AFLW Round 1 – Western Bulldogs v Fremantle: Falc-dogs bite and Falc-dogs roar
FALC-DOGS BITE AND FALC-DOGS ROAR.
Western Bulldogs versus Fremantle Dockers
7.40pm, Saturday 4th February 2017
VU Whitten Oval, Footscray
Carlton and Collingwood playing a game of Australian Rules Football has happened many times; not in February however, and never between AFL listed women fighting for ladder position. This game was the first of the inaugural AFLW competition and the capacity of the old Princes Park was being squeezed well before the start of the game. Thousands of fans, the curious and those there simply to support slowly find a spot. More people still were turned away at the gates.
As each team ran through their banner they received almost equal applause. Collingwood kicked the first goal and the entire crowd cheered; highly unusual between these two proud, or should I say fanatical, clubs. Solid contests, dashing runs through space and four goals to Darcy Vescio made for a spectacle that was loved and celebrated by all. Women’s footy had made a very fine start indeed.
One of my friends that came along was Maggie. The last time Maggie went to a game was also Carlton and Collingwood, but the men, and more than a few years ago. The attitude of Women’s footy had won a convert and Maggie was already set to come along to the Bulldogs and Freo game the following night.
Maggie picked us up on the way to the Whitten Oval. As she waited outside with the car running to keep the air-conditioning fighting the 35* heat I battled with leaving my Bulldog scarf behind on the hall rack. I left it and hurried out in shorts, thongs and my red, white and blue Darebin Falcon warm up top on. The Falcons are a Women’s sports club that are close to home and heart for me. They are a strong and successful club and having sixteen women, and three as club captains, representing them in the AFLW is testament. The Bulldogs boast six Falc-dogs, as I like to call them, including Captain Katie Brennan. Maggie, my wife Dan and I stood with a few of the Falcon people, including the President and some current players and even Peta Searle in front of the main stand. The pride and care for the Falc-dogs on the field was obvious and the disappointment for Meg MacDonald, named as an emergency, was apparent.
Although a smaller crowd than the previous night at Carlton the ground fills to capacity of about 10,000 people. A swell of anticipation fills the air for the shift of gender bias in this old sport. An authentic excitement for the opportunity of generations of girls to come, to play a game they love. A rousing applause is heard in the stand behind us and I immediately think ‘Fight?, surely not’. In the days when VFL/AFL footy was still played at the suburban ovals it wasn’t an irregular event for a couple of beer soaked ‘blokes’ to start something and the crowd would cheer them on. I looked up and let the direction of people’s heads guide me to the epicentre. There, was Susan Alberti. Not fighting, but in her dignified elegance making her way to her seat. Alberti has been pivotal in making the AFLW a reality. You might say she has been the Godmother of this competition and she is receiving just gratitude.
‘Sons Of The West’ is played through the PA and our Bulldog Women run out lead by Katie B; they huddle up together before running through the banner in a tight formation. Most of the girls cannot help but smile as they trail crepe paper behind them and enjoy the audible support. I have never played footy but I appreciate the courage of anyone who has played at any level. For the women tonight it has been an unpaid career of persistence and sacrifice. Most were forced to miss playing through their teenage years through lack of a competition. Many have moved interstate to play in a local competition and finally they have a turfed national stage. Just to be on the ground tonight is an exhibition of unrivaled courage.
The game starts and bodies crash until the ‘Daughters of the West’ kick the first goal of the night through Kirsten McLeod. The girls celebrate under the limelight and are held in adoration by those outside the boundary line. The Dogs lead by a goal at quarter time. Late in the second quarter a favourite Falc-dog Aasta O’Connor marked the ball in the back pocket in front of us. Due to a knee injury in one of the AFL exhibition matches she hasn’t played for a couple of years. I am aware of her reputation as driven, skillful and one of the elite players in women’s football. I’m prepared to be impressed by every passage of play she is involved in. She looks down the flank, steps, and guides boot to ball. The group of Falcons in front of me fall silent. O’Connor stares at the ground after the ball wonks off the side of her boot and out on the full in Freo’s forward 50. Fortunately, for Aasta and the Bulldogs, they don’t score a goal. In the first two minutes of the third quarter she has the opportunity to redeem that kick. She leads strongly from Full Forward and takes a chest mark ahead of her opponent. Kicking from about 25 metres out, she strikes the ball perfectly as it flies end over end for a goal. The act of a champion is never to make two mistakes in a row. Our small section is relieved and celebrates knowing how much this goal must mean to her.
The Bulldogs go on to win by a comfortable margin in a physically tight and demanding match. I’m sure there is an element of novelty about this competition for some in the crowd, but the emotion and support for both teams makes it authentically real. The standard of play exceeds what some journalists have predicted, or maybe hoped for. The footballers from tonight’s match revel in not only their achievement of winning in AFL jumpers but the crowd’s reaction that is jubilant and triumphantly happy but is also full of pride and admiration for what has, at last, been gained. I can’t help but wonder what this will mean in time. Will women playing this male dominated sport help balance what has been lacking in equality in the general community? Will boys today see the girls they grow up with differently; knowing they can kick as many goals, tackle just as hard and win the ball just as courageously? Will this help strengthen young womens’ resolve to be the strongest version of themselves? I would hope that having Emma Kearney, Katie Brennan and Tiarna Ernst as role models would raise a girl’s aspirations.
Strong is indeed the new pretty.
Disclaimer: This was written by a straight, white male in his forties who has had it pretty easy.
Western Bulldogs 2.0 3.0 5.6 6.8 (44)
GOALS Western Bulldogs: Brennan 2, McLeod, Lambert, O’Connor, Blackburn.
Fremantle: 1.0 1.5 1.5 1.6 (12) GOALS: Caulfield.
BEST Western Bulldogs: Kearney, Brennan, Blackburn, Ernst, Lochland, McLeod, Ernst
Fremantle: Donnellan, Smith, Houghton, Hooker
UMPIRES Cheever, Jankovskis, Toovey CROWD 10,100
OUR VOTES Emma Kearney WB 3, Katie Brennan WB 2, Ellie Blackburn WB 1.