A small but spectacular mark in AFL history

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A small but spectacular mark in AFL history

The Wellington AFL women's team playing their first game. Photo:  Jun Tanlayco

The Wellington AFL women's team playing their first game. Photo: Jun Tanlayco

The Wellington AFL women's team playing their first game. Photo: Jun Tanlayco

The Wellington AFL women's team playing their first game. Photo: Jun Tanlayco

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As the Richmond Tigers buried the GWS Giants in the 2019 AFL Grand Final, 2500 kilometres east of the MCG, in New Zealand, a new season of AFLW was being born.

At Hutt Park in Wellington, a women’s team – also called the Tigers – were warming up, ready to play in a short intra-team, five-aside hit-out. These women were the first members of Wellington’s and New Zealand’s first senior women’s AFL team and this was their first game of the season.

Coach Peter Geale was running the new team through some lane work, followed by some criss-cross handball. Geale called out “good catch, great work team, keep it up” to bolster confidence.

Some of the players had never played Aussies rules before, while others had played since they were children, so these drills were part warm-up, part coaching session. The reason many hadn’t played wasn’t because AFL isn’t played in New Zealand, it was because until now there’ had only been limited opportunities for women to play.

In fact, AFL has been played in New Zealand for almost as long as in Australia. Victoria rules football (VFL) was first played in New Zealand in the late 1860s. But, at the same time, new sporting clubs were also playing rugby and by the beginning of World War One, VFL was in decline.

Rugby subsequently overtook VFL in popularity, beginning the domination of rugby union in New Zealand. One hundred and fifty years later, rugby is still king in New Zealand, but Aussie rules football remains popular as well.

It is played in primary and secondary schools and at the amateur level in clubs across the country. There are leagues in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch all enjoying enough patronage to support a healthy inter-club competition and an annual AFLNZ National Men’s Premiership.

While there’s never been an official senior women’s competition, mixed games are occasionally played and some clubs do welcome women to join.  But the club managers and players themselves say women have little interest in playing against or with men.

New Zealand also has a female AFL team – New Zealand Kahu, an under 18s youth girls’ team. Debuting in 2013, it has since played every year against Australian youth girls’ teams and has a strong record of wins.

But for these keen young women and other women who want to play AFL, there’s been no team or competition to join once you’re over 18. Until now.

As the first women’s senior team, they don’t have anyone to play against yet. They’re also still waiting for kit, so five of the 10 players don florescent orange vests to form the two teams needed for the game.

As they do this, Geale reminds them of the rules and gives a pep talk “I’m excited, really excited, and I’m not even playing today,” he says. Everyone laughs.

Frank Grieve is the umpire. He’s also assisting with coaching today. He blows the whistle and the game begins. They’re off to a good start. In less than a minute the first goal is scored. This is made a little easier by playing on a shorter field. This is a proper AFL field but it’s been modified for this game, the perimeter marked by orange and pink cones.

At one end sits a set of temporary goal posts, just in from the 50-metre line. It’s designed to make the game more manageable for new players and the small turn-out.

None of this, or lack of kit, experience, and the cold southerly blowing up the field deters these players and their coaches. They are here because they want to play, to get out there and get their hands on the ball. They want to play, but more importantly they want their own competition.

As one player tells me: I’m just sick of playing with boys.”

“This is more fun, there’s a better mentality with the women,” says another.

Matt Lewis, Wellington AFL (WAFL) secretary and co-coach of the team, agrees this is “fair enough” and it’s especially important for new players who want to “test their skills against people with similar skill level”.

This sentiment has not gone unnoticed, which is why AFLNZ, the governing body of AFL in New Zealand and leagues around the country including Wellington AFL (WAFL), is working to build the women’s senior competition.

It is also aware of the growing interest in women’s AFL and women’s competitions as part of a global trend of interest in women’s sport. Referring to the growth in women’s sport, Lewis says “it would be foolish not to look at it here”.

