Fresh off a break out three-goal performance, young Essendon ruck Steph Wales is going from strength to strength in her first AFLW season.
The 19-year-old starred in the monumental win over West Coast, helping to launch her side to within touching distance of the top four.
It’s the beginning of the rewards of Wales’ decision to fully invest her sporting journey into Aussie rules. In another world, she’s still pursuing basketball alongside twin sister, Lucy.
She played basketball alongside footy all through her teenage years, but found the latter “pushed to the side” due to the former being the priority.
Neither sister ever played in junior pathways, championships, or representative teams. It was just local club Oakleigh Dragons, until an opportunity that couldn’t be ignored in the VFLW arose.
The ultimate decision to choose footy came down to the chance to help make history.
“[AFLW] was the opportunity to do something great,” Wales told The Inner Sanctum.
“Women’s footy is still evolving, I think even from the start of this season the level of footy has just skyrocketed. There’s always a bigger opportunity.
“Comparing what I was playing in basketball to footy, that kind of spoke for itself. I didn’t want to push footy to the side again like I’d done when I was younger.”
Wales would play for the Casey Demons in the VFLW in 2022, launching straight into state league football from the local leagues.Embed from Getty Images
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Playing 11 games for the Demons, including three finals as a key part of their run to the prelim, she learned more about high level footy from week to week.
“Being at Casey was really good just for improving quickly,” Wales reflected.
“It was good to improve at a very quick rate and get some quality coaching and quality players around me. None of this at Essendon would have happened without being at Casey.
“It was a really good stepping stone, and I’m very grateful for my time at Casey.”
With Lucy taking the primary rucking duties, Steph was often placed behind the ball. At 188cm, her reach often gave her the edge over VFLW forwards, while her booming kick made her a perfect candidate for exiting out of defensive 50.
Wales would occasionally compete in backline stoppages, but was a defender first and foremost.
That would be until her sister missed the Round 14 clash with Essendon. With a crucial match-up against Simone Nalder (now signed by St Kilda as a replacement player), she shone incredibly.
Nalder may have dominated the hit-outs, but Wales had a different kind of impact. She finished the match with 26 hit-outs, 16 disposals, six tackles, and four marks.
“I haven’t played much ruck because Lucy always played it, and I would choose another position,” Wales explained.
“It’s been really good. All the girls have been so supportive regardless of hit-out counts or anything.”
She would then share the duties with her sister throughout the finals series, with an equally impressive 19 disposals, 12 hit-outs, five marks and four tackles against the Saints in the prelim.
Wales caught the eye of the wider women’s football community, and most importantly, the Bombers.
A special debut and so much more
After being drafted with Essendon’s third selection in the club’s inaugural draft, Wales got to work in the pre-season, joining a brand new group.
Leading into the start of the season, it was largely expected she would be an important part of the ruck group. The Bombers had recruited just herself and fellow VFLW player Jorja Borg, with Dani Marshall able to chop out.
But when Borg went down with a season-ending foot injury in their practice game against Port Adelaide. It left Wales in the hot seat.
Even though she’s come up against more experienced opponents every week, she’s in the best position to succeed.
“I was second ruck, doing a lot in the backline as well [before Borg got injured],” Wales said.
“I was splitting my training between the two and splitting my time at the club between the two coaches. Now it’s shifted to all midfield and ruck, which has been pretty cool.
“Jorja has still been so supportive. We do all our meetings together, we go through vision together. I feel like we’re still building our connection together even though she can’t be out there on the field.
“It’s good to know they’ve [the coaches] put a bit of faith in me. The midfield is obviously a very good midfield, so we’re still winning clearances and everything.
“I was very scared about [the Bre Moody match-up]. Feel like I got the hang of it a bit more towards the end of the game. Credit to the midfield for still getting it done.”Embed from Getty Images
It was a special day for the Wales household in Round 1, in a historic day for the competition. With Essendon and Hawthorn playing their inaugural games, the sisters were set to go head-to-head.
Both players had their debuts announced mid-week. With Steph named in the ruck, it was clear that their match-up would be inevitable.
After spending their whole lives playing in basketball and footy teams together, it would be the first time they’d ever come up against each other.
“It was a bit stressful, with selection and everything,” Wales laughed.
“Once we knew we were both playing, I was so excited. I was trying to calm myself and make sure I stuck to the game-plan and everything.
“It felt a bit weird when I was putting contact on her, because I was like ‘this is not normal’. It was pretty cool… a memorable night.
“It’s pretty cool being in a different team, I feel like we can be a bit more individual, but also relate to each other.”
Bombers battling on
Of the four new teams in season seven, Essendon is the only one to win a game thus far. After three rounds, the club sits with a positive 2-1 record, and was just two points away from completing the comeback against Carlton.
The forward line in particular has been leading the way. The Bombers are now the second-highest scoring team in the competition after putting up 84 points against the Eagles.
There were more than a few records broken that afternoon. Essendon had the highest half-time score in competition history, and the seventh-highest AFLW score of all-time.
Wales is enjoying smashing the expectations that the rest of the competition may have for her team.
“It’s been pretty cool to be part of an expansion side,” she said.
“There’s obviously that stigma of what an expansion side is meant to do. Each week we’re proving we can be more than just that typical expansion side.
“On the weekend, breaking a couple of records, that was pretty cool. It showed us we are making progress, and everything we’re putting in at training is coming out on the field.”
After a slow start cost the Bombers against the Blues, coach Nat Wood put the challenge to the group to win the first quarter.
Not only did they do that, but they scored five majors before quarter-time. This included Wales’ first AFLW goal.
Between drifting forward and the dominance of the Bombers, Wales was thoroughly satisfied with both her own individual performance, and that of the team.
“Last week the big focus was starting strong,” she said.
“We’d worked on that at training, worked on being explosive, and that’s exactly what we did. I think we just came out, and we’d been talking all week about coming out strong and that’s exactly what we did, so that was perfect.
“I haven’t really had an opportunity to [go forward] in the past two games. When I got [the chance] pretty early I was not going to miss that one.”
Wales and Essendon take on Richmond on Sunday from 2:10pm AEST at North Port Oval.
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