By Ant Wingard
The truth is, football hasn’t always been ready for us, even though we were ready for it.
So, in the meantime, current AFL Women’s footballers took to other sports. Across the competition, there are over 100 athletes who hail from cross-sport backgrounds including soccer, Gaelic football and cricket. For Brisbane sharpshooter, Jesse Wardlaw, that was netball.
At 185cm, Tawhiao-Wardlaw was an accomplished goal shooter. Throughout her teens, she emerged as one of the brightest prospects south of the Brisbane River and was duly named in the Brisbane South Division 1 Wildcats team.
Her proficiency on the netball court also saw her earn selection in both the Queensland Under 17 and Under 19 state representative sides.
But just as her promising netball career was about to take off, a second sport came calling, even if Wardlaw didn’t realise it at the time.
One of her school friends was a massive Australian rules fan, but in a school where that wasn’t a sporting option, that same friend went about organising a small AFL9s team. Wardlaw obliged to join the school team, which played out of Yeronga on Wednesday afternoons.
“I had nothing to do that term and I was always the type of person that would want to be doing every type of sport so I thought I’d just give footy a go,” Wardlaw said.
“I just played and found that I picked the game up so naturally because the skills kind of relate to netball.”
While still new to the sport, it was evident, even in a social nine-aside game, that Wardlaw was a talented footballer. Following one of the games, Wardlaw was approached by the umpire to see if she would be interested in playing for a local club.
That umpire turned out to be AFL Women’s superstar Tayla Harris.
Still, Wardlaw’s commitment to netball remained paramount but for the first time, the thought of playing football at club level entered the fray.
“I thought well, if she was telling me that I should pursue it then maybe I should,” she said.
Of course, as a newcomer to football at the time, Wardlaw didn’t recognise who Harris was at that initial confrontation together. It wasn’t until their second meeting where Wardlaw fully grasped the enormity of Harris’ endorsement after the latter delivered a speech about being one of the first players signed to the AFLW competition.
It was after that when Wardlaw fully thought about joining a club. And she did, signing up to Coorparoo’s youth girls team and from there, trialled for a few representative side.
As Harris has prophesised, Wardlaw’s talents were evident. She was named first in the Brisbane South Under 17 representative team. Then, the Brisbane Lions Academy came calling. So too did the Queensland Under 18 side.
During these times – her draft year – Wardlaw was still playing netball. Her schedule quickly became engrossed with both sports and a decision between them was soon approaching.
That came in mid-2018 when Wardlaw was named in one of the Brisbane Lions’ QW Winter Series teams as an Under 18 player.
“It came to a point where I was juggling so much with the Winter Series and netball and I kind of had to put netball on a hold to play for the Winter Series,” Wardlaw said.
“I was juggling the two for a while and it came to the point where when I got drafted, I thought then I had to put all of my efforts into football because I didn’t have time for both.”
Now, two seasons into her AFL Women’s career, Wardlaw’s talents have become even more abundantly clear.
In her debut season, she was named the best first year player at Brisbane and now in 2020, her second season, she has developed into one of the best forwards in the entire competition.
As it stands, Wardlaw tops everyone on the goal kickers list having booted seven majors – two ahead of Harris – while also earning a NAB Rising Star nomination following her three-goal effort in Round 2 against Geelong.
Wardlaw says there are plenty of similarities between the two sports she has excelled in and which have ultimately aided her transition and development into one of the most feared forwards in the game.
“I think the forward 50 is almost like the goal circle in netball and so full forward and goal shooter is pretty similar.”
“Just the leading patterns, knowing when to lead and when to clear out, that is what we did in netball at every single training.
“Working with the goal attack was huge and we do the same across our whole forward line.
“In netball we also take the ball at the highest point in the air. Going up for marks just kind of comes naturally for me.”
With International Women’s Day (IWD) this Sunday, March 8 – the same day Brisbane play Fremantle in a top of the table clash – it’s time to reflect on the contribution of trailblazers like Wardlaw.
IWD this year carrier the theme #EachforEqual and calls to broaden the perception, challenge stereotypes and celebrate women’s achievements.
This year, we are celebrating the role women’s sport has played in the wider journey to reaching gender equality.
Across society, the influence of AFLW is evident, yet that wouldn’t have been possible if not for the contribution of all sports and cross-code athletes like Wardlaw who have helped established an equal playing field for all women.
Each for Equal. All for Sport.