A Voice from the Stands: Journeys short and long

A few days after last Sunday’s game at Whitten Oval, I saw a picture of the Bulldogs’ Bonnie Toogood.

In it she’s at the boundary fence, bent over slightly with her hands on her knees. Her shoulder is strapped.

Bonnie Toogood talks with some of her newfound fans. Image: @BulldogsW

Pressed up against the fence before Bonnie are two young girls. The taller of the two clutches a kids’ footy. She looks directly at Bonnie, a grin plastered on her face and a look in her eye that is difficult to explain.

It’s been a big week in footy; a phrase that is both a cliché and a massive understatement.

While debates have raged about crowds and TV audiences, about memos and the attractiveness of football (having our exploits reduced to and measured by their attractiveness is not a new experience for many women but it is endlessly frustrating), I kept returning to that photo of Bonnie at the boundary fence.

Photos like that, and there are many examples in the AFLW’s short history, are powerful.

When I see them, I am reminded of how footy extends far beyond the boundary line. It’s more than just a game. The AFLW has made that abundantly clear. And it’s made it clear in ways that we’ve rarely seen before on the big stage.

Women being strong, fast and fearless. Women unafraid to be physical, in fact relishing it. Watching women dodging and weaving through traffic, soaring for a mark or scrabbling at the bottom of the pack are sights that give me, and many others I’m sure, immense joy.

I think it’s why I feel so protective of this competition. Not just the players but also the women who worked tirelessly at community level, executive level and every level in between to bring it to us.

I want this league to grow and develop. I want it to build its own history and forge its own legends. I don’t want that for my own selfish reasons. I want it for those two young girls at the boundary fence at Whitten Oval. I want it for my niece and for my nephews. I want it for the many thousands of people, young and old, at footy grounds around the country.

My desire to see this competition flourish is what had me boarding a train just after midday on Saturday bound for Casey Fields.

In 2017, I travelled far and wide in support of my beloved Bulldogs: from Whitten Oval to Princes Park, to Brisbane and to Canberra.

But with my Bulldogs interstate, my wings clipped and only one game in Melbourne, it was inevitable that I would get on that train.

During the 130km, four-hour adventure, I thought about the Khaki Girls from 1918.

On a Friday morning in September of 1918, a football team made up of employees of the Commonwealth Clothing Factory in South Melbourne travelled to Ballarat to play a game against a team made up of employees from a local textile company.

The South Melbourne team, who were known as the Khaki Girls, took the train from the state capital to the regional city. A trip that would have taken a few hours no doubt.

The Khaki Girls lost to the locals but their story is a part of the history of women’s footy.

Round two of this season added plenty of stories to that history. From devastating injuries and lightning rich thunderstorms to sublime feats of strength and skill, and the toppling of an 80-year-old record.

In hardly ideal conditions at Drummoyne Oval in Sydney on Friday night, GWS and Carlton battled each other and the pouring rain until lightening halted play.

When the game resumed, the rain may have cleared but the Giants seemed stuck under a cloud and the Blues took the four points.

It was a win soured by the loss of the Blues’ Captain Bri Davey. A general in defence, Davey’s ACL injury is devastating not only for the Blues but for all AFLW fans. In a shortened season, such injuries feel especially difficult to swallow.

My Bulldogs’ win over the Lions in soaring temperatures was similarly soured by Izzy Huntington going down with an ACL.

The loss was made even more upsetting by the two strong marks she’d taken in the goal square which had put goals on the scoreboard for the Dogs but, more importantly, had shown us what sort of player she will be.

While we never want to see injuries, especially season ending ones, it speaks to the ferocity and intent with which the game is played.

That was exceedingly clear hanging over the boundary fence at Casey Fields. At these smaller community grounds, you can hear the smacking of body against body. The noise of the game feels more pronounced, louder and tangible somehow.

In warm and windy conditions at Casey, Melbourne was simply too strong for the reigning premiers, demonstrating for the second week why they’re flag favourites.

Later that Saturday night, as I undertook the return leg of my Khaki Girls-esque adventure, Freo beat Collingwood in front of a record crowd of some 41,975 people. A number that beats a record set in 1929 at Adelaide Oval for a game of women’s football.

After a week that drifted towards the negative, what I wanted more than anything from the second round was to see some brilliant goals, some incredible acts of courage and some sublime skills.

And the women of the AFLW delivered, as they always do.

Even as they battle seemingly relentless attacks and juggle jobs and study and families with the life of an elite footballer, they deliver.

They’re writing themselves into the history of this game as they do, taking their place alongside the Khaki Girls.


You can read more about the Khaki Girls and their opponents, The Lucas Girls, and the 1929 game at Adelaide Oval in Play On! The Hidden History of Women’s Australian Rules Football.

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