Tamara Smith will make her AFLW in Round 1 against Essendon. (Photo: AFL; Design: Will Cuckson)

Tamara Smith had to wait longer for her AFLW fairytale than most. Blockaded by interrupted seasons and draft heartbreak, it has made her time so far at Hawthorn all the sweeter.

She’ll have the chance to run out in the brown and gold for premiership points for the first time on Saturday night, named in the Round 1 team against Essendon.

The 22-year-old was picked up by Hawthorn as an open-age signing, after spending three seasons with Geelong’s VFLW team.

A crash and bash inside midfielder, she was one of the league’s standouts in 2022. The Cats’ captain was the competition leader for tackles, averaging a staggering 11.2 to go with 22.9 disposals.

The transition hasn’t been easy yet, but it’s a process that she’s finding immense enjoyment in.

“I feel like I’ve gone from being a big fish in a little pond to a little fish in a big pond,” Smith told The Inner Sanctum.

“As tough as it is, it’s learning opportunities everywhere you go. I’ve gone from being a leader at VFLW, teaching the younger girls, to learning so much.

“You just feel so lucky to have such experienced girls around you. I just want to be like a sponge and soak it all up.

“They always say it’s a step up into the AFLW, but you don’t really realise until you’re in there.”

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Smith starred at local level as a junior, playing her underage footy in the tiny Victorian town of Mooroopna, next door to Shepparton.

After playing four years with the boys, she was lucky enough to transition straight into playing with girls her age, benefitting from the influence of the AFLW.

She’s part of the next generation who have played from Auskick all the way up.

Being scouted for the Murray Bushrangers in the NAB League Girls, Smith made her way all the way up to Vic Country selection.

Joining Richmond’s VFLW side, all the stars were aligning. She dared to dream of draft night, and her path to the AFLW was in sight.

71 picks were read out, and ‘Tamara Smith’ wasn’t one of them. She’d missed out. The little country kid in the big city’s worst fears had come to light.

“In my draft year, I played in the nationals team at Vic Country, and then I played a few games for Richmond VFLW, that was their inaugural year,” she explained.

“That’s kind of the peak. Your draft year, you’re playing good footy, and then I didn’t get picked up, which happens. I was trying to juggle a few things, like working and footy and study.

“It’s tough when you don’t get picked up in your draft year, and you’re working so hard and grinding away. I wasn’t getting picked at VFL level as a 19-year-old.

“You kind of lose your drive, like ‘why am I here?’ Just constantly training, but you don’t get the reward of playing.”

Home and back again

Disheartened and lost for passion in the game, Smith returned back to Mooroopna to play local footy again.

Winning a grand final and reassuring to herself that she was good enough to keep pursuing her dream, a new opportunity arose as she pursued her studies.

Little did she know there was another big setback to come, this time out of anyone’s control.

“I moved to Geelong and started training with the VFLW team,” Smith recalled.

“I think we had one or two practice matches and then there was just no footy. I felt a bit lost in there… footy’s been my life forever.

“I’d actually never really been to Geelong before I moved there, I moved for my studies. Richmond put me in contact with Geelong, and they said yep, we’ll bring you on board.

“It was hard, you go into a new side and you don’t really know anyone, you don’t know the coaches. My first pre-season there I really loved, but then COVID hit.”

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The cancelled 2020 season affected the players across the VFLW in a number of different ways.

Some lost the momentum they were building in previous seasons, drifting away from the game and pursuing new endeavours.

For Smith, however, after growing disillusioned with her draft disappointment, found new love for the game in her time away from it.

“I think the rest was probably good too,” she reflected.

“It does become quite consuming, and you do sacrifice a lot, especially when you’re not getting paid to play.

“To have a reset and a break and to be able to miss footy, and actually reconnect with it, allowed me to come out in 2021 and 2022 and just enjoy playing, whether I was getting picked or not.”

Pulling on the brown and gold

Living out her AFLW dream, Smith had the chance to test the AFLW waters after a successful few seasons with Geelong in the VFLW.

She led the club to the cancelled grand final in 2021, and to a tight elimination final loss this season.

Individually, it was her best year yet. But with two tough losses against West Coast and Richmond in the practice games, the reality of just how hard she and her teammates will need to fight for every inch is setting in.

“It was that next step up,” Smith said.

“We played against West Coast the weekend before, but the physicality and movement [against Richmond] was a bit faster.

“I [was] feeling it in the body, especially on the Monday morning.

“[Richmond’s midfield] are the girls you look at, and you want to play like them. To come up against them, as tough as it was, just a huge learning opportunity.

“You see the things they do well, and why they’re such good players, and how they get the ball so much and things like that.

“Not only their physicality around the ball, but their footy IQ, getting themselves in the right positions and stuff like that.”

While traditionally an inside midfielder, the Hawks are chock full of young and experienced talent in the position, with captain Tilly Lucas-Rodd, Bridget Deed, Charlotte Baskaran, and Jasmine Fleming likely to rotate through.

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Smith was trialled on the wing, and will likely rotate across both inside and outside roles against Essendon on Saturday night.

“[I’m] trying to bring that extra layer of my game to play outside,” she said.

“I had a really good run in the midfield, being able to get in and under, lay tackles and things like that, which is what I love and what a big part of my game is.

“It’s been really good trying to develop that next layer, but also keep pushing and keep working on the role I normally play.”

Smith will get her first chance to impress fans on the biggest stage of the round, with the game against the Bombers famously moved to Marvel Stadium.

Remembering to when she was young and didn’t have female footballers to look up to, the enormity of the occasion means the world to her.

“It’s not only a huge milestone for us, but for women’s footy, to be played at Marvel,” Smith said.

“We’ve come a long way, particularly in the past two years.

“For young girls to see footy not only played with 18 teams, played by women, but played at a stadium, it’s so exciting.

“Five years ago, six years ago, that didn’t happen. It’s so exciting for us to be able to live out that dream… and for young girls to be able to come and watch that, and that’s the new norm.”

Tamara Smith will debut for Hawthorn on Saturday night at Marvel Stadium against Essendon, with first bounce at 7:10pm AEST.

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