The Rise of Women’s Footy: Grassroots

Sunday May 24 marked a major triumph in the development of Women’s AFL: the Melbourne v Western Bulldogs MCG curtain raiser, an initiative first trialled in 2013, was streamed on Channel Seven. For all involved in the long, hard push to bring a fully-fledged national competition to women’s football by 2017 – local officials, state officials, national representatives, coaches, parents, and players – the match marks an historic leap forward.

Women and girls now make up around 19% of all Aussie Rules players across the country, with national participation rising to a record 195,000 at the start of the 2015 season. National participation rose by 56% last season with every state creating new records for the highest number of female players, teams and leagues. The largest girl’s junior football club in Victoria – with 104 players registered across four teams – is Diamond Creek Women’s Football Club.

For President Laura Attard and Under 15s coach Sarah van Nieukerk, the decision to join Diamond Creek came out of an issue they have continued to address ever since: the lack of opportunity for girls to play footy once they have passed the age limit for co-ed teams.

Attard, 28 and currently the Interschool Sports Coordinator at Lilydale High School, grew up playing footy as much as she could, but always with boys: in AusKick, in school, in the street and in her own backyard. Passionate for the game as she was, she had little choice in the matter –there was very little chance to play otherwise. And virtually none once she became 13 and, as a girl, was no longer allowed to play with the boys, as per junior football rules. Attard’s career in competitive football began in the mixed teams in the Southern University Games at Deakin University.
“I actually played for Uni Games before I played for the [Victorian Women’s Football] league,” she says. “At the end of that, we had so much fun that a group of us said, ‘Let’s look this up, let’s find a team.’”

There were 12 of them who set out from Deakin to try to find a place at any team. First, there was Surrey Park which folded in 2007 due to a lack of numbers in their team as well as in their league. There were just 26 senior women’s football teams in Victoria in 2007 (there are now 52 in 2015, a mark of how quickly and successfully the game has developed). Incredibly, there wasn’t a single junior girls’ football team in Victoria until 2005 – now, there are over 200. Attard and her teammates went to the Victorian Women’s Football League trying to find any support they could in just being able to play. They came to East Burwood, who couldn’t accommodate them, but were finally accepted by Diamond Creek via then-President Darren Logan in 2008. The nucleus of that group was still together for the club’s 2012 premiership victory over Darebin.

When not coaching the Diamond Creek Girls’ Under 15s Blue side Sarah van Nieukerk is a PE teacher at Eltham North Primary School. In 2012, van Nieukerk coached a class of girls to the School Girl State finals. However, the team that finished second overall was soon to encounter a problem similar to Attard’s.
“There was nowhere for them to go unless they wanted to start with the boys,” says van Nieukerk. “2013 was the first structured year in which Diamond Creek entered Under 13s.”
The Club had allowed girls to play since 2002, but they were forced to make up numbers in the pre-existing boys’ teams. Attempts at forming a girls’ team were continually scuttled by low participation: before van Nieukerk arrived, the Diamond Creek Girls’ team were fielding a side once every three weeks.

For their first year, many of the 12 and 13 year old girls were filling holes in the Under 18s because there was simply no other teams at the club. However, van Nieukerk now coaches one of the two Diamond Creek Under 15s teams, who are currently undefeated and boast four Northern Football League representative players, two of whom are also with the AFL Calder Cannons development program. They’re following in the footsteps of other Diamond Creek Club players who are now in the Women’s AFL such as Katie Lornes, Stephanie Chiocci, and Lauren Morecroft.

Van Nieukerk has had to adapt to the differences required in approach between coaching primary school boys and teenage girls.
“Girls tend to take everything a bit more to heart,” she laughs. “You can say something but you can make it pretty constructive.”

The oft-heard line about girls’ footy is that it’s just as hard-fought as it is in the boys’ competition. It’s true, and yet it’s false. Spectators will see and hear everything that is in the boys’ leagues – the desperate stacks-on in the mud, the fleshy smack of tackles, the encouraging and instructing between players and the wild celebrations of every goal. They’re also likely to hear the regular gasp of “sorry” or “are you OK?”

“You do get the players who’ll apologise,” says van Nieukerk, “and you know what? I like it. They’re still motivated to win and do really well. I’ve had these girls since primary school and they’ve followed me through now to Under 15s, so I’ve seen them develop and make rep teams. They’ve formed friendships with girls from all over the place – we got some girls that come down from Broadford, some from Wallan – just to play together and they’ve continued to do that even though there are teams now up in that area.”

With 203 teams in Victoria, girls no longer have to worry about opportunity. Which, of course, does not mean that all of their problems now exist only in the rear view mirror.
Neve, captain of the team van Nieukerk coaches, says not everyone is on board with the idea of girls playing a ‘boy’ sport.
“Guys are generally pretty good but they reckon girls won’t go in as hard. And my grandparents get worried because they don’t overly like the fact that I get tackled for sport.”
Attard agrees that some still consider the idea of girls’ footy as a novelty first and foremost. “The guys at Uni Games were awesome and they loved to have some girls around and my family has always been really supportive, but you still run into the odd person who’s like, ‘Oh, there’s a girls’ league that exists?! Good on you!’” she says. “It’s like, where have you been…”

There’s also the issue of relative inexperience: an Under 15s Boys’ team will be mostly comprised of players with four to five years under their belts while eight of van Nieukerk’s Under 15s are in their first season and none have played more than three. This is hardly a threat to development, however – comparing girls’ footy to boys’ footy is like comparing Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic. Ultimately, both are great without comparison. At any rate, the relative football inexperience is offset by other sporting skills that girls bring to the strategic sides of their games.
“A lot of these girls have basketball or netball backgrounds,” Attard and van Nieukerk point out. “So they grasp zoning and corridor concepts much quicker than the boys.”

At grassroots sporting levels, sponsorship is a challenge that’s magnified for female footy. As a result, says Attard, female footy has often had to make do with far less than the boys are used to.
“Our experience has been that it is more difficult than boys’ Clubs to get big sponsors on board, but with the greater exposure of the female game in the past few years it is making it easier.”
Indeed, for years the girls were actually encouraged to find personal sponsors in order to shore up funding. However the future now looks bright on that front. Diamond Creek Women’s recently signed a three year sponsorship deal with the Greensborough branch of Jetts 24 Hour Fitness – the Club’s first major sponsor.

By the way – of those 12 who left Deakin together in 2006 and set about to find a home at a club, 10 have stayed at Diamond Creek and helped pave the way for the development of a thriving club.
“It’s myself as current President, Tanya as Vice President, Dyzie is membership merchandise coordinator and co-captain, Saxie is our canteen coordinator, Wonga was the Reserves coach for three years, Stacey was the coach of our Under 18s team,” Attard says. “We were all so passionate about it that we all came down and put our hand up for jobs.”

Diamond Creek are now well-established, successful and with no limit on their potential development. The national growth of women’s footy is a reminder of how far they’ve come since 12 year olds were having to compete with 18 year olds to make up numbers.

 

About Callum O'Connor

Here's to feelin' good all the time.

Comments

  1. I can attest to seeing the growth up here, where each of the clubs now has a women’s team and has decent numbers in those teams. It’s a shame that few decide to have a crack at me as an umpire and have to spoil the experience, I had to be coaxed into doing their games again.

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