Ahead of the entry of four new teams into the AFLW competition, The Inner Sanctum is looking back at the stories of the entries of the six past expansion teams. This is The New Frontier, where players, coaches and staff broke new ground and created something from nothing.
August 1, 1992: the last time a game was played for premiership points at Moorabbin Oval. For nearly 30 years, it served as the south-eastern home of the St Kilda Football Club.
Hidden away in modest little Linton Street off two of the busiest road in Melbourne south-east, the ground is more unassuming than most. It doesn’t boast the mighty old grandstands of Victoria Park or Windy Hill, with its own G. G. Huggins Stand long demolished.
But what it does hold is a sense of unending history and sentimentality for anyone who’s ever pulled on the red, white and black. The club only returned there in 2018 after a stint at Seaford, which proved ultimately unsuccessful.
It came as perfect timing for St Kilda’s new foray into the women’s game. The club placed a bid to join the inaugural season, and while unsuccessful, a provisional license would see it slated to make the jump into AFLW in 2020.
After the ventures of North Melbourne and Geelong were successful the year previous, the AFL was eager to see further expansion of the competition.
Moorabbin would be the club’s chosen land, after fellow Victorian clubs made their heritage grounds their home in the years prior.
The sell-out for the first game was so great that not even the club could anticipate it. There was barely a spot to find to watch in, and food stands were sold out by half time.
It set the stage perfectly as the Saints came marching into RSEA Park for the first time in 28 years.
“Leading up, you understand that’s it a really big, important milestone for the club,” St Kilda forward Nicola Xenos told The Inner Sanctum.
“But it probably [didn’t] hit me until I ran out onto the ground and saw all the red, white and black at Moorabbin, that feeling and the noise, it hit me then.
“I was pretty calm leading up to the game, but it was that point where I knew it was a big achievement for the club, and a long time coming. I just wanted to make them proud.
“As a first game in the AFLW for the St Kilda Football Club, it was a huge honour to be a part of, and definitely something that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”Embed from Getty Images
Xenos was picked up by the Saints with their third selection in the 2019 draft as a promising mid/forward. She averaged 14 disposals and kicked three goals in eight games for the Oakleigh Chargers.
Her standout had always been her tackling pressure though, averaging five a game in the NAB League and three in the VFLW for Collingwood.
While there was a large contingent of players who’d joined after playing at state level with the Southern Saints, Xenos was a relative outsider. She wasn’t even drafted alongside any of her Chargers teammates.
But many of the younger group were in a similar boat, she explained, which has only helped to bring them all together.
“[There were] a lot of nerves [before the first game], but I was really excited for the challenge ahead,” Xenos said.
“I know that I wasn’t the only one who was feeling it, so I could also lean on others around me for that support, that encouragement.
“I hadn’t had a proper pre-season in terms of football, it kind of was just training and playing on the weekend with local, and my NAB League. It was a bit daunting at the start, and pre-season is the hardest training to prep yourself for games.
“There’s a lot of young girls, and especially my year level there were a lot of girls that I came into the draft with like Georgia Patrikios, Tarni White, Rosie Dillon.
“We’ve had a really strong group of youth players that have really filled our team, and that’s what makes our team so young and vibrant.
“We’re all really inclusive with one other, and over the years we’ve picked up a lot of draftees that have really fitted in seamlessly. We’ve created an environment where everyone can thrive.”
St Kilda ultimately wouldn’t win in its first game, unlike the two new sides the year prior. The Bulldogs proved too strong, leaving Moorabbin with a comprehensive 25-point victory.
It did, however, make that eventual first win all the sweeter.
Fight under lights
St Kilda’s following week would see it battle bravely against reigning premier Adelaide, going down by just 13 points in the club’s first away trip.
However, it did see the start of what would become the fighting spirit that the club would exemplify at its best.
Recruit Tilly Lucas-Rodd had plenty to prove after being delisted by Carlton. She did just that, racking up a then career-high 19 disposals and six marks in her rebounding defensive role.
Forward powerhouse Caitlin Greiser also made herself known in just her second game of AFLW footy, kicking two goals against a much more experienced Adelaide defence.
With Tarni White and Nat Exon also starring in the backline and midfield respectively, the Saints were quickly growing before everyone’s eyes.
While the win wasn’t to be, they wouldn’t have to wait too long for it.
Back at home, St Kilda hosted Melbourne on a Friday night at Moorabbin. The club’s first night game, it was a special occasion regardless.
“I remember that game like it was yesterday, under the lights against Melbourne,” Xenos reflected.
“Melbourne’s such a talented team, so we knew that it was going to be a hard challenge.”
Talented the Dees were, having won four games the previous season in perhaps one of the most even years the competition had seen.
