Two women new to Australian Rules football – one of them new to Australia – explain the attraction of playing the game, and what it’s meant to them.
It seems Australian Rules football – a unique and indigenous game – can actually cross all sorts of borders. Two divergent journeys illustrate the point. When competition coordinator Jill Chalmers started an Australian Rules series for over 35s women she got a different sort of ball rolling. Players came together from many backgrounds for the first season of the AFL Women’s Masters football. Most had never played the game before and their learning curve was about to take off from a low base. On top of that, a six-match season didn’t give them a lot of time to come to grips with the intricacies of a game which by any measure is one of the hardest in the world to play. Concepts and skills that might be second nature to seasoned footballers were new to many of the over 35s who decided to give Australian Rules football their first go. And they were doing so at a period in their lives when most male footballers were thinking about (or had taken) their retirement from the game. You can get hurt playing football if you don’t have some idea what you’re doing, and when you’re older those injuries can hurt more and happen more easily. So what has attracted older women to this unforgiving challenge?
For Robyn Nichols it was simply that – the challenge. At 49 she had motored steadily past the sign posts which told most male footballers to park their sporting ambitions, apart from the odd country veteran you might read about who’d been doing it for decades and didn’t know when to stop. As a country girl she wasn’t unfamiliar with sport. It’s one of the few glues that still works to keep under-the-pump bush communities from completely breaking down. One of three girls from a family at Lockington near Echuca in north-central region of the state of Victoria, she grew up playing netball and tennis. Football was integral to country life, but there was never any thought about women playing it and she didn’t engage with the local team. It was another era.
But Nichols was always interested in participating in sport. So much so that when she moved to Melbourne to study Physical Education, her studies included time pursuing netball and tennis. Together with snow skiing, water skiing, and wake-boarding, she’s soaked up sport, even though bad calves eventually forced her out of netball. That court game is hard and unforgiving. But gradually sport moved down a couple of rungs in her ladder of priorities as she focussed on family life and her three young girls (from 12 to 18 years of age). Four years ago her eldest, Tayla, got into football at the Ashburton Redbacks team, so she started following her exploits. Then three years ago, using her Phys Ed background, she got involved in the club as a trainer. Her other daughters, Sophie and youngest Lilly, also play.
Earlier this year she received a notice from a club contact, Anna Carlisle (now playing for the same team as Nichols – the Waverley Warriors), about the formation of a women’s masters team. “I thought I’d check it out. I had no skill, but reasonable fitness,” she says matter-of-factly.
She turned up for a run a few weeks before the season launched to find a disparate bunch of women, most of whom didn’t know each other and who hadn’t played football before. It wasn’t a promising platform from which to launch a competitive team, but that wasn’t the priority. Football can be good for more than competition. “I’d never done anything like that before,” says Nichols, “I enjoyed it.”
For her the biggest challenges, beyond gaining the skills like handball and kicking an oval ball, have been getting used to physical contact and understanding where to go on the field, and when. “I’d never had that training for physical contact. But I’m much more comfortable with that now. I’m much less hesitant and I know where to go.”
She continues, “A lot of us can kick when we’re standing still, but it’s different when people are running at you.” She believes she’s improved over six games. “From a base of nothing I feel good about where I’ve got to. I know who I’m stopping and where I’m going. And I know when not to go into packs. Nobody wants to be injured,” says Nichols. (Having noted that, she discovered at the end of the competition she’d played the whole time with a fractured finger!).
She’s pretty happy with how her skills have shaped up over the short season, and her involvement in the team. “I loved it more than I thought I would,” she says. She thinks coming to the game with the perspective of an older person has been an interesting experience. “Everyone has understood the need to learn. It’s been a really supportive atmosphere. It’s been really fun.”
