Shifter's Eyecatchers: In recruiters' speak, we call Georgie a 'jet'

FROM the very first time I became part of the VFL/AFL competition way back in 1974 as a player at Geelong, I have marvelled at the enormous contribution indigenous players have made to our game. That first impression came from my initial coach at the Cats the legendary Graham "Polly" Farmer. In those days coaches often joined in training drills and despite being past his playing days, Polly was the most skilful on the track with his signature precision handpassing together with his left-foot stab passes and dropkicks, as well as his ruck craft. It was simply amazing. He not only perfected the drop punt and torpedo punt but also mesmerised everyone lucky enough to see with his masterful reverse torpedoes.

I always believed, having seen him firsthand, that the "Big Cat" was ahead of his time as a coach preaching the need to train twice a day and that "perfect practise (with your skills) makes perfect." This together with undeniably hard work were the keys to success in the game. He was a pioneer with barely a handful of Indigenous players and/or coaches in the VFL/AFL ranks at the time.

You can imagine how honoured and delighted I was three decades later to be part of the selection panel for the AFL's Indigenous Team of the Century where we selected Polly Farmer as its ruckman and captain of that sensational team.

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Like all AFL fans of the last 30 years, I have marvelled at the exploits of other Indigenous greats including Adam Goodes, Mick O'Loughlin, Chris Johnson, Michael Long and Andrew McLeod, all members of that wonderful commemorative team. All have made an incredible contribution to the spectacular game we have today. 

Having worked with or observed all five at close quarters, their work ethic and courage combined with their lightning reflexes (and step through traffic) overall vision and skill set in winning and using the ball, set them apart from just good players- they were champions of the game.

These Indigenous superstars have set the foundation for what we see today in the AFL with the likes of Lance "Buddy" Franklin and Shaun Burgoyne heading up a list of 83 Indigenous players in the game in 2021. At last year's NAB AFL Draft, Jamarra Ugle-Hagan from the Oakleigh Chargers, became just the second Indigenous player to be selected at No.1 (Des Headland was No.1 in 1998) when chosen by the Western Bulldogs and was among the 11 Indigenous players selected. The flow of Indigenous future stars continues.

As our game has expanded dramatically in the women's space in the last five years with the introduction of AFLW, our challenge now is to provide similar opportunities and increased support for our Indigenous girls who have the aspiration to play the game at the highest level.

Already there are AFLW Indigenous role models with the likes of Carlton's midfielder Maddy Prespakis, the competition reigning best-and-fairest winner and Fremantle goalkicking star Gemma Houghton, both household names in the AFLW world at the top of their games.

Fremantle star Gemma Houghton celebrates a goal during the round six clash with West Coast at Optus Stadium on March 7, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

A NAB AFL Women's Rising Star from the Brisbane Lions, Courtney Hodder is another player of Indigenous heritage switching from rugby who has grasped the opportunity to play on the National AFLW stage with her innate goal sense top shelf.

The next few years will provide us with many more talented Indigenous young women building upon the 23 Indigenous players who are role models already in the AFLW competition.

My AFLW Eyecatchers this round focuses on Indigenous girls in the NAB League and I didn't need to look very far last round to find a potential star on the horizon, in Calder Cannons midfielder Georgie Prespakis. She was again the most influential player on the ground in the Calder Cannons close encounter with the Western Jets winning by 11 points with her 26 possessions (16 contested), five clearances and six tackles as well as kicking a vital goal all part of another performance of quality. In recruiting terms, Georgie is referred to as a "jet".

On Sunday it was a trip to MARS Stadium in Ballarat to witness an historic day with the girls from the Northern Territory having their very first match ever in the NAB League against the GWV Rebels. And the Northern Territory Thunder girls did not let themselves down with a strong 25-point win over the locals.

Leading the way in the midfield was a girl from the Tiwi Islands with similar traits to a boy who emerged to become a household name in AFL circles. His name of course is Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti, the Essendon dynamic small forward …her name Freda Puruntatameri – remember the name.

Freda Puruntameri gathers the ball during the 2020 AFLW NAB All-Stars match in September. Picture: AFL Photos

Freda waltzed her way through the midfield stepping through the opposition with that signature Indigenous step collecting 14 possessions, having seven hitouts in the ruck and kicking a goal in an inspirational performance. She was well supported by Ashanti Bush, a girl whose second language is English but AFL is her sport, as she kicked two goals including a boomerang from the pocket providing that class needed up forward to win matches.

Another potential star with a more conventional background was J'Noemi Anderson who grew up kicking the footy in the backyard with her five brothers, one of whom, Jed, is now starring with the North Melbourne and another, Joe, who was drafted by Carlton.

J'Noemi's sharp competitive edge and burst of speed from stoppage along with her strong kicks into the forward zone were all clear indicators this 16-year-old from St Mary's in Darwin is a name to pencil in for the future.

J'Noemi Anderson dodges Maria Rioli during the 2020 AFLW NAB All-Stars match in September. Picture: AFL Photos

Both Bush and Anderson will join two other Indigenous girls from Tasmania in Perri King and Claire Ransom, both currently starring for the Tasmania Devils in the NAB League, who are also in the Allies squad for the AFLW Under-19s Championships being held beginning next week in Melbourne. Puruntatameri having just turned 20 years is outside the age level for Under-19s Championships but certain to be accessed further at state league level.

Two further Indigenous girls in line to play in the NAB AFLW Under-19 Championships are Dandenong Stingrays' Jaide Anthony and GWV Rebels Tahlia Meier with both set to play Championships with Victoria Country.

It was no surprise to see that both Prespakis (Victoria Metro) and Anthony (Victoria Country) were among the best players afield in the lead into championships in the NAB AFLW Challenge match at Trevor Barker Oval on Good Friday.

Jaide Anthony and Annie Lee in action for Vic Country during the AFLW Under-19 Challenge clash with Vic Metro at Trevor Barker Oval on April 2, 2021. Picture: Getty Images

Other girls to watch in the championship from other states with Indigenous and Torres Strait heritage include exciting Queensland's twins Laquoiya and Litonya Cockatoo-Motlap from Coolangatta-Cairns City Lions and Western Australian pair Melisha Hardy from East Perth/Swan Districts and Ashleigh Reidy from South Fremantle.

There is not a shadow of a doubt that the environment for Indigenous talent, whether it be male or female, entering the AFL and AFLW system today, is far better equipped to support players from varied backgrounds than when trailblazers like Polly Farmer entered the system in the 1960s.

And we are indebted to Michael Long, Adam Goodes, Andrew McLeod, Michael O'Loughlin and Chris Johnson who, like Farmer, entertained us with their unique talent but also stood up for their "First Peoples" when the time needed it, leaving us in better shape as a code today with over 100 Indigenous male and female players in our AFL and AFLW competitions.

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