New Essendon captain Georgia Nanscawen has an inspiring group of leaders around her. Photo: Essendon FC

Essendon VFLW leaders Georgia Nanscawen, Courtney Ugle and Mia-Rae Clifford discuss the meaning of leadership and their responsibilities in 2021.

Personalities within the playing group of a top level football club are varied. Some are loud and bombastic, while others leave all the talking on field.

This is even further emphasised within a VFLW team, where women from all different levels and pathways come together in an attempt to find cohesion, both on game day and behind the scenes.

Georgia Nanscawen has come from an interesting background of her own.

The gold medal winning Hockeyroo only played her first game of professional Aussie rules in 2019, debuting for North Melbourne in the AFLW before winning the Essendon VFLW best and fairest in the same year.

Now, in just the third year of her footy career, she’s the captain of the Dons.

Speaking to The Inner Sanctum, Nanscawen is the first to admit that she’s never been the loudest player on field.

“I’m very much a lead by example type,” she said.

“Certainly not the loudest person in the team or the one that will talk the most, but I hope that it will be quality over quantity, and when I do speak people will listen because they feel that it’s valuable.

“I pride myself more on my actions and my professionalism in how I prepare and my attitude to training and my work ethic, those sort of things.”

Nanscawen has never held a leadership position in a footy team before, making her elevation to the captaincy even more of an honour for her.

While the players at Essendon were required to self-nominate for the leadership group voting, she still didn’t expect to be given the captaincy over her fellow teammates.

“It was still a surprise when it happened,” she said.

“We had to present to the group a 90-second spiel about our leadership style and strengths. The fact that I put myself in that position to be voted into a leadership role makes you prepare for it in some way.

“Honestly, I would have loved to be in the leadership team. To be voted in as captain by your peers is incredibly humbling and very special.

“I don’t think my behaviour will change too much from what I’ve been doing for the last couple of months. I like to think that I led throughout training with my actions before the title. It’s always nice to be thought of like that by your peers.”

While Nanscawen is new to the role, she’ll have plenty of support around her.

In the vice-captaincy position is 24 year-old Courtney Ugle, who joined the Bombers in 2018 and served as captain in 2019.

Nanscawen says she’ll be looking to the experienced Ugle and the rest of the leadership group in the 2021 season.

“I’m going to lean on Courtney and the other girls in the leadership group quite a lot during the year, being new to that leadership role,” she said.

“For most of the other girls, having had that leadership experience in previous years, it’s going to be really important that we work closely together.

“I’m a quieter person, I’m probably not going to be quite as vocal which is where the other girls step up and they create a fantastic energy. Uges has been in that captaincy position as well, so she knows what it’s all about, so I’m going to be getting a bit of advice from her going forward.

“The energy that they bring, the knowledge of football, the communication is all incredibly important for us. I think that we’ll work really well together because we do have a range of different leadership styles. That should hopefully cover most of the personality types in the group and hopefully that means we’ll work really well together.”

In terms of her individual development as an athlete that’s still new to footy, Nanscawen is hoping to continue her growth as a player through her new leadership position.

However, not changing too much about what’s already worked for her is something she also values.

“A big thing from me going into my first season at Essendon was that I wanted to relax a bit more and take the pressure off myself,” she said.

“I think that was something that always being in that elite hockey environment, I always put so much pressure on myself. I never played my best when that was placed on me.

“A real focus at Essendon was just to enjoy myself, to love playing sport again and I think that’s why I had quite a good season [in 2019]. I want to continue that.

“The fact that I now have the title of ‘captain’ I don’t think should change much about how I go about things. Of course there’s added responsibility and commitments, but in general my behaviours aren’t going to change.

“The feeling I get at Essendon is that no one’s bigger than anyone else. I really feel like we all respect each other, and there’s no hierarchy in the team. Everyone’s valued as much as everybody else, and that’s what I really love at Essendon.”

