What makes a cross-code athlete? Why elite athletes are jumping to women’s football

Andrea Gilmore used injury time to pick up her skills. Picture: westcoasteagles.com.au
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As the AFLW Draft wound up in early October, another group of players from elite sporting backgrounds have found their way to the top level of Women’s Football, Alex Docherty reports.

“I never had any intention of [playing AFLW], I guess I just loved the game.”

Andrea Gilmore started playing women’s football “just to keep the body ticking over” between Super Netball seasons.

She started a pre-season with Claremont and “fell in love playing it then and there”.

Now 32, Gilmore was among the older women in the recent AFLW Draft and one of a number coming from other elite sporting backgrounds.

In the same draft, Richmond picked up Australian representative basketballer Tessa Lavey, while Gold Coast drafted Daisy D’Arcy, who represented Queensland in rugby sevens, and Maddison Levi, who represented Australia in rugby sevens.

Andrea Gilmore was pick 53 in the draft. Image: westcoasteagles.com.au

Since the league started in 2017, many AFLW players have come from many elite sporting backgrounds. Season one saw Erin Phillips, who had previously played in the WNBA, dominate the competition, taking home every award in sight.

Gilmore, like many of the older AFLW players, grew up without an option to play football.

“Footy was around my whole childhood. I spent most of it playing netball though, there was no pathway for girls to play footy. It was something I never really considered,” she says.

Choosing other sports

Jade Haycraft, a research fellow at Victoria University who did her PhD on talent identification, said there weren’t many pathways for young girls who wanted to continue playing Aussie Rules.

“In terms of talent transfer, especially with the AFLW, you need to go back and look at the female AFLW pathway and what it looks like up until when the AFLW was introduced,” she says.

“Young girls could play up until 14 years in the under-age competitions with the boys … after that point, they weren’t allowed to play with boys anymore, it was too physical.”

The only option for young girls was to pursue other sports, those that did have the junior pathways that Aussie Rules didn’t.

“They pursued the other sports … netball, basketball, soccer … but their hearts felt like they really wanted to stay in AFL and be connected with AFL,” Haycraft says.

“When the opportunities came up with the AFLW, all of these players are like: ‘I just really want to play footy and now I can’ or ‘I can go back and revisit that … so they either left their respective sports, or they played both.”

Trent Cooper, AFLW coach at Fremantle knows what to look for in a successful cross-code athlete. Picture: Alex Docherty via Zoom.

Fremantle AFLW coach Trent Cooper says in the past, girls who were young, talented athletes wouldn’t choose AFL as their primary sport because of the lack of a pathway.

“Nine, 10-year old girls are now making footy as their first-choice sport,” he says.

Cooper’s Dockers team is among the best teams in the AFLW today. Part of that is owed to the cross-code rookies he has brought in since he took over at the end of the 2018 season.

“Ange Stannett finished top five in the fairest and best in her second year of footy … she was a former soccer player, she was on [Perth] Glory’s list,” he says.

“Janelle [Cuthbertson], played really high level tennis, played junior grand slam as well. She was one really interested in our rookie program.

Andrea Gilmore tells Alex Docherty how she got her start in the AFL after playing netball all her life.

“The two exciting things about her is her athleticism – she’s tall, fast and strong – but her character, you can see that she really wanted it bad and was willing to work harder than anyone for it.

“The ones I think can make the quickest and biggest jump are the Irish Gaelic athletes.”

Fremantle picked up both Aine Tighe and Kate Flood at the end of 2019. Tighe missed all of the 2020 season with a knee injury. Flood showed plenty of promise towards the end of the season, but will miss 2021 due to personal reasons.

“They’re making a huge impact because their sport is very similar to ours and they’ve been playing it at a higher level all the way through since they were young.”

When it comes to picking out a cross-code athlete, Cooper says it comes down to one major aspect.

When you’re getting these cross-code athletes, you need to be getting people with great character … they’re going to come from being the top of their sport to the bottom player.

“They have to get used to that and then work hard to get back up into a middle-rung or a rung high enough to be able to get a game.

“We could tell with Ange, that she was very willing to do that… The first three months of that [2018-2019] pre-season, she would’ve been in our bottom two, but she kept working hard.”

Gilmore’s path to AFLW hit a snag in 2018, when she ruptured her ACL in what was her third game of football, but credits the knee injury for her development in the code.

“When I got to the [West Coast] academy at the end of the year, it was all about rehab for me,” she said.

“It gave me a lot of time to focus on my kicking and handballing … as my knee progressed, I felt like my understanding of the skills and what was required progressed along with that.

“I’m actually really grateful I did my knee because it allowed me the time to get myself fit specifically for footy… to play the game and understand it a bit better.”

“If I had gone straight into playing… I would’ve missed out on some of those opportunities to develop some skills that I really would need in the game today.”

AFLW All-Australians from elite sporting backgrounds