On Saturday, October 17, 2020 at UTAS Stadium, the Launceston Blues won the TSL Development League, TSLW and TSL Premierships all on the same day in the one location.
In a year where the Tasmanian State League almost didn’t happen due to COVID-19, the club’s triumph is a collective story of overcoming adversity, with each side having its own tale to tell.
Launceston’s women’s team was perfect in 2019, until the day it mattered most.
Undefeated for the entire season heading into the TSLW Grand Final, the Blues lost to Clarence by three points in one of the biggest upsets in Tasmanian state league history.
Any Grand Final loss is a painful experience, but it was especially tough for a Launceston side that had been so dominant and fallen short by the barest of margins.
Playing coach Angela Dickson said it was difficult to deal with, but she didn’t let the loss overshadow what had been a great 2019 season.
“From a team and coaching perspective, we kind of named it up for what it was. It was obviously heart breaking to go undefeated for a full season and lose a Grand Final. But upon reflection, the 2019 season was still a fantastic season from us as a group,” she said.
“We didn’t get the big one at the end, but we were still able to look back and reflect. We had a fantastic year, we just put it in the past and focussed on the year ahead of us.”
It was an extraordinary accomplishment for Dickson in particular, as 2019 was her first year as playing coach.
A legend of the club; Dickson has been at Launceston since 2011, played in over 100 games for the Blues, won a Best and Fairest and was a Premiership player in 2017 (the first year of the TSLW competition).
She didn’t expect to have an undefeated regular season in her first year as coach, saying the season was an important learning experience.
“It was definitely not something I expected or even hoped to achieve in my first year as coach, particularly as a playing coach. It’s a different type of ball game and it was a year where I learnt a lot about managing both roles, especially on game day, trying to focus as a player while also leading the group,” she said.
While Launceston didn’t get what it desired in the Grand Final, 2019 still ended on a high for Mia King.
She was drafted by North Melbourne with pick 49 in that year’s draft.
King was always destined for the big time, a TSLW premiership player at just 16 and an Under 18 All-Australian, the only reason she wasn’t selected higher was because North had exclusive access to her as part of its Tasmanian pool.
After having such a long connection with the Kangaroos through their academy, getting drafted was the realisation of a lifelong dream.
“The day was very exciting, it was a dream come true really. I’d always had my eyes set on North, so when the day finally came around I couldn’t believe it when my name was called out,” King said.
She linked up with fellow Blues, Daria Bannister and Abbey Green, at the Roos, while also now calling Nicole Bresnehan a teammate, after she had played a starring role in Clarence’s premiership just a few months earlier.
“Nicole and I have actually been living together in Melbourne, so enemies are now friends. It was a bit of a tough spot at the time when we’d just lost the Grand Final to Clarence, but she’s awesome.”
King broke into North’s side late in the season, playing four games including the Semi-Final against Collingwood.
After a thrilling two-point win over the Pies the Roos looked primed for a Premiership tilt, but King would experience some more finals heartbreak, but this time it was through no fault of her own.
The AFLW season was cancelled due to COVID-19, meaning a premier wasn’t crowned.
“It was a disappointing end to the season, but unfortunately there’s just nothing you can do and the safety of the community was more important at the time. The AFL did make the right decision, but obviously it was really hard for us because we’d been building up some momentum,” King said.
While the AFLW’s season was cancelled, there were genuine concerns over whether a TSLW season would even happen.
Everyone was in limbo for the next few months, with Dickson struggling to secure and motivate her players under the circumstances.
“At one stage it was looking like we weren’t even going to have a team,” she said.
“It was hard to get girls to come out, prepare and train for a season that potentially wasn’t going to happen. It was a big mental game in those early few months, we were expecting a standard of the girls and couldn’t promise a season.”
It helped when a season started to look likely, but Dickson still had to grapple with restrictions like only training in groups of 10.
But she credited the professionalism and experience of the group for helping her deal with these challenges, stepping up at training when she couldn’t get around the whole team.
“The girls were amazing in their flexibility and support of me to just help out when I needed it,” she said.
“I think it made the group closer and for a few of them, it opened their eyes a little bit on what it actually takes to run a group, because I did have to rely on them a lot in those early days.”
More than anything, having the comradery and structure of football was a welcome distraction from the rest of the world.
“In the end with everything that was happening with COVID and in the players’ lives, I think having football, that routine and being around each other, it was definitely important,” Dickson said.
