Australian rules football is booming in Sydney. Is it happening at rugby’s expense?


“But I’m a bit of a funny one. I like that boy who sits in the classroom and now has a voice. Instead of being laughed at or ridiculed or ignored, now he’s got a friendship group that actually understands what he’s involved in.”

More than just an elite talent pathway, the AFL academies are a recruitment program for the code wars – and business is booming, particularly in areas that were once regarded as rugby union heartland.

AFL insiders are reluctant to broach that subject, even privately. They insist they have grown the sporting pie in NSW – not eaten into rugby’s share of it. But the evidence is compelling.

According to AFL NSW/ACT, participation in Sydney’s north and around the city has rocketed by nearly 200 per cent over the last decade. Sport Australia’s AusPlay data shows that, between 2016 and 2019, adult AFL participation in NSW (71,325 in 2019) overtook rugby (52,999).

In 2012, Waratahs amost matched the Swans for average crowds sitting in the mid-20,000 range. After a steady decline since, the Waratahs’ average crowd is almost one-third the size (31,069 vs 13,176 in 2019).

The north shore and eastern suburbs have emerged as footy strongholds, and GPS schools which once pumped out Wallabies are now putting up AFL goalposts to satisfy surging student demand. In 2013 there were only six independent schools in Sydney with AFL programs. Now there are 14, with 62 boys teams.

The academies have helped accelerate a process that was already underway. There are myriad factors involved: the Swans’ ability to contend for finals almost every year, the addition of the GWS Giants in 2012. A cohesive governance and management model, where junior clubs and state bodies know their place in the pecking order. The raging success of AusKick, and growing concerns amongst parents about concussion in the rugby codes. All of these have combined to boost Aussie rules at every level in NSW.

Rugby’s recent struggles, and the woes of the Waratahs, certainly haven’t helped. Anecdotally, there has been a migration of fans from the Waratahs to the Swans, which former ARU chief executive John O’Neill first noted to the Herald two years ago – and current Waratahs boss Paul Doorn also admits has probably occurred.

Greg Harris – the former Waratahs CEO, who played first-grade football in Aussie rules, rugby union and rugby league in Sydney, and was the Swans’ chairman of selectors in 1994-1996 – can also recognise it.

As he made his way to Olympic Park for a Wallabies Test match in 2018, he saw families clad in red and white, orange and charcoal, heading the other way after an AFL derby at Giants Stadium.

“I said to my wife, there’s a whole generation rugby’s lost,” Harris said.

The Waratahs used to get crowds on par with the Swans – now they’re barely above the Giants.Credit:Getty

“These things are generational. They don’t happen overnight. I don’t think it’s been a deliberate strategy by the AFL to say, ‘let’s take rugby union’s supporters’. But the AFL long ago identified that every participant brings along a commercial partner. In other words, if my kid’s playing footy, I go and watch footy, and so does my wife and my parents. Participation brings commercial benefits.

“The most important thing you have in any business model is control of your business. That’s what the AFL has. The attitude in rugby is if we beat the All Blacks, the game will be OK. Any business that depends upon one focal point to develop its income stream is always going to be susceptible to failure.”

The phenomenon is being led primarily by the Swans – although that’s to be expected given they have a 30-year head start on the Giants, who face a much tougher task converting the masses in the western suburbs. Most of GWS’s academy graduates come from regional NSW, not western Sydney, but their presence is still being keenly felt, and their average crowds are now almost on par with the Waratahs.

”We are struggling for players. We’re not the only ones,” said Brian Blacklock, the president of the Western Sydney Two Blues rugby club, which is based in Parramatta.

Lukhan Salakaia-Loto scores for the Reds in a big win over the Waratahs at a sparsely attended ANZ Stadium.

Lukhan Salakaia-Loto scores for the Reds in a big win over the Waratahs at a sparsely attended ANZ Stadium.Credit:Getty

“Whether that’s a byproduct of the growth of Aussie Rules I can’t say, but it certainly wouldn’t be helping. From a branding point of view, they’re killing it. In terms of their ability to be able to clearly identify what their offering is and the potential pathways are, they’re miles in front.

“I remember 20 years ago, there was a fantastic campaign, I want to be a Wallaby. How do I become a Wallaby? Well you start playing here and away you go. That doesn’t exist now. I struggle to name Waratahs players and I’m in the game. Now I couldn’t name a single Swans or Giants players either, but I’m sure their fans have clearly identified who they are and what they’re about.”

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Blacklock recalled an old story from a friend, whose son – a Swans and Waratahs fan – was turning 10. He contacted both clubs to see if they could send him any memorabilia.

