AFL London looks back on the historic day when women joined the Aussie Rules league, which has grown not only in popularity, but in quality as the AFLW continues to snap up our players.
Not even a deluge of rain on a brisk April day in 2015 could dampen the spirits of a group of women who were about to take to the field and make AFL history.
On Anzac Day (April 25) five years ago, the North London Lions and South East London Giants became the first teams to play an official women’s match in the AFL London league.
The sense of history was palpable as the Giants ran through a banner which read, “one small step for the Giants, one giant leap for AFL London.”
Despite having already existed for 25 years, women only officially joined the AFL London league in 2015.
It is hard to imagine in 2020 with the professional AFLW going strong in Australia and the London league now boasting about 500 female players, that only five years ago clubs were debating whether it was event worth the effort to launch a women’s competition.
It took asking the simple question “why can’t women play as well?” at a 2014 women’s exhibition match to get the ball rolling on the women’s competition in London.
Jay ‘Dogg’ Treloar, president of the NL Lions, helped to spearhead the competition after some gentle persistence from one of the Lions’ members Adina Lieblich.
“We thought ‘why not’ because when we looked at it from a club growth perspective it means an extra team, which means more people involved and greater exposure to new players to get them involved,” Jay told AFL London.
Played down at the Giants home ground at Peckham Rye Park, players and officials at that first game sensed the “electric atmosphere” as the women donned their officials kits before running onto the ground.
This was the real deal and anybody at that first game knew that something big was happening for Aussie Rules in London.
For Jessica ‘Gramps’ Wachtel the pub after the game may be the best part of the team, but admitted she loved playing for the SE London Giants, especially in their first women’s game.
“I was excited but also very nervous because that's how I feel before every game,” she remembered.
“It was definitely a pretty electric atmosphere being Anzac Day and so far from home but all brought together by footy.”
For Gramps, footy means having a close connection to other Aussies and a great sense of friendship.
“I remember I had been in the country five years but didn’t have a lot of Aussie mates so it felt quite special to make that connection with people from back home,” she said.
“It definitely brings with it a massive sense of camaraderie.”
The scrappy game ended up in the Giants favour who defeated the Lions, 14.7.91 to 4.1.25.
Getting the women’s league off the ground required hard work from clubs and the league, but five years later the effort is reflected in its success.
The quality of the footy is so strong in London that the AFLW has drafted a number of players directly from here including but not limited to, Kate Shierlaw (Saints), Lauren Spark (Western Bulldogs), Katie Stone (Carlton) and Jessica Edwards (Carlton).
The influence of women in footy in London stretches well beyond the playing field to taking on senior roles in the clubs and league.
“That’s one of the things that’s really impressed me is how popular it’s become and there’s an enthusiasm to be a part of it,” Jay said.
“It’s great that enthusiasm is having a bigger influence off the field as well and the dynamics of the football teams has changed so much.”
One such person who went from the footy field to helping run the show is Marianna ‘Maz’ Graham who now co-chairs AFL London alongside Sarah Howell and vice chair, Genna Edye.
Marianna played for the Giants in their debut game in 2015 and continues to play for the south east London team.
“The growth of the game has been phenomenal,” she said, adding that the league has grown from four women’s teams when it started to seven in 2020.
“It has been amazing to see not just Australians playing Aussie Rules – because it allows them to keep up with game they love when they come here on their two year visas – but also UK and international players who have taken to the game quite easily.”
Marianna added: “The Great Britain team has proved to be some of the best outside of Australia which is a testament to those teaching this great sport in the UK.”
While women’s footy can only continue to grow in London, many ladies in the league are grateful to have the chance to play at all.
“Growing up it wasn’t even an option to play apart from a kick about on the school oval,” Jessica said.
“So playing in that first game felt pretty momentous.”