Pay fight galvanises female footy players
The AFL Women's fraternity is stronger for having stood firm in its pay and conditions fight over the off-season, according to Isabel Huntington who is champing at the bit more than most for the season to begin.
Huntington, as an AFLPA delegate for the Western Bulldogs, played a key role in the collective bargaining agreement negotiations late last year.
A group of players resisted the initial offer, fighting for better conditions and communication before a deal was struck at the end of October.
And she strongly believes that the players are so much better for having gone through the lengthy process.
"The camaraderie in AFLW has always been very good, but in a way it takes it to the next level when you have to band together and fight for something," Huntington said.
"Particularly between clubs. Players no doubt got together and have got really similar values in terms of that, and similar attitudes about it all.
"That was really a silver lining in the whole process, that you got to hear a lot of different perspectives.
"It was really interesting hearing a lot of the stories about the women and how hard they work and how much they sacrifice for it. That realisation was really big. It was a really interesting process.
"It was very beneficial in a way, because we got a chance to stand up for ourselves as a playing cohort and that's a really crucial thing."
It wasn't the only off-season turbulence at Whitten Oval, with skipper Katie Brennan and young star Monique Conti walking out to Richmond and coach Paul Groves replaced by Nathan Burke.
Huntington said the departure of Brennan and Conti - "good friends and great players" - was "disappointing", but a shift that had galvanised the young Dogs.
"At the time, trade period is a chaotic time and it's straight after the season, so you don't get much time too digest things," she said.
"What's happened in our group is it's definitely brought us a lot stronger. Immediately after the trade period we just came together and we were like 'we're all here, we're all in it, and we're all excited'.
"To have the newer players come in through the draft as well, you wouldn't know they're new players. You wouldn't know that they haven't played any AFLW games.
"The cohesiveness has been amazing and it's the strongest we've ever been as a group and I'm really enjoying it."
The 20-year-old - the No. 1 draft pick for the 2018 season - played just three games last year as she battled ongoing knee complaints, and has played just five games since she was drafted in 2017.
She ruptured her ACL - an injury she had also suffered as a teenager - in Round 2 of 2018 and suffered a further strain to her reconstructed knee at the end of that year, but she is finally fully fit and ready to show the competition what she is made of.
"Hopefully I've had my injuries in the past and that's the end of it," Huntington, a member of the Bulldogs' leadership group, said.
"I'll be hoping that's the case. I'm feeling as keen as ever to get out on the field, to be honest.
"I don't want to place too much pressure on myself. I'm just super keen to play footy again. It's been a very long time since I've had that opportunity to get a consistent run of games in, and to enjoy footy in that way because I get to play.
It's taught me a lot along the way, as well, and hopefully I can help out with some of the girls that are in rehab and getting through that tough time.
"I'm just itching to get out on the field, and it's been like that throughout my whole rehab process. it helps in a way, because it drives you, and you're like 'one day closer'. To have this group around me and the coaching staff is awesome because they've been completely supportive."