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Indigenous AFLW players pave the way

This is Halls Creek, a town in Western Australia’s East Kimberley region, eight hours inland from Broome or, according to Petrevski, “the middle of nowhere”.

Daughter of two cattle station managers, Krstel is the eldest of three siblings. She notes, however, that “you’re connected to everyone”, saying with a grin that relationship by blood is hardly a criteria to be family.

“We grew up barefoot, running around, swimming, hunting and fishing. We had about 20 cousins all sleeping in the lounge room all the time.”

Two of those cousins are Carlton midfielder Sam Petrevski-Seton and Melbourne’s Toby Bedford.

“I grew up playing with them. They roughed me up playing footy in the backyard, and they never took it easy on me so I guess I almost have to thank them,” she said.

Once she moved to boarding school at 11, Petrevski began focusing on a future outside of Halls Creek and discovered women’s football.

“Lots of kids at home don’t finish school. You get a lot of kids dropping out,” she said, explaining that her younger sister was also set to commence boarding school this year in Perth.

Petrevski spent three years in Sydney before moving to Melbourne to finish school and pursue her football career, playing for the Calder Cannons and Essendon’s VFLW side.

The forward/midfielder was selected by Melbourne with pick 78 in the 2019 AFLW draft.

“The pathways are amazing,” she said. “I went through all the Indigenous programs and camps. It’s great we get to share our culture. I met people from all across Australia and from different mobs and tribes.”

One of the pathways she refers to is the AFL female Indigenous youth leadership program, for young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander girls, as well as the KickStart Program and Indigenous All-Stars.

It’s players such as Petrevski who appear to have had a direct influence on the participation numbers of young women in AFL, with estimates going from 50,578 in December 2016 to 71,500 in October 2020, according to Sport Australia’s latest AusPlay survey data.

While this is a promising statistic, it appear there is still work to be done in the Indigenous space. Sport Australia acting CEO Rob Dalton says: “Our data tells us that when it comes to Indigenous children being active, only 38.4 per cent of girls participate in organised out-of-school sport or physical activity at least once a week compared to 58.5 per cent of non-Indigenous girls.”

There are 19 Indigenous players on AFLW lists, and while the Indigenous population makes up 2.5 per cent of the Australian population, AFL NSW and Northern Territory records show that from this, 90,000 participants are involved with Australian football programs around the country.

The good news is that with 19 Indigenous female role models playing at the highest level, Petrevski says it’s a very welcoming environment.

“It’s that automatic bond when you introduce yourself, it’s like you’ve known each other forever,” she says.

As for her teammates, “I’m very grateful for them embracing my culture, I call them Tidda, which means sister.”

One Tidda is former teammate, Aliesha Newman, who was traded to Collingwood for this season. Newman, of the Ningy Ningy people from Redcliffe, Queensland, says growing up in the western suburbs of Melbourne meant she “didn’t have a strong connection to country, unfortunately”.

“As I’ve gotten older, football has really helped me to find out who I am and understand my culture more,” Newman said.

Last year, the 24-year-old designed Melbourne’s Indigenous guernsey, but the AFLW season was cut short before they could wear it.

Aliesha Newman with the Indigenous jumper she designed for the Demons last year.

Aliesha Newman with the Indigenous jumper she designed for the Demons last year.

“Melbourne and Freo were the first to wear an Indigenous design in an ordinary round, but now this season will have its first Indigenous round,” Newman said.

“It’s really exciting and goes to show that the competition is evolving into a space where the AFL are taking us more seriously, to have established rounds so we can celebrate our culture like the men do.”

One of the league’s best small forwards, the foundation player says Indigenous pride has “grown dramatically since those first couple of years”.

“I found myself wanting to learn more because the girls and coaches were asking me questions and wanting to learn, so that helped me develop a stronger connection to myself and my family’s history.”

Gifted Indigenous players are no rarity, with Carlton’s Madison Prespakis named last year’s AFL Women’s best and fairest, and young Crow Danielle Ponter following in the footsteps of uncle Michael Long and cousin Cyril Rioli.

Newman is part of the AFL’s Indigenous Advisory Group, providing advice to the AFL Commission and executive on Indigenous policies and concerns. Alongside her sit Ally Anderson (Brisbane Lions) and Alicia Janz (West Coast).

“Shaun Burgoyne, Eddie Betts and Neville Jetta, big names in the Indigenous space, come together and it’s a great chance to hear what they’re facing at their clubs and within their communities.”

So, do your shorts up tight and hang onto the river bank because these women are riding the current and showing no sign of slowing down.

The AFLW’s first Indigenous round will take place in round five.

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