A Voice from the Stands: Looking back and looking forward

On a Saturday night, a couple of weeks before the opening round of AFLW 2.0, I found myself back in that familiar space: the stands. This time in Ballarat to see my beloved Bulldogs take on the Blues in a practice match.

As entertaining as the game was, it was what was happening in the stands behind me that has stayed with me.

Image: Kirby Fenwick

A young girl, maybe five or six, decked out in her Bulldogs guernsey and wearing a Doggies hat and scarf (it was Ballarat after all!) was enthusiastically cheering for our team.

‘Go Bulldogs!’ she yelled every time one of our players got her hands on the ball. It made me smile to hear her and to see her. But it also made me a little envious.

The inaugural season of the AFLW was a thing of beauty. And it’s certainly not hyperbolic to say that it changed lives. Not only those of the women who took to the field but also for the many of us that filled stands every weekend or watched from home. Those of us that greedily consumed article after article and watched highlights and replays on a loop.

We fell in love with this competition, with women’s footy and with the superstars who play it on the big stage.

Some of us, inspired by what we saw at Whitten Oval or Norwood Oval or in Blacktown, picked up a Sherrin and pulled on the boots.

Female participation, already on an upward trajectory, skyrocketed in 2017 and it doesn’t look like stopping with expansion planned for nearly every state league, and more new community leagues and clubs on the horizon for 2018.

This is a movement now. A steam train that has been chugging along for a hundred years that is now gaining serious momentum.

Over the off-season, the conversations around women’s sport and the impact that elite level competitions like the AFLW can have on grassroots footy but also on young women and girls, and young men and boys, were had on social media, in the newspapers and around the dinner table. These are important conversations, and ones we should keep having.

But in the midst of all that talk, it’s important to take a moment to think of and be thankful for the many women, and some men, who worked tirelessly from the early 1980s to build state leagues around the country.

Women like Gemma Griffiths and Leslie Fraser (VWFL), like Yvette Andrews (SWAFL) and Joanne Huggins (WAWFL). We should know these names. (And if you don’t, get your hands on a copy of Play On! The Hidden History of Women’s Australian Rules Football and read up.)

Without the hard work of these women, without their efforts in the face of tacit and sometimes overt opposition to women playing football, we may not be sitting here today reflecting on the opening round of the second season of the AFLW.

As we look forward, it’s important always to look back and acknowledge where we’ve come from.

I felt a little of that looking back on Friday night when I once again took the number 19 tram up Royal Parade on that First Friday in February and lined up in brilliant sunshine to see the opening match of the season between Carlton and Collingwood.

Princes Park has captured a piece of my heart now. I love the timber seats and rough-hewn concrete and the mismatched stands and the general haphazard feel of it. There is a romance to the ground, forever linked as it is to that very first AFLW game.

And that romance hasn’t faded. Being back there on Friday night only confirmed that.

Out on the field, all eyes were on Chloe Molloy and Tayla Harris. In a scrappy, low-scoring game, Molloy was a standout and an indication of what we can expect to see coming through the ranks over the next couple of years and beyond.

Carlton’s biggest off-season recruit in Tayla Harris made an emphatic statement with some flashes of brilliance that will no doubt have Blues fan grinning.

On Saturday, footy fans in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs and Adelaide saw the Giants and Brisbane make a pretty strong statement: do not underestimate us.

The Giants would have had the Demons if not for some heroics from Elise O’Dea and Richelle
“Rocky” Cranston. Cranston in particular looks fighting fit this year. But the Giants too looked a very different team from 2017, and if they can maintain and build on what they showed on Saturday, the competition should be wary of them.

Later that day, at a near capacity Norwood Oval, the Lions made their case for why they should not be dismissed as one-season wonders.

While much was made of the loss of Tayla Harris, the work of Sabrina Frederick-Traub and Jess Wuetschner in the forward line and the seemingly impenetrable wall that was Kate Lutkins and Leah Kasler was impressive to watch

The Crows would have lamented the absence of Erin Phillips, but the performance of Ruth Wallace should have fans excited.

And on Sunday? Well, I returned to that special little pocket of the world known as Whitten Oval and saw my Doggies put on a show.

A fit and firing Katie Brennan was a joy to see and warmed this little Bulldog’s heart. And while Freo struggled in the first half, their third-quarter efforts were an indication of what we can expect from them.

Sitting in the stands on Sunday afternoon, I remembered that young Bulldog fan I’d seen in Ballarat.

And for just a moment that envy returned. Why? Because she’ll grow up in a world where the AFLW exists.

She’ll see these strong and skillful women on the field, women like Hannah Scott, Erin McKinnon and Ebony Marinoff, and that will be her normal.

I can’t help but wish I’d had that too. And while I look forward to that future, a future we are building right now, with a sense of joy and excitement and a little envy, I also look back at season one and at the decades of work from the many women that got us here and I am thankful too.