by Murray Silby
The recent march of women’s football onto sports’ centre-stage takes another leap forward on Saturday when the NT Thunder Women’s side plays its first game in the VFL W.
In a bold step, the AFLNT will field a side in the premier competition in the country below the AFLW.
Like the men’s Thunder team, which plays in the NEAFL, the move is designed to provide young women from the Northern Territory with a pathway to higher opportunities in the game and exposure to a level of professionalism that improves them as a player and a person.
“That’s what we want is to give the Territory girls the opportunity to play at the best level they can, and there’s no doubt it’s the best competition in the country,” coach Tim Weatherald said.
“We’re not just there to make up numbers; we think we can field a really quality side and give our girls the chance to play against the best.”
The VFL W is in its third year after women’s football in Victoria was restructured for the 2016 season.
The VFL W replaced the Victorian Women’s Football League (VWFL), and NT Thunder, Carlton, Casey Demons, Collingwood, Essendon, Richmond, Southern Saints and Williamstown join Darebin, Melbourne University, Geelong, Hawthorn and the Western Bulldogs in this year’s expanded competition.
The expansion is partly in preparation for the addition of six new clubs into the AFLW over the next two years and will give more women state league opportunities ahead of an influx of new talent into the top tier.
Weatherald will get his wish to play against the best as soon as Saturday as Thunder launches its entry into the VFL W by taking his team on a road trip to Victoria to play reigning premier Darebin in Round 1.
The Falcons have won the only two VFL W premierships, but their success in the game extends way back further than just the past two seasons.
Darebin won five successive VWFL premierships, before the formation of the VFL W, from 2006 to 2010, was runner-up in 2011 and 2012 before again winning in 2013, 2014 and 2015.
Unlike previous seasons though, Darebin won’t have the services of two of the biggest names in women’s football this year.
Melbourne AFLW captain and best and fairest, Daisy Pearce, is sitting out the VFL W season to give her body a rest and Western Bulldogs skipper and key forward Katie Brennan will be playing with the Bulldogs’ VFL W team.
Darebin is one of the powerhouses of women’s football though and has plenty of talent to draw on, and that’s been the case for many years.
Melbourne’s best and fairest runner-up and star midfielder Elise O’Dea and fellow Melbourne star Karen Paxman are both in Darebin’s squad.
Thunder isn’t short on talent though with 18 of the 51 players on its list either from the Adelaide Crows AFLW squad or with previous experience on it.
They include recently appointed Thunder captain Angela Foley, Jasmine Anderson and 2018 AFLW All-Australian captain Chelsea Randall.
Foley says playing at the Crows has helped develop her leadership style.
“That’s probably something I’ve been working on for a couple of years now and to be under the guidance of (Crows co-captain) Erin Phillips, one of the best in the business and (Crows co-captain) Chelsea Randall, who’s just a phenomenal person and a great leader, I’ve learnt a lot off them over the last couple of years,” Foley said.
“So it’s a bit of a feather in my cap to see how far I’ve come with my leadership and I’ve never been the captain of a side ever before. It may come as a surprise to some people, but I’ve always been a vice-captain, and that’s a great honour as well, but to captain the first ever Northern Territory team (in the VFL) is an absolute honour, and I’m going to be pretty proud running out there on Saturday against Darebin.”
Foley recognises the challenge Darebin presents in Thunder’s first match.
“Reigning premiers, the side to beat, or they have been for the last five years I suppose,” she said.
“A few list changes though so it’s going to be a new look team for them, and obviously we’re new, and we haven’t played together before either so it’ll be interesting to see how we go, but hopefully we end up on top.”
Thunder’s players have had limited preparation as the squad was selected and assembled from a remarkably large area.
“We had almost 90 names initially on our list from everywhere from Adelaide up to Alice Springs, Darwin and out to the islands,” Weatherald explained.
And like the men’s game, Weatherald says the women’s Thunder team will be playing the “Territory-style” of football.
“I talk about when I’m coaching the girls, Territory-style,” he said. “It has to be within reason when we’re playing what will be a more contested game down there, but we’ll definitely have some quick young girls running around out there in our side and looking to score quickly.
“It’s a great challenge first up. It’s good to start off in a brand-new competition challenging ourselves against the best club down there.
“It’s been a pretty exciting week, the last couple of days have been really exciting, and we’re really keen to get down there and start it all up now.
“We just can’t wait to get down there to play the Vics.”
Likewise, Foley is keen for the build-up to end and the football to begin.
“It’s been a fair build up for some of the girls coming off the end of the NTFL season,” she said.
“They went through a bit of preseason, and for us AFL players we had a bit of a break, and there’s all the excitement around the new team and the new competition with a few new teams entering.
“So, it’s all a bit exciting, and there’s a bit of media around, and it’s great to see everyone getting around it so we’re ready for the weekend I think.”
VFL W Round 1: Darebin vs NT Thunder – 12pm Saturday 5 May, Preston City Oval, Preston