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Women’s football clubs are folding across regional Victoria amid concerns about inclusion

For years, Amy Meulendyks watched on with jealousy as her husband ran out onto the field for the Tyrendarra Dogs.

The 28-year-old paramedic played AusKick in her hometown of Horsham up until the age of eight.

After that, options for girls to play Australian rules football petered out.

So like many her age, she swapped her boots for a bib and dived head-first into netball.

That is until the Tyrendarra Dogs decided to break new ground in the Western Victoria Female Football League and field a women’s team in 2022.

“It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced before,” Ms Meulendyks said.

She is one of at least five women who play netball for Tyrendarra on a Saturday before lacing up their boots on a Sunday to play Aussie rules.

“The camaraderie on the field is like nothing else,” she said.

“I can’t explain it.”

The exception or the rule?

The Tyrendarra Dogs’ women’s side burst from the blocks in season 2022 to sit third on the ladder with two wins and a loss to their name.

The men’s side has wrapped its arms around the new team, often helping with skills drills at training or running the canteen.

However, not all clubs have been as fortunate.

The league has lost two senior women’s and three under 18s clubs since the start of round 1 due to a lack of numbers.

The Tyrendarra Football Club fielded its first women’s football side in 2022.(Supplied: Tyrendarra Football Club)

Ms Meulendyks said more needed to be done to make women feel a part of country football clubs.

“For a lot of the girls who came across [from a side that folded] the biggest thing was they didn’t feel like part of the club,” she said.

It is far from an isolated incident.

Lack of numbers to blame

Female Football Gippsland dropped from six teams last year to just three in 2022.

Belinda Marshall played for Boisdale-Briagalong last year, which folded due to a lack of numbers despite making the 2021 grand final.

“It’s really unfortunate,” Ms Marshall said.

A group of female footballers
The Boisdale-Briagalong female football team went from grand finalists to folding within 12 months.(Supplied: Boisdale-Briagalong Football Netball Club)

She said some players moved away, had children, or had other commitments that meant they could not play.

“probably [among] the core group of girls that have been here over a period of time, there’s a little bit of COVID fatigue, absolutely,” she said.

The nearby Moe-Newborough side was able to maintain strong numbers and will be a part of the three-team competition in Gippsland this year.

But team coordinator Dean Abbot said he was concerned the smaller competition could make it less engaging for players.

An action shot of women playing football
Moe-Newborough, pictured with the ball, will form part of a three-team competition in Gippsland this year.(Supplied: Dean Abbott)

The remaining teams, which include Lindenow South and Foster, explored joining the South East League — a larger competition built around the south-east suburbs of Melbourne.

“But again, that presents other barriers such as travel. We’d potentially lose some of our players who weren’t willing to travel to Melbourne for away games,” Mr Abbot said.

Instead, the teams will compete in a 12-week season with a grand final in Gippsland.

More support needed

Mr Abbott said the reason some teams struggled to solidify their presence in Gippsland was due to a lack of people driving the club culture, and that clubs needed more dedicated resources.

“Once that individual or a couple of people move on, or for whatever reason, [the teams] seem to die. I don’t think there’s a lot of support at committee level, unfortunately,” he said.

women playing football
The Moe-Newborough women’s football team goes by the moniker “The Allies”.(Supplied: Dean Abbot)

Kaleb Hermansen, the head of operations for the Gippsland Women’s Football League, said the reduction of women’s teams meant females over 18 had limited options.

“Hopefully we can sustain some of those numbers and get a good transition from the youth girls and the women’s, hopefully growing those women’s club teams,” he said.

The league is recruiting for a new female football advocate in Gippsland to help drive the competition.

An AFL Victoria spokesperson said the women’s competition had seen substantial growth over the past two years.

“Through this growth, and with many clubs forming teams for women and girls, there are more opportunities for women and girls to play, which is great for the game,” the spokesperson said.

“AFL Victoria has provided funding to each region for female advocates whose role is to promote and develop the concept, and work with locals to establish new teams and grow existing teams.”

AFL Victoria said a candidate had recently accepted the Gippsland female football advocate who was expected to start in a matter of weeks.

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