When a Bye is just an excuse to see other kinds of Aussie Rules

“Females don’t want to compete at the top with males in the AFL, we want our own professional football league”.
Keryn Ralph, President of the St Kilda Sharks

The St Kilda Sharks v Cranbourne (Division 3 or 3rds), v Darebin (Division 1 or 2nds), v Darebin (Premier or 1sts)

There was a bye for the boys this weekend, my AFL St Kilda team getting a well-deserved rest before facing a red hot Western Bulldogs outfit, ready for a revenge match, next Saturday night.

As I researched the fastest growing section of Aussie Rules Football, girls and women’s football, I found a team made of my heart and colours, The St Kilda Sharks. They play at the Peanut Farm Oval, off Blessington, just behind Acland Street, spitting distance from Luna Park, a good long kick to St Kilda Beach, and just a few kilometres from my birthplace.

Perfect. And now, with a week off from my regular journey, I had a completely different experience of local football. The Sharks were formed in 1992, and is one of the oldest clubs in the Victorian Women’s Football League (VWFL). To quote from the website:

“The Sharks have a very proud history which includes Division 2 Premierships in 1997 and 2004, Division 1 Premierships in 1998 and 1999 and Division 1 Reserves Premiership in 2006. [The Division 1 Reserves also were Premiers in 2014]. Over our 823 year history, we have had many players represent Victoria in the Women’s Football national Carnival. Our club and players have received many awards from the VWFL for both our on-field and off field performances over the years.”

I emailed the club and Keryn Ralph took me under her wing, the Club President, Premiership Player and defender on field. Keryn kindly spent a few moments with me on a cold but sunny Saturday morning. The Division 3 (thirds) team were on field playing Cranbourne, losing badly (St Kilda Sharks 1.1 7 v Cranbourne 7.11 47). There were volunteers (players out injured or from other divisions) in the kiosk preparing food for sale on the day, others preparing for the next game (Division 1 or the seconds in which Keryn played) or working the sirens and scoresheets.

Keryn said this game of the thirds was uneven as the Cranbourne side had some seniors getting a run before their big game tomorrow, and the poor Sharks were completely out-womaned.

Keryn gave me a rundown of the League. The Premier team, playing at 2pm this afternoon, were part of a 6 team competition. It was from the Premier Division, with some selections from the seconds or Division 1, that players are invited to trials and may be drafted, for national games like the one each year before Melbourne v Western Bulldogs games.

There were 10 teams in Division 1 and 8 in Division 3.

These teams all come under the umbrella of AFL Victoria who now oversee the Women’s League. AFL Vic run the TAC Cups, the VFL and the VWFL. The VWFL stood alone before last year.

As is the case with most women’s teams, at whatever the level, the hard work of running an organisation and competition lands on the team itself. All the girls and women volunteer for different tasks, and Keryn is typical of an organiser, having to keep everything ticking along and tasks completed. While chatting with me, she was talking to some young children holding their footballs in hands. The community connected to the team.

The Sharks share the facilities with St Kilda City FC and Netball Club, the Melbourne Hellenic Cricket Club and the Junior St Kilda City FC. Keryn said that the council had allocated $1 million to redevelop the ground and planning would start soon. Each club had their own corporate management, and most of the committee are players, past and present.

There were some players for the St Kilda Sharks who have played twenty plus years. Di Smith was the holder of the record before Belinda “Blouse” Bowey overtook her with 310 games. The fact that the Club only plays 8-10 games a season shows just how many seasons have to be played for such a record. The only paid people around the Club are the trainers, the masseur and the coaches. All others, says Keryn, have to “pay to play”. She said that the AFL are looking to build a National Competition by 2017, with the Youth Girls being the fastest growing section of the game, across the board. The under 15’s and the Youth Girls (under 18’s) are where women’s footballs future rests.

The Premier or firsts were coached by the great Shannon McFerran (played 200 games). Shannon won all 5 league Best and Fairest’s, (named the Helen Lambert Medal) and even more at the club level. Daisy Pearce (who played with Darebin later) is now an equal Helen Lambert Medal holder with Shannon. Lloyd Balshaw and Lauren Bayzley are assistant coaches.

