The first Women's Football Academy, an initiative of AFL Victoria, has begun its program which will see female players of Australian Rules football forge a pathway to the inaugural National competition in 2017.
The Academy has drawn on the best 100 players it can get from the local and regional talent pool involved in the Victorian Women's Football League (VWFL).
The Academy program has been designed over the past six months and is being managed by Darren Flanigan who previously spent 16 years working in the TAC Cup program.
The initiative has been designed as a pre-season elite training program for the best female footballers in the state focusing on the development of skills, fitness and an understanding of the game.
"We've brought in really good skills coaches, outstanding strength and conditioning coaches, psychologists, wellness reporting and bio-mechanics on the kicking," he told The Huffington Post.
"So in 12 months’ time there’ll be a draft. The possible three or four Victorian teams will draft all of these players in this Academy plus anyone we can perhaps attract from another sport."
Similar to other football codes, the AFL Academy program will be looking to entice women from sports such as netball, cricket, basketball and soccer.
“There’s never been an elite, high-end talent competition for women to play, so they have been choosing other sports. Their first love might have been footy and they might have played until Under 12s with Auskick and they love the game," said Flanigan.
Currently there are the Youth Girls League for 13 to 18 years and the VWFL competitions for players in Victoria. Add to that a new Victorian Women's State League -- incorporating ten clubs, this year's VWFL Premier Division teams and the top four Division One sides, which was announced last week.
Females have the pathway to continue playing and the Academy is the next piece in the puzzle enabling development to an elite level.
Kellie Gibson of the Bulldogs collides with Britany Bonnici of the Demons during a Women's AFL exhibition match on August 16, 2015. Picture: Michael Dodge/Getty Images
The Academy program runs between seasons finishing in March 2016, just ten days before the Victorian Women's Premier League kicks off.
The players involved in the elite program will be trained in skills and abilities with a view to the planned 2017 National competition. But Darren Flanigan said that until it got underway, the women would return to their clubs and share their knowledge, skills, training techniques and build on those within their own competition.
"[With] the leadership and the skills they take back to their clubs we would expect them to pass that on, but also Graham Burgin (Academy coach) will go to every club through the year, take a training session, go to the games and then coach the coaches.
"For example if he’s going to a particular game on a weekend he will get to training sessions of both teams during the week, then go to the game on the weekend... gives them feedback on how they played but also helps coach the coaches."
The philosophy behind the initiative is to develop the talent pool for an elite competition but to use the benefits of that development in a ripple effect throughout the Women's competitions across the state.
The Academy is nomadic by design to utilise the resources of several AFL clubs including Carlton, Melbourne, Richmond, Essendon and the Western Bulldogs.
“You want to engage other clubs, so you want a lot of clubs to have ownership of it. So every club is supporting it ... so it’s not a Melbourne initiative, not a Carlton initiative, it’s an AFL initiative supporting an AFL Victoria Academy," said Darren Flanigan.
“And when the clubs provide the resources like staff, they get to know the players, they get to know the workload, they can see the standards and then when they go for one of these licences, they have a bit of knowledge of what they’re dealing with."
As for the proposed national competition in 2017, the AFL will undergo a tendering process for club licences in 2016 and then structure the competition from there.
The Western Bulldogs and Melbourne have already got women's teams underway with a lot of talent -- as was evidenced in this year's successful exhibition match -- and several other clubs are expressing strong interest in establishing women's teams.
In NSW/ACT, 23 per cent of total participation in AFL -- including Auskick, school programs, AFL9s and clubs -- is made up of female players and that female participation has grown by 330 per cent in the last four years, according to AFL NSW figures provided to The Huffington Post.
The Academy will be hosting a Women's football weekend in March to put everything into a game situation and then review the game with the players. As Darren Flanigan points out, it is important to put all the elements of the program into practice.
“We’ve invited NSW and QLD to come into those games -- so it gives them a focus for the end of their academy -- so going down to Melbourne for one weekend in March.
“By then the AFL clubs will be close to knowing who has got the licences, so they’ll come and look at close to 70 per cent of the talent in Australia in the one venue for the whole weekend," he said.
Flanigan believes that the Academy will provide the players with the skills to develop a good product: a product which is marketable and watchable -- and if the product is good then the success of a women's elite competition will take care of itself.