EVERY NAB League club has had its past 12 months thrown into chaos by a global pandemic that no one could have predicted. While all have come through stronger, Gippsland Power is a team no stranger to having to overcome challenges that impact more than just the footballing landscape.
In 2020, the Power’s preseason was impacted due to the bushfires and subsequent smoke that raged in the south east of the state, forcing many to improvise. When asked if the club, and in particular the group of the past 12 months was resilient, there was little doubt in Gippsland Power coach, Rhett McLennan‘s mind.
“It seems that way,” he said. “They really roll with the punches well, this group of girls. “Regardless of what it’s been, whether it’s been bushfires, whether it’s been a global pandemic, when they’ve actually turned up to training, it seems to have been their sole focus and they’ve been a pleasure to coach so far.”
The new landscape of NAB League football means lists are younger, with only a handful of what used to be over-agers (19-year-olds) and some inexperienced 18 and 17-year-olds due to the season cancellation. McLennan admitted the Power’s 2021 side would be young, but he was excited about their potential.
“Primarily we’re fairly young,” McLennan said. “But I’d imagine that a lot of the NAB League teams are as well because you won’t take as many top-age girls through, so it’s probably a little bit different in a structure being Under 19s than it was Under 18s. “We’re young, we’re developing, but we think when we look across a section of our list, we’ve got some speed and we’re also got some skill in regards to that, so the way that we move the ball I think will be a lot quicker, and when we’re on I think we’ll be a pretty exciting team to watch.”
On last year’s group, there were a number of players in contention to be drafted, and AFL Women’s Academy member Megan Fitzsimon was lucky enough to have her named called out on draft night, credit to her consistency over the past few seasons. Gippsland Power Gameday Operations Coordinator Chelsea Caple said Fitzsimon had earned a spot at the elite level and her work had already been recognised by Melbourne when she was selected for Round 1.
“She’s pretty lucky that she’s been a pretty consistent player with us over the past few years,” Caple said. “Unlike Grace McRae that probably needed 2020 to really show the recruiters what she had, Megan was lucky that she had that experience and that consistency with playing, so we’re incredibly proud that she got picked up by Melbourne to be playing with the likes of other Gippsland Power players in Tyla Hanks. “I think it’s a great environment for her and we’re excited to see her play Round 1.”
McRae is one of four 19-year-old talents returning to the side, with Shanara Notman also returning as the new over-ager, turning 20 this year. Asked if the new Under 19s competition gave players more hope given they had effectively missed their top-age – or in Notman’s case, over-age – year, there would be more opportunities, Caple was optimistic.
“It’s clever to give the girls that weren’t drafted another opportunity, because we see girls who just do need more game experience that will be able to get that,” Caple said. “But I think the ones we’ve brought back have really stepped up at training and have been taking the lead and there’s such a vast majority. “The vast range of age groups, we’ve got quite young girls playing with our 19-year-olds which is something we need to consider as well when we go into playing games.”
As for the roles the older players will take up for the 2021 season, McLennan said it would depend on the circumstance, but it was likely they would find themselves tested in unfamiliar roles to showcase their versatility.
“We’ve done a little bit of match simulation over the past couple of weeks so what we’re looking forward to actually seeing just in regards to our training is flexibility in our players,” McLennan said. “Where they’ve previously played, we might find that they’re better suited for their talents in different spots. “But our main goal is to showcase the girls’ talents and however we can do that, or wherever we can put them on the field to do that.”
After such an extended period of time off, McLennan, Caple and the Power coaching staff had to work out a way to reintroduce the players back to group training after so many isolated, individual training sessions.
“Our focus initially was to make sure there was a lot of enjoyment in training so it was just making sure they could go out there and have a kick and have fun again because of such an unprecedented year and the isolation that came with it,” McLennan said.
“That initial process of making it fun, now it’s transformed into ‘okay let’s get ourselves game ready’ and the attitude has been excellent. “We’ve really emphasised that we have attitude and energy towards each training session. “All the girls that have turned up to those sessions, I can’t fault in that space, it’s really good.”
Each year there are players who put in strong seasons and show their wares as a potential future AFL Women’s or VFL Women’s player. After the pre-season and having seen a number of the players step it up before the season was cancelled last year, McLennan said there were a number of players who were ones to watch in 2021.
“Grace McRae, Matilda Van Berkel, those two are really two we expect a lot from that are willing to show that,” McLennan said. “Holly Booth I think has been really solid in regards to her preseason and she gives us a lot of stability down back. “Then we’ve got some really exciting young talent, Yazzy (Yasmin) Duursma I think could play a lot of different positions on the ground. Her skills as a footballer are developing, but her skills as an athlete are already there, so she’s someone we could be really excited about.
“The other one is Lily-Rose Williamson who played a little bit of a football last year as a very young player. “She’s had another year to mature, she has great football talent and skill, and if we can harness that then she will be an extremely good footballer for this season.”
McLennan said there were another couple of names who have been tearing up the track – both with the club and during the isolation period – that could have a huge impact this season.
“I think the two real standouts, Grace Matser, she’s our ruck from Korumburra, she’s done a power of work over that lockdown period and showed great self-motivation to get herself in fantastic condition and still develop has been sensational,” he said.
“The other one is Sunday Brisbane, so Sunday is the opposite end of Grace, she’s only 156cm, but she’s incredibly fit, worked a lot on her skills. “Her skills in close are actually fantastic, her cleanness for the ball has been fantastic as well, and we’re expecting to see a lot of improvement from Sunday this season.”
Gippsland Power will adopt its long-standing attitude of being a difficult opposition to play against. McLennan said the game plan would be “relatively simple”, but effective if the team was able to stand up defensively. He was confident the team would make strides this season, and said both the playing group and coaching staff were pumped to run out for Round 1 of the season.
“We’re excited, we can’t wait for footy to start,” McLennan said. “I don’t know who’s more excited, the coaches or the players. “But we just can’t wait to get out there and coach just as I’m sure the girls can’t wait to get out there and actually play and have a scoreboard and let the competitive juices flow.”
Gippsland Power takes on Tasmania Devils at Highgate Recreation Reserve on Saturday in the NAB League Girls’ first match in 11 months.