St Kilda has slumped to a 0-6 record in 2022, but don’t tell the prodigiously talented Tarni White that its first win isn’t just around the corner.
The young squad has missed the veteran leadership of best and fairest Georgia Patrikios, and its runner-up Tyanna Smith was struck down with an ACL tear in the pre-season to leave its midfield threadbare.
White was earmarked to step into the engine room by new head coach Nick Dal Santo, and the pressure had already been heaped on her shoulders.
Before her Round 7 suspension, White established herself as one of the premier midfielders in the game, transitioning from the backline to show her abundance of contested qualities.
She kicked the first goal of the AFLW season from 50 metres out, and is third in the competition with 7.7 tackles per game. Her contested pressure has been immense for the Saints, and it comes as no surprise in the one game she has missed this season her side was dominated through the middle of the ground for four quarters.
It’s easy to forget that the recently-turned 21-year-old has already missed nearly 24 months of football through knee reconstructions before her 20th birthday, such is the courage, tenacity and determination she plays with.
But behind the blinding on-field performances lie the months of mental battles White has waded through just to get where she is today.
“Rehab’s really hard, and it can be quite depressing and lonely at times,” she told the The Inner Sanctum.
“Post my first ACL it took a while because I came back exactly 12 months [after] and was pushing to play in that Queensland state team and then the draft.
“The second one was nine months in at the Saints, and I knew what lay ahead of me.”
White has had her fair share of injuries already through her burgeoning career. In 2020’s Round 1 she broke her nose, then she broke it again the following weekend.
She continued to play with reckless abandon, but then came the dreaded knee injury in Round 4 against Fremantle.
The gritty defender returned to the elite level in 2021 to star for the Saints, with full trust in her body the key ingredient in her success.
“I had to go all out and I really had no fear,” she recalled.
“It was scary but I go out fearless because I know at the end of the day if it’s going to happen again thats just unfortunate, because I know everything I’ve done has been right and I’ve done everything to a tee, even now. I’ll continue to do that for the rest of my career.”
Building back up for the 2021 season, White got through injury-free. But, with her eyes set on impacting at centre bounces, an off-season of improving her endurance was in store.
“Even in the off-season I was running four days a week because I knew I was going to the midfield and I know what it takes and you’ve got to be incredibly fit.
“That wasn’t my strength at the time – I didn’t have the fitness coming back from my second ACL – so I knew I had to work hard on that and grind away in pre-season with the girls.”
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She’s gone from idolising the stars of the game to rubbing shoulders with them at every contest.
“I remember last season I got thrown in the midfield for my first game against the Pies and I just learned so much from Britt Bonnici, Jaimee Lambert and Bri Davey and how they carry themselves as a unit.
“The way they go about their footy – that’s something I’m trying to bring to Saints is my drive and professionalism. We’re getting there but we’re not there yet.”
White’s professionalism was forced upon her during rehabilitations. Like a fork in the road, she was either going to commit to a career that had been set back so many times already, or bid it goodbye and return to her home state of Queensland.
Now, it’s that same dedication she’s imposing on her teammates, including good friend Nicola Xenos as she rehabbed her torn ACL over 2021.
“The first three months are the worst because you can’t run, you can hardly rotate your leg on a bike,” White recalled.
“Thats when you find yourself being the most resilient because you can hardly do anything and it’s all about internally healing the knee because it’s gone through a lot of trauma.
“You just have to learn that patience, so that’s something i was reiterating a lot with Nic.
“I remember pre pre-season we’d all do our runs on a Saturday morning and Nic would be off doing her own thing because she wasn’t quite up to the level we were running, so I’d join her and make sure her pace was alright and she was feeling OK.
“I guess I did everything I could to support her because I understand how lonely the rehab can get. Even though you’ve got like 30 girls around you, it’s really lonely.
“Because I’m out of it, I now have the opportunity to help others who are in it and give them advice that sometimes I was lacking.
“Now it’s an opportunity to build my leadership – I know Tyanna Smith is going through it right now, so I’m just giving what I can for the team.”
Starting with GWS on Wednesday, White and the Saints will be out to make amends for a disappointing first half of the season.
There have been major disruptions to their year, but it’s now given them an opportunity to right their biggest loss of the season just four days on.
“If we can start from the start and play four quarters, we’re such a competitive side. We’ve got these lapses in quarters that are impacting the scoreboard.
“We’re learning so much week in, week out as a team and I can’t be more proud of how the girls are taking everything in. Our time is going to come.”
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