“The Waratahs sent out a couple of posters and a signed footy. The Swans sent out two injured players to his birthday party,” he said. “It was a while ago, but it sort of shows the difference in resources, and that’s the bottom line.”

Getting them early seems to be the AFL’s modus operandi, and it’s working. Smith said the influence of winning over young athletes, who are “peer leaders” in classrooms and friendship circles, was key to bringing more kids into the tent.

Doorn, who joined the Waratahs at the start of 2020, watches on in envy.

“I’m sure there’s a percentage of people that have shifted from one sport to the other,” he said.

“And I’d like to suggest that when rugby’s going well, there’s a lot of people who would come back. But I’m happy to admit that the success of the Swans in particular and the growth of the GWS Giants means that people have other things they can support.

Sydney’s Tom Hickey during AFL match between the Sydney Swans and Adelaide Crows at the SCG.

Sydney’s Tom Hickey during AFL match between the Sydney Swans and Adelaide Crows at the SCG.Credit:Phil Hillyard

“We don’t see them as a threat, but they do certain things really, really well, and we aspire to do as well one day.“

A crowd of around 30,000 is expected on Saturday for the AFL derby. The Swans are heavily favoured to go 5-0, and are still riding the wave of energy provided by an influx of impressive draftees – like Gulden, the academy product who is already a fan favourite, four games into his career.

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The next ones are coming. Smith can remember how at the start of the Swans academy, there were only about a dozen players in each age group who were competent kicks.

“Now within the academy, the way the boys are whizzing the ball around – and we’re slowly getting that traction with the girls as well – the skill level and the game knowledge has increased significantly over those 10 years,” he said.

“We’ve always been confident that our game, once you actually do play it, it’s a very enjoyable game. All we needed to do is at least give kids at school and in the community an option to play it.”

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Disappointing Saints no match for red-hot Tigers on Thursday night football


Richmond is back on the winners list in style, making a lacklustre Saints pay to record a thumping 86-point victory at Marvel Stadium.

The Tigers started like they had a point to prove, kicking the first two goals of the game within the first seven minutes and dominating field position.

But as the opening minutes of the game progressed, the Saints adjusted to take a two-point lead into quarter time, largely on the back of Max King who was a dominant presence early before fading.

Despite being outplayed around the ground in the second term, Richmond made their limited opportunities count and with just four seconds remaining before the main break, Tom Lynch kicked a goal which put his side up by 25 points.

It’s a stretch of footy that the Saints would live to regret.

“They are butchering the ball going forward,” former St Kilda midfielder Nick Dal Santo said on AFL Nation about the Saints’ ball use in the second quarter.

A Shane Edwards snap within the first five minutes of the third quarter effectively killed off the contest, as Hardwick’s side took complete control.

St Kilda attempted to mount a comeback and kicked consecutive goals later in that term, but that was snuffed out soon after following a shrewd bit of tap work by unlikely ruckman Marlion Pickett.

It was that moment which highlighted just how much the Saints miss both Rowan Marshall – who was a late omission – and Paddy Ryder, who is back at the club and could play next week.

In Maddie’s Match – now one of the highlights on the footy calendar – Jack Riewoldt was superb, kicking five goals and running St Kilda’s defence ragged all night.

The Tigers haven’t lost three or more consecutive games since 2017, where they lost four straight matches between rounds six and nine before going on to eventually win the premiership.

Based on the way they played on Thursday night, it’ll be a long time until they lose a long stretch of matches again.

Here’s everything you need to know!

Tigers footy is back

Richmond coach Damien Hardwick’s constant theme across his success-laden run has been to emphasise the importance of his players implementing ‘Tigers footy’, characterised by numbers around the contest and a pressure-first mantra with and without the ball.

While that style was absent two weeks ago against the Swans, it was back last week – albeit it in a loss to Port Adelaide – and continued during Thursday night’s win.

Just as the Saints looked to be gaining a foothold in the game in the second term, a combination of pressure and errant kicking in front of goal from the opposition kept the scores close and eventually allowed them to pile on scoreboard pressure to take control.

There’s no doubt Hardwick would’ve been pleased with his side’s output on the night.

St Kilda has a problem with Brad Hill

The high-profile Saints recruit has been under all sorts of pressure in the early part of the season, with his performance coming under the spotlight in the aftermath of the club’s heavy loss to Essendon in Round 3.

The heat on Hill is set to ramp up significantly again following another underwhelming performance, after he had just 10 touches (one contested) and crucially, failed to lay a single tackle all night.

