The Brisbane Lions are adamant they won’t be overawed by the occasion tomorrow of playing in the first AFL Women’s final to be held at the hallowed MCG.
It’s easy when their coach, or leader of the Pride, is as calm and measured as they come.
Craig Starcevich has been around footy for a long time.
He played 144 AFL games for Collingwood and later the Brisbane Bears, before going on to play a pivotal role in the Brisbane Lions’ (AFL men’s) three-peat premiership as their physical performance manager.
But perhaps his greatest legacy will be his impact on the women’s game in Queensland.
“He has been such an inspiration to a lot of girls to pick up the footy in the first place,” Lions premiership defender Nat Grider told ABC Sport.
“He is amazing for what he’s done for women’s footy in Queensland.
“A lot of credit does go back to him.
“We go out there every weekend playing for him.”
Starcevich last month became the first AFLW coach to reach the 50-game milestone.
And the fire is still lit for the 54-year-old, who remains the longest-serving coach in the competition.
“I love what we’re doing,” Starcevich said.
“We’ve built something on a blank canvas basically and I’d love to see it through to the end.”
It’s hard to put a ceiling on the Brisbane Lions’ AFLW side, who under Starcevich’s six-year tenure have been to three grand finals, boast a 32-17 win/loss record, finished in the top three in four out of the six seasons and won a premiership in 2021.
No club has ever gone back-to-back, but Starcevich said Brisbane is determined to be the first.
“We’re just lucky now that we’ve got a really nice group of young players who are still learning and still improving, but their work ethic and character is in the right place,” he said.
“And they’re looking for more success.”
Their quest continues tomorrow against the Melbourne Demons in a preliminary final, with the winner to play either the Adelaide Crows or Fremantle Dockers in the decider.
“We haven’t beaten [the Demons] since year one, so they’re definitely a team that we want to try and get our noses in front of for sure,” Starcevich said.
“It’s a big challenge for us.”
Girls and women in Queensland taking to Australian rules football
No challenge is too big for Craig Starcevich.
In a state where rugby league is considered the dominant code, he built a women’s side from the ground up and has since made them one of the forces of the competition, who challenge year after year.
“If you live in Queensland long enough, you understand that while you might be competing against Collingwood in Melbourne on the weekend, the biggest battle here is market share and competing with the other codes,” he said.
The Lions’ AFLW success has had a flow-on effect across the grassroots and community level in Queensland.
“It is really nice now to see just the growth of senior and youth women’s teams and competitions,” Starcevich said.
“You know, the junior pathway is now complete, where, probably half a decade ago, girls had to play mixed 40 footy, so we saw a big drop out between 14 and 18, I guess whereas now it filters right up into women’s footy.
“In the early days we were attracting elite players from other sports, now they’re coming to us, knocking on the door to play.
“It’s just grown so much over the years.”
Starcevich growing the game abroad
It’s not just in Queensland where Starcevich’s impact on the growth of the game is being felt.
For the past three years, he’s split his year across Brisbane and Switzerland, where is his wife Sonia has a job with a global firm.
So when the AFLW season finishes he packs up and heads back over to Europe to reunite with her before he travels back down under months later in time for the new season.
Starcevich says his wife is the one making the bigger sacrifice.
“I mean, I’m doing something that I love doing,” he said.
“So that’s pretty easy. But, you know, it was hard for us to juggle what we do, but she’s been great support.
“I haven’t had a winter for three years, so that’s one good thing.”
The Lions’ coach added that his time overseas had provided ample opportunity to meet other expats in Europe.
“It’s been a wonderful, great opportunity… because there’s a thriving AFL community there as well, which is something I didn’t expect,” he said.
While Starcevich said he had done “bits and pieces” with AFL Europe, including coaching courses, his main focus had been coaching the ‘Basel Dragons’ team in the AFL Switzerland competition.
“We’ve got a four-team comp, we play every two or three weeks and we get half a dozen games in a summer, which is fantastic,” he said.
“I spent a day with German Eagles Women’s team and one of the girls there who’d played in the Women’s Bundesliga said to me at the end of the session, ‘where’s this sport been all my life? We love it’.
“This was a retired, high-level, women’s soccer player, telling me how much she loved AFL.
“Growing the game and introducing it to people who have never seen it before is amazing.”
Source: AFL NEWS ABC