'Culture over skill': Dockers star opens up on what makes Freo tick

Coming into 2021, the NAB AFL Women's competition has Unfinished Business. Following the abrupt cancellation of the 2020 season at the end of March as COVID-19 restrictions hit the country, players are keen to make up for lost time. As well as the competition as a whole, each player has their own personal Unfinished Business. In a video and text series, womens.afl will speak to a variety of players about their aims for the upcoming season. 

IN THE minutes following the cancellation of the 2020 NAB AFLW season due to COVID-19, emotions were running high.

With the undefeated Fremantle having been on the cusp of a home preliminary final (and potentially a home Grand Final), senior Dockers player Ebony Antonio tweeted two words: "No leadership".

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She later clarified the tweet was not directed at AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan, but rather the events in the lead-up to the cancellation of the season.

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Versatile Dockers star ready to fire in 2021

"Oh, if I had those hours again, I probably would have backpedalled a little bit and probably not put anything public out like that. But I do own my actions and I did explain why I did say that," Antonio told womens.afl.

"But yeah, it was frustrating to think that you know our season was pushed aside and we understand that they (the AFL) felt they didn't know how to handle COVID, let alone the wider public (knowing how to handle it). 

"To have in front of us what could have been a real fairytale finish to our season … what could have happened was pretty [devastating] and heartbreak at the same time. 

"Hold nothing against the decision in terms of like, there's bigger things in footy, and COVID and everyone's health and safety is first and foremost, but yeah, I was just as disappointed as everyone else. Probably made a silly mistake and tweeting actually how I did feel."

CULTURE OVER SKILL

Antonio has seen first-hand the evolution of the competition, having first played for the Dockers in 2017 when she was relatively new to football.

In that time, Fremantle has risen from consecutive second-last finishes to preliminary finalists in 2019 and 2020. 

The Dockers last lost a game at their fortress of Fremantle Oval in round five, 2018, and they last tasted defeat in a home and away match in round four, 2019.

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"We've done a lot of groundwork and it's credit to our strength and conditioning team, Darryn (Fry, AFLW manager), Trent (Cooper, coach) and Wade (Spilcker, list manager) who have been here for quite the journey as well," Antonio said.

"It's a credit to them that they've been able to draft real good young kids that have great culture, and we do draft on culture over skill. Skills are a blessing, but first and foremost, we want good people at our club, and we've been able to keep good people at our club as well. 

"When we walk into the club, it's very welcoming, we have family vibe and it's something that you definitely want to be a part of, and that's why we've been so successful in terms of keeping girls at our club as well."

THE SEASON AHEAD

In 2021, Fremantle is eager to pick up where it left off, and made a big statement on Sunday against a GWS side which has been on the road for a month due to COVID restrictions in Sydney.

Judging by the efforts recorded in the pre-season, the Dockers are primed for a big year and will have reinforcements, welcoming back important runner Steph Cain from an ACL injury.

Alex Williams (recovered from her torn ACL, now rehabbing a wrist injury) and Ann McMahon (torn ACL and broken leg in a workplace accident as a police officer) are also likely to feature at some point in 2021 after missing the entirety of last year.

Steph Cain will return from injury for the Dockers this season. Picture: AFL Photos

"Get that first 'w' (win) in round one, and the old cliché is we'll take it from there, but I'm expecting big thing from our team," Antonio said ahead of the 30-point win over the Giants.

"We've had a solid pre-season under (head of strength and conditioning) Kate Starre, she's pretty brutal in terms of our running program and everything like that so girls are getting PBs – not only the young girls, but the older girls as well. 

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"It's kind of exciting to see that, and know we're still pushing and raising that bar. 

"I'm sure – like everyone else – if we don't raise the bar as well, we're going to be left behind. So it's really important to make sure that everyone's on the same page and we're really big and strong ready for round one."

Antonio sells entire supply of candy

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Ebony Antonio completes one of the plays of the game with a sidestep, a one-two, another sidestep and the finish from a tough angle

A WIDER FOCUS

Antonio's thinking big picture when it comes to Fremantle's unfinished business, confident that the cancellation of the 2020 season will drive every team towards a strong 2021.

"It's an opportunity to get better and move forward from 2020," she said.

"We take last year as a positive sign that every other team isn't finished and neither are we, and I'm really excited to see how each team bounces back and it should make for a really good and exciting 2021 season.

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"I hope everyone's tuning in, because I'm sure everyone's got some feeling towards what happened. 

"I'm sure there'll be girls getting bigger and stronger and ready to lay some massive tackles and hopefully we'll see some flying screamers and stuff like that. I'm really excited to see where the AFLW is going to take us."