Participants from Women’s Masters AFL football reflect on a hectic start and an ultimately positive conclusion to the inaugural season of their trail-blazing league. The first of two parts.
From an energetic, if somewhat wobbly beginning in 2018, Victoria’s Women’s Masters AFL has grown into a stable competition which now has a sound base from it can expand. But at different stages even its most enthusiastic boosters couldn’t be sure this pioneering league would get off the ground. Like a lot of ideas, its rickety scaffolding could easily have collapsed early on. However, like most successful innovations, the concept navigated its way through early obstacles and stabilised to the point where it now has great potential to keep on growing.
Ideas evolve at different paces and from varied origins. Some fizzle and fade away, others turn into an Apple or a Ford. While concepts can float around indefinitely, the ones that get a foothold are often led by individuals or a small group who keep showing up and supply more than usual levels of “stickability”. (Henry Ford’s first hand-built quadricycle “horseless carriage” was seen as an odd indulgence for the rich. It took him a decade to turn it into the earliest version of the machines that jam our highways these days.)
Jill Chalmers was one of the key instigators behind the inaugural AFLW Masters competition, though not, she points out, solely responsible. She credits others as well. In 2016 at the Gold Coast she played in a senior women’s football match as part of a master’s carnival. There were just five Victorian women for the event, but there was enough interest to organise a team for the following season in Geelong. At a later dinner the idea was floated that a regular competition could be a good idea. Chalmers says at that point “everyone looked at me!”. With her public service background, and experience in emergency management and as a travel agent, she decided to take up the challenge. She didn’t have any administrative expertise so she teamed up with Bruce Chaplin, then president of the Victorian Metro Super Rules League, the state competition for senior men. There were some hard yards early on. For a while, says Chalmers, “I did the door-to-door sales stuff.” During a summer break, with the help of a friend and a tech-savvy assistant, they built a website to promote the cause, and printed a pamphlet. But she found it tough to get noticed by the AFL. “Nobody knew who I was!” she says. Finally she met Meg McArthur, who was at that time the Community Football Operations Coordinator with AFL Victoria. “I had no idea what to present, and people said I’d be wasting my time, but she was good,” says Chalmers. A list of contacts was forthcoming, and as games began in the AFLW competition Chalmers and a friend started distributing pamphlets about her new version of it. The interest was high and hits started coming to the website, with enthusiasm strong from the women in the north and west of Melbourne. Then in February this year a reporter from “The Age” newspaper, Carolyn Webb, contacted Chalmers and wrote a story about the fledgling competition. Four men’s masters clubs expressed interest in running a women’s comp, and a little later two more joined up. Coburg, Werribee, Waverley (based out of Clayton), Melbourne, Mordialloc, and Box Hill North made up the inaugural group. Chalmers felt she was getting some administrative muscle behind her. Logistics, umpires, grounds, all started to come together. “It was really amazing,” she recalls.
There were high expectations for the first practice match and despite some threatening weather beforehand, the two-game event proved to be a great success. However, the pressure on Chalmers had been mentally wearing, and she realised she had to delegate some responsibilities. She says there have been issues throughout the first season.
Interpretations on laws have occasionally proved challenging. Chalmers believes some players have taken to the physical contests more whole-heartedly than others. She thinks that given the nature of the playing skills, which vary from experienced through to complete beginners, the umpiring needs to be cognisant of that. “The ethos is ‘footy for fun’ and ‘fit for life’,” says Chalmers. But arguably the strongest element to come out of the game has been the team bonding. “Every club has had that,” says the organiser. “It’s been a great element of the competition.”
Peter “Pants” Nash has been involved in community football – playing and coaching – for most of his life, so when a chance came to coach a masters women’s team, it was something he was keen to get involved in. His long coaching career started some years ago. He says that after returning from Sydney to Melbourne in 1992 for work he became involved in an over 32s team at South Wantirna. That side became one half of the Waverley Warriors Masters team. He was the first coach of the merged team “five or six” years ago. He says, “I’m used to putting teams together. I wanted to coach the women’s team. If it’s to do with coaching, I’m a servant of the club.”
The Waverley Warriors women’s masters team had been getting off the ground before Nash became involved and he was aware of its development. A group of master’s women had been training with the Clayton women’s senior team, but Nash says the new group was working at a different skill level to the more experienced players and it wasn’t an ideal set up. “It was a pretty steep learning curve,” he says.
He met Sarah Loh (a football administrator and soon to be a player) and Jill Chalmers and decided he was keen to step into the role. “I thought I was the right person,” says Nash. He says he “rocked up” to a training session, met more players, and after a discussion about what they wanted to achieve, he took over the coaching. That was on top of his role as coach of the men’s seconds team. He had few experienced players on his list. The vast majority were enthusiastic beginners. After a quick appraisal he says he felt the immediate need was to address skills. “We spent about three weeks learning a lot about bumping and protecting yourself – eyes up, bracing, etc.” He also says he had to learn to explain himself in different ways. “On the first night I talked about kicking off the ground, and they started doing it all the time. It was a learning process for me as well.” He says of the newbies, “They were sponges, and tended to take everything literally. It was a good learning curve.”
He says he learned to change the language he normally used with the men’s team. “I coached differently with the men, but coaching the women improved my coaching overall.”
His thought processes were also completely different. “The women didn’t have the experience of a team environment, and they didn’t have the arrogance. With some men’s teams, they think they all know it better than you. I didn’t have that with these women.”
Skills development was critical as the season progressed. “At the start they couldn’t even kick to a target. Skills and confidence were the areas to work on.” By way of example, he says he emphasised aspects like kicking with their non-preferred foot. In what he clearly feels was a coaching win, he says, “I wanted to develop the concept of having a go with the other foot, so there were no mental blocks about having a go. In the last game there were eight occasions when they had a go on the other foot.”
Some of the challenges for the group included physical fitness, and even an awareness of who did what in any given position. “They didn’t know the positions and I assumed they would.” He describes some players as “hard as nails”, but many had to learn about on-field awareness. And there was a degree of training required for “game sense”. Though a couple on the list were experienced footballers (or sports enthusiasts) and were fit, many obviously weren’t. The advantage of this new group however, was that “they had no fixed ideas. It was refreshing, and they embraced what I told them, on or off the ground. I would never criticize them if they had a go.”
Despite his years in the game, Nash believes the first season of womens master’s football has improved his coaching. “I’m calmer and more controlled. It’s been a positive learning curve. My player management skills are better, but the women are close-knit and often they sort it out. They brought their own networking to the game. They want to talk about their lives. They set up their own Facebook page, and that gave me an insight into what they were thinking. Men bottle it up more.”
Nash also comments that the women’s team has had a really positive impact on the club as a whole. “It’s absolutely changed the atmospherics of the club. I think we built something really good.”
Henry Ford no doubt said something similar about his Model ‘T’ over a century ago, and now his company’s cars are seen all over the planet. Some ideas become too popular to dismiss.
©All images and text by Robert Keeley.
Next time: The President and the Player.