Division 1 or the Reserves where Keryn plays are coached by Andrew Callea and Annette “Netty” Arzoumanian. Finally, Division 3 have Casandra Brooks (played over 200) coaching and Jenny Male as assistant.

Keryn used to play hockey, but gave it up in 2007 to take up footy. In the AFL she’s a Cats supporter, here she’s all St Kilda Sharks. Having been Vice-President for one year, she has been President now for 4. Last year, in the Premiership year, she was chosen by the players as Captain, and was today also organising for the Premiership Flag to be raised before their 12pm game time.

Keryn then needed to dash off to a team meeting, and I sat on one of the many benches circling the ground, had a sandwich from the canteen and another cuppa, and enjoyed watching the game ending and the Seconds begin to warm up for their match.

When Division 3 finished their game, they lined up, as did their opposition, and both groups, at their own gates, formed guards of honour for their next team to run through and onto the ground. When they’d all run through, the Seconds came back, and Keryn made a speech, congratulating the team and the committee and the club, on the great effort they all put in to bring the flag back to the Peanut Farm. And then Ann Fulton raised the flag to much cheering and photo snapping.

I chatted to Ann later, and found out she was one of the founding members of this group, having already been involved with the men’s football committee at the time the St Kilda Sharks joined at the oval, she agreed to help them as well. She’s been a Team Manager, been on the VWFL Committee as Director of Finance and been a Treasurer for the St Kilda City FC for 15 years. Not surprisingly, we likes administrative work as has been awarded a “Volunteer of the Year” status, Life Membership for both the men’s and women’s teams, Life Member of Darebin and Life Membership of VWFL.

I asked her whether she ever played footy. “No”, she said, “I think they’re all mad. No way.”

Ann went back to scoring duties and I chatted with the chap sitting to my left. He was one of the 50 or so observers/supporters around the ground during the day. His wife was a “fill in” player for the thirds, her friends needed her as they were short. When Julie sat down near me later, she said she’d only taken up footy at 37 years of age, has had a corky and a few bruises from doing so, but loved it anyhow. She’d had fun, she said, and was likely to play more often now as she’d had such a good time playing, even with such a terrible losing margin.

While the seconds played a high scoring game and kept their opposition to two points (end score Sharks 11.3 69 to Darebin 2), I chatted to the Premier/Senior/Firsts to my right. The players were sitting telling stories to each other and we happy to share some with me.

I chatted to Amanda “Mousy” Walsh who used to play basketball. She saw one game of women playing football, she said, “I didn’t know girls could play”, and she loved it. Amanda’s Dad barracks for St Kilda, as he used to live there, she said, and still goes every week to AFL matches, sitting behind the goals with her brother.

Amanda loves being part of the Sharks, and was the first to say (I heard it all day) that the team was like one huge family, everybody cares about you. In her days, she works as a traffic controller at road work sites, and likes that it’s a good paying job and is outdoors.

Penny Cula-Reid started playing footy 11 years ago at the age of 16. She was too old to play with the boys, played 5 years with the Mordialloc team before finding a better fit at the Sharks. She was in the 2004 Premiership in her first year at the club. She loves having “a red hot crack”.

Steph Webb is playing her second season. She used to play Auskick, broke a rib, and joined Youth Girls two years ago. Now 20, she’s part of the Sharks team and family.

The second’s game is now winding up, a terrific victory for the St Kilda Sharks, with great, hard football. Gracie, number 7, had some great, tough tackles in today’s armoury. Elle (42), with her bright red hair, was a hard, speedy forward, dangerous every time the ball was near her. Kimmy (64) seemed the smallest player, but was incredibly tough and was in so many contests.

Before she was required on the ground to coach the seniors, I had a quick chat to Shannon. She played in the state team in 2011, was Captain of Victoria and All Australian Captain. She told me she played as a junior, had older brothers and was always playing with them. Her parents were involved in her footy as well. Again, she said, “I fell in love with footy”. Retiring last year from playing, she loves coaching now, having coached the Youth Girls for 4 years, and now coaches the seniors. She’s done the AFL Level 1 Coaching and can go on learning in the future.