He was far from alone in being beaten on the night against a hardened Tigers outfit, but considering the expectations on him in the St Kilda side to be driver of good ball use and constant two-way running, he was found wanting again.

Higgins faces off against his old club

St Kilda was outplayed for most of the night, but through the former Tiger, they were able to find two goals and someone always willing to apply pressure inside forward 50.

Higgins was fired up throughout the evening in his first meeting against his old and he was one of St Kilda’s most dangerous forwards.

Another former Tiger – Dan Butler – didn’t feature heavily but in Higgins, the Saints at least had someone who didn’t stop competing on a poor night for the club.

What’s next?

The task for St Kilda doesn’t get any easier next week, as they head to Adelaide for a Sunday night ANZAC Day blockbuster against Port Adelaide.

The Tigers will face off against Melbourne in the now traditional ANZAC Eve clash against Melbourne, in a game that has become one of the highlights of the year.

FULL SCORE

St Kilda: 3.4, 4.5, 6.6, 7.6 (48)

Richmond: 3.3, 8.6, 15.12, 20.14 (134)

GOALS

St Kilda: Lonie 2, Higgins 2, King, Butler, Hunter

Richmond: Riewoldt 5, Lynch 3, Graham 3, Castagna 2, Rioli 2, Aarts, Edwards, Bolton, Martin, Pickett

BEST

St Kilda: Clark, Steele, Coffield

Richmond: Martin, Edwards, Bolton, Riewoldt, Lynch

Reports: Nil

Injuries

St Kilda: Webster (groin), replaced by Long

Richmond: Nil

Crowd: 32,056 at Marvel Stadium



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Unsigned young Tiger playing “unbelievable football”


Richmond has locked away some key players in recent times.

Nick Vlastuin, Dion Prestia and Dylan Grimes – all three-time premiership players – have resigned with the Tigers, while Noah Balta also re-committed to the club.

But one young Tiger remains unsigned.

Shai Bolton is without a deal for next year and Kane Cornes is intrigued by his contract status after playing “unbelievable football” to start 2021.

“Have Richmond failed to sign their most important player?” Cornes asked on SEN Breakfast.

“Vlastuin, Prestia, Grimes have all signed contract extensions – Shai Bolton is the one that is unsigned, and he is playing unbelievable football.

“I’d be nervous if he remains unsigned.”

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Bolton’s manager Ralph Carr says his client has pledged to stay at Punt Road after playing a key role in Richmond’s back-to-back premierships.

The 22-year-old is averaging 18.5 disposals and 4.5 clearances per match in 2021.

Bolton isn’t the only premiership Tiger unsigned beyond this year.

Jack Riewoldt, Shane Edwards, Kamdyn McIntosh, Jason Castagna, Daniel Rioli, David Astbury and Bachar Houli all come out of contract at season’s end.





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Gaming regulator approves 70 pokies for local football club in ‘hard-hit’ Melbourne suburb


Stuart McDonald’s 10-year addiction to the pokies began while watching the football at the Whitten Oval and Docklands Stadium.

“During the half-time break I would go down and put significant amounts in the pokies, then I’d wander back upstairs feeling depressed and miserable,” he said.

It didn’t take long to turn into a full-blown addiction.

“One time I emptied the entire bank account and had to shame-facedly ring my ex-wife and tell her there was no money for groceries that week because I spent it at the football,” he said.

He has since recovered from addiction and the poker machines at Whitten Oval and Docklands Stadium are gone.

Mr McDonald said they should not have been there to begin with.

“Football and gaming don’t mix,” he said.

“Football is meant to be a family-friendly activity and poker machines certainly aren’t.”

Mr McDonald has moved from Melbourne’s west to Warrnambool, in western Victoria.

But he said he’s disappointed the Werribee Tigers Football Club is planning to include 70 poker machines in its new venue in Tarneit, in Melbourne’s outer west.

“There are just venues everywhere, and the western suburbs of Melbourne are particularly hard-hit because they’ve got venues in every corner,” he said.

The Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation (VCGLR) has approved the club’s application for 70 poker machines at its proposed new entertainment venue, Club Tarneit, in a rapidly developing area near Tarneit train station.

The proposed site of Club Tarneit in Melbourne’s outer west.(

ABC News: Margaret Paul

)

The club must make $50,000 in annual community contributions and employ a full-time Community Development Manager.

A spokesman for the club declined the ABC’s interview request, saying an appeal is still possible. But in its application, the club said it needed the revenue from pokies to remain viable in the VFL.

