AFL Women’s (Practice Match) – Collingwood v Western Bulldogs: Curtain Raisers No More
I’d never seen women’s footy live, until Thursday. I’m late to the party, something I regret now, although it does look like I’ve joined in just as things are about to really kick off. My knowledge of the women’s game is based almost entirely on the Bulldogs v Melbourne ‘All Star’ games, which, it’s easy to say, kicked this into gear. There are many more dates, though – the establishment of women’s football leagues around the country, Sal Rees applying for and having her nomination for the AFL Draft voided in 1995 and current Collingwood player Penny Cula-Reid’s court case that allowed her to stay playing with the boys an extra two years (Martin Flanagan interviewed her recently for the Age) – but even these three go nowhere near covering every step that’s been taken for this season to be happening.
Needless to say, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The first surprise was the quality and views from ground down over Rod Laver, to the city, without a single obstruction, a weird and bittersweet experience when you’ve grown up in a household where nothing good can ever be associated with Collingwood, unless it’s Travis Cloke kicking it out on the full (a joy gone with his change of colours). Sunnies on, I move from the background to the foreground. There’s a bit going on and thus far, the game is an arm-wrestle. Some might say it’s scrappy. The tackling is ferocious. A Magpie buries a Dog, and not because of a glistening collar. She just wanted the bloody ball. There’s a Magpies fan, screaming at the umpire from nearby. A bit optimistic, I would’ve thought, and the ball is thrown up. A Magpie picks it up, and she’s wrapped up and hurled to the ground. It continues like this for a while, lots of contested ball. Both teams struggle to find space on the outside. When the Dogs finally succeed, with a chain of slick handballs, it’s telling, and they go forward to open the scoring. The Pies can’t seem to get the same smooth ball movement, always whacking it long to a contest going inside 50. They can only muster a couple of behinds for the quarter and the Dogs lead by 5 at the first change.
People are flooding the ground, gathering tightly around both huddles. There’s a real suburban footy feeling to all of it. Footies are flying all over the oval and the kids scurry off when the airhorn sounds. Yes, there’s an air horn, the type you buy from Rebel Sport. How good is that? I decide to go for a stroll and end up watching the second from a totally different spot – close to the Magpies goal, forward pocket. It turns out to be a stroke of luck – everything happens in front of me. Collingwood start to gain the upper hand and one of their marquee players, Emma King (8 foot 11 inches, surely) is shining. She marks and goals, and shortly after, brings the ball to ground dominantly in a marking contest, her knee crunching with wince-inducing force into the back of a Bulldog defender. Nothing results, but the physicality is a statement, and not just to the Dogs. These girls aren’t messing about. Soon after, there’s a bit of hullabaloo and a scuffle breaks out in the forward pocket. I’m not quite sure who wrestled who to the ground, but pretty soon, the Magpies and Dogs have come from everywhere to help their respective teammates out.
Things calm down and as I exclaim a bit of a breath, a Dad standing nearby asks me if I know the score. Still the Doggies – just. He’s there with his daughter and her friend, and after we strike up a bit of a conversation, he tells me they’re still struggling to find a team to play for this year. They’ve moved out of the under 14s, and the next jump is to under 18s – there’s nothing in between. The girls aren’t sure what they’ll do and despite this Dad’s consistent efforts, he tells me there isn’t a resolution yet. This, of course, I am shocked by. A national competition but these girls can’t find an under 16 team? It’s a pretty big reminder that although a lot has happened, there’s still a long way to go.
The footy has opened up somewhat in this quarter, in terms of scoring, but it’s still very contested. With the only women’s games I’ve watched being All Star games, it’s tempting, almost automatic, to use them as a barometer. But the 44 players from that game are now split across 8 teams. The reality is that there is no real barometer, yet, for what is a totally new competition. Comparing it to men’s footy isn’t fair, either, but this is no doubt something we will all be tempted to do over the coming months.
This article from The Atlantic sheds some light on why this is ludicrous. In measurable sports, the women’s world record is about 90% of the men’s record. Remarkably, this ratio holds across running, jumping, swimming, canoeing, and so on. To put it simply, the boys are stronger. In gymnastics, the men and women compete in vastly different disciplines, which makes it somewhat futile to compare them. But why is that only true in gymnastics? The biological differences are only one factor in play here – the fact that these female athletes are part-time footballers with day jobs is another. The development pathways that allow men to flourish just aren’t there yet for the girls and these teams have been assembled in the last six months. Some of them are converts, playing their first full games of AFL on the eve of a national competition launching. Even the rules have been slightly reworked.
I’m not saying they’re entirely different games – there are goals and points and there will sure as hell be pies and beer – but judging the girls against the men is an easy out, and it ignores the realities of biology and circumstance. These girls are working their butts off, putting their heads over the footy, smashing packs and laying bone-crunching tackles. The women’s game needs time the same time to develop, the same time to evolve, that the men’s game has had, and they need to be free from acting merely as a ‘curtain raiser’ to a men’s game. They deserve attention and support in their own right.
The game keeps rolling on and the Dogs eventually kick to a 10 point win. With the exception of that second quarter, they’ve definitely had the measure of the Pies. I’ve long argued that high-scoring isn’t everything – a close, wet track thriller or a game of cricket on a green top often turns out to be far more fascinating. For a first-time male watcher of women’s footy, I’ve enjoyed myself. The little things I love about the game are all present here. In fact, it’s a nice throwback to an era of footy I can’t remember, the glory days of suburban grounds, hills and kick to kick at half-time. Footy’s back, and it’s not even February. I’m happy to see that.
Collingwood: 3.3 21
Western Bulldogs: 4.7.31
Collingwood: Bernardi, King, Hope
Western Bulldogs: Tyndall 2, Kearney, McLeod.