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Inside the AFLW Magpies' nest: Footy family's tough love

Wayne Siekman instructs his charges at a training session in December - AFLW,Collingwood Magpies,Brittany Bonnici,Lauren Tesoriero,Christina Bernardi,Stephanie Chiocci
Wayne Siekman instructs his charges at a training session in December

WALKING down the stairs and through the sliding glass door into the Holden Centre – Collingwood's training and administration facility – you're immediately struck by the realisation that this isn't your average football club.

This is Collingwood Football Club, one of the biggest sporting clubs in the country. In the last few years, it's undergone a transformation. What was once a club with two teams – an AFL and VFL side – has now become a club with six. And all four new teams are female. 

The Magpies have won 15 VFL/AFL premierships, have a membership base in excess of 75,000, and a fan base of seemingly hundreds of thousands across the land. 

Failure isn't tolerated, even for a new side. 

This is the second of a two-part feature taking you behind the scenes with Collingwood's AFLW team. In this instalment, we head into the coaches' box during a practice match, as the coaching staff, led by Wayne Siekman, prepare for the 2018 NAB AFLW season, which starts on Friday night when the Pies take on Carlton at Ikon Park.

All the latest AFL Women's news and fixtures at the AFLW Hub

Last year, the team finished fifth. That's not good enough for a club like Collingwood. 

This year, the Magpies have unfinished business.

Read part one of Inside the Magpies' nest here, where the cruel nature of footy is laid bare for one young Pie. 

The need for change 

In 2017, Collingwood had the oldest list of the eight teams in the NAB AFL Women's competition. Its average age of 27.4 years was nearly two-and-a-half years older than the competition average. 

After a middling, fifth-placed season, decisions had to be made. 

Lou Wotton (33 years old) and injured duo Kate Sheahan (35) and Kendra Heil (28), who were both recovering from ACL injuries, were not given contracts.

Penny Cula-Reid (29) took up an offer to coach the club's new VFLW side, retiring from football at both AFLW and VFLW level. 

Best and fairest winner Nicola Stevens and runner-up Alicia Eva requested and were granted trades to Carlton and Greater Western Sydney respectively, giving the Magpies a healthy hand in the draft.

They also received former first-round pick Jaimee Lambert from the Western Bulldogs in a complicated three-way deal that got Eva to the Giants.

With coach Wayne Siekman's strong knowledge of the under-18s system from his time in charge of the powerful Vic Metro program, the Magpies swooped on Chloe Molloy (19) and Darcy Guttridge, Iilish Ross and Sarah Dargan (all 18) with their four picks in the top 20.

Siekman is acutely aware of the need to promote the fledgling AFLW competition, always making time for media. In fact, Siekman was the one who suggested AFL Media spend a week with the club, a rarity for a senior coach.

He appreciates the juggling act his players perform and the work they put in, training and living like elite athletes while working and/or studying full-time and wants that recognised by the wider community.

His family has all bought in to Collingwood, his daughter successfully auditioning for the role of mini-Mo Hope in last year's NAB mini-legends advertising campaign. 

"She absolutely loved it," Siekman said.

"She, along with mini-Dusty got to sit in makeup the longest because of all the 'tattoos' they had to apply."

With the uncertainty surrounding the expansion of the competition in the coming years (North Melbourne and Geelong will join next year, with Richmond, St Kilda, West Coast and Gold Coast in 2020), Collingwood is looking to develop young talent now. 

Young forward Chloe Molloy was taken at No.3 in the NAB AFLW Draft. Picture: AFL Photos

Moon boot battles

To be elected team vice-captain at just 20 years old is a fair achievement. But it's far from the most impressive thing about Britt Bonnici.

The former Vic Metro captain juggles two jobs – she's a carer for a quadriplegic boy and a girl with cerebral palsy, and a customer service officer at Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre – with her study (social work at Victoria University, although she is on university holidays at the moment) and football.

A stubborn rolled ankle injury has forced her off the track and into a moon boot while the rest of her teammates prepare for a practice match against Melbourne.

