Why the AFL Women’s grand final is just the start of something big

Brisbane Lions’ Kaitlyn Ashmore and Collingwood’s Moana Hope.

For everyone else, it’s a way to protect their teeth, but the mouthguard Moana Hope wears while she’s playing AFL means all her dreams have come true.

In 2000, AFL CEO Wayne Jackson said society “wasn’t ready” to watch women playing AFL. In 2011, celebrity boofhead Sam Newman called the idea “unbelievably stupid and ridiculous”.

Even in 2016, when the national AFL women’s comp became a reality, former Adelaide coach Graham Cornes wrote in The Advertiser that it just doesn’t “look right”.

Today, at 1pm, the Brisbane Lions will host Adelaide at Metricon Stadium in the first AFL Women’s Grand Final. There’ll be a half-hour entertainment program before the match, starring Australian singer-songwriter Megan Washington.

Hope won’t be playing, but that’s because she signed with Collingwood. And has absolutely no regrets about that, because the past eight weeks has been nothing short of a dream run she never thought possible in her lifetime.

Until she was 13, Hope had to play with the boys at Glenroy to get a game, until she was eligible to join Hadfield in the VWFL at a senior level, as long as she agreed to wear a helmet.

16 years later, Hope is getting paid to wear a Gameday mouthguard. Yesterday, she got dropped off at the Australian Grand Prix in a helicopter.

And for the past eight weeks she’s been getting paid, by Collingwood, to play senior football, in front of a crowd screaming her name.

The formation of the women’s national league might have been knocking on the door for a few years, but it still caught everyone by surprise when AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan announced it late last year.

As did the surge of fans to watch it. They had to shut the gates at the first game at Ikon Park between Hope’s Collingwood and Carlton. 24,000 fans drank the park dry of beer by halftime.

Lockout. Picture: Getty Images

“It was pretty awesome to be involved in,” Hope said.

“The noise. I loved it, and the best thing about it was it didn’t matter who kicked the goal or who took the big mark, the crowd were behind it, every single kick every single goal, and it’s kept building through the season.

“The more the AFL show, the more people will come. We were getting people who’d never watched an AFL game before, never followed football didn’t go for either teams, they just wanted to be there to watch what was happening.”

They’re expecting at least 10,000 to today’s grand final. The crowd numbers have stood up week after week, bringing suburban grounds back to life with screaming fans, and more importantly, young girls – and boys – with guernseys and painted faces sporting their heroine’s numbers.

Those were the real highlights that made Hope step back and think “Yeah, this is working.”

“I thought every moment was that moment,” she said. “For the players, seeing kids having their numbers on their jumpers, having their numbers written on their face, having hundreds of messages a day on social media from the young girls and boys… I could talk about it for days.

“Everywhere I go, people are stopping me to talk about the game and how amazing it is, so it’s pretty bloody awesome.”

Alison Downie – Blue can mark. Picture: Getty Images

Last year, the growth in female participation in Aussie Rules football was double that of male participation. Of the 1.4 million registered players around the country, 27 per cent are now women.

In the past 12 months, 350 new women’s teams have registered to play AFL.

And last week, AFLW boss Simon Lethlean said the league “had a process in place” if a transgender woman wanted to play AFLW.

The critics are still resolute. They mention the poor skills and the low scores, ignoring the fact that the games are half as long.

And the league still has to put up with rubbish like this, which, believe it or not, sinks to body-shaming as one reason why AFL Women’s League shouldn’t be cluttering up precious Monday night sports bulletins.

But Erin Phillips can bomb a 50-metre goal:

And Hope plays with big game passion and grit:

All in a day’s work. Picture: Getty Images

And she cares even less about the critics as she does about extraordinary effort it takes for her to squeeze professional sport into her daily life.

The easy road option is a foreign concept for Hope. She’s one of 14 siblings and has a brutal work-life routine that would break any of modern million-dollar AFL stars spoken about in terms of their phenomenal work ethic.

Hope’s day starts at 3am. She told the 7.30 Report last year that her first three hours are spent organising the admin side of her day job as a traffic operations manager, before two hours at the gym.

She cares for her 21-year-old sister Livinia, who has Mobius syndrome. She gets Livinia off to school, then heads to work until 3pm, then picks Livinia up and gets dinner organised while finishing the day’s work.

Then she hits the gym for a couple more hours. Every day.

Last year, she still found time to become the first player to kick 100 goals in a single VWFL season. She was mobbed on the ground and the game was put on hold while family members gave her an impromptu haka.

“Everywhere I go, people are stopping me to talk about the game and how amazing it is, so it’s pretty bloody awesome.”

Livinia makes it to every game.

“She loves it and so much has been written about her,” Hope says. “She’s a bigger star at the game than I am, everyone knows who she is.”

Yes, Hope deserves a couple of minutes on the Monday night bulletin to get the ball rolling on a new national league. There are dozens of other sports bulletins and entire sports channels critics can switch over to in less than a second.

And yes, all the marquee players deserve to be paid for their time, but money is just the icing on the cake, Hope says. The most important part is the women are getting seen and nothing says recognition more than when sponsors come knocking on your door.

It’s a small thing, but the Gameday mouthguard Hope wears every match day means so much more than just protecting her teeth. It’s recognition.

And with sponsorship comes sponsor commitments but Hope’s happy to play the PR game.

“I’m the kind of person that’s speaks from the heart and I can’t sell something that I don’t believe in.

“A mouthguard plays a key role in preventing serious injury, and I’m looking forward to encouraging more kids, and especially girls, to get involved in AFL, and stay safe.

“I’m always happy to be an ambassador for anything I’m passionate about.”

And how’s this for recognition? Gameday’s other ambassador in none other than one of the greatest who’ve ever played the game, Gary Ablett Jnr.

Future star. Picture: Getty Images

But when it comes to passion, they come much more excitable than Hope’s president, Eddie McGuire. Hope says she was blown away by his commitment to making women’s AFL work.

“Eddie McGuire, people don’t know how much he puts into the little things,” she says.

“The day we all got drafted, he called us from another country and congratulated us on loudspeaker. The next week when he came in, every player he met he knew what position they played, what were their strengths.

“He’s not just a president who wants it to happen, he’s a person who’s really interested and really passionate about it.”

Next year, the AFL will stick with the eight teams. Hope reckons that’s the right call, for now.

All she’d like to see changed was the chance to fit even more into her superhuman schedule.

“I’d like to see the season go a bit longer, it’d be great to be playing the other teams at least twice.”

“I’ll be able to play another 10 years, ain’t no stopping me.”