Nina, knees and next steps

Nina Morrison was a woman apart on her AFLW debut against Collingwood. Even as a neutral, my eyes were drawn to her whenever she plundered the pack at stoppages, when she orchestrated handball chains through the guts – even when she directed play some 20 metres off the ball to guide her teammates to a goal-scoring opportunity. I generally don’t compare elite men’s players to the AFLW, but the only other player who has had that effect on me is possibly the greatest man to play the game in the past 30 years (perhaps ever): Gary Ablett Junior.

 

Like the Son of God, Nina was ushered into the fold at Kardinia Park by a community famous for their passion and parochialism. By the end of the night, every single one of the 18,000 in the stands knew her name because of her deeds.

 

Widely voted as the player of the round, anyone following the AFLW knew that the supreme test of the champion Bulldogs would be the perfect time for Nina to show just how well she could handle a challenge in the guise of Mses. Blackburn, Conti & Lamb.

 

She never got the opportunity.

 

 

Credit: AAP/Michael Willson/AFL Media/Getty Images

 

 

Like Isabel Huntington a year earlier, the AFLW’s first draft pick in 2019 would play no more than a cruel mini-cameo due to injury.

 

In a surreal moment, there was consensus from those who attended or watched the Round 2 clash between Geelong and the Bulldogs – the Cats had dearly missed Morrison. Even Doggies tragics conceded that the teenage dynamo could have been the difference between the two sides, particularly if she had been supported by injured skipper Mel Hickey (also set to return from a ruptured ACL).

 

For a player so influential at such a young age, the fallout for her and her club is enormous, perhaps only surpassed by the impact on the league itself. More so than other sports, the AFLW relies on the performances of players like Morrison, those who have made their way along that holiest of grails, “the pathway”. Players like Maddy Prespakis, Sabreena Duffy, Tyla Hanks and dozens more primed to emerge in the years to come. Their slick skills, innate awareness of all around them and lack of time spent outside an elite footy environment (to work, study, raise a family or play another sport – so often the case in the league) is the foundation upon which this fledgling league will build its expansion.

 

For all the doom and gloom around numbers of players required to fill the playing lists of 14 clubs next year, plenty who work within women’s and girl’s Australian football programs know the players are there and raring to go. But if every year continues to see a handful (or more) of the best players suffer terrible, season-ending injuries, not only will the quality of the performances suffer, but perhaps the pipeline of junior talent will be impeded too…

 

Hopefully the issue will be stymied in time – it’s been established that female athletes have around a 4.5 to 1 ratio of ACL injuries (perhaps even as high as 10 to 1), that tend to strike at a younger age than male athletes. These are the observed patterns, but for a semi-professional league operating in a world where women’s footy has only entered the non-amateur conversation in the past 5-10 years, the resources and research allocated to rectify the situation seem meagre at best.

 

It’s a vexing topic for the AFL, one which ignites public opinion that at its worst strays into the quagmire of questioning the place of women and girls in high impact sports – something that just doesn’t happen for male athletes (save for the conversation around concussions). There are very real biomechanical reasons why these injuries occur at such high rates, but there’s no reason why the gap can’t be narrowed through better understanding and specialised treatment regimes, similar to how the rates of full-blown osteitis pubis (OP) have rapidly declined in the men’s competition.

 

I for one want to see Nina Morrison lead the charge that takes the AFLW to another level of professionalism, wider media coverage and an increasingly popular sentiment amongst all footy fans. Having seen her play just two games in navy and white, I’ve seen enough to know that she can do it – just not on one knee.

 

 

About

A classic jack of all trades & master of a couple, Jarrod started his footy career as a gangly ruck after a growth spurt catapulted him to the lofty heights of 177cm as a 12-year-old. Forward pocket off the bench was where he ended up as he topped out at 178cm eight years later. The trajectory of a career in health fortunately didn't peak during the pre-teen years & a keen interest in footy has turned from playing to coaching, volunteering and writing.

Comments

  1. Yvette Wroby says

    Well said Jarrod,
    you almost expect it now….someone performs perfectly, you wait to hear of the tear or injury. I hope they throw bucket loads to find ways to protect the women coming up. You can see the difference these ‘pathway’ players have had. I just finished watching each game, and wow, the skills and footy nous is unbelievable, and they share that with their older team mates and cross coders.

    More power to researchers. Let’s find a way to prevent. We are just loving these new and old players.

  2. Thanks Yvette,

    It’s such a shame that we do have that almost expectation or anticipation of these injuries now, but I agree with you; it seems part of the AFLW story now.

    It’s also an interesting time for the league, as it starts to move away from a centre of gravity made up of older players who have returned to play after years of no opportunities (who provide some of the best stories you’ll ever hear from athletes) to draftees at the end of the “pathway” packed with that nous and skill.

    Time to get cracking on that research!

  3. Part of the problem, in my view, is that male coaches are coaching the women to play football like men. I have watched this closely. The physicality is encouraged, switching play is part of the game plan (great if you have all the skills and the physical attributes to change direction quickly), tackling is a skill that needs a lot of work.

    Perhaps women will interpret the game differently? Perhaps these football strategies are inherently “male”? Who knows?. Research seems to be a good place to start.

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