Round 1 – In Reflection

April Goldring stands before the RMIT Reserves team in the change rooms and begins to speak.

“I want to make it very clear what I am doing today – I am doing this speech not to put fire in your belly or to rev you up, that will happen when you’re out there,” says the Redbacks’ senior captain.

“I honour and acknowledge my community. This land is so special…” April falters, trying to hold back the tears. “To have you all out there – in uniform! – is just… incredible.”

Today is Round 1 for the Redbacks. Listening to April’s speech with rapt attention are just 18 players, who are minutes away from taking to the field against the Caulfield Grammarians in VAFA’s Premier B Reserves division at the Bundoora campus. To call these Redbacks inexperienced is a slight understatement. Only former Diamond Creek defender Jess Hall has played footy before. Brooke McKaig sits on the corner of the bench, drinking in her captain’s words. Until last Saturday’s practice match, she had not even seen a game of Australian Rules.

“You are wearing a uniform that represents an entire community of dedicated loved ones who unselfishly put every ounce of energy they had into this Academy,” continues April.

Between the end of the reserves’ game and the start of the seniors’ game, a Welcome to Country and Smoking Ceremony will be held by Indigenous elder Aunty Di. As an Indigenous woman, April is channelling that pride and love before her team.

“I will ride every bump and tumble. I do this because I know that you will do the same for me.

“Remember, when you’re in pain, exhausted and don’t want to run anymore, call on your heart and your soul.”

April closes out her speech and the players burst into applause. The applause carries on and on, carried out with enthusiasm and not obligation, and when it has died down Dallas native Hannah Coffey seizes the moment.

“I would love if we all could pray?”

No sooner is the suggestion vetoed than the heads of all players and coaches – many of whom have been untouched by religion since birth, let alone since they arrived at the Academy – are bowed.

A prayer.

In the change rooms of an Australian local sporting club.

This is a surreal passage.

Donning the Team Manager’s bib and clipboard for the Reserves, Chris O’Connor beams at the floor during Coffey’s recital.

“The respect, that’s what was moving,” he says in passing outside the change rooms. “One of the core values is respect, they’re already living that value system.”

As the terms ‘rag-tag’ and ‘plucky’ extend themselves heartily extend themselves to the Redbacks Reserves, Gezim – appointed to the senior role in the whirlwind process that was the decision to fill a second team – is not prioritising victory.

“Intensity,” he tells his team, “that’s what we can bring today.”

In any event, RMIT’s one small step into history is marked with a pummelling against the Grammarians. Once Jess Hall left at quarter time for work (such is Saturday life as a chef), the Redbacks were a player short on field with no bench.

The Strength & Conditioning program has its first performance with Matt Newbold and his intern Riley Box assisting head coaches Gezim and Mitch Lower.

The men are experienced in football. Suggestions and observations pass over.

“Looks like they’re dropping the spare up forward.”

“Does Gina need to come off?”

“Oi, Riley, get out to Courtney and tell her that was good! Back herself in.”

Caulfield had three years of experience as a team. The fledgling RMIT had none. This much was silently underlined in the final score line, which read 17.19 to 0.1. A third quarter push towards the goal line was foiled and the ball drunkenly spiralled over for a minor score.

As part of RMIT’s commitment to developing programs around Indigenous people and culture, players from both sides form a guard of honour for the Welcome to Country Ceremony. Sally Tanner, who has been pulling together the still-loose thread of match day for hours as her months-long dream has finally arrived, stands closest to Aunty Di as the elder quietly but resolutely speaks of the connection to land and community. The context is different but the words of April Goldring are echoed.

“If you want, you can come and put a leaf on the tarnuk,” says Aunty Di to the crowd of around 100.

“This isn’t obligatory.”

There is an uncertain moment. Sally steps forward deliberately and her playing leaders follow. Without a word, players, coaches and spectators alike all silently swirl around the tarnuk.

Surreal, again.

The Redbacks are again defeated by Caulfield.

Having been nudged into playing by Sally and Chris, executive committee member and RMIT Big V Administrator Sarah McKenna is lion-hearted as a ruck. April’s competitive fire – “I just hate losing,” she sheepishly admitted in the week leading up to Round 1 – is readily apparent as she scraps against two or three opponents in congestions.

The coverage of both matches on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram is handled by media and communications intern Alex Russell. As a Bachelor of Communication student at RMIT, Alex has a production role on the footy talkback show Rushed Behind, which airs weekly on Channel 31. However, the helter-skelter nature of live content production across three platforms that is match day is new to her.

“Do we want photos? When do we get videos? What do I need before the matches?” she poses as the reserves run back out at half time with a ten-goal deficit. “It’s a lot, but once you’re in the groove, there’s an intuitive side to it.”

The football Gods do not spare the Redbacks just because this is their first outing. Tori Quilligan, fast and unhesitant, is carried from the ground with an ankle injury in the third quarter. In the next passage of play, key forward Isabella Syme lands with a thud and writhes onto her back in pain. In the last quarter, Melbourne Uni-VFLW signing Neve O’Connor collides with an opponent and hobbles from the ground grimacing with a right ankle knock.

“Enough injuries…” grumbles Mitch as he folds his magnet board under his arm.

Kristy McClaer – who was equally celebrated and teased for kicking two goals from the goal square in the practice match – is ready waiting for the quick kick but dances around the ball until she is sure that it won’t roll through, whereupon an almost apologetic toe poke inks her name into history. The Redbacks have a goal.

RMIT trails by just five goals and the odds are long but not insurmountable. However, the injuries have soured the script. The Grammarians breathe fire in the last quarter with an unanswered burst of five goals.

Arms are around shoulders and rueful laughs abound on the way off the Bundoora deck. A happy change room babbles on about individual moments as boots are pulled off and tape yields with that unpleasant sticking sound. The floor fills with mud, grass and the red lolly frogs being wildly distributed by Kristy’s cherubic young daughters. Mitch commends his team with his typical positive earnestness.

“I’m a pessimist,” chuckles Sally as Mitch eyeballs his players, wanting them to believe in themselves and the game plan as he does. “So I need Mitch, I need Chris, they balance me.”

On cue, Chris chips in.

“We’ll beat them next time. You can see the weekly improvement already.”

The season is on.

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