A 2018, a Nielsen Research Company study carried out across eight countries including New Zealand and Australia, investigated this global trend and found that 84 per cent of sports fans surveyed expressed an interest in women’s sports.

Peter Geale and Frank Grieve coaching the Wellington AFL women’s team. Photo: Jun Tanlayco

The Nielsen study also found that women’s sports are perceived as more progressive, more inspiring, cleaner and more family-friendly than men’s sports.

While these perceptions sound a lot like they draw from stereotypes of women as weaker than men, as more nurturing and caring, they might also reflect concerns about ‘toxic masculinity’ in sport and changing attitudes and expectations about behaviour and inclusion.

A difficulty facing all AFL clubs is sustaining membership into the future and to do this they need to attract new members by growing awareness and participation in the sport.

Women playing at Hutt Park range in age and sporting experience. Some are Kiwis who have been introduced to the sport by family or friends and others have connections to Australia.  The youngest player, 14-year-old Izzy Goodwin, a member of the New Zealand Kahu team, grew up around the sport as her father is Australian and her family is very involved in AFL in New Zealand.

There’s also a strong contingent of players from the Gaelic football clubs who, given the similarities between the two codes, are well positioned to play Aussies rules. This community of footballers is the driving force behind the formation of WAFL women’s senior team.

Earlier this year, WAFL was approached by a group of Gaelic women wanting a competition of their own. Rather than turn them away, WAFL saw an opportunity and realised they could provide something.

Lewis says the interest has been better than expected. The first information session held in July this year wasn’t widely advertised as they only expected the interested Gaelic women to attend.

“We were hoping for a dozen people on the night, but we had 18, which is great for us, and a good number who weren’t able to make it reached out as well,” he says.

Lewis has been involved in AFL in New Zealand since 2013. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, and himself a Gaelic footballer, Lewis chairs the WAFL women’s team sub-committee and leads the team alongside other dedicated volunteers including co-coach Peter Geale, who is also assistant coach to the Kahu team, Shane Goodwin, a national youth academy coach, and team manager Gregor Kempt, who is also coach of the Wellington Saints.

As many of the players come from different codes including rugby, touch rugby, basketball and Gaelic football there is a lot for the coaches to teach. But as the first game progresses the women quickly pick up the rules and tactics. They want to get it right and it shows.

At quarter time the players ask questions, and Geale and Grieve impart as much information as they can, stopping to demonstrate how to take marks. Grieve reminds the team about the holding-the-man rule or, in this case, holding the woman: “Once the ball is out of their hands, don’t tackle them OK.”

Their attentiveness and commitment to learning the sport is important because this newly formed team already has big goals. It wants to be part of the planned national provincial championship and AFLNZ women’s premiership in 2020.

Some players are also targeting selection for an AFLNZ women’s senior team which is expected to play in the AFL International Cup in Melbourne next year. One player half jokes that, like the Richmond Tigers, they “want to be the ones at the MCG one day”.

Unexpected countries including Canada, Fiji and Pakistan already have women’s teams in the International competition, so “it’s silly that New Zealand, being so close to Australia, and so similar in many ways, doesn’t have a team in the competition yet,” Lewis says.

He and the rest of the Wellington team are taking the 2020 International Cup goal seriously. Lewis says they are aiming to have “trained and seasoned players ready to go” for the competition.

But to start they need more players, not just here in Wellington, where the plan is to have four teams by the 2021 season, but across New Zealand. And, while this is underway, most clubs are still in the very early stages of making this happen.

Canterbury AFL president Steve Langridge says there definitely is interest from women in their region but describes the situation in Canterbury as a “work in progress” and recognises there have been some teething problems with the approach to getting women involved. “Many players want to play the real game, not just learn skills, or play socially,” he says.

The July appointment of former Freemantle Dockers player Kim Mickle as head coach for the Christchurch Bulldogs men’s AFL team could also be a promising sign for developing senior women’s AFL in New Zealand. Mickle is recognised for her professionalism and is seen as a role model for female athletes.