Council disappointed by approval

Josh Gillgan, wearing a blue and white checked shirt, smiles at the camera.
Josh Gilligan says the City of Wyndham is already seeing the negative consequences associated with other gaming venues.(

ABC News: Margaret Paul

)

The local council, the City of Wyndham, opposed the application.

Councillor Josh Gilligan said it was disappointing it was approved.

“That’ll add millions of dollars onto an already $290,000 of losses, each and every day, in the City of Wyndham,” he said.

There are currently 903 gaming machines in Wyndham, including 85 at the Tigers Clubhouse in Hoppers Crossing.

A sign saying POKIES - BAR - BISTRO at the Tigers Clubhouse.
The Tigers Clubhouse brought in nearly $8 million in gaming revenue in 2019/20.(

ABC News: Margaret Paul

)

“We’re already seeing the social cost of these types of issues, whether it be domestic violence, whether it be homelessness, whether it be house delinquencies and mortgages that go under,” Cr Gilligan said.

He said the football club is an important part of the community in Melbourne’s west.

“We love footy but when we find that it’s being propped up by pokies venues, our community gets particularly worried about the impact that has on it,” he said.

State Treasurer supported application

Not everyone is so worried.

The local MP, Tim Pallas, who is also the Victorian Treasurer, wrote to the VCGLR to support the Tigers’ application.

“Throughout its history, the Werribee Football Club has established strong links to Wyndham’s young and growing community,” he wrote.

He said the club runs programs with local schools and multicultural groups.

A sign outside the Werribee Football Club.
The Werribee Football Club has had its application approved by Victoria’s gaming regulator.(

ABC News: Margaret Paul

)

“I’m advised the proposed entertainment venue in Tarneit will see the establishment of new facilities to include function rooms, bistro including alfresco dining bar, cafe, gaming room and sports bar,” he wrote.

“Wyndham is a vibrant, young and rapidly-growing community and this type of venue will enhance the provision of facilities for young families,” he said.

He noted the VFL club doesn’t have an AFL-affiliated club “and subsequently experiences different financial challenges”.

AFL says it’s supporting VFL clubs to diversify

A blond woman sits with a drink at a pokie.
The club says it needs the gaming revenue to stay viable in the Victorian Football League.(

ABC News, file photo

)

The council wrote to the AFL in February, to ask what the league is doing to help clubs like the Werribee Tigers move away from gaming revenue.

It is yet to receive a reply.

In the AFL, North Melbourne, Geelong, the Western Bulldogs and Melbourne have at least committed to make their venues pokies-free.

The Alliance for Gambling Reform’s Tim Costello said the league must do more.

“They’ve been saying ‘let’s get clubs out of pokies’ because they do such profound damage to the community.”

In a statement to the ABC, a spokesman for the AFL described VFL clubs as “pillars of the community.”

He said the AFL has reduced licence fees, salary caps and is subsidising travel.

“The AFL continues to work with all VFL clubs on new revenue opportunities to diversify their business operations ensuring the legacy of these clubs continues to play an important part in the Australian football landscape,” he said.

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Cam Ilett, going for his 8th NTFL premiership, is at the crest of an unparalleled football career


Does the legend of Cameron Ilett, a footballer in the Northern Territory who has achieved more than any other, have a tinge of tragedy?

In the same breath that he is praised as one of the Territory’s footballing greats, there is also an exhale of lament when contemplating Ilett’s career of nearly 400 matches — zero of which have come in the Australian Football League (AFL).

“Put it this way: there’s plenty of blokes that have played AFL that Cameron is a significantly better player than,” says his old teammate and coach Ricky Nolan.

“They’ve made a big, big mistake not picking him up,” reckons Northern Territory football icon Darryl Window.

Grey Morris, the veteran football writer at the NT News, has long viewed Ilett as a human-shaped blind spot to many a short-sighted AFL recruiter.

“I continue to scratch my head on why an AFL club never picked him up a dozen years ago,” he says.

Cam Ilett is widely considered to be the NT Thunder’s greatest-ever player.(

Supplied: AFLNT

)

The Territory’s Russell Jeffrey, whose career playing at St Kilda and Brisbane in the AFL qualifies him to speak about a hypothetical career at the elite level for Ilett, is sure he would have been up to the standard.

“It’s something that every AFL club should actually regret,” he says.

“He’s just gotten better and better over the years, so in the AFL system who knows how much better he might have been?”

But ask spectators of NT football if there’s anything tragic about Ilett’s career, and they’ll tell you they are just grateful for having watched more than 20 years of him up close at local footy ovals.

“Because he was located in the Territory, because he was stuck in the NT — and I mean that in a good way — he’s going to be remembered as one of the all-time greats even though he hasn’t played a game of AFL football,” Window says.