For an even more unlikely introduction to the game, it’s hard to go past Ashley Preston’s initiation. Known by teammates and her Waverley Warriors coach Peter “Pants” Nash as “Canada” because she recently arrived from that country, the foreign national knew little about the local game when she came to Australia in early 2018. Just enough to understand that by coming to Melbourne she’d be required to immerse herself in the biggest cultural activity in the city – AFL football. For a woman who’d grown up and spent much of her 37 years in and around the frosty Canadian city of Calgary in the central province of Alberta, Melbourne and its football code couldn’t have been further from her thoughts when she grew up. At her local high school she was quite sporty, but mostly she involved herself in individual pursuits like athletics and diving. However, at one stage she did get involved in rugby, playing at an amateur level. “I had a crush on a boy who was playing!” she admits. She loved the team aspect of that game, and she spent three years playing it. Through that participation she also had some exposure to Australian sport, including Australian Rules football.
She graduated from the University of Calgary with a Master’s Degree in Economics and was working for the Australian headquartered mining and metals multinational BHP when a job was internally advertised for work in Melbourne. With a hankering to travel overseas, and some knowledge of Australians through her company, she discussed it with her husband and then applied. The move from her job in Saskatoon, in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, to the southern hemisphere city of Melbourne, Australia, threw Preston’s family into another world. “We were excited by the opportunity,” she says, “We’d read that Melbourne was one of the most liveable cities in the world.” (As long as you have an AFL team!). Upon arrival she decided, “We just had to dig in and embed ourselves in the community.”
Before departing her home she’d shown her young son footage of AFL football and when they arrived in Melbourne he soon registered for Auskick, the introductory junior football program. Her husband, who played rugby, was an enthusiastic supporter. As with most Canadians, her son had been a keen ice hockey fan and junior player, but the options for that sport were limited in Melbourne. So he fortuitously picked the Richmond Tigers as his AFL team because he liked their logo.
His coach was Julia Hay, and one day she suggested Preston come to the Ashburton “Ashy” Redbacks ground for a “come and try footy” day. She recalls, “I wanted to make friends. I didn’t have any idea there was a team involved.” Then at the end of proceedings she was asked to join the new Waverley Warriors Masters team. “I was completely new to it. But I remembered that ‘team’ feel I’d had with rugby. I said, “Yes!”. Then we just really gelled with each other. We were all individuals, but we all felt connected.”
Six games, every second weekend, did not leave much time to learn a new sport from scratch. As Preston, says, “Team sports are not something really considered for women in this age group.” But it was fertile ground for developing friendships. The Canadian notes, “There was a diversity of backgrounds for the women involved. There was a ‘chat’ function on the team app, and the group became really supportive of each other. And that had something to do with our performance. We cared about each other. There was no ‘showboating’ and we had a common purpose on the field.” Preston has followed the Richmond 2017 premiership story and she’s noted a similar approach espoused by the Tigers during their season.
Many of the players did not stay on field for the whole of each game, and that applied to Preston, but she says she played in six out of the team’s eight games (which included two practice matches), and “I was proud of the way I played. I put everything I had into it.” She notes, “My fitness improved, and I’ll be looking to improve more next year.” She thinks the fitness required for rugby and Australian Rules football is similar, but she now prefers AFL football because she believes there is more strategy involved. “You can look around in AFL. It was difficult to manage initially, but I prefer to play AFL because it’s so strategic. There’s a mental aspect involved.”
The only downside to her new experience occurred when she received a concussion through a head knock. “It scared me a bit,” she says. But it won’t stop her playing the game next season. She plans to wear padded head protection. “It’s a calculated risk. But there’s more risk involved with not playing sport. I need the ‘team’ aspect to keep coming back.” And Preston is also happy for her son to keep playing. “I wouldn’t allow him to play American football or hockey now. The positives of this game outweigh the negatives.” As a player from the north American continent she has noticed one other significant difference with sport played in Australia. “What we call ‘trash talk’ or you call ‘sledging’ is no big deal here. After the game you let that stuff go. As Canadians we’re obsessed with politeness!”
She says that when she signed up to play Australian Rules football she wasn’t aware of the history-making nature of the women’s masters competition. “I’m aware of the history of it now and I feel so fortunate to have been a part of it. It’s another element to why our team has bonded so well. We just want to do it justice,” says the Canadian pioneer.
(© Copyright: All images and words by Robert Keeley, who followed the Waverley Warriors AFL Master’s women’s team through its inaugural season.)