AFLW News: Sydney Swans begin path to greatness at North Sydney Oval

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The AFLW powers that be Sydney Swans had to sign players, move many of them state to state, create a professional environment and get them ready for their inaugural season in just 10 weeks. TILLY WERNER finds out how.

As Sydney turns its attention to the city’s new sports team, the Swans’ first AFLW coach, Scott Gowans, is already looking further afield.

Not to the team’s historic first outing in the competition at the North Sydney Oval and what it hopes will be the first victory of their inaugural season.

He looks towards their second.

“Our first win is going to be amazing, but I’m more focused on our second win,” Gowans said.

“I think the gap between your first win and your second win is what I look at. If it’s only a week then you know you’re on the path to success.

It’s the culture of greatness that the Swans AFLW team seeks to establish from the get-go.

“To build something great, we have to start with this expectation of being great,” Gowans says.

Building something big became the responsibility of AFLW Football Swans Executive General Manager Kate Mahony.

A high performance expert with a career that has seen her lead physiotherapy for women’s teams at Cricket Australia, the Australian Open and the WTA and last year managing the AOC’s Covid protocols in Tokyo .

His appointment set the tone for club culture before any players were signed. It is not a lucrative business. This is an elite athletic performance environment and it will demand results.

“We didn’t just want to start a team just to have a women’s team in the competition,” Mahony explains.

“It was about creating an elite environment for women to the same standards that male athletes have enjoyed for many years.”

From their first signing of Swans Academy player Ruby Sargent-Wilson to Kate Reynolds, whose contract was delivered less than five days after their first rebound, Mahony had to deliver this “elite environment” in five months.

“We have 21 players on our roster who have never played at this level before. We have had 10 weeks to bring them to elite level.

Ten weeks to create a competitive team. Create a competitive environment. To ensure the Swans can live up to expectations of greatness.

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The first point of consideration for Mahony was to weigh how to deliver excellence against the constraints of a part-time program.

“The biggest difference between the two programs is that the men train full time and the girls only 20 hours a week,” Mahony explains.

These 20 hours are split between strength and conditioning, recovery, education, coaching and strategy, alongside work, university, social life for newcomers to Sydney in their twenties and case of Montana Ham’s first draft pick, HSC.

With limited options for athletes able to perform at the highest level against the teams’ soft cap, recruiting processes for the Swans were binary, with a ladder ensuring the team has enough ‘footy us’ to run the game. , and enough elite-level athletes who could challenge at the AFLW level.

“I was really deliberate in going to bid for all the positions in the team, to make sure we brought two aspects,” Mahony said.

“We needed to bring in really strong elite athletes with top-level experience and then bring in football. Some people who really understood the game.”

Building a team means little without also building an audience and far from the “soccer centricity” of southern states, Mahony sees an untapped opportunity.

While the GWS Giants women’s side have had mixed success on the pitch, the floundering men’s season has led to a drop in attendance at the club’s home games, which averaged 6,008 in 2022.

Their women’s team, playing with home games at Henson Park and Manuka Oval in Canberra, hope smaller home grounds will create bigger atmospheres.

Yet their membership numbers have already been grossly eclipsed by the Swans.

“Sydney had the most fans in the league even before we had a team. There’s a huge appetite for the AFL in Sydney,” Mahony says.

Mahony hopes the team can ride the wave of success the men’s team has enjoyed in the second half of its own season, and the renewed fan engagement that has resulted.

“The feeling in Sydney in the last round against St Kilda was huge and I think there are a lot of people in the city who are casual observers who have been brought on board and we know that can be huge,” says -she.

As optimistic as they are, Mahony knows that continued commercial success will invariably be tied to the team’s performance on the field.

“Commercially we have been well supported so far, I think there is a realistic expectation that as long as we are competitive this year, and there is effort and intensity, we can’t ask for much more of our gaming unit.

“Expansion teams usually have a pretty tough time in the early years. This isn’t specific to the AFLW either, it’s a trend that continues across all codes.

Given the period of confusion over the start date of AFLW Seven, correlating to the Swans’ delay in building their roster, they would not be seen as best placed to counter such a trend.

“It will take time to get a flag, but I think if we move forward we will be well supported,” Mahony says.

“The history of the expansion has shown us that it is really difficult, and it was made doubly difficult once the season was advanced. It made recruiting players very difficult for us.

“We were trying to get players to change states but not telling them how much we could pay them, but that they were expected in training. That’s a hard line to follow.

With little ability to write contracts or promise big game bonuses to attract players, the Swans relied heavily on the club’s existing “Bloods” culture to attract Victorian movers.

They also decided on a defining strategy early in the process, targeting underutilized players like Bridie Kennedy, cross-code athletes like Tiarne Cavanagh and locals like Kate Reynolds to create a list of second chances.

“We have a lot of players who have just missed drafts, players who have been around and many who have been robbed of opportunities.

“I think that holds us in good stead (for) the team connection and wanting to play for each other and fight for the win.”

If success on the pitch is shortening the gap between Gowans’ wins, Mahony sees further fanbase building as success for the club’s top flight.

“We know that some of the fans who come to the women’s games are not the same as those who attend the men. There is a unique market there and I think if it grows then the club is doing something right on the pitch.

“Maintaining revenues and our existing partnerships, so that we can support our part-time athletes, is really important from my point of view.

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Although the culture of the Bloods has played a key role in the development of the team thus far, Mahony believes that founding the women’s team means forging a new identity.

“Our male players have been so supportive and really educated our players on what it means to be a Blood,” Mahony said.

“I think the women’s team took that and put their own flavor into it. They used that to create their own ruthless, selfless, united trademarks for the season and we’re going to base our performance and delivery on the culture. Bloods against those.

Gowans are looking to see that culture bleed onto the playing field today when they make their debut.

“We have no intention of tiptoeing into the competition,” Gowans said.

Odds big or small, it appears a new generation of Bloods ready to hold the banner.

“It’s going to be a little chaotic, nervousness, mixed with the opportunity that finally arrives. But these girls are ready to play AFLW level football.

Tilly WernerContent producer

Tilly Werner is an emerging talent in the world of sports journalism with a particular focus on the AFL, football (soccer), basketball and disability sports. With a graduate degree in sports management (UTS) and a bachelor’s degree in international studies (UNSW), Tilly’s writing pursuits go beyond just acting, exploring the stories behind athletes and their connection to the world around them. Tilly also has a distinguished career in athletics and currently sits as Executive Director on the NSW Goalball Board. Influencing his writing style is a long career writing for NFP charities, sports organizations and the NSW Parliament. Tilly currently writes and produces for CODE Sports at News Corp Australia.

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