AFL New Zealand says it supports Mickle, saying that a focus on the female team development over the next three years means AFLNZ realises the importance of coaching for inspiring the next generation of AFL players.

It says growing female participation in AFL in New Zealand and providing pathways for women into national representation and AFLW are high priorities. In addition to its youth programs and work to increase awareness of the sport, AFLNZ is also running Female Footy Frenzy events to get more women to participate in the sport.

These events will be particularly important in Auckland, where although there are six clubs and a high number of men participating in the sport, so far there is little movement from the clubs toward establishing their own teams.

AFLNZ CEO Robert Vanstam is realistic about the challenge of getting more women to play AFL. “There’s 140 years to catch up on,”  he says of the long history of men’s AFL.

Vanstam, and other club administrators including Lewis and Langridge, are also mindful of the other challenges in growing women’s participation in the sport, such as funding, structural issues and competition between codes.

At the most basic level, funding is needed for the womens team’s guernseys and extra Sherrins (footballs). More funding will also be needed next year for competition kit and for travel to competitions.

There is a lot of competition for community grants and funding. And although there is more funding available specifically for increasing female participation in sport, attracting sponsorship for women’s sport is still difficult no matter what level of participation, let alone for an unknown women’s team playing AFL in New Zealand.

As is the case in AFL in Australia, New Zealand clubs and AFLNZ also acknowledge there is structural work to be done to make the sport more accessible for female players.

Club committees are dominated by men and some grounds don’t have adequate facilities for women. Adjustments are also needed to training schedules that aren’t always designed to fit around family life, making them unsuitable for everyone.

There’s also ongoing work to clean up the image of the AFL to help to attract more players and supporters. Lewis tell me that, in the past, the games had a “bunch of boys on the weekend” atmosphere and weren’t exactly welcoming for women or families. But as more women have come to the sport, attitudes and behaviour are changing. Lewis says this is vital for the clubs.

“We want to have children growing up being able to watch their parents, both men and women play,” he says.

The other challenge in getting New Zealanders to play is the myriad other sporting codes all vying for players, funding and spectators. The old Kiwi/Aussie contempt could also be a barrier when it comes to attracting players to the sport in New Zealand. So, the sport is carefully marketed here as AFL, not as Aussies rules, but as Lewis notes “once they realise it’s a pretty good sport to play, … we can call it Aussie rules”.

In a recent interview on the Women’s Australian Rules Football Podcast, Vanstam points out that young elite athletes in New Zealand are going to look for pathways into codes that pay well, such as women’s rugby sevens, not codes like AFW where the opportunities are still limited.

At the local level, competition between codes means the timing of the season is important. The AFL season in New Zealand starts in spring and continues until Christmas. This is timed to work in around the rugby codes and the beginning of cricket season.

Back at Hutt Park, the women’s time on the field is up. They’ve gone a bit over time and the men’s teams are waiting for their turn. They’ve been warming up on another field and, apart from having to wait their turn to play on the field today, they don’t seem to have noticed the women’s team at all. But perhaps they should take notice, because this team, like their teams, like the Richmond Tigers, and the GWS Giants, began like this.

A small group of enthusiastic, pioneering, persevering, sport-loving people who wanted to play AFL and have stuck at it to make it what it is today.

After this history-making women’s game comes to an end, Geale and Grieve debrief with the team, congratulating them on their effort and reminding them of the importance of celebrating the wins.

How did the women find their first game? “Loved it,” one says,

“Too much running but I still enjoyed it,” says another.

One of the Gaelic players reports she “liked the physicality of it” compared to Gaelic football.

The women will meet again on Tuesdays for practice. At practice they’ll be learning about spoiling, the art of knocking the ball out of the hand of an opponent. Something that will no doubt come naturally to this team of determined women.

And, while they may not be hitting the MCG anytime soon, there’s every reason to believe it won’t be long before we will watch a women’s grand final at the MCG and maybe some of these players will be making history on that field.