Professional to the nth degree, Bonnici took the week leading into the match off work to ensure she would recover as quickly as possible. 

"I probably could work, it wouldn't overly restrict me, but I want to get it completely right," Bonnici said on the Tuesday before the January 19 game. 

"It's pretty lonely doing 'rehab' inside at the minute. I've been trying to get outside as much as possible," she says gesturing to the cloudless blue sky. 

By Thursday, Bonnici has been constantly in and out of the moon boot, trying to ease her ankle back into full weight-bearing mode. She's still wearing it as the team sprawls on the inside court floor, watching captain Steph Chiocci place cones replicating a team defensive set-up.

"Wait, are there actually 16 cones here? Or is this a stitch-up?" Chiocci asks to laughter, momentarily confused.

Coach Wayne Siekman asks for volunteers to assist the skipper. First-year player Darcy Guttridge puts her hand up. Bonnici, with moon boot on and probably well entitled to stay sitting, is the other to volunteer.

She was also seemingly the only person to know who created the playlist of songs that was pumping loudly during Tuesday night's weights session. 

"We all contributed a song. There are a few odd ones in there," Bonnici said, as a version of one-hit wonder Nikki Webster's Strawberry Kisses starts playing, accompanied by the enthusiastic singing of midfielder Emma Grant.

Sarah Dargan, who was just two years old when the original was released, was more concerned about the unexpected rap in the middle of the remixed song.

Britt Bonnici, 20, has been appointed vice-captain of the AFLW Magpies. Picture: AFL Photos

The belly of the beast

There's an impression most people have of a football coaches' box being a chaotic place at the very least. 

We may think tempers are likely to flare as coaches sit powerless, watching their players attempt to translate the all-important game plan from a whiteboard to the field.

It's a surprise to find a comparatively relaxed environment during the third term of Friday's practice match.

"Take 'Harf's' seat. He doesn't use it anyway, he's a pacer," Collingwood's VFLW coach Penny Cula-Reid says.

Midfield coach Daniel Harford turns, grins, and continues pacing in a one-metre radius in the slightly claustrophobic meeting room in the Glasshouse, which has been converted to a coaches' box for the practice match against the Demons. 

It's a crowded affair. Cula-Reid, forwards coach Matthew Jones and assistant coach (and Champion Data employee) Chloe McMillian sit in a row. Head coach Wayne Siekman is flanked by one person keeping an eye on the time and another tracking rotations.

Development coach Shannon McFerran is perched on a stool at the back. 

"Melbourne had one tackle that quarter," Cula-Reid says.

"Yeah, because we were chasing arse the entire time," Harford responds. 

AFLW season guide: All you need to know

The siren goes for the start of the third quarter and, on cue, everyone sits up straighter (except Harford, who only briefly stops pacing).

Match-ups are called out by Cula-Reid, while McMillian focuses on players' positioning and stats. 

In some circumstances, like press conferences, Siekman can take a while to get his point across. But the coaches' box is his domain. He keeps everyone on track and stops things being blown out of proportion.

"We made errors at the stoppage, but the positive is, we looked good. We hit that handball, and we're off," he says at one point. 

One player makes a brilliant intercept, evades two opponents, but then bombs the ball into a forward line full of Melbourne defenders. 

The box erupts. Hands are thrown in the air, heads shake and voices rise, merging into incoherent noise.

Siekman lets them vent and waits a couple of minutes before returning to the incident to provide a calm, reasoned conclusion.

"That's the only bad part of her game. She's a gun otherwise. So, we can work on that." 

It quickly defuses the situation. 

The box is so close to the playing field, you can hear Cecilia McIntosh (who at 37 ran a personal best in a 2km time trial several weeks ago, further evidence of the desire to improve permeating the club) demanding the ball on the wing. 

At one point, Harford, frustrated at what was unfolding in front of him, leans out of the box and bellows:

"SPREAD!"

A flock of seagulls takes off from the roof above. Effective, but not necessarily for the audience he had intended. 