“I know for me personally when everything was up in the air, I was working from home and a lot of things in my life had changed, having football to go to and being around the girls a few times a week was a good outlet and something that I looked forward to.”
But for all the chaos that the pandemic caused, Dickson admitted that it did have one unintended benefit.
“So many of the girls’ lives were completely turn upside down, in a way we were fortunate I guess with COVID because it meant some of the girls who originally weren’t going to play last season ended up playing,” she said.
King was one of those players and while her return didn’t happen under expected circumstances, it gave her another crack at a Premiership.
“My original plan was to go over to Melbourne for Uni, but with COVID happening that all changed. So I originally wasn’t playing TSLW, but by staying in Tassie I was able to play another season which I’m actually really happy about,” she said.
After dominating in 2019, last season was a far more even affair for Launceston.
There was a three-team deadlock at the top of the ladder between Launceston, Clarence and Glenorchy, each team finished with six wins and two losses, with Launceston only securing the minor premiership on percentage.
There was also a parity triangle that existed between the three teams which Dickson could only describe as “odd”.
Each side had team they went undefeated against and a team they couldn’t beat during the regular season.
In Launceston’s case, it beat Clarence twice, but lost to Glenorchy both times.
Dickson said the evenness between the three sides made each game against them feel special.
“We really looked forward to playing Glenorchy and Clarence. When we played against them it was something as a group we thrived off, there was always a different vibe in the change rooms and during training. It was like, ‘here we go, this what we’re here for, we want to be pushed and play against the best’,” she said.
“To have Glenorchy beat us twice throughout the season, it was never something we that looked at and said, ‘oh bugger we lost again’. It was like ‘great, what can we learn from this and what do we need to do better’.”
On the eve of its Semi-Final match-up against North Launceston, Launceston received a major boost.
Brooke Brown was drafted by North Melbourne at pick 49 during the week, the only AFLW draftee from the state.
A versatile key position player, 2020 was actually Brown’s first year in the TSLW after previously playing basketball for the Launceston Tornadoes in the NBL-1.
But when the Tornadoes’ season was cancelled due to COVID, Dickson was excited when Brown reached out to her.
“I’d been trying to get Brooke along to footy for a few years now, but she had all her basketball commitments with the Tornadoes,” she said.
“But when COVID hit she messaged me and said, ‘hey, do you still want me to come along’ and I was like, ‘of course, I’d love you to’.”
From her first training session, Brown not only showed off her natural agility and pace, but skills, marking and timing that were beyond her limited experience in football.
It soon became obvious to Dickson that Brown would be a player of interest to North.
“With some of the connections we already have with North Melbourne with Mia and Daria, I thought, ‘oh, I might just flick them a message and see if they’d be interested’,” she said.
“We filmed all our games ourselves because there was no money from AFL Tas, so we had some volunteers who filmed our games for our game reviews, but I also sent them onto North Melbourne to show them the players we had in the group.”
King is thrilled to have Brown as a Roo and is excited for what she can provide.
“I was so happy when Brooke got drafted, she’s only played football for one year so to get where she is now is a real credit to her,” she said.
“She’s so quick around the field, has great height and is really versatile, North’s really happy to have picked her up.”
Brown celebrated the news in style a few days later, kicking five goals in the Blue’s 43-point win over North Launceston to advance to the Grand Final.
While many on the outside thought a Launceston/Clarence Grand Final rematch would be the dream scenario, giving Launceston a chance at revenge, Dickson admitted she had her eyes set on Glenorchy.
“When we were waiting to find out who we were going to play in the Grand Final, it was that whole thing about do we want to play Clarence for redemption for last year, but it was like nah. Personally, I really wanted to play Glenorchy, I wanted to beat them because I knew that we could,” she said.
“When Glenorchy beat Clarence in the Semi-Final, we were so excited to have that opportunity.”
Windsor Park was buzzing all week, as the U18, Development League and TSL sides were all playing in a Grand Final that weekend as well.
“It was pretty special and something you just felt, you felt it all the time around the club, this pride, excitement and pure anticipation,” Dickson said.
The Grand Final was a tough defensive slog, due to the wet conditions and the pressure both sides applied.
It started in dramatic fashion when Daria Bannister, who carried a knee injury into the game, went down early in the first quarter.
King said she wasn’t surprised by the nature of the contest, especially against an opponent like Glenorchy.
“We knew it was going to be a hard game going into it, a really tough contest,” she said.
