The Progression of Girls Footy in the NAB League and Sandringham Dragons
By Nathan Sepe
2017 marked the lift off for professional women’s footy, with the AFLW bursting on to the scene as the ultimate pathway for young girls, a pathway that had been poorly disregarded for many years prior.
Two years later, the previously known TAC Cup followed suit and extended the competition to include a girls program, allowing all 13 NAB League clubs to cater for the growing population of eager, talented female footballers.
Throughout the last six years, the footballing population has had mixed reviews on the AFLW, the skill, the development, the talent pool, however, most seem to disregard what the league started with, a pool of players that came from any division of football or other sports and had a reasonable level of skill to match most others.
Six years forward and the talent pool is growing increasingly, with most of the star players you see in the AFLW within recent years, products of the NAB League, with many more to come.
The Sandringham Dragons have recently been labelled the “footy factory” of the AFL draft, a testament to the professionalism of the club and high standards of player development in the lead up to both AFL and AFLW drafts.
The women’s game is evolving year by year, and before we know it the AFLW will be purely AFL bred players, given a route to the professional level by clubs such as the Dragons.
Dragons Media questioned the Dragons leadership girls and former Dragon, current Carlton AFLW young star, Abbie McKay, gathering an insight to the development of the AFLW and what the NAB League has provided to become the ultimate pathway program for young girls.
Former Dragon Abbie McKay has become a household name for the Carlton Blues. Photo: Quinn Rooney (Getty Images)
For the upcoming 2022 draft prospects, the direction to reach to the professional level was a bit clearer from a junior level, with most 2022 prospects playing at Under 13 level when the AFLW commenced, giving a greater time frame for development and an understanding of the pathway required to become a draft prospect.
Ella Sciberras commented on the uniqueness of the girls’ competition since the beginning of her footy journey, highlighting the significance of the popularity growth. “Overall the competition itself has proven to have had significant strides in its progression, with larger crowds and more young girls playing at club level. The elitism has enhanced, with women less concerned by ‘unfavourable’ non-feminine stereotypes like female masculinity, being strong and engaging in rough sports like footy.”
Keely Coyne was most impressed by the fast-tracked development in girls footy, expressing the willingness to compete increasing over the last few years. “Each week it gets harder and harder to secure a spot in the team as girls just keep improving!”
Keely Coyne looks to fire off a handball during the 2022 NAB League Girls season. Photo: Rookie Me Central
Abbie McKay was in the inaugural Sandringham Dragons Girls’ Pathway program, becoming one of the first Dragons girls to make an AFLW list through the talent pathway program the Dragons offered.
McKay touched on the window of opportunity in her career, conveying the importance of the NAB League competition to give her a direct pathway to the professional level. “By the time I got to an age where I started taking it seriously, I was lucky enough that NAB league was an obvious pathway to the AFLW. This made it easy to recognise the stepping stones required to be drafted into the AFLW or even be considered to be drafted.”
The AFLW introduction sparked reasonable discussion about the levels of high performance provided to young female footballers, criticised early on due to the lack of professional development provided in lead up to the elite level.
With an established program instilled for the boys’ program, the Dragons thrived at the opportunity to create an elite talent pathway program for the girls, which gives them the equal opportunity to thrive under professional conditions and become the best players’ possible leading into their draft year.
Bridie Hipwell spoke highly of the Dragons program, advocating the professionalism of the club to allow herself and teammates to thrive in conditions that are unlike local junior clubs.
“By having such a large team behind us at dragons we have access to such good learning opportunities, whether that is wellbeing, strength and conditioning or recovery. By having all this off field education we are able to become better players on the field and then of course the feedback and knowledge of our coaches is something I have never experienced at local club level.”
Bridie Hipwell during a Testing Combine. Photo: AFL Media
Lucy Mitchell was also expressive in her thoughts, putting the spotlight on the skill-building aspect of the program to create well-balanced footy minds who are able to showcase raw skill and footballing smarts over four quarters.
“In terms of building my skills as a potential draft prospect, the dragons have provided so much feedback and review that there is literally nothing that doesn’t go unsaid, in a training or a game, small mistakes can be corrected and craft refined so relentlessly.”
McKay was revealing on the importance of time management the Dragons provided her with, enabling her to work on her craft in more ways than one.
“Being apart of the dragons program simply gave me more time and resources. More time to practise, more resources to use to fast track my development and more time to get better. The benefit of this extra time and resources can be seen in the clear improvement across the AFLW competition over just the last 6 years.”
The improvement across the AFLW competition stated by McKay is a true reflection of the work being done behind the scenes in the talent pathway programs.
The NAB League has also done the little things for the fast tracked development of the girls’, moving the season to line up with the AFLW season in order for the girls to adapt to the summer conditions as well as provide all clubs with the relative staff they would see at a professional level, building comfortability and reliability when trying to reach an elite level.
We are now starting to see differentiation in skill level get marginally smaller between the AFLW and NAB League, highlighting the increasingly high levels of skill of the NAB League girls to match the skills required at the professional level.
Tayla Jones spoke about the skill level across the league, identifying the momentum the league is gaining at a rapid rate. “There isn’t a lot of difference between NAB league and AFLW, it’s definitely become more competitive over the years as we see the young guns coming through with great fundamental skills due to starting at a younger age. The Nab league and AFLW will continue to excel in skills which is very exciting.”
Tayla Jones has been impressed by the continued development of skills in the NAB League. Photo: Rookie Me Central
We are now seeing an explosion of young stars in the AFLW, all thanks to the guidance of the NAB League clubs to build a foundation, similar to the professional environment young female footballers are going to experience at AFLW level.
Abbie McKay praised the Dragons for their ability to create a smooth transitioning process for her into Carlton’s AFLW side, all given it was the Dragons’ first year exploring the girls’ program, a testament to the hard work and culture that flows throughout the club.
“Dragons did a great job at increasing not only my footy skills but more importantly my confidence. It made me believe I had the ability to get drafted and could succeed in footy whatever that may have looked like for me. There were a lot of similarities between dragons and AFLW. The only difference really is the intensity. There is a big jump in intensity and pace at AFLW level.”
Abbie McKay weaves in and out of traffic against the Western Bulldogs. Photo: Megan Brewer
The foundation has been well and truly set for female footballers across the country. The level of skill is excelling across all NAB League clubs, giving list managers headaches when draft night comes around.
The expansion of the AFLW is giving female footballers no better chance than now to reach the elite level and showcase years of hard work that was never previously available up until 3 years ago.
McKay’s advice was sweet and simple for young aspiring female footballers, “Do what you're good at well. Keep working at the things you're not.”