Fresh start helps North recruit graduate to the top echelon

NORTH Melbourne's versatile NAB AFL Women's star Kate Gillespie-Jones feels as comfortable in a science lab as she does on a footy field.

In a pocket profile for NMFC.com.au, Gillespie-Jones suggested the best advice she ever received was "don't do a PhD". She didn't listen, tackling a PhD in neuroscience with the same dedication and persistence she applies to football.

"We were looking at a drug treatment for traumatic brain injury … for any drug to be approved [to treat] a disease you need pre-clinical models, and you need to prove its efficacy, so eventually it could be used for human concussion patients," Gillespie-Jones told womens.afl

Kate Gillespie-Jones puts in the hard yards on the training track

The AFLW Injury Report released in 2018 highlighted concussion as one of the key areas of concern for the competition – the incidence of concussion causing missed matches in AFLW players was more than double that of AFL players in 2017. 

Studies indicate women in sport are more susceptible to concussion than their male counterparts (it is thought that this is due to physiological factors including neck strength, though this has not been proven), and the neuroscientist in Gillespie-Jones is keeping tabs on ongoing research. 

"It wasn't the reason I got interested in it, but I'm certainly interested in some of the concussion research being done in that space," she said. 

Having submitted her doctoral thesis in June, she's now waiting on results before deciding on her next move.

"It's with the examiners now, so hopefully I'll get comments back in a couple of weeks … and then get the 'Doctor' title in front of my name," she said with a grin.

Her hard work both in the lab and on the training track has evidently paid off this year. 

Gillespie-Jones enjoyed a breakout season in 2019, spending time in the ruck and up forward after crossing from Carlton. Developing a formidable partnership with fellow tall Emma King, she racked up career-high mark, tackle, hitout and disposal counts across the season.

North Melbourne's record mirrored her strong on-field performance. The Kangaroos won five of their seven matches – a novel experience for their new utility. 

"Coming from Carlton where I suppose we had a pretty bad year the year before (the Blues finished last with two wins), you forgot you had to sing the song after games," she laughed. 

The versatile star puts her own improvement down to the relationships she has built at her new club. 

"At Carlton I think I was probably too worried about what I should be doing and not just playing the game, whereas here I think that the coach [Scott Gowans] has got me to play to my strengths and I found it a bit freer out there."

North ultimately fell short despite their versatile recruit's impressive form, in part thanks to the two-conference format introduced for the 2019 season. 

Despite winning five of their seven clashes to finish third on the Conference A ladder, the Roos missed out on playing finals footy in 2019. Their 20 premiership points would have seen them finish top had they been in Conference B. 

"[It was] a bit disappointing that we didn't make finals with the conference system but I suppose it makes it interesting and competitive the whole way through," Gillespie-Jones said. 

"You can't afford to lose any games. It's frustrating but you do know from the outset that that's the way it is, and you just have to beat everybody in your conference." 

Missing out on finals will drive North's players going into the 2020 season. Gillespie-Jones and a host of her Roos teammates are keeping match fit playing for Melbourne Uni in the VFLW over winter, travelling to Arden St to train in the evenings. 

Kate Gillespie-Jones in action for Melbourne Uni in the VFL Womens' competition

A North supporter as a child (albeit thanks to bribery), she's soaking up every second of being around the club. 

"My brother's pretty jealous," she said. 

"He used to buy me a membership every year to get me to barrack for them, so when I traded [to North] he was like 'You're living my dream!' 

"Yeah, it's pretty cool."