As the first national AFL Women’s competition is about to kick off, a writer tracks the trials of one team, the Bulldogs, from their very beginnings.
It is Saturday, September 3, the bye week following the AFL season, and 6365 people have come to Whitten Oval in the Melbourne suburb of Footscray to watch a game of football played by women – a feat that should not be unlikely but, until now, has been.
On this breezy spring evening, families are taking selfies with “Sid” the bulldog, there is music in the wind, seared sausage meat in nostrils and Mr Whippy in hands. Under lights, Auskick girls in pigtails dance across the immaculate oval.
Up on a grandstand balcony, commentators in a makeshift television studio are talking to television viewers. Plenty of them. The ratings for this exhibition game between the Western Bulldogs and the Melbourne Demons will peak at 1.05 million, besting every single Saturday night AFL match for the year. (“Landmark” quickly becomes the default descriptor of the evening.)
Meanwhile, down at basement level, two dozen players sit quietly in a tiered theatrette. They’re stretched and oiled. They hold Sherrins and bounce on the balls of their feet. They’ve strapped their ankles, removed nose rings and tied topknots.
Jordan Roughead, the ruckman of the men’s Bulldogs AFL team, sits chewing gum. “Let’s go, girls,” he says, clapping. “Let’s go.”
Also here are club powerbrokers Peter Gordon, Sue Alberti and Chris Grant, but the person commanding the room is Paul Groves, the coach. “Write your commitment,” he says, staring at his team, tapping the whiteboard. “Name, and a couple of words about what you’re bringing tonight.”
I am here early, before the inaugural season of the long-awaited AFL Women’s league kicks off, to shadow the Doggies through the spring, to witness the birth of a team as they are drafted and drilled – and as they make history.
Main photograph by Paul Jeffers