Not a step down, but a step sideways

Vice-captain Courtney Ugle was one of the lucky few women’s footballers who was able to continue playing footy in 2020, due to a lucky opportunity in Queensland playing for the Coolangatta Bluebirds in the QAFLW.

Suffering from a bad leg break halfway through the 2019 VFLW season, Ugle nearly faced the prospect of missing over 18 months due the cancellation of the 2020 season.

Being based in Queensland was the perfect rejuvenation for Ugle’s career.

“I had the best time of my life,” she said.

“To come back and play my first game after breaking my leg in 2019, to have a run around on the ground, there was no better feeling. My feet were on fire at the end of game!”

What was meant to be a quick trip up to the sunny Queensland coast ended up in a total lifestyle change.

“The original plan was for me to go for six weeks and I stayed for five months,” Ugle said.

“I loved it. But I was also being very cautious and very sensitive to the fact that a lot of females around Australia weren’t able to play any footy. I was very mindful of that, but I had an opportunity that came up and I ran with it.

“I was very fortunate to get a season under my belt and play some good footy and play in a grand final. I consider myself really lucky, but when opportunities come up like that, you can’t say no.”

Ugle’s Bluebirds unfortunately went down to Yeronga South Brisbane (pictured) in the QAFLW Grand Final. Photo: Russell Freeman

While Ugle wasn’t voted back into the captaincy role she’s held since 2019, she’s still embracing her responsibility as an experienced leader within the group.

“Funnily enough I’ve never been vice-captain before!,” she said.

“Always really keen to take on new opportunities and learn and grow over time. Regardless of the title next to my name, I am who I am and I probably am quite a natural leader.

“Really looking forward to getting the season going and supporting Georgia and our leadership group in any way that I can.

“It’s really quite evident that [Georgia] is really professional and elite in the way she goes about her business, on and off field. She’s the first to admit she’s not the most vocal person but she really drives the standards, especially when it comes to that elite professionalism.

“With me being quite loud and her not being as much, that’s where we can really balance each other out. If you want someone that provides that elite style and standard of footy, Georgia’s your girl.”

Being given the captaincy at only 22, Ugle has developed as a leader extremely quickly.

However, she believes that part of understanding what it means to be a leader is also understanding that a title doesn’t make you who are.

“I’m on an equal playing field with the girls,” Ugle said.

“I’m quite lucky I’ve got some kilometres in my legs and a season under my belt. Everyone returned in really great condition. To be honest, I didn’t know what I was going to be coming back to, given all the restrictions still in Melbourne around that time, but we’re looking really great.

“The one thing that I’m reinforcing to the group as a whole is to back ourselves, we’re all here because we can play footy. It’s old school now, everyone knows we missed a year of footy, there’s nothing we can do about that, but we can control our attitudes moving forward coming into our 2021 season.

“It’s not my job to tell the girls how to be, but to encourage them to back themselves and believe that they are great footballers because they all are.”

More than anything though, Ugle has a passionate love for the Bombers, unmatched by even the most diehard supporters.

“Might be a bit biased, but we’re pretty great, just on how we do things,” she said.

“We want to be better as a team and individually, and we also want to be a pathway for young girls to come to and help get to that next level.

“That speaks volumes of us as leaders and our staff that are really driving the mentality, the morale and the attitude at Essendon. Of course we want that on field success as well, but I just want everyone to play good footy and love being at Essendon.

“Essendon’s where I belong, and I really can’t wait to put the jumper back on.”

The new kid at heart on the block

“I can be quite loud and also be immature and a jokester. You’d think I’d be 34 and mature,” Mia-Rae Clifford admitted with a grin.

The former AFLW Demon, Cat and Docker is now a Bomber, only having signed on in December of 2020, but has found herself voted straight into the leadership group.

Alongside rising star Eloise Ashley-Cooper and best and fairest runner-up Kendra Heil, Clifford rounds out the leadership group for the Bombers’ 2021 VFLW campaign.

