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Next big Showdown a league apart

Football

Struggling and testing fans’ patience, the Crows and Port Adelaide tonight contest their 51st Showdown at Adelaide Oval. But as Michelangelo Rucci reports, the year’s most hotly anticipated Showdown is still months away – in another league. 

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Most anticipated Showdown ever? It’s April 1. And with both derby rivals winless, at the foot of the ladder and some way off the chase for the AFL premiership, the latest rendition of the Showdown between the Crows and Port Adelaide does appear a fool’s joke in prime time.

But it wouldn’t be foolish to expect a bigger crowd for a new version of the Showdown – highly anticipated for Friday August 26 – than tonight’s “historic” 51st South Australian derby.

While Port Adelaide and the Crows will continue their feisty grudge on the field at Adelaide Oval, the task of replicating this intense in-town rivalry in another league – the AFLW national women’s competition – is about to test both local clubs to the limit.

At times, they will be allied in their objectives, such as securing the AFLW season-opener in late August as a women’s Showdown at Adelaide Oval. At other moments, they will be fierce rivals – such as when Port Adelaide starts raiding the Crows’ AFLW player list, including premiership captain Erin Phillips and some of Adelaide’s contracted stars.

Eight years have passed since the AFL, through then chief executive Andrew Demetriou, promised South Australians a Friday night Showdown as a reward to South Australian sporting leaders for putting aside 40 years of civil war between cricket and football to return elite football to Adelaide Oval. And AFL House also owed the State government for handing over $535 million in taxpayer cash to redevelop the city ground.

This Friday night Showdown is still short of delivering the major gain from featuring in the AFL’s biggest primetime slot. There is no national free-to-air television coverage on Channel Seven with all the commercial spoils corporate sponsors crave from “Friday Night Football”. The match will be shown nationally on subscriber network Fox Footy and only on free-to-air television in Adelaide and some sections of regional South Australia.

So, both SA clubs – in particular Port Adelaide that wants a blockbuster start to its AFLW story – have reason to tell AFL House that Demetriou’s promise has not been honoured in full and should be cleared away with Adelaide Oval hosting the opener of the seventh AFLW season, the first with all 18 national league clubs.

It is realistic to forecast there will be more tickets sold and more of the 53,500 seats at Adelaide Oval filled by the fans at the first AFLW Showdown than either of the two AFL men’s derbies this season (tonight and on August 20). Neither the Crows nor Port Adelaide have been finding it easy to move their AFL tickets amid lingering concerns from COVID protocols and the hard to watch form of their men’s teams. Tonight’s derby is expected to draw 42,000 rather than a lock-out crowd once anticipated with a Friday night Showdown.

AFLW can be a repeat of the AFL story in Adelaide – minus the 1990 storm from Port Adelaide’s planned secession from the SANFL to become South Australia’s first national league team. Again, the Crows women’s program will be well established by the time Adelaide becomes a two-team town in the AFLW. The six-year headstart on Port Adelaide will have the Crows put two – possibly three – AFLW premiership trophies in the cabinet at West Lakes.

It is realistic to forecast there will be more tickets sold and more of the 53,500 seats at Adelaide Oval filled by the fans at the first AFLW Showdown than either of the two AFL men’s derbies this season

In 1996, Port Adelaide reclaimed two of their own, David Brown and Scott Hodges, from the Adelaide Football Club for the inaugural Power AFL squad. In 2022, Port Adelaide can take as many as 14 AFLW players from rival clubs – even those on contracts – for its inaugural AFLW squad that is being planned by Olympians Juliet Haslam and Rachel Sporn and list manager Naomi Maidment.

The obvious target – for football, marketing and as a hit on the neighbour up the road – is to secure Erin Phillips, daughter of club great Greg.

Erin Phillips in action against Carlton. Photo supplied.

She was the first player signed (in December 2015) to a Port Adelaide women’s contract and was eagerly presented for promotional shots wearing a Power guernsey in front of the Williams Family grandstand at Alberton Oval. This was well before the AFL, just as it did in 1990, preferred to have the Crows as South Australia’s first national team in a new league.

