Down to basics: Inside the Vic Country coaches' box on game day

IT'S ALL about education.

Vic Country is struggling somewhat in its match against Vic Metro during round one of the NAB AFLW under-18 championships.

Coach Aasta O'Connor, standing in the coaches' box, asks to speak to young midfielder Tyanna Smith over the phone.

She wanted to change her role slightly, directing her attention to a stoppage conveniently taking place in front of the bench.

"I want you to stick tight to that 'plus one' they have sitting off the back. They're getting too much uncontested ball out that way," O'Connor, pictured above, said.

Five teams down to one was invited to spend the second quarter of Vic Country's clash with intrastate rivals Vic Metro in the coaches' box, a game which it ultimately lost by 44 points.

Throughout it all, the key message was around developing players ahead of their potential entry to the AFLW in 2020 or 2021 through the NAB AFLW Draft, generally held in October each year.

This year, the team is led by AFLW talent manager and NAB AFLW Academy coach O'Connor, who is assisted by NAB League girls' coaches Jason Armistead (Geelong Falcons) and Rhys Cahir (Greater Western Victoria Rebels).

Vic Country alumni and current Geelong midfielder Olivia Purcell is the team's runner; she was also coached by O'Connor in the Academy last year.

Olivia Purcell in action for Geelong

Combining and synchronising players who come from different teams is a challenge faced by representative teams in all sports around the country.

In the case of Vic Country, players come from under-18 NAB League sides Geelong Falcons, Murray Bushrangers, GWV Rebels, Bendigo Pioneers, Dandenong Stingrays and Gippsland Power.

Most state sides – with the exception of Vic Metro – cover vast distances to attend training in the lead-up to the championships.

Trying to get all these (albeit talented) players familiar with each other's games in a short space of time can be a challenge.

The addition of two assistant coaches in Armistead and Cahir – who have already coached 10 and five players in the squad, respectively – helps somewhat, but it's ultimately up to the players themselves to develop cohesion.

It was demonstrated after one rushed passage, where one Vic Country player sold her teammate into trouble with an ill-timed handball. The ball spilled free in a tackle and resulted in a Vic Metro shot on goal.

"That's one where we'll ask the players at the half-time break: how do we want to dispose of the ball at the contest? Let’s reinforce our contest method," O'Connor told one of the assistant coaches.

The bigger picture

The game was played at Avalon Airport Oval in Werribee, with the coaches' boxes placed in the newly renovated stand.

Scattered alongside are boxes containing recruiters and media, keeping out of the cloudy 10-degree day, complete with a biting Melbourne wind, while parents, friends and the occasional diehard AFLW fan huddle in the seats below.

The bright white Country box contains O'Connor, her two assistants (who later leave for the bench so they can rotate their lines with greater effect) and team manager Claudia Davey.

O'Connor also heads up the NAB AFLW Academy, meaning she knows players on both sides better than most.

Her coaching in the box is interspersed with praise or acknowledgement for good work from both teams.

"She's a good player" or "that's a good kick" both get runs in response to Metro players' actions.

Vic Country celebrates a goal against Vic Metro

The go-between

Communication is key, and in Purcell as runner, O'Connor has someone fresh out of the under-18s program who also has experience in AFLW, coming third in this year's NAB AFLW Rising Star.

O'Connor has a phone line down to the bench, where Purcell receives her messages and trots back onto the field to pass them on in her bright pink runners' top.

Occasionally, O'Connor will ask to speak directly to Purcell, rather than have the message passed on through a third person on the other end of the line.

"You need to be literal when you tell them when to rotate, they're in game mode," O'Connor tells Purcell, after two Country players leave the field at a crucial moment.

The next step

Coaches in general continually ask themselves the same question during a match: is this something that can be taught and changed within this game, or should it be brought up in training?

When Metro were getting easy run out of stoppages in their defensive half, a message was noted down for half-time to address the positioning of the forwards.

By contrast, after a tall Metro forward burst through and slotted a goal on the run, the decision was made to push that particular moment until later.

"That's something we'll show in the review, what they should be doing at that point," was the comment made.

With games against Queensland, Eastern Allies and Western Australia to come in round two of the championships on the Gold Coast (July 8-12), and the AFLW Draft in October, it's all about education.