Cameron Ilett smiles wearing the Nichols Medal around his neck.
Cameron Ilett won the Nichols Medal for the NTFL’s best and fairest player in 2014/15 and 2017/18.(

Supplied: AFLNT

)

The fortune in all this for the local football watcher was well described by Rex Nixon, a historian for the St Mary’s Football Club, when he said:

“If ever the AFL recruiting scouts have got it wrong it is that Cameron has never been drafted. But their bad luck is the football people of Darwin’s good luck.”

‘Put up his statue’

But was it possibly Ilett’s good luck too?

“Stuck” in the Northern Territory, after 22 seasons and 10 premierships, he now makes a claim for the greatest footballer to ever play in the Northern Territory.

On Saturday he will play in his 12th Northern Territory Football League decider against his old club St Mary’s, in the second year in a row the league’s most successful club will meet its most decorated individual in the grand final.

Cam Ilett chases the football in a St Mary's jersey as he is chased by a Wanderers player.
Cam Ilett started his NTFL career with St Mary’s, where he won five premierships.(

Supplied: AFLNT

)

A premiership would be Ilett’s eighth in the NTFL and would be his third in a row at Nightcliff after he joined the club for the 2017/18 season.

Before he joined, Nightcliff had not won a premiership in 53 years — the longest drought in NTFL history.

If Nightcliff is victorious, it will be Ilett’s second premiership three-peat following his premierships at St Mary’s under Ricky Nolan from 2013-2016.

Since his senior career began as a 15-year-old in the 2001/02 season, Ilett has won two Nichols Medals for the NTFL’s best and fairest player — a number that could possibly have been higher if not for his NT Thunder commitments, which severely limited the number of NTFL games he could play.

At the NT Thunder, playing with a representative side of the Territory’s best footballers in the North East Australian Football League (NEAFL), Ilett was club champion four times, the NEAFL best and fairest once, a two-time premier, was voted best on ground in the 2011 NEAFL grand final, made the NEAFL team of the year six times (four of which he was captain), and was named captain of the NT Thunder’s team of the decade.

NTFL Grand Final
Ilett, pictured centre, won back-to-back premierships with Nightcliff in 2018/19 and 2019/20.(

ABC News: Dane Hirst

)

ABC grandstand football commentator Charlie King says it’s a resume that surpasses all others.

“I’ve been watching footy in Darwin and the Territory since 1966. So I’ve seen the best,” says King, who mentions John “Bubba” Tye, Ted Liddy, Ninny Briston, Barney Quall, Michael Graham and Joe Daby as some of the other greats to consider.

Phillip Wills, Ilett’s teammate at NT Thunder and Nightcliff and past opponent when Wills played for the Darwin Buffaloes, says Ilett is unanimously thought of around the league as one of, if not the, greatest ever.

“There’s no question about it and you see that from a lot of opposition players and supporters — when it’s pretty consistent around whoever has watched him play, you know there’s something special about him,” he says.

Cam Ilett handpasses during the 2019-20 grand final between Nightcliff and St Mary's.
Cam Ilett handpasses during the 2019-20 grand final between Nightcliff and St Mary’s.(

Supplied: AFLNT

)

Window, who watched Ilett play football since he was a junior and has witnessed all of his NTFL grand finals, says his career is peerless.

“I don’t think you’ll find a better local Northern Territory player,” he says.

“Russell Jeffrey and these [AFL] guys were sensational, but I reckon Cam rates with the very, very best of them.

“One day I’m just hoping in the near future that somebody puts up a statue or two of our great stars … and I’d love to see one of Cam Ilett up there because I think he really deserves it.”

A game without flaws

The greatness of Cameron Ilett might exist at the intersection of three old sayings.

The first being that football is a simple game, the second being that perfection is lots of little things done well, and the third, which is perhaps the oldest of all footy’s chestnuts, is that you play as you train.

Thunder forward Cameron Ilett hand passes
Ilett was named the captain of the NT Thunder’s team of the decade.(

ABC News: Steven Schubert

)

Before coaching Ilett during the 2010’s, Ricky Nolan was in the twilight of his playing career at St Mary’s when Ilett was starting out his own.

Now, Nolan holds up Ilett as an example when he coaches young players or talks to footy observers down south who might never have heard his name.

“I always say that the best player that I’ve ever coached is Cameron Ilett hands down, but the hardest trainer I’ve ever coached is also Cameron Ilett,” Nolan says.

