VWFL remained, albeit in a smaller form, the clubs which are now stepping back could’ve continued their rivalries and history.

The sad reality is that in the AFL world, only their version of history is continued and acknowledged, and it’s tragic that we will no longer see the epic battles between the Creekers and the Sharks, or that special day on the calendar when the Devils host Darebin for the Cath Wotton Cup.

And football is poorer for that.