The changing face of Australian football was on show yesterday just a few steps into Fremantle’s AFLW change rooms.
Preparing for battle against Brisbane at Fremantle Oval, two male physiotherapists were attentively massaging Dockers forward Kellie Gibson.
Male haters of the female game, get used to it.
This is a growth sport with feeling and the Dockers women are the case in point.
Two years ago, when The West Australian was given exclusive behind-the-scenes access to the club’s first home AFLW game, the players were a quiet and nervous mess. Yesterday, it could not have been more contrasting.
Players from the team which shocked AFLW critics last week by beating Melbourne in the first game of the third season were a bit like the perfect thoroughbred racehorse – switched off and relaxed until the jockey, in this case coach Trent Cooper, pressed the button to say go.
Team star Dana Hooker typified the change as much as any player. The doting mum of two-year-old Alice had a softness in her eyes as she munched on watermelon two hours before the match. The closer the first bounce came, the more they filled with fire.
The Dockers took that attitude on to the ground and were too strong for Brisbane, winning by 27 points. It was their second win from two matches this season.
Veteran Dockers boxing coach Gary Ingraham, who is in his first season with the club’s women after 21 years with the men, said the rise in professionalism of the players was inescapable.
They had arranged an unscheduled boxing session for 13 of the players on Christmas eve and those who missed a training session often contacted him for 10 rounds at 5am the next day to catch up.
As Gemma Houghton and Ebony Antonio thudded heavy shots into Ingraham’s pads, it was no hit-and-giggle with sharp combinations and shuddering straight rights.
Nearby, Kiara Bowers hugged a footy like an MMA fighter would a submission hold. Two knee reconstructions and 921 days out of the game will do that.
She is so precise that she paused at a group of footballs to pick the best one, checking which one had stitching that was the “least wonky”.
Stephani Cain showcased a handy skill element as she juggled two small rubber balls with a fully-sized football, while Ashley Sharp sang along with AC/DC’s classic TNT, which was blasting out of a small, multi-coloured wireless speaker near the sandwiches and bananas.
“Women to the left of me, women to the right,” she sang, appropriately.
Cooper said he preferred the lollies he was pilfering from a nearby container.
“It’s why I coach,” he said sheepishly. “There are more for me up in the (coach’s) box.”
Before running out, the players were taken through their warm-ups by Fremantle high performance manager Kate Starre, a dual Olympic hockey gold medallist and knee injury prevention specialist. One last few words of advice from Cooper and it was game on.
“Last week we arrived and announced to the competition that Fremantle can play … this weelk we can prove it against the best,” he said in a measured tone.
The Dockers, whose base is now out at Cockburn, did their best to activate Fremantle yesterday with the carnival-like Wasamba band playing through the streets and asking people to, “Follow us to the footy”. There were also players signing autographs in the Fremantle Markets.
Players also yesterday wore jumpers which had been unwashed since a pre-season dawn smoking ceremony conducted by Dockers No.1 ticket-holder Richard Walley.
The club’s hierarchy was also out in solidarity with chairman Dale Alcock, chief executive Steve Rosich and football manager Peter Bell all offering support. Former board member and now AFL Commission chairman Richard Goyder was also at the game.