Women's pioneer calls for patience on expansion

THE INTRODUCTION of two new sides to the AFL Women's competition is set to place a "strain" on the available talent pool and the overall performance of teams, the head of the Western Bulldogs' women's program Debbie Lee has warned.

However, Lee – a pioneer of women's football in Victoria – has preached patience as the AFLW competition grows and beefed-up junior talent programs fast-track the development of talented players.

Geelong and North Melbourne have joined the competition, with Richmond, St Kilda, Gold Coast and West Coast on board in 2020.

"(Expansion) clearly puts a strain on it," Lee told AFL.com.au.

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"Yes, we've got young talent coming through and they're going to be good players. But the questions around that is how much senior football have they actually played, and will they be able to take the next step?"

The addition of the Cats and the Kangaroos has resulted in 60 more players set to feature at AFLW level in 2019.

If team list sizes remain the same as 2019 (30 per side), 2020 will see 420 players represent 14 AFLW teams.

"I think there'll be a plateau (in quality)," Lee said. "I don't think there's going to be massive leaps and bounds in terms of an increase in the entertainment value and that's purely because of the numbers coming in."

We're going to have to be patient because we might see a dip in the performance of teams and what fans expect, but that's the risk we take when we expand the competition as quickly as what's happening now.

The Bulldogs have already seen the benefits of having their own side in the VFLW competition, having fielded one in the state league for the first time in 2018.

Lee said the development of players including VFLW best and fairest Naomi Ferris was testament to the work being put into those programs.

The inclusion of young players such as Tessa Boyd, Aisling McCarthy, Celine Moody and Kate Bartlett will bolster the club's top-end talent, but Lee said it was important the VFLW program was in place to ensure the rest of the club's list continued developing.

The Bulldogs' VFLW side finished with seven wins and seven losses and missed the finals, but the coach saw some long-term positives to emerge from the season.

"We've seen some real upside in terms of the younger players on our list and the improved versatility among our list," Lee said.

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"Our philosophy for the VFLW program is about the development of players, and if we're able to fast-track our players for the betterment of the Bulldogs and the wider game, then that's a big benefit for us."

Lee coached the Bulldogs' VFLW team in 2018 and has worked in women's football for a number of years. She was Melbourne's AFLW football operations manager in 2017 before joining the Dogs.

She has also served as president of the VWFL, having enjoyed a successful and lengthy playing career before stepping into football administration.

Lee said it was important to consider what the women's football landscape in Victoria looked like in the short-to-medium term.

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"AFLW is no longer a four-month program…that's the reality," she said.

"The competition needs to look at the timing of the VFLW compared to the AFLW and look at the philosophy more broadly around the VFLW.

"It can be conflicting in terms of the development space in the ways rules and regulations have been set up."

Lee has urged the AFL to take a close look at how the season is set up for the wellbeing of the players, given many of them work full-time and have other commitments including studying.

"I get a little bit frustrated when people compare the men's and women's competitions," Lee said.

"It's a totally different ball-game in terms of the landscape, and it's not one-size fits all. I think we've got to take that approach for the betterment and development of the game."

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