Is taking Phillips from West Lakes to Alberton enough to start driving a meaningful wedge between the two teams in the AFLW? It could set up the first eagerly watched match-up in an AFLW Showdown; Phillips v Chelsea Randall, her fellow premiership captain at Adelaide.

Does the Crows-Port Adelaide rivalry from the AFL naturally translate to the AFLW or would it need to be stoked, as it was among the young Port Adelaide players – in particular, those born after the 1990 “civil war” that took South Australian football to the Supreme Court? In the lead-up to last year’s Showdown 49 in early May, Port Adelaide football boss Chris Davies lectured his team on the history of the derby, how his club’s dislike of the Crows precedes the first Showdown in 1997 and he certainly raised eyebrows by declaring the Crows were “professionally jealous” of Port Adelaide.

“My responsibility is to make sure that our players get an understanding of why we dislike Adelaide,” Davies explained.

Port Adelaide chief executive Matthew Richardson expects the same indoctrination of the inaugural Power AFLW squad at Alberton, where the Showdowns do seem to mean very much more than is noted with the Crows at West Lakes.

“It is part of our culture at every level,” said Richardson. “We speak of a rivalry that began in 1990, not from the first Showdown in 1997. And the rivalry probably pre-dates that, considering how the Crows have come to represent the SANFL. It is the ‘us against them’ theme that has been part of Port Adelaide’s place in South Australian football for more than a century.

“That carried from the SANFL to the AFL. It will do the same in the AFLW.”

When Port Adelaide along with Sydney, Essendon and Hawthorn had their AFLW licences confirmed in December, the expectation was for these four clubs to start playing 12 months later in December 2022. The AFL Commission is now pushing to advance the AFLW season to coincide with the end of the AFL men’s home-and-away series at the end of August. The opening round of the AFLW season would be during the pre-finals bye weekend of the AFL competition – and Port Adelaide wants the season opener as a Showdown with Adelaide on Friday, August 26 at Adelaide Oval.

“We will have to get our skates on,” Richardson told InDaily of Port Adelaide’s chances of fast-tracking its team launch by four months. “It makes sense to start in August and finish in December. Avoiding the heat of January and February is most sensible.

“We also have noticed there is a burnout of people in clubs by having the work on the AFL and AFLW programs take up 12 months of the year. We need to give people a break in January and February.

“And there is a big opportunity by advancing the new season to late August. We can make history with the first AFLW Showdown on a Friday night with a full house at Adelaide Oval. That will be very difficult to do in November when the ground is turned over to cricket.

“Imagine how we market the state of South Australia with national free-to-air television coverage of the first AFLW Showdown from Adelaide Oval. It is equal to that moment when we returned football to Adelaide Oval with an AFL Showdown in 2014.”

At West Lakes, Adelaide Football Club head of women’s football Phil Harper takes Richardson’s grand vision of the first AFLW derby in South Australia as the ultimate vindication of the AFL Commission’s decision to invest in women’s football, and of AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan’s gamble to advance the start-up date of the league from 2022 to 2017.

“Our biggest challenge has been to have people accept the AFLW,” says Harper.

“My group of friends are a great reflection of society. There are some who will not have a bar of the AFLW; they say women should not be playing football. But there are some who did not like the idea of AFLW at the start in 2017 and now fully embrace it.

“There are some who went to the first game in 2017 at Thebarton Oval and left saying to me, ‘How good is this; I never thought I would see games like this’.

“Since 2017 the AFLW has become even better. If our team of today played the 2017 premiership side, today’s team would win by 20 goals. That’s how far this AFLW competition has come in just five years.

“We have the greatest game in the world. Why should it be restricted to have just men play Australian football?”

Crows players celebrate their 2019 AFLW Grand Final win against Carlton at Adelaide Oval. Photo: AAP/David Mariuz

Port Adelaide was more advanced in its planning than Adelaide in 2016, when the chase for the first AFLW licences began with 13 clubs applying for the eight start-up entries to the first national competition in Australian football. But the AFLW file was pushed aside at Alberton to concentrate on the now stalled mission to create a new home, and new financial streams to refloat the Port Adelaide Football Club’s business plan in Shanghai, China.

