NORTH Melbourne is already one of the premier sides in the AFLW, but will be boosted again by the return of an All-Australian defender.
Star interceptor Jess Duffin is on track to play in 2021 after missing the 2020 season due to pregnancy, giving birth to Georgie in late June, just before the second Melbourne COVID-19 lockdown.
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It's been a slow and steady return to fitness for Duffin, 31, hampered somewhat by the closure of gyms in recent months.
"I was just doing what I thought I should be doing. I was messaging North and asking what I should and shouldn't be doing and they were giving me guidelines, but I didn't get assessed until the first day of pre-pre-season (in October)," Duffin told womens.afl.
"I was kind of on track, but I didn’t understand how my body – because you don't see it from the outside – was doing internally.
"You kind of think you're ok, because you can't see anything, but when they assess your core, there's a few weaknesses due to having a baby.
"It's just trying to strengthen my core to start with and ramping it up from there. The running will come, because I don't like running on a treadmill, I prefer to chase a footy.
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"I'm doing a lot of pilates and stretching to get that flexibility back, that I didn't have much of anyway. I'm the first female athlete at North Melbourne to have a baby, so it's new to everyone."
While teammate and mum-of-two Sophie Abbatangelo was quick to offer advice ("Let me have the baby first!" was Duffin's tongue-in-cheek comment), the multi-talented athlete has leant closely on Renegades teammate Amy Satterthwaite, who gave birth at the start of the year.
Satterthwaite – with baby Gracie in tow – made it back for the recent 2020 WBBL season, held in a hub in Sydney. Duffin opted out of the tournament.
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"If it was a normal season, I probably would have played, but given it was going to be a hub in Sydney, and we were going to have to quarantine for two weeks in Melbourne first, it was just going to be too much for us," Duffin said.
"My husband (Chris) is a school teacher, and he could have worked remotely from the hub, but we weren't sure if schools were going back to normal in term four.
"With all that, Georgie, my body, we thought it wouldn't hurt me to sit this one out."
Duffin is itching to get back to matches, having spent the 2020 season in and out of the coaches' box offering assistance and advice to her fellow defenders.
"I didn't really want to stay too much in there either, because I was kind of barracking and I didn't want to get kicked out too many times, so I had to keep quiet," she said with a laugh.
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The tense semi-final against Collingwood, in which Jasmine Garner took a game-saving contested mark in the last minute, was a test for Duffin's nerves.
"Because of COVID, the final was capped at just a few coaches. I was probably one of the first ones left out, which was always going to be the case," she said.
"I was watching from home. I'm really bad in the box, so you could imagine what I was like on the couch.
"It was kind of one of those things where I had to walk down to the front of the house and then check the score. I couldn't physically watch. Or I'd yell to my husband down the other end, 'what's going on?'"
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Duffin has no real apprehension or qualms about her return to football, but she's struggling with an unexpected quirk of motherhood.
"It's not about me, it's more about Georgie and leaving her. My husband plays club cricket as well, so leaving her with Mum and Dad on a Tuesday and Thursday night while we go to training has been really hard," Duffin said.
"I don't want to leave her. I didn't think that would be so hard, and you don't know until you have a baby how it will affect you.
"I miss her when I'm at training, it's only a couple of hours so it sounds a bit silly, but you do miss that time with her."