Matt Newbold and Riley Box stand either side of Mitch Lower, surveying the Redbacks’ Round 5 clash with Mazenod in the minutes before half time. The pair, who make up the Strength & Conditioning team at the Academy, will intermittently offer their perspective on the state of play to Mitch but, more often that not, they watch individual players. Having spent up to two hours checking in with players for manageable wear and tear before the game, Matt and Riley are tuning in for signs of fatigue or injury.
“Big!” Riley calls out to Sarah McKenna, who is the runner for the seniors today as her broken finger slowly heals. “See if April needs a rest – get her to switch up forward if she does.”
Matt and Riley advise Mitch on rotational changes between the lines every six or seven minutes. Chelsi Old comes from the ground, blowing hard from nearly a full quarter on the ground, and Riley and head sports trainer Harry Stemp consult her.
“You good?” asks Riley, to a wordless but vigorous nod. The siren sounds to end the second quarter and Riley and Matt regroup to chat the state of their charges.
Matt approached the Academy on the offering of his mate Mitch while Riley comes to the Academy after a strength & conditioning internship with Essendon’s VFL Women’s program. They fondly but wryly remember the first session after their applications had been accepted by the Academy. “No more than five” players made up that training in January but, just like everyone who was involved at the time, Matt was never really worried that this ship wouldn’t sail.
“Just under a month in, we’d been training twice a week and we still had pretty low numbers,” he recalls. “We always knew that going into the start of the semester and the orientation week, the numbers would pick up.”
Of all the people involved in the RMIT football program, Matt and Riley were probably the least affected by the lack of prior football experience amongst the Redbacks.
“A lot of the girls had done some form of exercise in the past, so they were really good at responding to what I gave to them,” says Matt. “They’ve been awesome from the very start. They’re keen to learn, they listen to us, they ask us questions, they do everything they can to improve. The number one thing you can notice about the Academy is that everyone’s trying to improve. Coaches, players, whatever, everyone is trying to improve.”
The following Tuesday night, Matt and Riley lead the players in their warm-ups, which have been tailored to favour the dynamic to the static in their drills and exercises. When training begins, Matt joins High Performance Manager Vince Atkinson in talking to the sports therapy teams about the players who have been in for treatment.
Riley assists Gezim with the reserves. Tonight, he wears his backline coach hat as the defenders practice structuring against incoming kicks and setting up for the kick-in out of full back. Anyone who isn’t a game day defender wears a high-vis bib and replicates the efforts of opposition forwards.
“Now – BREAK!” calls Riley and the players scatter from half-back, screaming for Eliza Goulding in the goal square. Eliza drives to the right and Alanna Sheard flies for a mark only to be spoiled by Alison Ross. The defenders lose possession.
They gather around Riley, who quietly recommends a new move.
“All people leading to the left,” he says, and the defenders raise their hands accordingly. “Commit to the pass. Eliza, make like you’re going there but then switch. Alanna?” he says and the tall forward nods, “you’re the target. Push hard.”
The players reassemble, the high-vis vets reaching out to “get some body” on their opponents and anticipate the direction of the kick-out. Eliza feigns to the left, then switches to the right; having known the dummy move, Alanna commits to the lead where her shadow had assumed that they were out of the action. At full stretch, Alanna marks and the defenders win the play.
The defenders whoop in delight and Gezim and Riley applaud the well-executed move. Every step forward needs to be acknowledged.
The gates at Bundoora Oval lead out onto the 50-metre arc at the Betula Avenue end. As Matt and Riley amble towards the exit with training wrapped up, Matt pounces on a waiting ball. With hammy cheek, he blind turns around Riley and, with audacious high-steps, hoofs a snap across his body from deep in the pocket. The yellow ball thumps with a satisfying, deep connection and scrapes the darkening sky, curving, curving, curving and goes through for a goal. Not to be outdone, Riley rolls another footy along the boundary line, gathers near the point post and skids his shot along the ground, where it bends back on itself to sit over the goal line right next to Matt’s.
Typical footy boys. Typical footy boy things. The Academy has facilitated a different place for them.