“No-one rises to low expectations.”
They were the sage words of Hawthorn AFLW coach Bec Goddard when she first embarked on the campaign to get the historic clash between the Bombers and Hawks moved to Docklands Stadium.
The game — the first ever women’s match between two powerhouse clubs and historical rivals — had originally been scheduled at North Port Oval.
The capacity of the suburban ground is listed as 10,000, but in reality seats far fewer. With all due respect to Port Melbourne, it’s no Docklands, and wasn’t befitting the occasion.
That much was clear when Essendon hosted Hawthorn for one of the games of the round in front of a vocal 12,092 fans.
From childhood Bombers’ fan Maddy Prespakis’s passionate tug of the sash after she kicked the sealer, to the many supporters who cried at the joy of having all 18 clubs finally represented on the biggest stage, this was a game of high emotion.
“Every time I talk about it, I want to cry,” Prespakis said to Nat Edwards after the game.
“It’s been a dream come true to play for Essendon. I just look down at this jumper and I feel very privileged.”
While insiders say the AFL always planned on moving the game to the Docklands, it’s worth asking why it wasn’t scheduled there in the first place.
The idiom goes “build it and they will come”, but AFLW has too often been a case of “come and they’ll have to build it”.
Why not do what cricket did with the T20 women’s world cup and challenge the two clubs — with a combined membership of 150,000 — to fill the ground by giving it the stage it deserved all along?
Victorious Essendon coach Nat Wood echoed Goddard’s sentiments after the game, saying the choice of a bigger stadium was appropriate as the league moved towards greater professionalisation.
“You watch the effort, the commitment these players put in, week to week … they’re juggling work with uni and family commitments,” Wood said.
“The more we can wrap professionalism around our athletes, the better.”
Wood added that the eventual crowd of 12,092 reflected the superior spectator experience big stadiums can provide.
“There was a great atmosphere and it seemed like the crowd were really enjoying the spectacle,” she said.
“If we’re working towards establishing a really professional product then our members and our fans need to be able to come along and consume that and be a part of that.”
Mum was ‘the light in the room’: Locke
Those in attendance on Saturday night witnessed a blockbuster scripted to perfection, nowhere more so than when Sophie Locke lined up and drilled the Hawks’ first goal.
As the ball sailed truly into the crowd, the 21-year-old kissed her black armband and pointed to the sky before being mobbed by her teammates.
Locke’s mum Sarah died of cancer two weeks earlier, nine years after she was first diagnosed with breast cancer.
“She was definitely watching me,” Locke told the ABC.
“I didn’t think I was going to get paid the mark, to be honest, but when I took it I was like, ‘oh my god, this is happening.’
“My whole football and netball club was down that end of the ground, and I was just trying to find someone to focus on.
“When I went to kick the ball, I was just like ‘do not shank this’. But yeah, it was really cool. I was like, ‘this was meant to happen’.”
Locke said her mum had been intent on living to see her run out in the brown and gold. But while that was not to be, Locke could picture her celebrating the occasion.
“She was always the one you could hear in the crowd,” Locke said.
“She had a distinctive cheer. I’ve had so many teammates say, ‘I heard your mum on the sidelines’ after a goal. She made a big impression.”
Locke said she would remember her mum as someone who “everyone felt comfortable around”.
“She was just the light of the room. She was the happiest person, loud, had a contagious laugh, and you could tell her anything. She was just a great person.”
Knee injuries wreak havoc again
There was a sense of déjà vu in the opening round of season seven, with knee injuries once again casting a pall over the competition.
Year on year, ACL injuries have trended higher in AFLW than the men’s game, at up to six times the rate.
Some, such as sports reporter Marnie Vinall, even took to social media on Friday to thank the footy gods that there were no ACL injuries in the opening game.
By Saturday, that felt like a curse, with number-one draft pick and Swan Montana Ham going down with what looked like a serious knee injury that was later, mercifully, deemed not to be an ACL.
That followed a similar injury to Eagle Kellie Gibson, who was pictured in a knee brace after starting the game against the Power in menacing form.
Then, on Sunday, Brisbane Lion Lily Postlethwaite was helped from the field after spending 553 days on the sidelines rehabbing from an ACL injury sustained in round four of the 2021 season.
Another ACL would be the cruellest of blows for the young Lion, who was a two-time under-18 All Australian and missed Brisbane’s premiership triumph over the Adelaide Crows.
Swans embrace ‘one club’ philosophy
Injuries aside, there were highlights aplenty on a weekend that showcased a complete competition of 18 teams for the first time.
Perhaps one of the most touching sights was the Sydney Swans’ welcome to North Sydney Oval; first mobbed by fans as they entered the stadium and then welcomed onto the ground by the men’s team, who formed a guard of honour for the players.
The gesture was in keeping with the Swans’ “one club” philosophy, with the AFL men’s team having previously formed a guard of honour when the AFLW side first trained at the SCG.
The men’s team were also among the 8,264 in the stands for the game against the Saints, pictured cheering on from the sidelines.
The Bloods are often lauded for their culture, and while they may have been one of the last sides to enter the AFLW competition, this scene set an example for 17 other clubs.
Source: AFL NEWS ABC