Jaw-dropping, edge-of-your-seat entertainment. This is how many described the AFL Women's competition, which launched over the weekend.
The introduction of an elite female competition for Aussie rules football is one of the most significant developments in Australian sport. Considering the recent success of women's cricket and soccer, the timing could not have been better for the AFL to finally kick the women's game into gear.
The Women's Big Bash League, the Twenty20 cricket tournament held over the summer as a precursor to the men's tournament, was a massive hit with fans, pundits and players. Several matches were shown live on free-to-air television, with most matches featuring female-led commentary teams of ex-cricketers Lisa Sthalekar and Mel Jones. There, the bar had been set extremely high, and now it was time for the Women's AFL to respond.
Respond they did, and it was happily intimidating. It was exciting enough to hear that the commentary will be led by renowned sports voice Kelli Underwood with Fox Sports' Neroli Meadows taking on hosting and boundary duties. However, when game day arrived, fans teemed into Princes Park in Melbourne's inner suburbia and, such was the demand to watch the AFLW match between Carlton and Collingwood, the blockbuster clash totally sold out. With approximately 20,000 fans crammed into the stadium, the match was declared a lockout, with Victoria Police asking the AFL to close the gates due to safety concerns.
Two thousand fans missed out on making it into the ground for the historic clash, unable to feast their eyes on a landmark moment in Aussie sport. AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan took time out to meet the unlucky fans outside and apologise. It was a bizarre mixture of agitation and jubilation; many had missed out on watching the match, but the demand for tickets meant that Women's AFL was here to stay. But what did it take to get AFL Women's off the ground?
Back in 2010, around 80,000 females played footy around Australia. Desperate not to let talent go to waste, the AFL commissioned a review into women's football. Despite the review focusing on grassroots, junior and state levels, it became clear that the AFL desired an elite national women's competition.
With a competition in the works, the AFL planned several women's exhibition matches. The first exhibition match, held in 2013 between Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs, was a sensation. Subsequent exhibition matches between the clubs followed in 2014 and 2015, with the 2015 match broadcast on free-to-air television. Amazingly, the women's match attracted higher television ratings than the men's match between Adelaide and Essendon the night before.
The AFL had to react. They did, announcing the 2017 start date for the national women's competition. More exhibition matches were planned for 2016, including an All-Stars match in September. That day, thousands piled into Whitten Oval, while hundreds of thousands more watched on television. By year's end, more than 380,000 females were playing footy around Australia. AFL was ready, and so were our girls. The future had arrived.
All AFL clubs were invited to put in an application for a women's team. At the launch of the league in mid-2016, it was revealed that eight clubs were awarded a women's AFL licence - Adelaide, Brisbane, Carlton, Collingwood, Fremantle, Greater Western Sydney, Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs.
Each club was to sign two 'marquee' players, who will be paid more for promotional work for their clubs and the AFL. Furthermore, clubs were also allowed to sign priority players, the number of which was determined by the AFL, as well as two rookie signings. Finally, NAB was announced as the competition's naming rights sponsor.
After a draft day, where 145 players were put onto team lists, the stage was set. Training began in late November and the draw was announced soon after. For the inaugural season, clubs will play each other once, leading to a seven-week season.
Carlton 7.4 (46) def. Collingwood 1.5 (11)
The time had finally arrived. Princes Park was buzzing. It was a chilly Friday night, but there was no chance that football fans would miss a match of this significance. The match itself was a Bluesfest, with Carlton marquee forward Darcy Vescio steering her side to a 35-point win. However, the intensity - particularly early in the match - sent fans into a frenzy. Collingwood's Jasmine Garner will go down in history as the first-ever goal kicker in the AFLW competition. Garner marked strongly inside 50 before calmly slotting her chance directly in front of goal. Delirium? You bet.
Afterwards, Vescio's three first-half goals gave Carlton a half-time lead that they wouldn't surrender, with midfielder Nat Exon and Brianna Davey also piling the pain on the Pies. Magpies skipper Steph Chiocci was gutsy, but a head knock saw her helped from helped from the field in the final term. The Pies showed glimmers of thundering skill, but the Blues brimmed with optimism on a landmark occasion.
Adelaide 7.6 (48) def. Greater Western Sydney 1.6 (12)
In front of a bumper crowd of 9250 at a wet Thebarton Oval on Saturday, hometown heroes Adelaide crushed Greater Western Sydney by 36 points. The Crows dominated the game from start to finish, with Olympic basketballer Erin Phillips marking her first game of competitive football with a bagful of goals, while midfielder Ebony Marinoff grabbed 20 possessions.
An Able Seaman who specialises in electronic warfare, Crows bolter Rhiannon Metcalfe stood taller than the rest in the first half, winning 10 hit-outs while the entire Giants team managed just one. Meanwhile, without marquee signings Emma Swanson and Renee Forth, and priority signing Louise Stephenson, the Giants suffered greatly and struggled to hit the scoreboard.
Western Bulldogs 6.8 (44) def. Fremantle 1.6 (12)
The men's side had set the benchmark in 2016 with a drought-breaking premiership, so all eyes were on the Western Bulldogs' women's team to retain the winning feeling in Footscray's streets. A win against Fremantle would have been the perfect tonic, and win they did. In front a 10,100-strong crowd at Whitten Oval on Saturday night, the Bulldogs swept to a cruisy 32-point victory over their weary opponents.
The blustery conditions presented a challenge, but the Bulldogs rose above all-comers to keep quiet a physical Dockers outfit. The Bulldogs led by seven points at halftime and took over the game during the second half, with the Dockers managing just a solitary point. Dogs flyer Emma Kearney grabbed a game-high 21 disposals, while skipper Katie Brennan kicked key goals to help lead her side to victory. Despite the loss, Fremantle captain Kara Donnellan was impressive with 13 touches and six tackles.
Melbourne 1.4 (10) def. by Brisbane 4.1 (25)
In front of 6,500 fans at Casey Fields in Melbourne's southeast, the Brisbane Lions took down the Melbourne Demons. With the game dogged by rainy weather, the Lions found ways to adapt to the slippery conditions. Heavy rain arrived late in the opening quarter and, once the storm clouds moved in with lightning strikes aplenty, the game was forced to a halt.
When it eventually restarted, the scrap continued, and it was Brisbane that made better work with the footy, keeping the Demons scoreless in the second half to seal a 15-point win. The Lions were anchored by Sabrina Frederick-Traub, Samantha Virgo and Emily Bates, all players relishing in the wet conditions to drag their team across the line.