'We're our own little family': Star Pie on brave coach, fast-tracked return

BETWEEN elite netball and football, Collingwood defender Ash Brazill has worked with a lot of top-level coaches.

But Pies AFLW leader Steve Symonds – the family he has created, along with his brave coaching moves – sticks out.

At three-quarter time in Saturday's qualifying final against North Melbourne, Collingwood was 14 points in arrears, and facing an equal-record comeback to pinch the match.

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"The biggest thing he relayed to us is we never give up and we fight to the end, so just keep going, which is really cool for a coach. He wasn't yelling at us or anything like that," Brazill told womens.afl.

"He just gives you belief. The way he talks, he just believes in this group. Having a coach that really believes in you, I think really lifted the girls in the last quarter.

"He's not afraid to make changes. I went from forward to back in that last quarter, Ebony O'Dea went from back to midfield. So, he doesn't just keep beating a dead horse, he's quite happy to change something when is not working, which is nice, because it's very rare that you get that from a coach.

"He's unreal. He's a dad, his own daughter's 22 and he's away from his family (in Adelaide), so he's really drilled to us that we're our own little family. And it really feels that it, it’s not just words."

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The surprise switch

One of the moves Symonds has unveiled this year has been All-Australian defender Brazill lining up as a forward, which first happened against Adelaide in round nine.

It isn't a position she has ever played before, even in her infamous WAWFL days in her early 20s, when she played under a false name to avoid detection by her elite netball coaches (she was outed when she won the Rising Star award, which was presented by a respected netball commentator).

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"I love it. I put a lot of pressure on myself in the backline. I think the way I play netball as a defender, I brought that across to footy," Brazill said.

"Being a forward, it was kind of nice as a 30-year-old to have a completely different position and I felt like I was kind of free.

"Steve said it wasn't a safe move, and to win finals we can't be safe – he relayed to us if he isn't going to be safe, then we shouldn't be playing safe footy. That's finals footy, finals in any sport.

"You need to have something up your sleeve that's a bit different, whether it's my dummy leads or being a bigger body up forward to help our smaller bodies, and then being able to return to defence if needed."

A fast-tracked (and welcome) return

After tearing her ACL at the end of February last year, returning to AFLW for 2021 wasn't even on Brazill's radar, instead the dual-athlete aiming for her elite sporting comeback to be in netball in May.

But as Collingwood's defensive injuries mounted, a secondary plan to return through the VFLW was aborted and Brazill made her return against St Kilda in round eight.

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"I said to Steve pretty early on, if I get back, it'll be pretty lucky," she said.

"I didn't want to play at 90 per cent, I wanted to be at 110 per cent, no excuses. I didn't want to play with any tape on my knee, because that would mean I hadn't rehabbed it properly.

"So, I was pretty strict on rehab and getting out there only when I felt good enough. Honestly, it now feels like I haven't done my knee before. Not having that in the back of your mind is really nice, and I feel like I can do everything I did before."

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Family ties 

Brazill battled somewhat with rehabbing her knee over Melbourne's lockdown, particularly as her physical care is passed over to the netball team once footy finishes, and the netballers were hubbing in Queensland.

What did keep her spirits up was son Louis, who was just six weeks old when Brazill injured her knee.

Brazill and wife Brooke do not have any family in Victoria, meaning the Pies players have become Louis' many, many aunties.

"Over COVID, I had thoughts round whether we should stay in Melbourne, because we've got a kid now and should he be around family? But then you're around a team you literally consider as family," she said.

"You see how much love they give to Louis, Brooke and myself, and it becomes more than a team.

"It's probably why we're playing well this year, because we all feel like family. Having a kid around the group – and I'm sure Erin (Phillips) and Daisy (Pearce) would say the same thing – it just changes the dynamics, it makes it more fun and less serious."

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