Phillip Wills says he has been inspired by Ilett’s work ethic throughout his own career and believes Ilett’s greatness is down to his preparation and consistency.

“He’s probably not the fastest or the fittest, but he’s up there with everything he does,” he says.

“He’s probably the best I’ve played with and seen play, as well as how he prepares for matches and handles himself off the field.”

Cameron Ilett is seen in the foreground with his children trying to mark a football in the background.-
Those who played with and coached Ilett say his commitment to training and preparation is unmatched.(

ABC News: Tiffany Parker

)

The one final thing that might be missing on Ilett’s resume for the greatest-Territory-footballer-of-all-time is a valorous and nostalgic story of a club hero being too injured to play, but playing on anyway.

But he does have one of them — in a thrilling grand final in which his team was narrowly victorious, no less.

“We won a grand final we never should have won at St Mary’s and it’s pretty famous, because Shannon Rioli kicked the ball off the ground in the dying stages of the game,” Nolan recalls of the 2015/16 NTFL grand final.

“Before that grand final Cameron had a syndesmosis [lower ankle ligament] injury and we went and saw a doctor and the doctor said, ‘look, there’s no way known that you could play in this grand final with this injury,’ and he ruled him out of the match.”

You can probably guess that Ilett, who went on to search Australia for syndesmosis experts, played in that grand final.

“He was in a lot of pain … no one has ever known to this day that he played that grand final after doing that injury,” Nolan says.

“He doesn’t let anyone know.”

Cameron Ilett stands in between his two children at the Nightcliff Football Oval before training.
Cameron Ilett started his NTFL career in the 2000/01 season.(

ABC News: Tiffany Parker

)

Nor do any football watchers know exactly when the weight of Ilett’s achievement vaulted him into the conversation to be the Northern Territory’s greatest-ever players.

But win or lose in tonight’s grand final, those achievements leave only one question to be answered.

There might one day better footballers in the Northern Territory, but will there ever be a better career?

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Western Sydney Wanderers searching for newest football superstars


When Leena Khamis first started playing football, there was no such thing as the W-League.

“Back in my day there was only young Matildas, which was under 19s, 20s and then Matildas — there was nothing under that,” she said.

While things have changed a lot since then, the 34-year-old striker, who plays for the Western Sydney Wanderers Football Club, says a new program designed to uncover a new generation of women’s football superstars in Western Sydney will be a game changer.

“The training camp that they’ve got coming up for young girls 14 to 17, it’s awesome. I wish I had that at that age,” she said.

“Just to get exposure, to get recognition, to get recognised and to keep striving to be a Wanderer female player one day.

Thirty young women between the ages of 14 to 17 will be selected during open trials in late April to take part in the free 20-week Future Wander Women development program.

It’s a way of giving girls — particularly those living in Western Sydney — a chance to uncover and develop their football skills.

The program itself will kick off Wednesday, May 5 at the Western Sydney Wanderers home ground in Blacktown.

Ms Khamis grew up in Minto in the Campbelltown Local Government Area and has played 13 seasons in the W-League.

“I grew up in the West. I’m a Westie. I’ve lived and breathed out here so it’s like I’m playing at home.

“Some girls go overseas — they’ve got that dream to go overseas. But playing at home in front of friends and family and fans — we love playing — we love football and to play at the top level — you can’t wait for it year in year out.

‘Just so happy’

Bryleeh Henry, 17, from Penrith also feels she’s living the dream. She recounted the moment she found out she was selected for her first professional contract at the Western Sydney Wanderers.

Close-up of Bryleeh Henry wearing her club jersey
Western Sydney Wanderers FC striker, Bryleeh Henry, says walking out onto the football field is the best feeling in the world.(

ABC Radio Sydney: Dayvis Heyne

)

“My dad was in the car and he was just trying to be quiet but he was throwing his hands up in the air and then he started crying,” she said.

“When I got off the phone, I started crying and called my mum and we went home and we were up till two o’clock that night — we were just so happy.”

The centre forward hopes to follow in the footsteps of fellow striker, Sam Kerr.

She says her parents sacrificed a great deal to get her to training when she was growing up, and it was hard on the family financially.

“I just hope I can make them proud and make it worth it in the end.”

Future superstars

Former Socceroo and head coach for the Western Sydney Wanderers Women’s team, Dean Heffernan, said the free initiative would offer opportunities to girls who could build a foundation in football with an eye to joining the academy in the future.

Dean Heffernan
Western Sydney Wanderers W-League head coach Dean Heffernan says it can be daunting for girls to get ahead in the current environment.(

ABC Radio Sydney: Dayvis Heyne

)

“I think for girls in the current environment it can be quite daunting and difficult for them to find a pathway to be able to express themselves and be the best they can be,” he said.

