'I can stop fighting the fight': Crow's new approach to 'comeback' season

ADELAIDE co-captain Chelsea Randall can't remember ever smiling this much during a pre-season.

Twelve months after undergoing surgery to repair the torn ACL in her right knee, the star defender has recently been given the green light to join full contact training and she couldn't be happier.

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But Randall's enthusiasm is due to more than just her ability to train and the prospect of a playing return at the start of the 2021 season.

Chelsea Randall in action at Crows training in late November. Picture: AFL Photos

A year on the sidelines has given the AFLW star perspective, and she is attacking the competition's fifth season with a significant weight off her shoulders.

"I remember going into the first pre-season in 2017, then even 2018 and 2019, I just felt I had so much to prove and I'd been fighting a fight by playing footy and showing that women deserve to be on the big stage," Randall told womens.afl.

"Every pre-season you wanted to make a point that we deserved to be out there.

"But when you do an ACL or a significant injury and you're forced to take time away from the game, it makes you realise you need to embrace the moment and enjoy them as you go.

"The 2019 Grand Final when we had 53,000 people there, that was the moment when I realised that we are worthy enough and people love this competition, so I can stop fighting the fight and I can just focus on me being a player. 

"Rolling into this season, it's just been about having some fun and just embracing every second, because things you love can be taken away just like that."

Chelsea Randall celebrates Adelaide's 2019 AFLW premiership with fans at Adelaide Oval. Picture: AFL Photos

Randall's return to full training and the prospect of her leading the Crows again in 2021 has provided a significant boost to an Adelaide team looking to rebound from an injury-riddled, two-win season in 2020.

And the three-time All Australian won't be alone in her return in what she dubbed "the comeback season" for her club. 

Superstar Crow Erin Phillips returned from ACL last year but only played two games, while half-forward Hannah Button and forward Chloe Scheer each missed the entire season with ACL injuries.

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Winger Deni Varnhagen suffered a serious knee injury in a trial match and got back for the last game of the season, while ruck Rhiannon Metcalfe returned from her ACL injury to play two games.

Combined with other teammates with past ACL injuries, they formed the ACL Club, which Randall was quick to rename when accepting her membership last November.

"I think language is a huge thing, so the day that I did my knee, when it got announced, I just changed the language from the ACL Club to the 'Amazing, Courageous, Legends Club'," Randall said.

"I was prepared to go on this journey and I think it's helped me understand my teammates, and even opponents, who have gone through this type of long-term injury before.

"It's such a crappy injury, and it was nice in some respects to know that you had some players who had gone through it before to lean on for some support."

Chelsea Randall consoles injured teammate Erin Phillips during the 2019 AFLW Grand Final. Picture: AFL Photos

The renaming of the ACL Club is an example of the positive approach Randall tries to have with everything she does, but the 29-year-old still had challenging moments through her recovery.

Her progression to running coincided with the escalation of COVID-19, and the face-to-face support she had relied on quickly disappeared.

"It was probably about three weeks where it was really challenging for me personally," the courageous defender said.

"I had all my family in Western Australia, there was COVID, and I was here in Adelaide.

"It was a challenging time and I was up to the running stage and dealing with starting at the bottom again.

"For me that was quite difficult to deal with."

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Physio Alex McVeigh and conditioning coach Warwick Raymond became even more important, while Adelaide SANFL player Jimmy Matthews became a physio and running teammate as he recovered from his own ACL injury.

Crows teammate and best mate, Marijana Rajcic, provided an understanding ear, having suffered three serious knee injuries herself.

The other important period of Randall's recovery was the involvement she maintained with the Crows' AFLW team as an assistant midfield coach, working with an Australian Football champion.

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"I was really lucky that I was alongside Andrew McLeod and I learned so much," Randall said.

"Being a defender, it would have been quite easy for me to go and assist the backline.

"But speaking to coach Matthew Clarke, he gave me an opportunity and thought it would be really good for my footy if I learned a different line.

"The girls were really good and they were the ones also giving me feedback and advice."

Adelaide coach Matthew Clarke and co-captain Chelsea Randall share a laugh at the 2019 AFLW Grand Final parade. Picture: AFL Photos

Randall hopes the coaching experience could help her move into the midfield whenever needed in 2021, while it may have planted a seed for her post-playing career.

"I could see myself potentially after my career looking into a coaching role," Randall, who is also studying teaching, said. 

"I've been inspired and very grateful to the coaches we have, and it's definitely opened my eyes to how amazing our coaches are.

"The work and effort they put into our football team, it truly means a lot and I just have a greater appreciation for them."

For now, being the best player she can be is Randall's focus, and helping the Crows fly again in their comeback season.

So what are the 2019 premiers are capable of? "I think if we have that strong bond, our group is more than capable of achieving anything and everything."