Tonight's landmark State of Origin clash promises to be a powerhouse display of women's footy. But it's so much more than that, as rival superstars Chelsea Randall and Debbie Lee tell Lucy Watkins.
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At the inaugural AFLW awards in March, Adelaide Crows co-captain Chelsea Randall – one of superstars of the league’s maiden season - didn’t spend much time basking in the moment after being chosen to join the ranks of the first All-Australian Women’s team.
As she was summoned up on stage she tossed a question to her new team mates: “What next?” When and where, she wondered out loud, would they get a chance to pull their boots on?
The AFL tonight answers the question of “what next” by reviving State of Origin after 18 dormant years with what is shaping up to be the finest showcase of women’s footy the game has seen. The match is scheduled for prime time at Etihad Stadium, and will be broadcast live on Channel 7.
Commentators will be trumpeting it as the first AFLW State of Origin game. But in reality, many of the women have been playing one another in an unofficial state of origin competition for years.
Chelsea Randall first represented her home state of Western Australia in 2007 and went on to do so for next eight years. She is now an Adelaide Crow’s premiership player and captain of the Allies, whose ranks are made up of the best players outside Victoria.
Debbie Lee, coach of the Victorian team running out on the ground tonight, is a 304-game player in the VWFL, has represented Victoria 15 times, on five of those occasions as captain.
It was state-versus-state, with all the best players from around the country in the one place for a “full week of just footy”, Randall cheerfully recalls. “You’d play two games a day. Victoria in the morning and then Queensland in the afternoon.
“State for me was what the AFLW is for many of the women running around at the moment,” says Lee. “To represent your state and come together to play with women you highly respected was great. Wearing the Big V was a massive privilege for myself.”
Having the country’s best players in the one place for those week-long national carnivals gave the women’s game plenty of attention and lay the foundations for the AFLW.
A women’s footy pioneer, Lee was already a fan of the concept of an AFLW State of Origin game. It “blindsided me when I got the call from the AFL to coach the Vics,” she says. “It didn’t cross my mind at all, so it was a nice surprise”.
The last State of Origin game was held at the MCG in 1999. Victoria defeated South Australia by 54 points. Crowd numbers had plummeted in the decade since its inception in 1989; the competition had transitioned to a national footing; and State of Origin appeared to have done its dash.
But that view was turned on its head earlier this year when 92 per cent of AFL fans gave a resounding “yes” when surveyed about whether they wanted to see State of Origin revived.
Despite the groundswell of support, AFL CEO Gil McLachlan and the AFL resisted. While McLachlan has said he’d love to see the game come back, the odds were against it. Clubs were unlikely to risk injury to their star players, and there was little scope to cram more into an already packed national fixture.
Then along came the women and a whole new ballgame. Last year’s AFLW Exhibition Game at Whitten Oval, held in the bye week before the AFL finals, became the most watched AFL game of the season on television. This attention then culminated into a spectacular lock-out at Ikon Park for the AFLW’s first official game.
With the same bye week looming for the 2017 season and nothing scheduled, State of Origin – played by women - became an obvious solution. And Lee reckons that for all the electricity generated by the exhibition game at Whitten Oval, “this will be better”.
“The amount of coaching that’s gone into these players and the investment that has gone into these players, they’ve all gone up another level, so this will be the best we’ve ever seen.”
Unlike the state-versus-state women’s games of the past, Lee’s Victorian team won't be coming up against a single state opponent. The Allies team – lead by Randall - is the best of the rest of the country.
“A lot of people in Australia have their household names now, your ‘Perkos’ (Sarah Perkins) and Daisy Pearces. People are talking about them and it’s another chance to watch them,” Randall says. “It’s exciting that there is this other opportunity for these female athletes to be recognised.”
While both Randall and Lee acknowledge the opportunity this is for the AFLW, there’s also a sense that this is indeed much more than a game. After all, when the siren sounded on the last State of Origin in 1999, the notion that the next one would be played by women would have been unimaginable.
“For Australians to see these girls in action playing the game they absolutely love, and then seeing young girls maybe wanting to aspire to be like them is exciting,” Randall says.
“They have these empowering women that are breaking through the glass ceiling to change the stereotypical boxes of ‘men do this and women do that’ … the AFLW competition as a whole has created so much conversation around changing society’s perceptions.”
With free entry and the best of the best women’s players from around the country battling it out, Randall and Lee are happy that the grassroots vibe of the women’s game will not be lost.
And for those worried that there may not be that intense rivalry of State of Origin games of the past, Randall can put them at ease. “No one wants to see the Victorians win.”