Courtney Wakefield.Photo: PAUL MENSCH
By MITCH RODD
EVERY synonym for the word determination in the Thesaurus would be an apt description for Courtney Wakefield, RIGHT.
A fierce insistance to defy the odds, and the tyranny of distance, has seen her justly rewarded with an AFL Women’s (AFLW) contract with Richmond in 2020.
The 32-year-old forward joined the Tigers’ VFLW program in 2018 after having not played Aussie Rules for nearly two decades.
Her main motivation for throwing caution to the wind? “Just to say I could,” she admitted.
Driven to succeed
NOT many weekly routines of athletes include a 1200km round trip behind the wheel.
Top Hut Station in Pooncarie is home for Courtney, her husband Tom and children Til, 4, and Sid, 18 months.
The property where they farm sheep and feral goats is equivalent to 25,000 MCGs, and is more than eight hours drive from the famous Punt Road Oval.
Courtney said the drive gives her “plenty of time to think, sometimes too much”.
It is a huge commitment to make, but a potential career in the VFLW and AFLW presented a “once in a lifetime opportunity” for the humble country girl.
“They (Richmond) obviously train in Melbourne on Tuesday, which is a lighter session, and Wednesday is the main session, followed by the captains run on a Friday,” Courtney said.
“Obviously I try to make the Friday session for the Saturday game, but they give me a program through our app on our phone that I have to complete away from the club which keeps me up with the young girls.”
To dedicate so much to playing in a competition that is still in its fledgling stage takes a lot of drive, determination and some good old country ticker.
Courtney said there were multiple driving factors for her to continue doing the ’hard yards’.
“I think now that I’ve got my foot in the door, it is to play AFLW, but it’s also to create that pathway for future generations from the country, to know that we do have the opportunities, especially my daughter and son. The world is our oyster,” she said.
“And probably to prove those people wrong that don’t think I can do it, maybe because I’m too old or too slow or that I’m a mum now.
“There’s lots driving me, so I’m really excited for the opportunity.”
Not supposed to be there!
THIS whole extraordinary journey began with a try-out for Richmond’s VFLW side in Bendigo early last year.
Courtney had not played competitive football since wearing the black and red of the Euston Bombers at Under 11 level some 20 years earlier.
Courtney was not even supposed to be there, although she managed to catch the eye of coach Tom Hunter and head of women’s football, Kate Sheahan.
“I was actually later informed that it was invite only, so I rocked up uninvited with Sid, who was seven-weeks-old at the time,” she laughed.
“I was a little bit hesitant, but fully committed to take the trip down with the two kids. As Sid was only seven-weeks-old I was probably still unfit, probably a little crazy and sleep deprived!
“Obviously I made a bit of an impression to get the phone call from Kate and Tommy about a week later to join the program, or squad as such, and to start the preseason, which that in itself was all a bit surreal. A box that we could tick off.
“And then to be listed in the VFLW program, it’s been very professional from day one, which I’ve loved.
“I’ve had clear direction from day one, which is motivation that we can work towards, it probably makes it easier for myself away from the club. We hit the ground running and haven’t stopped since.”
Comfortable in her stripes
NOW in her second season with the Tigers, Courtney became the ninth player to be contracted by Richmond for their inaugural AFLW campaign in 2020, and the first out of their VFLW program.
While the key forward said the realisation had not sunk in, her first priority was to perform well in Tigers colours in 2019.
“I was hopeful it was going to happen at some stage, obviously I needed to continue to work hard, but for it to happen early in the season is really exciting,” Courtney said.
“I’ve thought about it (next year) a little bit, but I’m still focussed on the VFLW season. Obviously it’s something we’ll have to think about in depth more towards the end of the season.”
The Tigers have started with three straight wins in 2019, already equalling their tally from the previous season.
The addition of Western Bulldogs AFLW star, Katie Brennan, to the squad has certainly helped.
“Katie has really slotted in well,” Courtney said. “She’s hit the ground running, she’s thrown herself right in there and her performances speak for themselves.
“We’ve got some new talent and some new faces, I think there’s only eight of us girls in this season’s squad that were there last year. And some AFLW talent which is really helping us out, which is exciting.”
LIKE many female footballers, Courtney wishes the AFLW had been in existence a decade earlier.
As women’s football was not an option in Sunraysia, she focussed on netball, which culminated in an A Grade premiership with Wentworth in 2016.
Courtney said that while she doesn’t miss netball, she does miss the special friendships she formed.
“I can always go back to playing netball after football, I guess,” she said. “Football won’t be forever. But I miss the girls.
“I had a thought that if I had been given the opportunity 10 years ago that I certainly could have made the AFLW, so I just wanted to know.
“Given that the opportunity was there I had nothing to lose, so it was kind of to prove to myself that I could do it.
“I think that’s probably the number one thing, is to enjoy the journey. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity that thousands of girls would love to do, and I get to do it so I want to enjoy it, but I want to make sure I do it to the best of my ability.
“There is much opportunity now for the young girls, not only in this region but across Australia with football pathways, so the future is really bright and if people can look at me and see that I’ve done it the hard way, hopefully they can achieve their goal also.”