“There’s not really a word to describe it, it’s quite an honour,” Clifford said.

“I didn’t expect, coming into a new club that would be a role I’d want to do, but once I got there it was exciting with all the young players and new players to the game and some old friends I’d played against as well.

“Footy’s given a lot to me, so I want to give back to footy. It evolved from that. I’m still learning myself, so it was a massive honour that my teammates would look to me as a leader and I’m happy to do that.”

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Mia-Rae Clifford (L) training with her new teammates. Photo: Essendon FC

Clifford has experienced more than her fair share of highs and lows throughout her career, being delisted by three AFLW clubs despite strong individual performances.

She was both the Cats leading goalkicker in the VFLW and AFLW in 2019, with 15 and six majors respectively.

“It turned out it wasn’t enough,” Clifford said.

“Hearing you played your best footy but didn’t fit into their future plans was pretty rough to hear. I couldn’t see past that anger for a while. I thought, well, every club is different and unfortunately, even though I love Geelong to bits, I didn’t fit into their plans.

“You’ve got to take the good with the bad, even when it’s hard at the time. I’ve built that mental resilience and I think I can get through anything footy throws at me now. I try to find the bigger picture in the bad stuff that has come my way in footy.”

While coming into any new club comes with challenges, Clifford believes her AFLW experience will hold her in good stead.

A key part of that experience is being able to pass what she’s learned on to the stars of the future.

“Becoming a leader at a new club, I’m still going to have to battle some things, footy can throw you all sorts of curveballs, but I feel a lot stronger with my mind and body to be able to deal with those,” Clifford said.

“Then also, be there for others who have been through all sorts of similar things or are going through similar things because I’ll be able to relate.

“Not everyone’s going to have a golden pathway in footy unfortunately, some kids will have to do it the hard way and some will get an easier pathway. Getting there for any of them, I look to be able to do whatever I can for my teammates.”

Clifford hasn’t known her new teammates, or her new captain, for very long. Despite this, she can already see what Nanscawen brings to the group as a leader.

“At the club so far, she leads by example,” Clifford said.

“You can see what she does and her work rate. Going from an Olympic background, she has that professionalism in training, she sets the standards at training.

“We have a really good mixture in our leadership group. We have those really hard workers who set the standards but we’ve also got a mixture with me and Uges who bring the fun side of it. You need to have both otherwise footy can become quite draining.

“They’ve done that really well, the girls themselves voting in a wide variety of different leaders in the group. If you have everyone pretty hardcore and focused you miss the fun side of footy, which is why we all play.”

Having moved around to many different clubs at the highest level, Clifford has found it hard to call anywhere home since leaving the St. Kilda Sharks at the end of 2017.

Luckily for her and her family, there’s already a connection with the Bombers.

“My mum was super stoked that she no longer has to buy a guernsey, she’s a Bombers girl,” she said.

“Before AFLW was introduced, I found myself to be a very loyal footballer. I was at the Sharks for 10 years, and I thought that was where I’d finish my career before AFLW came around.

“Then I thought Geelong would be the place where I’d finish up, but things change.

“The footy world is changing so quickly that it was a bit disheartening to feel like I didn’t have a home, especially when I went to Freo, knowing I was Victorian and my partner was back here in Melbourne.

“I was coming home, but I had no footy family.

“I’d already got the feeling from Courtney and everyone, they spoke so highly about the club and I know Uges loves footy as well. For her to put in the amount of effort she does at Essendon, it made me feel like I would feel the same way.

“Being around the girls, sometimes it can be quite confronting going to a new club no matter who you are or where you’ve come from. I didn’t feel any of that.

“As soon as I walked in and through my first training, it was during COVID so we only did it in groups of 10, I was so nervous but the girls were so open and loving. They just wanted to kick a footy, it was really cool.

“As soon as that happened, I knew that this would be where I’d love to finish my career, whether it would be at VFL or AFL level, I won’t be going be anywhere after this.”

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