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NSW/ACT line up Queensland in historic women’s AFL match

Rising stars: Maddy Beeson, Mai Ngyuyen, Nicola Barr and Rebecca Beeson. Photo: Christopher PearceShe is the first female AFL scholarship holder at Sydney University, yet Nicola Barr hardly knew what Australian rules was when one of her teachers suggested entering a team in a secondary schools competition.

“We were all a bit like, ‘Hmm, we don’t really know what this is but we’ll give it a crack’,” the medical science student says.

“We went along and got annihilated. But it was so much fun. We had such a great time.”

Barr had been a keen soccer player but got the footy bug, joining a local competition and going on captain the state under 18s side last year. On Sunday she will play for NSW/ACT in the combined team’s first-ever clash with Queensland at senior level.

The match – to be played at Blacktown International Sportspark after the NEAFL fixture between Sydney University and Brisbane Lions – will be one of a series of standalone state games this year as part of the build-up towards the establishment of a women’s AFL competition. AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan said in May that a fully fledged women’s league was “inevitable” by 2020 or, if the depth of talent is available, earlier.

“It’s the right thing for us,” McLachlan said. “It’s what our women players want but it’s something that’s up to us to progress… I just see this as something that is a natural progression for us. Women are integral to our competition.”

Data revealed by Fairfax Media last week showed that Australian women were far more likely to be involved in individual sports than team sports. However, participation in Australian rules is growing quite quickly.

According to figures held by AFL NSW/ACT, in 2014 females made up 23 per cent of all AFL players in the region, including Auskick, schools programs and clubs. Since 2011 numbers have more than tripled from 13,817 to 45,800. There are now 72 women’s clubs in NSW/ACT of which 19 were established just this year.

“The greatest thing about women’s footy is that we can take it wherever we want to,” said Libby Sadler, the NSW/ACT AFL’s female programs manager.

“I think the opportunities are endless. Particularly for the batch of young girls we’ve got coming through now, there will be a national league. It’s just a matter of when and what it looks like. It’s coming and it’s coming faster than I think many of us realise.”

Sadler said the players involved in Sunday’s match were introduced to the game through various avenues.

“You’ve got some who are students, physios, a couple of police officers, government workers – they’re a mixed lot,” she said.

“A lot of women get involved through friends of friends. We’ve got a strong school participation rate. They see there is a youth girls league, a women’s league and they can play on the weekends. A lot of them realise how great it is and never look back.

“With the increased professionalism, increased development and investment the future is bright for female footy players.”

NSW/ACT lost to Victoria last month while Queensland beat Tasmania. Barr, who will play on the half forward line, said Queensland was strong but NSW/ACT was improving quickly.

“There are a lot more people who have tried out for the teams. There is much more interest. I think this year we’ve seen a big step forward,” she said.

“We have so many more youth girls teams, we have more women’s football being played and there is the women’s AFL coming up, which I’d love to be part of. I love being part of something that’s really starting to grow.”

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