ON THAT historic night of Friday, February 3, 2017, a 19-year-old Britt Bonnici ran out for Collingwood in the first ever AFLW match.
The third-youngest player on the field, Bonnici – immediately noticeable with her black helmet – didn’t find a ton of the footy with eight disposals, but made her impact felt with a whopping nine tackles.
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Fast-forward to the start of the 2021 season, and Bonnici is coming off a second-place finish in the Pies' best and fairest and is considered a young leader of the club at just 23.
"I feel like everybody's just sort of settled a bit more into footy. There are girls coming through pathways, the little things like how to tackle properly and skills are being injected into these girls from such a young age," Bonnici said.
"Whereas previously, it was just girls who loved it and wanted to have a kick around and happen to be really good at it who had the opportunity. It makes us older girls – although I'm 23, I'm not really that much older – lift our game.
"It's really nice to see young girls constantly pushing for positions, coming straight into the League because they're the ones who are going to change the AFLW even more than us.
"We were part of it at the start and we're still part of it now, but they're really the ones who in 10 to 15 years will reap the rewards, which is really exciting."
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Collingwood will field three debutants on Thursday night – Tarni Brown, Bella Smith and Amelia Velardo – with Carlton also handing a debut to Mimi Hill.
All four have had exposure to the talent development pathways, although Velardo has played just the three NAB League games for Western Jets after the season was cut short last year due to COVID-19.
"Coming from what was effectively local footy straight into the AFLW, there wasn't anything that could prepare you for it," Bonnici said.
"I was very lucky I had learned some tactics from Nationals, whereas there were some girls in the competition who never got that exposure.
"Now we're sort of getting to a stage where everybody in the competition has their head around the fact that, you know, footy isn't just a game of getting the boot on the ball.
"Going forward, it is a game of tactics and it's a game of having to adjust and adapt to the best and that's definitely made a huge impact in the sort of way we prepare."
Bonnici spent most of her first three seasons as an effective tagger, following around the best midfielders in the competition, but was given a licence to attack under new coach Steve Symonds in 2020.
Her numbers went through the roof as a consequence, averaging 19.6 touches in 2020, up from 12.6 in 2018.
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"The role was very, very different. I had to get my head around sort of what that would mean for me, what that would mean for my game and how I'd adapt to those things," she said.
"Steve had faith in me trying a new role and I felt good last season. But going into this season, hopefully I can play with a bit more freedom and not worry so much about what's different."