“What is always forgotten when that point about ‘China or AFLW?’ is made is how the AFL did not believe South Australia could make an AFLW team work,” Richardson said.

Adds Harper: “Head office (the AFL in Melbourne) felt there was not enough talent in South Australian women’s football to allow us to field a team in our own right. So we joined forces with the Northern Territory.

“Now we have a powerful AFLW team in South Australia (without a partnership in Darwin). And, more importantly, we have an SANFLW competition that is deemed good enough to support a second AFLW team. The best players in our state are now aged 15-18 – the system has been developing some very good female players.”

But did Port Adelaide, as former Treasurer and Port Adelaide fan Tom Koutsantonis keeps saying, miss the AFLW boat to go to China?

“We had no choice,” answers Richardson. “Our agenda was full (with the major need to find new commercial revenue streams for a club in heavy debt). Don’t think we have not reflected on this and asked if we missed a trick. The truth is, we were not in the AFLW conversation to start with.”

Port Adelaide also would have been challenged in 2017 to find the revenue to support an AFLW program while insisting the men’s program was funded at 100 per cent capacity.

“In 2017, we did not have the commercial strength that we have today,” Richardson said. “Today, we are engaging with current and new sponsors wanting to be part of our AFLW team. We already have 3000 AFLW members – and we haven’t started yet.

“Those six years waiting to get an AFLW licence have not been lost or wasted years,” Richardson adds. “We have made great learnings in that time on how to integrate ‘W’ into our football club. We have a better chance now than in 2017 to quickly build an AFLW program that will be successful on the field and commercially strong off the field.”

The current challenge for Port Adelaide, even with benefit of the AFLW rules that allow poaching of as many as 14 contracted players from the established 14 teams, is to find an inaugural squad that does not repeat the poor on-field results delivered by recent expansion teams. This year’s final six in the AFLW are the six of 2020, highlighting the growth pain in the league.

“This is not 1996 when we had a successful SANFL team with players such as Warren Tredrea, Peter Burgoyne and (1997 AFL Rising Star) Michael Wilson established as SANFL league players at Alberton and ready to step up to the AFL,” Richardson said. “But we do have genuine young talent in the SANFLW.”

We are engaging with current and new sponsors wanting to be part of our AFLW team. We already have 3000 AFLW members – and we haven’t started yet

How many Crows players cross the divide to Alberton will be part of the fascinating build up to the first AFLW Showdown.

“Our sales pitch,” says Richardson, “is the same as the one we make to AFL players. You get to step into a club with a great football culture. And we intend to take our women’s program further than just establishing an AFLW team. We are about developing pathways for women, for women coaches who can work beyond the AFLW by having meaningful roles in our men’s program (in the AFL and SANFL).”

Both Port Adelaide and Adelaide are expected to be handed AFL funding to have an AFLW player at each club – probably Phillips and Randall – work as assistant coaches in the men’s programs at Alberton and West Lakes next year.

Harper accepts Adelaide will lose players to Port Adelaide by the promise of more money or more opportunity.

“There will be offers that are so ridiculous that they can’t be refused,” said Harper noting each club can list two franchise players who are paid outside the salary cap. “The other 28 share (the salary capped) $500,000 with the vast majority, about 16 players, on $20,000 a year.

“If it is not money, there will be players looking for greater opportunities to play.

“Our theme to our players is the Adelaide Football Club is a good place to become better as a footballer. But some will think the grass is greener elsewhere. We have had two players – Jess Sedunary (St Kilda) and Jasmyn Hewett (Gold Coast) – leave us and come back a year later because they realised how much they loved our club.

“I am sure we will lose a couple of players. But we also have pushed for Port Adelaide to be part of the AFLW so that we can get all 18 AFL clubs involved. What I do know is that the Adelaide Football Club is a better place for having an AFLW team. Every AFL club should have the opportunity to experience the same.”

All that is left to complete the Showdown story is to take it to the AFLW. A new chapter in the Port Adelaide-Crows rivalry is much needed considering the state of the derby teams in the AFL tonight; winless, ranked in the bottom four at 15th and 18th and testing the patience of their fans.

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