Opinion: Give the girls a chance too
WHEN speaking with Brisbane Lions coach Craig Starcevich last week following his side's practice match win over the GWS Giants, I got the impression he was tired.
Tired of fielding the same questions over and over, from people who already held pre-conceived notions of how the national women's competition was going to be received even before a ball was kicked in anger.
The inaugural season of the NAB AFL Women's competition begins on Friday night, when traditional rivals Carlton and Collingwood meet at Ikon - formerly Princes - Park in Melbourne; the culmination of a seven-year process started from a report into the state of women's football in Australia.
On June 29 2013, three years removed from that report, the first women's exhibition match was contested between the Melbourne Demons and Western Bulldogs, and on August 16 2015, the first nationally televised women's AFL exhibition match drew a peak audience of 1.05million people - second only to the 2016 Australian Open women's final for female sport viewership in the country. Interest in the women's game is there, the proof is in the numbers, but scepticism remains over how it will compare to the men's competition at a technical level.
Starcevich has been aligned to the VFL/AFL in some capacity - be it player, staff or coach - for almost 30 years, and has undoubtedly heard murmurs to that extent. Which is why when my line of questioning moved to the technical ability of his players, he was understandably quick to jump to their defence. But my intention was never to disparage their talent.
I have played Australian football all my life, and pulled on a guernsey alongside some fantastically gifted girls during my junior years. By 15, rules dictated I could no longer play with those teammates because of maturation differences between genders. Differences aside, the skill level was there for all to see.
The Victorian Football League was formed in 1897, and a national competition formalised in 1982. Male players have had more than a century's worth of top-tier competition to aspire to, with development programs and clear pathways to the top. Females have not had the same resources thrown their way because there was no end goal - no light at the end of the women's football tunnel - until now.
Which is why criticism of the low-scoring affair between the Lions and Giants is unwarranted. Never mind the quagmire at Coorparoo's Giffin Park that turned the Sherrin into a rock, or that it was the first official hit-out for both sides since they came together at the end of last year.
For the first time in Australian football history, the 380,000 females that pulled on a guernsey last year - 27% of the sport's total participation - have a professional end goal.
There is also something to be said for rising to the level of your competition. Running around in a local competition gathering 40 touches is fun, but to truly improve you need to be competing against players of a similar skill level, and on Friday night that becomes a reality.
Consider me already a convert of the women's game, but for the sceptics among us who continue to see the AFLW competition as a lesser product, give them five years. Five years of top-tier competition, development pathways and resources previously only afforded to the men. I won't be surprised, but you will.