Melissa Bragg in action for Geelong's VFLW side (Picture: Supplied by GeelongFC, Design by Will Cuckson)

Pursuing netball from a young age, Melissa Bragg was always looking to make it at the top level in elite sport. Finding herself without a Suncorp Super Netball contract for 2022, she looked to find a new opportunity to follow her dream.

As a young girl, Bragg loved playing many different sports but netball was where she found her calling initially. She speaks exclusively to The Inner Sanctum about her cross-coding journey from the SSN to the AFLW.

“[As a child] I was just a netballer,” Bragg told The Inner Sanctum.

“I grew up playing lots of sports but never played footy, so I started with tennis and then basketball then I picked up netball when I started high school with some school friends.

“I’ve only started playing footy this year so footy is very, very new.”

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Playing in the SSN

Playing 26 games of SSN netball for Collingwood, Bragg played four seasons in the league. In 2015, Bragg started out at the Victorian Fury in the Australian Netball League, three years later, she became a training partner at Collingwood Netball.

After co-captaining the Tasmanian Magpies side in the ANL, she started rising up the ranks. Being elevated to the senior list ahead of the 2020 season, she took the position in place of Australian netball star Kim Ravaillion who went on to become a mother.

She speaks about what drove her to pursue netball and now Aussie Rules football, which has remained consistent across the two codes. Her competitive nature and professional approach to preparation have been key to her transition.

“I think I’ve always been very competitive, it’s in my nature and I suppose I’ve always played sport obviously to have fun but I’ve always also loved the competitive nature of it,” she said.

“The SSN is an elite sport and it brings that, so did I think it would have happened [playing sport professionally], but I pride myself on my work ethic and those kind of things.

“Once I started, I made my first state team in netball when I was 18 and it became more of a reality that this could actually happen.

Melissa Bragg in action for Collingwood Netball in the Suncorp Super Netball (Picture: SSN/Website)

Taking a new opportunity

Having never played the sport before, Bragg took a chance on a game that she never played but she never stopped watching.

As a career in the SSN took off, her dream was sidelined until she realised that the silver lining of finding herself without a contract years later was that she could try again with footy.

“I think when the AFLW popped up, I just thought this looks unreal, like how incredible is it that females are playing sport and girls from a young age have something to look up to,” Bragg said.

“I always wanted to play footy in front of other sports, and mum was always worried that I would get hurt playing with the boys. I was always keen to play but also busy with other sports.

“I suppose I never really pushed the point all that much, because there wasn’t necessarily anything to aspire to.

Bragg wanted to pursue VFLW/AFLW football with Geelong once they received a license for the leagues ahead of the 2019 season, however she was at a cross-roads with her netball career just taking off at Collingwood. It was her first year playing in the SSN which meant prioritising the sport that she had committed to.

Luckily for her, this sliding doors moment where she declined an opportunity to try out for the team has now come full circle in season seven.

“I didn’t want to compromise on something that I had focused on in netball for a very long time.

“It was a dream kind of come true and fast forward four years later and [I] didn’t get an SSN contract this year for the first year. They got wind that I wasn’t contracted and I knew some of the AFLW girls and touched base with them.

“[I] went for a kick at the club and went to go and see if I could train with them at VFLW level. I was surprised that they named me in the first VFLW game to be honest, obviously never picking up a footy before until the end of last year and it all happened really quickly.”

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When it comes to pursuing another sport, it’s important to consider what would draw people to the league. AFLW in particular has seen many cross-coders especially netballers join the ranks, Bragg sheds some light on her decision to try Aussie Rules.

“Most people that have come from another sport at an elite level love being in that environment, they are competitors by nature and it is something special being in that environment,” Bragg explained.

“I know when I came and joined Geelong, the first thing that I said was that it was awesome to be back in an environment like this and because they become faces that you are used to seeing all the time and it is something that you can’t really explain what it is actually like being in an environment like that.

“I think also for me, it’s like I felt like I wasn’t done with netball and obviously contracting is out of your control but you know I still feel like to play an elite sport and be a role model for young girls growing up.

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Bragg’s Strengths and Weaknesses

When switching over to a sport that you have no previous experience in, your mindset is crucial to your success and motivation to become better. Coming from another elite sport, Bragg has been extremely critical of herself and is always driven to become better.

One aspect of her transformation from netballer to Aussie Rules footballer is the role that she was expected to play within a team. She explains this realisation and how it’s become an asset for her in her football career so far.

“I think for me, one of my strengths that I bring across is, at netball I’m considered one of the shorter players, I played through the midcourt and I was always expected to be one of those faster, fitter players, one of the more agile players whereas in football I’m considered that bigger body.

“I think my fitness from netball and that expectation of being a small runner has been really helpful in footy and being the bigger body but having the fitness capacity of some of the smaller players and that agility and that ability to be able to run out games is something that actually surprised me with how well that transferred over.

She also describes how the physicality of netball and playing as a defender has made it easier for her to adjust to the higher level of physicality of football.

“I think in netball I’m known as a very physical defender so I think with that physicality and obviously it’s different in a footballing environment, you know I wasn’t afraid of any contact at the start so I need to refine my skills in terms of how and when I use it but I use it to my advantage so that’s something I need to work on.

“I only picked up a footy some eight months ago or nine months ago now so all my ball skills and general football skills need a lot of work, I’m not going to shy away from that but I know that that’s something I need to work on for sure.”

Playing for Geelong

Being signed as a replacement player when former netballer Samantha Gooden was listed as inactive due to injury, Bragg was elevated to the AFLW list. Coming through the VFLW side she has felt very welcome coming through to the AFLW with some of the girls.

Now in the elite training environment, she has additional expectations which she speaks about.

“There are a couple of the girls that I know from netball but also some of the girls I know from the VFLW program and even down to some of the coaches that were involved in VFL are involved with the AFL so it’s been a nice transition in that sense,” Bragg explained.

“They’ve all gone out of their way to make me feel incredibly welcome but obviously I have that nice connection with the girls I played with in the VFLW this season, Mia Skinner is one of them that has got her opportunity again which is fantastic to see after such tough luck with injuries.

“The girls like Chloe Scheer, Laura Gardner and those types of girls that have played through the VFLW, I’ve obviously played with them during the year so they’ve have but definitely everyone’s welcomed me with open arms.”

With the elevation from VFLW to AFLW level Bragg is adjusting to the step up not only in the skill level expected but the professionalism expected which is closer to her days in the SSN. The intensity of the training, the length of training sessions as well as reviewing footage and extra conditioning and gym sessions has changed but she feels incredible at home in the environment.

Bragg has now completed the fairytale ending off the back of her end to her netball career but has only just started her AFLW journey. Making her debut in Round Six against the Western Bulldogs, she was has become a part of the first game, first win club.

Listed as an emergency for Geelong, Bragg was not inline for an AFLW debut until about an hour before the match when Kate Darby withdrew from the match with illness.

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