Samantha Lane of The Age reports on the Australian Women’s High Performance Academy training camp in Melbourne, attended by six Queenslanders.

Tuesday, 15 June, 2010

Queenslanders Katie Brennan, Nat Thomas, Aasta O’Connor, Belinda Blay, Monica O’Brien and Jade Prehelj attended the AFL Women’s High Performance Academy training camp in Melbourne over the last five days. Samantha Lane of The Age reports:-

The vision is grand and, if realised, will change the fabric of the Australian Football League.

”I would imagine that Melbourne Women’s Football Club will be running around before Melbourne play Collingwood one day. And it might even be Melbourne versus Collingwood women,” said AFL female participation manager Jan Cooper in between cheering on the 40 women who played a curtain-raiser at the MCG before yesterday’s main football event.

”I would imagine there would be maybe four teams out of Victoria in the first instance, and one out of each of the other states and territories. I’m not quite sure how we’ll do the Northern Territory bit, but we’ve got 10 years to work that out.”

If Cooper has her way – and the West Australian mother-of-two’s energy is so infectious it makes you wonder whether 10 years is an over-estimation – it will be normal for women to literally kick off a day at the footy.

”If it is aligned with AFL clubs that would be my Rolls-Royce version,” Cooper said. ”But if it’s not we’d take the next best, which would be state versus state.”

Once a state volleyballer and cricketer, and later an assistant head trainer at Swan Districts when the football club won back-to-back premierships in the 1980s, Cooper seems to have a way of making big things happen.

Last week she oversaw the first AFL women’s high performance academy camp – something she and Dean Warren, the AFL’s community development manager, dreamt up only 12 months ago at the end of the women’s national championships.

”I remember saying to Dean, ‘it’s lovely that the girls get a medal for being an All-Australian player, but it’s got to be more than that, we’ve got to do something in between’,” Cooper said yesterday.

And so it came to pass that 40 women, aged between 16 and 34, from all around Australia, found themselves lodged in a Melbourne hotel this week, devoting every waking hour to becoming better footballers.

The landmark five-day camp, which cost the AFL about $45,000, culminated in a match of two 20-minute halves between the green and gold a couple of hours before Melbourne played Collingwood.

The 15,000 or so spectators witnessing events by the time the women’s match ended in a two-point victory to the gold team, were clearly engaged. A late tackle laid by Kiara Bowers – ”Turbo” to her teammates – drew an audible gasp. Strong marks were warmly applauded and the reception continued when the teams left the field.

”Pure exhilaration,” was how Lauren Arnell, a 23-year-old former state basketballer, now Darebin Falcons player, described the experience that her boyfriend and family watched from the stands.

Also in the team was Queenslander Thomas, a former Matilda who has recently exchanged the round ball for an oval one; Nikki Harwood, who represented Australia three times in badminton, and the skilful Kirby Bentley, who has more than family ties in common with her second cousin, and Fremantle footballer, Roger Hayden.

For Leeann Gill, yesterday’s victorious coach who has 15 years experience – 12 directing male teams – this was a career high point.

”I said to the girls out there, I had to get to the age of 50 to coach a game on the MCG. It has been one of the best weeks of my life,” she said.

The camp began last week with a three-hour session with the hierarchy of the Melbourne Football Club that ran way over time. But everyone from senior coach Dean Bailey, to his assistants and football manager Chris Connolly – a huge supporter of women’s footy who proved it with a welcome speech that wasn’t just encouraging but empowering – wanted to share some tricks of the trade.

Former Essendon forward Scott Lucas took a session on goalkicking and the women had their techniques filmed and analysed. Many for the first time.

Retired North Melbourne player Jason McCartney spoke about leadership and inspired discussion about how the women perceive themselves, how they can be stereotyped, and the things they would most like to stand for. Then, at a function on Sunday night that had to be relocated to Carlton’s San Remo Ballroom due to interest levels, Stan Alves and David Parkin presented the green and gold guernseys the women played in.

Teenage male footballers are exposed to this type of attention, expert grooming and specialist coaching as a matter of course these days. But clearly the AFL, ever-keen to expand its reach and appeal, has realised a large football population has been left largely unattended and perhaps undervalued.
No longer.

”If these girls become mothers and they’ve had a fabulous AFL experience, guess where they’re going to take their sons and daughters? To an AFL game, to an AFL setting for them to learn,” Cooper said, making it all sound so logical you wonder why the penny hadn’t dropped earlier.

”I don’t want to be critical because I just don’t think the men at the decision-making levels have had the opportunity to understand the girls’ passion for the game, and then how skilful they actually are. And because there’s not that big critical mass yet it has kind of been that last cab off the rank. But they (the AFL) are absolutely avid about this now.”

There are clearly some significant challenges to overcome yet. Even getting suitable uniforms for yesterday’s game was problematic after manufacturers would only provide shorts and jumpers cut for men’s figures. But with football’s most powerful force now on board like never before, one suspects such inconveniences will soon be a thing of the past.

Pictured: Queenslander Monica O’Brien (No.14) moves in for the tackle with Kiara Bowers as Lauren Arnell gets her kick away in the Green All Stars versus Brilliant Gold match at the MCG.

Note: This story was reprinted courtesy of The Age.

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