Best frenemies: Prized picks to lock horns for first time

IN THE aftermath of the 2020 NAB AFLW Draft, it was somewhat overlooked that picks No.1 and 2 were actually the co-captains of NAB League side Northern Knights.

Richmond's Ellie McKenzie and Western Bulldogs' Jess Fitzgerald are close friends, having played footy alongside each other since their early teenage years.

Friday night's clash between the two sides will mark the first official match the young stars have played against each other, having had a half on opposing teams during a practice game earlier this year.

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"I thought Ellie was a beast. We were both bottom-age in that first SSV (School Sports Victoria) carnival, and I just thought I'd get the footy to her, because that's how we're going to win games," Fitzgerald told womens.afl.

"She was so strong even as a 13, 14-year-old, just an absolute beast."

McKenzie had a similar level of admiration for her fellow midfielder.

"I think it was pretty obvious she had that natural skill and ability. Being bottom-agers was pretty intimidating in that first team, but Jess was a great inside mid and played a bit of half-forward too. She can play anywhere really, she's really impressive," McKenzie said.

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Close friends Ellie McKenzie and Jess Fitzgerald reflect on their journey to the NAB AFLW

Leadership

On co-captaining the aborted NAB League season, which lasted three rounds before COVID-19 restrictions kicked in, McKenzie said it was great to work alongside Fitzgerald.

"For me personally, captaincy was something I was really working towards, and building up my leadership," she said.

"It was great to have Jess alongside me, we brought different things to the team and it was good to have a mix of both of us. Her being my best mate as well, it was great to share that."

Draft night

Fitzgerald actually missed her own name being read out on draft night by the AFL head of women's footy Nicole Livingstone, she was so busy celebrating McKenzie's selection the pick prior.

With lockdown restrictions still in play in Melbourne in October, the pair watched the draft on their own couches with their families.

"'Macca' was called out one before me, but I wasn't even listening for my name because I was just going, 'Oh my God, I'm so proud of my mate 'Macca''," Fitzgerald said.

"I sort of missed my name being called out because I was celebrating her, so it was pretty wild."

For McKenzie, the 10-minute period that saw herself and her best mate drafted was filled with emotion.

"It was pretty insane. For five minutes after my name was read out, I was crying and just a mess, and then I looked at the TV and saw Jess' name pop up, and I just started crying even harder because I was so happy for her," the Tiger said.

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Richmond selects Ellie McKenzie with the No.1 pick

The 2021 NAB AFLW season

The pair have impressed in the first run at the top level, debuting in round one and playing every game for their respective teams.

Fitzgerald earned a NAB AFLW Rising Star nod in round two (the first of the class of '20 to do so), with McKenzie following in round five.

"I think that's the only thing I've ever gotten first over 'Macca', but hers came soon after anyway," Fitzgerald said with a laugh.

"It's obviously a whole new level of play, so the first few rounds were just finding my feet.

"Then I got a feeling for the team and for the league, and we got four wins in a row which was pretty exciting for us.

"Obviously, we've had a bit of a tough run home with some top sides, but we've taken a lot out of those and now just pumped for Friday night with you (McKenzie), mate."

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Western Bulldogs' Jess Fitzgerald and Melbourne's Tyla Hanks have been named the NAB AFLW Rising Stars for round two

Friday night

McKenzie and Fitzgerald's pre-game routine for round nine may change somewhat in recognition of the big clash.

"Each game we send each other a little message, 'happy game day' – I think I might send 'unhappy game day' on Friday," Fitzgerald said.

Seeing as the pair know each other inside and out, who's going to be the first to send a verbal shot over the bow on Friday night?

"I don't think either of us are big sledgers. I might give her a little clip across the ears or something, but we'll see what happens," McKenzie said, grinning.

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