There’s no prize for coming third but it costs just as much in blood, sweat and tears.
Melbourne Demons player Richelle ‘Rocky’ Cranston has taken two months off work as a landscaper to focus on football. (ABC News: Margaret Burin)
“I want you to come in here after the game and be absolutely f***ed, dripping with sweat, you couldn’t have done any more.”
The changerooms of a football club are no place for niceties and long gone are the days when anyone cared about swearing around women.
The Melbourne Demons players listening to coach Mick Stinear’s pep-talk have smashed the glass ceiling and soon they’ll smash through a giant banner on Whitten Oval in Footscray.
If they win, they make the grand final.
If they lose, the fairytale is over and most of them return to full-time jobs, waiting to find out if they’ll get another football contract.
Star forward Richelle ‘Rocky’ Cranston doesn’t even want to think about the prospect of losing.
“I will be devastated but, you know, it’s our own fault if we don’t make it and if we bring the intent and the effort then I know we can,” she tells 7.30.
“It’s probably the biggest game of my career, really, so the nerves are pretty big.”
She’s lost 30 kilograms to play at this level and given up two months of work as a landscaper.
Richelle ‘Rocky’ Cranston lost 30kg to play professional football. (ABC News: Margaret Burin)
For the past seven weeks she’s punished her body, made the regular exhausting commute from Geelong to Melbourne for training and had to contend with the pain of a dislocated finger.
She’s about to learn that despite all of her sacrifices, and those of every other player, the team will miss the grand final by a devastating two points.
‘What wouldn’t you do to fulfil your dreams?’
Halfway through the season, a month earlier, the physiotherapy room at the Melbourne Football Club is packed.
The players have returned from back-to-back trips to Perth and Alice Springs with bruised egos and bodies.
They were billed as premiership favourites but are cracking under the weight of expectation, reeling from losses against two of the league’s least-impressive teams — Fremantle and Collingwood.
Meg Downie is grimacing in pain as one of the Melbourne Football Club’s physiotherapists massages her shoulder.
“It was incredibly disappointing,” she says.
“The team took the losses pretty hard too. We were pretty down after the second loss in particular.
“We felt like we let a lot of people down.”
The talented defender hurt her shoulder when she landed awkwardly after a sling tackle. Her face is also smudged with her second black eye in a row.
But she feels lucky.
Last year, her season was brought to an abrupt and painful end just two rounds in after a hamstring injury.
“That was incredibly heartbreaking for me,” she says.
“I’d spent so long getting my body ready for the season, but also just the thought that I wasn’t going to get a chance to run out with my teammates again, emotionally it was a very challenging experience.”
As a result, she’s scaled back her job to look after her body.
Meg Downie has reduced her hours at work to spend more time at footy training. (ABC News: Lauren Day)
“For me it’s been quite stressful,” she says.
“I can fit a full-time job in, I can fit the AFLW in, but you know if I was to do that, my body would be not in the best place that it could be, so I wouldn’t be playing the best footy that I could be.
“I’d be stressed and I’d be worn pretty thin.”
Four weeks into the season, she’s already considering dropping another day at the bank she works at.
“The league’s growing at such a fast rate that if I don’t continue to make more time for footy and grow my football and to improve as a player, other girls in the league will just pass me.”
But she doesn’t hesitate when asked if it’s all worth it.
“I hate to sound cliched but as a kid, I dreamt of playing AFL, so what wouldn’t you do to fulfil your dreams?,” Downie says.
“It’s just a bit of a juggle and a bit of a challenge along the way.”
‘A journey to explore what else there is in life’
Shelley Scott risked everything to play with the Melbourne Demons. (ABC News: Margaret Burin)
Few players have made sacrifices for football as big as Shelley Scott.
She’s just sold her dairy farm and at the age of 29, she’s moving into her first share house in Melbourne.
“At the end of the day, I knew I couldn’t do both. Or I couldn’t do both and give them 100 per cent,” she tells 7.30.
“So whilst football’s just a short window of opportunity, I can always go back to farming later on in life.”
It’s been a tough process and a big transition to come to terms with.
“I was my own boss back home and just outdoors all the time. I didn’t really have to answer to anyone but the cows,” she says.
“Whereas up here, just traffic, people everywhere. Yeah, it’ll take a bit of adjusting.”
Shelley Scott sold her dairy farm so she could move to Melbourne to play football. (ABC News: Lauren Day)
It’s a big risk for a seven-week footy season.
“The way I look at it is if I don’t get a contract, I’m still sort of on a journey to explore what else there is in life and not just be a hermit on the farm,” she says.
“I guess it’s a lot to risk but when you’re willing to do it, you’ll find a way.”
Farming is a relentless job and Scott only ever remembers taking four days off in a row.
She’s now travelling overseas for four weeks, something she doubts she would have done if not for AFLW.
While her football dream is over for 2018, another journey has just begun.
‘There are a lot of haters … but I think we’re proving them wrong’
After months of preparation, pain and physical punishment, the season is over for the Melbourne Demons.
But Rocky Cranston is proof the changes the AFLW has made to the lives of its players last long beyond the final siren.
“I was 106 kilos, so it’s definitely changed my life because now I’m the fittest I’ve ever been and pushing further than what I thought my body could do,” she says.
“And just little things like sometimes getting recognised on the street, and seeing little girls with signs with your name on it, and your number on their jumper, is pretty special.”
Coach Mick Stinear believes people criticising the standard of the game need to be mindful of the work-football balance most of the players are juggling.
He hopes they won’t have to for too much longer.
“It’s only a matter of time before it becomes a full-time proposition for the girls and the money’s there, they don’t have to keep juggling part-time work or full-time work,” he says.
“I know all of our girls would love to be in that position and they’d certainly make the most of it, so hopefully only a matter of time.”
Cranston isn’t sure if that will happen during her playing career, but she never thought she’d be here either.
“I think the future’s pretty bright,” she says.
“You know, there are a lot of haters out there but I think we’re proving them all wrong.
“We only get 15 hours [of training and game time] a week so obviously it’s not going to be as good as the men’s, but when we are full-time it could be completely another level and I think the future’s looking really good for it.”
– Photography by Margaret Burin