They would inevitably finish third in 2020, scraping over the line in an away semi-final against GWS in one of the games of the year.
It was a tough and contested affair in Round 3, however. Melbourne had significantly more use of the ball and forward entries, but just couldn’t convert on the scoreboard.
Greiser’s goal in the final term gave St Kilda the lead, which it didn’t drop for the remainder of the quarter.
“One thing about our group is that we keep going until the end,” Xenos continued.
“To get our first win on our home ground in front of our loyal supporters was something that I’ll remember forever.
“I remember being on the sidelines and screaming out how many seconds to go and then just running up to all the girls.”Embed from Getty Images
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It would be a tough remaining fixture for St Kilda after the high of the first win. The club did take it up to the eventually undefeated Fremantle – losing by one point – before going down convincingly to finalist Carlton.
The final game of the year against Richmond, played in front of an empty ground due to the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, was a record-breaker though.
St Kilda won by 39 points, which is still its second biggest winning margin. It also kept Richmond goalless, scoring just three points.
It only made it all the more frustrating when the season was cancelled. The Saints had the league leading goalkicker in Greiser, the midfield looked unstoppable and they were building serious momentum.
“There was highs and definitely some lows of that season, but when we came up against another team that was in a similar position to us, and building that foundation alongside us, it was really positive to know that we had a lot more in us,” Xenos said.
“I think we showcased that a little bit that game. It was a bit frustrating that the season cut short, because we thought we were really gaining some momentum at that time of the year.
“We knew those things don’t lie in the hands of us, and those unexpected circumstances didn’t allow us to play out the two extra games after that.
“We were all really confident, and we knew that there was a lot more that we could give as a part of the playing group. It was really exciting to see what we could do the following year.”
2021 started with a bang for the Saints, taking on the Bulldogs at home again, and this time coming away victorious in a thriller.
After Round 4, they sat 2-2 and were looking to be on the rise. The forward line was functioning beautifully, kicking 50-plus points twice, while midfielder superstar Georgia Patrikios was well on her way to her maiden All-Australian selection.
Top midfield draftee Tyanna Smith showed why she was rated so highly in her draft year, while captain Rhi Watt led from the ruck and defence week after week.
Xenos was forced to sit and watch as their teammates continued to gel and grow.
“[2021 was] a bit bittersweet… when I injured my ACL, it was two days out from Round 1,” she recalled.
“You’re raring to go, you’ve done all the hard work in pre-season, put all your time and effort into preparing well, and then something like that happens.
“I was really excited to know we had a lot in us, and we really showcased some of our talent and what we could do as a team. I was really proud of the girls, I was their number one supporter through the season.”
What it did give Xenos was a greater understanding of the off-field workings of the club, despite not being able to contribute at game day.
It put her in the position of being able to support her teammates better, especially when Smith did her ACL the following season.
“Being on the sidelines taught me a lot as well, learning footy from another aspect rather than being on the ground,” Xenos said.
“I helped out a lot on gamedays as well, so I was able to really see football from a different lens. I would normally have a small focus when I was watching every game: I could focus on the mids, or focus on the forwards.
“That helped build up my footy knowledge whilst being on the sidelines, which helped me mentally as well get through the season, to be able to help in that way.
“I remember [Tyanna] doing [her ACL] at training, and it brought back a whole lot of memories for me. I had to remember that that person will need support no matter what.
“It’s a difficult journey to be on. All of us around the club, personnel and staff, have her best interests at heart.
“There’s a few other girls that have been through a similar situation that have offered her guidance as well. We’ve been with her the whole way, and I can’t wait to see her get back on the track hopefully some time soon.”
The future of St Kilda
After starting 2021 as promisingly as they did, it was a difficult drop off as the Saints only won one more game for the season, blown out by big margins.
Coach Peta Searle would depart the club, and the Saints would go on a seven game losing streak in season six under new coach Nick Dal Santo.
There’s been a large turnover from the list Searle built, with Lucas-Rodd, Watt, Cat Phillips, Jacqui Vogt, Claudia Whitfort and Ali Drennan all heading elsewhere.
The middle stretch of the season was particularly demoralising, going down by a combined nine points across three games, including losing after the siren against GWS.
But with players coming the other way, including Erin McKinnon, Nicola Stevens, and Grace Kelly, the pendulum may finally swing back the other way.
“It’s a lot different to last season,” Xenos said.
“We’ve had different personnel come in, and a few that have gone elsewhere. I think sticking to what our main goal is and the standards that we want to uphold, and Nick Dal Santo driving those.
“Having a pretty concise leadership group has helped with that. We’re all playing for each other and playing as a team, which I think is the most important thing going into this season.
“We just want to build upon last year.”
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