The year is 2016, and the football world is abuzz with news that would change the AFL landscape forever.
A national level women’s competition is being formed.
Initial plans for a 2020 start to the competition were brought forward after a series of successful exhibition matches featuring some of the best talents in women’s football.
Melissa Kuys couldn’t believe what she was seeing.
“It felt like a dream, really,” she said.
“It didn’t feel like it was actually going to happen until it was in the media. Even to the day I actually got drafted.”
While drafts for the exhibition games had been held previously, the first ever national draft took place on October 12, 2016.
Kuys was certain she was going to be on an AFLW list, but had a long wait to find out for which team.
“I had meetings with Collingwood and Carlton. They were the only two,” she said.
“I was pretty certain Carlton were going to be the team. When Collingwood picked me up, I was surprised. Carlton said they’d pick me up around 60, and it didn’t happen.
“It was a weird feeling, thinking that I really did assume I was going to Carlton.
“I had an idea that I may be getting picked up, but that raw moment of seeing your face on the screen, it’s something I’ll never forget.
“It was in the morning, and there were only a certain number of players that got an invitation. I didn’t know at the time, that a few of my mates got invitations to go and I didn’t.
“I was starting to get a little worried that I wasn’t going to get picked. I was working a morning shift at a restaurant, and my family met me at a bar around the corner and we had lunch there. We put it on the big screen and I watched it with the family.”
“I was nervous the whole time. It went for a while, there were so many picks, it was a huge draft. I was told I’d roughly get picked around 60. Once it hit 100, the heart was bumping out of the chest. I was thinking ‘maybe it’s not going to happen’.”
Then it happened.
A number that Kuys will likely never forget.
“There were so many emotions around the whole day,” she said.
“Being an Essendon fan, seeing that Collingwood logo come up… Collingwood’s always been the big rivalry for me with Essendon.
“Seeing that logo come up, and even walking through the Holden Centre doors that night to meet my teammates. It was an amazing feeling and at the same time, I couldn’t believe I was going to wear black and white.”
Kuys was 29 when she was drafted to Collingwood, though she didn’t feel like it came with the same expectations of leadership and responsibility she’d felt throughout her VWFL days.
“At the time there were a fair few senior players on the squad,” she said.
“I didn’t feel like I had a lot of pressure on me. You had the likes of Steph Chiocci, Meg Hutchins, Soph Casey, Sarah D’Arcy, Lauren Tesoriero, so many names that are leaders in their own respect and have so much footy experience.
“I had a leadership role. Wayne (Siekman) did pick 11 captains in the first season. Five left footers and 11 captains is what I remember. I needed to play my role as a leader, but I didn’t feel like that was the only reason I was picked up.”
Wearing the black and white
Kuys would have to wait until the second round of the first ever AFLW season to make her debut, barely missing the lock-out game against Carlton at Ikon Park.
“I was an emergency, so I had to warm up with the squad,” she said.
“It was a tough experience, but at the same time it made me the player I am now. To go through that emotion, and work extra hard, I think I looked at every game as an opportunity and not just an every day game.
“Warming up and then sitting in the crowd with my family, it was tough. I was sitting on the wing, behind the Carlton bench.”
Round 2 against Melbourne wound up being a much better night for Kuys, running out for the Pies for the first time.
“It was bittersweet, back at Ikon Park,” she said.
“It was exciting to run out on the field wearing the playing jumper, and not sitting in the crowd. I had a moment to myself, I was so glad it was the other way around this time.”
“I was very nervous. It took a little bit for that nervousness to move away, as well as feeling like I had a bit of pressure to perform. I held my position, so I think I did enough.
“I was in the midfield, season one, in the middle. I moved to the wing by Round 4. It was a good move, I’m probably a better outside player. We had really good inside mids at the time.”
Kuys would notch up just six disposals and three tackles in her debut game, though the move to the wing would prove fruitful.
The Pies one-point win over Fremantle in Western Australia in Round 5 was her best game yet, amassing 17 disposals in a gutsy victory.
Travelling seems to suit Kuys, repeating her effort against the Dockers the year after with a massive 21 disposal, six mark game.
“Getting away, it felt like a reset to me,” she said.
“Just being around the team for a lot longer than you would in a home game. [Normally] you train, and then you do a captain’s run and then you won’t see them until two hours before the game starts. I think that bonding time makes me play better.”
Across her three years and 15 games at Collingwood, Kuys was greatly impressed by how the team changed and adapted to the higher demands of AFLW footy.
“Our game plan in season one was probably a little bit too complex for where we were at,” she said.
“Even in season two, Wayne broke it down a little bit more and understood 16 vs 16 footy. In the first two games of season one, we didn’t have wingers.
“The understanding of how AFLW runs, and how to score as quick as you can and how low scoring it is. Your defensive mechanisms, and your game style and how it changed over those years, it changed dramatically.
“Even just the way you trained. The training loads just amped up so much quicker from season one to two, and then again to three. It’s like looking at a VFL side to an AFL side, that’s how dramatically things changed.
“The pace of the game has gotten quicker, and even the rules have changed to open the game up. Players having to stay in their 50s for ball ups, and the ball coming in for throw ins, has changed and opened up the game a lot.
“It’s helped the game. The scoring was always a big thing in the media. I think it’s still a progression, I don’t think that’s changed dramatically.
“The way the game plays out now, it’s more fluid and there’s not as many turnovers. It’s a lot cleaner as well.”