“It was a scrappy low scoring game, on the day I think it came down to who could hustle it out and get the win.”
Only two goals were kicked for the entire game, both by Launceston in the second quarter.
Glenorchy had its chances (as represented by its six behinds), but the Blues were anchored by a stout back six.
“Our backline group throughout the day were just phenomenal, I look back at the game and see Dearne Taylor save two goals at the start and end of the game,” Dickson said.
“The group just dug deep and never stopped. Just that never say die attitude, they weren’t going to let Glenorchy get on top.”
The final siren eventually sounded, giving Dickson and the Blues a seven-point win.
“I was just over the moon when the siren went at the end, for the girls and me as a coach to finally get the big win, it was an unreal and surreal feeling,” she said.
King was awarded best on ground for her dominant game through the midfield.
“It’s such a privilege to win a Grand Final, let alone a best on ground medal, so I was really happy about that. But I couldn’t have done it without the team, everyone played their role that day,” she said.
After experiencing two heartbreaking finals campaigns in the TSLW and AFLW, she played in a premiership for a team she wasn’t even originally supposed to be a part of.
“It was just amazing to have another season of TSL, because I originally didn’t think I would. I love my team, Launie is just a great club and I think we were definitely hungry to get a medal after what happened in 2019,” she said.
Dickson had nothing but praise for King, who she sees being a factor in the AFLW for a long time to come.
“To see her on the footy field, she’s such a freak of nature. She can do things that most people can’t and she’s managed to pretty much do that since she first had a football in her hands,” she said.
“She’s going to have a breakout year with North Melbourne this year, she’s taken her game to another level. The AFLW is where she needs to be, that’s where she belongs.”
For Dickson, a premiership was the perfect send off to her tenure as coach.
“We all want a fairy tale ending I guess,” she said.
“As a coach you put in so much effort and so much time. To obviously not get it in 2019 and knowing I wasn’t going to be coaching the next season, it meant a lot. Not just as a coach in general, but as a female coach in a male dominated environment, it’s something that I’m proud of and something that will stay with me forever. To know that I’m the first female TSLW coach to win a premiership.”
King commended Dickson, not only for her skills as a coach (she only suffered three losses across her two seasons at the helm), but for her ability to still play while coaching.
“I think Ange was so important, she was a great coach and to be able to go from playing to coaching as well is a credit to her. The team really respected her for everything she did for us,” she said.
King is currently starring for North Melbourne in the AFLW.
She’s enjoying the opportunity to play with fellow Tasmanians Nicole Bresnehan and Daria Bannister, especially after Bannister made an incredible recovery from meniscus surgery to be available.
“We actually all joked that she (Bannister) made it through Round 1, which was good cause she’s always had an injury curse around Round 1, but she killed it on the day. There was actually some uncertainty about whether she’d be moving over after the TSL finished, but she absolutely smashed her rehab and she’s been killing it on the track. It was so good to run out with her and Nicole as well, ” she said.
But King wouldn’t be there without Launceston and TSLW, who gave her a place to develop and somewhere to play when the pandemic ruined her plans.
“I don’t think I’d be at the AFLW level now if it wasn’t for Launceston and the TSL, I remember Alex Gibbons (former Launceston coach) picked me up as a rookie in Grade 9 and that’s where the next level of my footy started,” she said.
“Last season in Victoria the VFL was cancelled, so to get some more experience and games under my belt was beneficial for my development and game.”
Dickson will pull on the navy blue again in 2021, though this time just as a player.
This season will look different, with Launceston now playing in the NTFAW after the TSLW was dissolved due to two teams pulling out of the five-team competition.
Dickson lamented the loss of the TSLW, though she said potentially being the last team to win it did make the 2020 Premiership just that more special.
“I’m praying on everything that the TSLW is back next year, it’s sad to think that it’s potentially done now,” she said.
“It does make the last one more special knowing that’s potentially it, we finished the competition as the best team in the state. I guess in hindsight if we’d known it was going to be that way we might’ve celebrated that little bit more!”
Recovering from a Grand Final loss is hard enough, but when all the supposed structures and certainties of 2020 are ripped away, the fight to go again looked impossible.
But the Lady Blues found solace in football in amongst the chaos of last year, not lowering their standards or commitment to the cause despite the world falling down around them.
Launceston survived the pain of 2019, it got through the challenges of last season, its journey to a Premiership was more difficult than most you’ll find, but that just made the outcome all the more rewarding.
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