The second’s game was now over, and Shannon and the firsts prepared for their game. On the field, Keryn’s team huddled, and sang, I kid you not, the St Kilda theme music with different words:

“Oh when the Sharks
Go Charging in
Oh when the Sharks go charging in
How I want to play for St Kilda
When the Sharks go charging in.”

I laughed to myself as they sung. Talk about feeling right at home. The games were great to watch, the effort and skill improving with the divisions and the hours in the day. The higher the level, the better the game.

What is more, 89.1FM broadcasts the GirlsPlayFooty Premiership match of the round, and Peter was here to do the broadcast, with The Sharks Vice President, Leesa Catto who was calling her first game for her own club. Talk about working for the Club, Leesa had played in the Division 3 Game in the morning, a 10 year player with the Sharks. Keryn joined in after half time for some special comments. I talked to Peter before the game began, and found out he’d been calling football for 9 years, 4 years for the suburban football and now in his second year for GirlsPlayFooty. I’d seen Tweets about being able to listen in to the commentary, and now here he was. If I’d have listened on my radio, it would have been out of sync with the play on the ground, so I did the next best thing. I shifted right next to the commentary so I could hear them directly and know who players were.

I loved the descriptions of the play, the calling of the ground having a Blessington Street side, or Beach side, or Luna Park end or Club house wing. With their experience with the players, and the rough and tumble of the game, I had my own personal commentary to add to the quick, attacking game out on the field. The game was neck and neck for the first two quarters, the Sharks shot ahead in the third, with the commentary saying, “Like Sharks, they can sense the blood in the water”. With their best player Daisy Pierce in full flight, Darebin Falcons defended well and kicked ahead in the last, “Falcons have picked up last quarter. Have been more accurate and the stars are stepping up”, beating the home side by one point in a fierce tackle until the last moments of play. The last minutes were counted down, the commentary almost willing the home team over the line.

“It was a ripper game of footy”, they said, “There was emotion in this game.” Again, the players walked into the rooms, this time somewhat deflated, while the Falcons sung their song and hugged in the middle of the ground. I’d stayed and watched 2 ½ games on this day and it was time to go home.

I went to visit Mum at her retirement village on the way home. There, in the office, was Glenys, the manager. Glenys is a Cat’s supporter, and bless her soul, she keeps the place ticking over, and amongst the extra tasks she has taken on for all our amusement, is the tipping competition which involves so many residents, family members and staff. She stopped me to tell me her niece, Sophie Lee Smith coaches the South Toowoomba Bombers girls’ team. She was in her 3rd year, and had taken the group to a couple of Premierships. She’s just told Glenys the good news. Sophie had been nominated by 2 unknown people for a competition sponsored by Vero, and was going to be tossing the coin, experience a briefing with the Brisbane Lions coach Justin Leppitsch and two players, and get a VIP pack as well as sit in a corporate box for a Brisbane Lions game. Sophie texted me, “Never expect[ed] anything for what I do for the club because I do it because I love it. But it’s definitely awesome to be able to experience it…”

Here is another story of girls and women enjoying their time playing football.

Come Monday, Rita Panahi, journalist and media personality, has caused a ruckus with an article in Monday 22nd June in the HeraldSun, about women and sports, and without getting into the whole nature of her arguments (that’s for another place and time), I think she is missing out on the point of women’s sport. It’s not about the consumption of sport for the masses, it’s not actually about comparing, competing, or connecting to men’s sports.

Women and girls are getting out and doing what they love. In ever increasing numbers. Having a crack. Being sportswomen. It is Rita’s right as an individual to not give a crap. Ultimately though, it is the “punters”, as she put it, who are missing out on the grass roots experiences like the one I had on Saturday, and seeing our friends and sisters and mothers doing what I for one, have never been skilled in or confident enough to do.

On top of that, as women’s teams or individuals continue to do well, they will become heroines to future girls, and gain the respect of a sports loving nation. One kick, one stroke, one lap, one bounce at a time.

Written by Yvette Wroby