He said scouts would be looking for players who had a good attitude and raw talent — true future superstars.

“You’ve got to love the game, first and foremost, because you can handle setbacks then. And when you have setbacks, if you love something enough, you can always come back.

“We want people all over Western Sydney to be able to come and take up this opportunity because a lot of kids around Western Sydney don’t often get an opportunity to train and play at the Wanderers, let alone young girls in that age bracket.

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Western Bulldogs and West Coast Eagles showcased Australian rules football in its purest form


The ball pinged from one end of Docklands to the other, bodies crashed in on the ground and in the air – Sunday’s clash between the Western Bulldogs and West Coast Eagles was football in its purest and richest form.

Laitham Vandermeer’s shepherd, Jamie Cripps’s tackle, Bailey Williams win against the odds on the half-back flank, Nic Naitanui’s tap work, clutch kicks and smothers — I could go on and on – left you gagging for more.

The Bulldogs came from 14 points down in the last quarter to win a match that contained 12 lead changes and had you so engaged your head was protruding through the commentary box window.

West Coast had taken control of the game in the third quarter with Natanui and midfield weapon Tim Kelly combining superbly. The Eagles dominated the air both in defence and attack, where Jack Darling, Oscar Allen and Josh Kennedy were all influential.

When that trio failed to mark it, they put the ball to ground for Liam Ryan and Jamaine Jones to get busy.

That the Bulldogs pulled off an amazing win was in no small part due to their breathtaking level of desperation and commitment, personified by the unflinching efforts of Tom Liberatore, Jack Macrae, Williams and emerging star Bailey Smith.

And then there was Marcus Bontempelli.

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Bontempelli with a football is like Shakespeare with a pen — every stroke is wondrous, albeit the Bont produces the stuff of dreams in mid-autumn, winter and the start of spring.

The Western Bulldogs captain amassed 14 telling possessions in the opening term, finished with 30 for the match and kicked three goals including the sealer at the 32-minute mark. The Bulldogs-heavy crowd of 21,000 almost blew the roof off the stadium.

Calling footy off the TV in the ABC boardroom during Melbourne’s lockdown last season seemed a million miles away. It was footy at its absolute best.

There is no doubt recent rule changes have enhanced the spectacle. The new man on the mark rule has led to an attack-first mentality, and giving defenders more room at kick-ins has almost completely eliminated those painful chips to the back pocket and laborious movement of the ball from inside the defensive 50.

On a couple of occasions, Eagles veteran Shannon Hurn launched bombs into the middle of the ground that Ben Graham would have been proud of. The game is more open and as a result more enjoyable.

While the Eagles were ultimately beaten on Sunday they remain a serious threat this year, especially with the imminent return of their captain Luke Shuey from a hamstring injury and Elliott Yeo (groin) also still to come back.

Demons look dangerous

I had a few conversations with Melbourne supporters I know in the lead-up to this AFL season and was taken by the shared sense of pessimism.

Even the Coodabeen Champions’ famous talkback caller Danny from Droop Street would have struggled to match these Demons for negativity when it came to their team’s prospects.

Melbourne’s round-one win over Fremantle did little to brighten the prevailing mood. The Dockers are a developing side, not much good in Melbourne and it was a scrappy win was the general consensus.

Saturday night seemed a psychological turning point. From former captain Garry Lyon’s stirring pre-match address onwards, Melbourne’s performance struck the right chord.

Yes, at times the ball use was again scrappy, but the Demons genuinely looked dangerous in their three-goal win over St Kilda. Melbourne’s 31 scoring shots to the Saints’ 18 offered a truer reflection of the side’s overall dominance.

The 2020 season was a long-awaited breakout year for Christian Petracca and it seems he is only going from strength to strength. As always, Clayton Oliver accumulated a stack of possessions, but he used the ball more damagingly and Tom McDonald is slowly returning to some of the form that helped the Demons to a preliminary final in 2018.

Kysaiah Pickett (right) gave the Demons much-needed spark in their win over the Saints.(

AAP: Scott Barbour

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Simon Goodwin’s side also possesses young players who get you excited. Luke Jackson is showing glimpses, James Jordan looks a player and Kysaiah Pickett … goodness me.

The midfield to forward connection has been an ongoing problem for Melbourne but the side is starting to play with more synergy. Star recruit Ben Brown will be highly encouraged as he nears his recovery from knee surgery. The fast and more open game style of 2021 has been suiting the lead-up forwards and there are few better than the gangly mop-haired Tasmanian.

