Junior Girls AFL: A Sport that Needs a Change

How growth at the grassroots is being stunted

Teenage girls playing junior AFL at St Luke’s Oval are getting ready in a small, cold public toilet block while boys are in the comparative luxury of purpose-built dressing sheds next door.

Officials at the Canada Bay Cannons’ home at Concord’s St Luke’s Oval say they are embarrassed for the girls but there is no option when games overlap at the busy ground.

Visiting female teams playing their semi-finals two weeks ago were forced to queue up to 20 at a time to access the two metres by four metres space with chipped tiles and two cubicles.

The club is desperate to fix the situation.

As young girls are flocking to the sport, the club says plans to build more change facilities and to upgrade the playing surface to make it safe for kids have stalled because federal and state government funding promised two years ago has not eventuated.

Leon Cameron, head coach of leading AFL club the GWS Giants, was dismayed by the conditions when he visited the junior football oval and said it contradicts the sport’s promotion at the grassroots.

“We’re pushing our girls into these sort of change rooms that are totally unacceptable whereas the boys have obviously got pretty good facilities, he said.

“If we are really going to push this game for women we’ve got to support it as well.

“What looks like a fantastic concept will all of a sudden disintegrate within a couple of years because the facilities are just not up to scratch,” the coach said.

Cannons’ long-time junior girls AFL player Gabi Stanwix, one of 100 girls at the club, said funding delays to improve facilities were frustrating.

“Often I’d miss quite a few things just because I had to get changed somewhere else,” the teenager said of her 250-plus games with the club.

“The difference between the boys and the girls is so drastic,” Gabi said.

While GWS Giants’ women’s football star Nicole Barr said the launch of the AFLW competition last year had sparked massive interest in the code for girls.

“It’s important that the facilities continue to improve and I know AFL NSW is working really hard to ensure the best programs and infrastructure are in place for the next generation of boys and girls coming through.”

The club has proposed a $5 million upgrade to the oval that will providing appropriate facilities for women and to resurface the uneven ground to make it safer for all young players. It would also serve junior athletics and cricket.

Cameron said protecting kids with a safe playing surface was also a priority.

The 256-game Western Bulldogs and Richmond player – now a father of two boys and a girl – shared the safety concern.

“The dirt patches all across this ground are so unsafe for ankles and knees,” the AFL mentor said.

“There are probably 15 to 20 (divots) across the ground.”

Cameron, the junior club’s players, parents, volunteers, and senior AFL women’s stars agree that the kids deserves better.

A Cannons club spokesman said a $2 million funding shortfall and further unfulfilled funding promises threatened to stall construction on the second stage of the proposal.

Local federal government MP Craig Laundy promised $1.9m to overhaul the oval in the lead-up the last federal election, he said.

Minister Laundy confirmed $500,000 as a contribution to install field lights, electronic scoreboard and storage rooms as a first stage.

He is non-committal on the remaining $1.4 million but the former Turnbull government minister suggested more funding to sports clubs in Sydney’s inner west, including the Cannons, was on the horizon.

“I’m looking forward to making further significant announcements about sporting grants over the coming weeks and months.”

The club received $230,000 from the State Government two years ago to help complete the first stage of St Lukes Oval development.

But it claims promises of a multi-million dollar State boost to complete the vision have stalled. 

NSW Sports Minister Stuart Ayres said his department was pulling its weight on suburban sports ground support, when contacted this week. He suggested the door remained open for the Cannons club to secure more funding.

The cash from the two governments was “critical” to the project’s future, said Cannons’ strategy head Jeremy Stanwix.

“Surely (the girls) have waited long enough to get access to facilities that are appropriate for their participation in our great sport,” he said.

Meanwhile, The Australian Football League said the state’s jump in junior numbers including young girls and that some facilities were challenged by the demands on use.

The NSW/ACT AFL said it had earmarked $250,000 for the St Lukes’ Oval project and remains confident it will go ahead with the support of the federal and state government, local council and the club.

Photos by Alan Nunez