On the topic of key forwards, most thought Adelaide’s Taylor Walker would struggle to replicate his opening-round form at the SCG on Saturday.

Walker, whose decorated career appeared to have reached a period of steady decline, produced a vintage performance in the first round with five goals in a shock win over Geelong. Big Tex produced in a big way again against Sydney with six goals in a losing side. Perhaps a few people — including me — have been guilty of writing off the champion too early.

A group of Sydney Swans AFL players embrace after a goal was kicked against the Crows.
Lance Franklin (second from right) made a solid return for the Swans.(

AAP: Dean Lewins

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At the other end of the ground, it was marvellous to see a long-lost ‘Buddy’. Footy is better for Lance Franklin and more than a year and a half after his last senior game he was his usual commanding presence, kicking three goals for the Swans in their 33-point win.

Franklin needs another 53 goals to become only the sixth player in the history of the VFL/AFL to kick 1,000 goals.

Lockett, Coventry, Dunstall, Wade, Ablett … Franklin? Names that go pretty well together, if you ask me.

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AFL 2021 round 2 LIVE updates: Geelong Cats take on Brisbane Lions in Friday Night Football



Follow the action as Geelong and Brisbane take to the field for their round two match-up.

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Calls for better concussion protection guidelines for community football players


For Holly Radburn, the prospect of playing in the AFL Women’s competition was an exciting reality. 

At 14, she had earned selection in junior representative teams and had been invited to participate in North Melbourne’s junior Tasmanian academy program. 

All was going well for the talented youngster until a fifth concussion in five years ended her playing prospects. 

More seriously, Holly’s social and academic life has been severely affected by repeated head knocks. 

“I remember at the end of grade 7 I got an A+ in maths, which was exciting, and I was beginning to really take high school seriously,” she said. 

“Then, in grade 8, I got my concussion and there was no school. I couldn’t comprehend things, if someone said something it would be a blur in my brain and really messy. I couldn’t put words together.” 

Holly is housebound for most of the week and susceptible to bright lights and dizziness, while her memory and comprehension have also diminished. 

Two years on from her last concussion and after intense physiotherapy, she’s only just returning to school on a semi full-time basis. 

Of her five concussions, two were sustained while playing junior football. 

Ms Radburn believes her experience when she suffered her last and most severe concussion showed some junior clubs were still learning how to properly handle the injury. 

After Holly sustained the concussion, her mother was asked to remove her from the field of play without adequate checks. 

“There was no stretcher. I couldn’t walk, I had to lean against my mum and was falling over. It was about 15 minutes later I was sitting in the clubrooms realising what happened. They shouldn’t have done what they did,” she said. 

“No emails, no text messages, no follow-up, nothing.

Ms Radburn is just one junior-level footballer suffering the effects of post-concussion syndrome. 

At the elite level of Australian rules football, the hastily introduced injury substitution rule shows that concussion is being taken more seriously than ever, as top tier players enjoy increased protection. 

But community-level footballers are still waiting for a refresh of their guidelines. 

“Even just a bit more level of support could prevent it massively,” Ms Radburn said. 

AFL Tasmania CEO Damian Gill says updated community guidelines and protocols are on the way. 

But he admits that some protections, like injury substitutions and full-time club doctors, aren’t practical at local levels. 

“It’s not as simple as just rolling out [the] same expectations for AFL or AFLW and expecting community participants and community clubs to do the same,” Mr Gill said.

The Brain Injury Association believes local players deserve the same level of care as those in the top tier AFL and AFLW competitions. 

“At that community level, quite often it’s volunteer coaches, it’s parents, so there isn’t that opportunity for them to actually have that education,” said the Association’s Deborah Byrne. 

“People probably think that because they’re not playing sport at that elite level that they may not sustain a concussion, but I’d suspect they’re at a much higher risk of sustaining a concussion.” 

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Football: Manchester United Women to play at Old Trafford for first time


LONDON: Manchester United Women will play at Old Trafford for the first time when they host West Ham United in the Women’s Super League (WSL) next week, the club said on Tuesday.

Casey Stoney’s side, who usually play their home games at Leigh Sports Village, are due to host West Ham on Mar 27.

“Playing at Old Trafford will obviously be a special moment in the history of this team,” Stoney said in a statement.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity to showcase the women’s game, which has seen huge growth over the last few years.”

Spurs Women also host local rivals Arsenal at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, instead of The Hive where they usually play home matches, on the same day.

A league record crowd of 38,262 watched the WSL’s first north London derby in November 2019 at the stadium.

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