Penny Cula-Reid, left, has traded her footy boots for a coach's clipboard in 2018. Picture: AFL Photos

They call her 'Chops'

To see Jaimee Lambert play, you'd expect a loud and boisterous presence at training. The inside midfielder's toughness belies her 162cm frame; she throws herself into packs and is usually the one to emerge with the ball. 

A first-round pick, known universally as 'Chops' (Lambert – lamb – chops) didn't reach her full potential at the Western Bulldogs, stymied by a series of knocks and corkies. 

But the Magpies reckon they've got a steal on their hands.

"This black team is dominating," says Jess Duffin while watching a match simulation drill on the sidelines during Tuesday's training session. She's on restricted duties to balance her cricket with the Melbourne Renegades. 

"You know why? It's [All Australian ruck Emma King] to Chops, every single time," responds assistant coach Chloe McMillian. 

Lambert is fiercely focused off the field, conducting her gym session (players use weights embossed with the Magpies logo) in almost complete silence.

It's in stark contrast to someone like animated key defender Stacey Livingstone, who barks out support at random intervals to whoever's nearby – "Yes 'Hutch'! Lift 'Braz'!"

Collingwood boasts a potent forward line (Jasmine Garner, Sarah D'Arcy, Jess Duffin, Moana Hope and now Meg Hutchins and Chloe Molloy), but struggled to get the ball to them last season. 

The Magpies averaged just 23.4 inside-50s, the second-fewest of any team, above only the wooden-spooner Greater Western Sydney. 

The addition of Lambert in the midfield should go some way to addressing that.

Jaimee Lambert (left) has already made an impact in Collingwood's midfield. Picture: AFL Photos

Footy family

Christina Bernardi is annoyed. The midfielder had spoken of her excitement and rising self-confidence at the start of pre-season, but just two weeks out from round one, felt a sharp pain in her previously reconstructed right knee. 

Her name has continually been mentioned by assistant coaches as one who has impressed with her work away from the track over summer and she was added to the leadership group in December.

But all those hours may have been taken away from the 27-year-old with just one step in a match simulation drill at the Tuesday raining session. 

She collapsed to the ground, and the players, while concerned, quickly moved into a tight-knit handball drill while trainers saw to Bernardi. They were desperate not to waste a minute of the 15 hours of training time they have a week.

"I'm frustrated, but trying to stay positive," Bernardi said two days later, stretching out her quads while leaning against a black brick wall radiating Melbourne's summer heat. 

"I just planted my knee and felt pain through it, and because I've had two surgeries on it, including a reconstruction, you just get worried."

She was scratched from the practice match as a precaution, taking notes and giving advice to teammates on the bench.

Christina Bernardi celebrates a goal in last season's win over the Giants. Picture: AFL Photos

Bernardi had been firing on all cylinders earlier in the day of the incident, taking control of the team's warm-up inside the gym alongside fellow PE teacher, skipper Steph Chiocci.

True PE teachers, they started with a simple game of 'Octopus', a tagging game usually played on an asphalt basketball court at a primary school, rather than the wooden floorboards of Collingwood's multi-purpose court. 

The group then moved into a game involving passing a netball in a circle, trying to trap opponents. Before long, the sound of squeaking shoes against the floor competed with recordings of crowd noise piped in loudly. 

Last year's opening match against Carlton was the loudest any of the players had experienced. They had spent the vast majority of their football careers playing on local football grounds, with a couple of thousand spectators at most. This year, the Magpies are preparing for a noisy environment. 

They had trained alongside the Collingwood netball side the night before in an attempt to bring across the quick and agile footwork associated with netball, but that didn't stop the dodgy stepping on show during the drill. 

By contrast, former Victorian Netball League player Lauren Tesoriero, whose biggest football strength is her physicality, stood out with her graceful passing. 

Tesoriero is an intriguing character. She's not the most talented or fittest player on the list, but one of the most selfless, the player with the big bun of dark dreadlocks taking the big hits to protect her fellow midfielders. 

The 31-year-old, who wears Crocs around the club when she's not in her footy boots, is unfailingly blunt, her accurate advice cutting through the babble of footballers.

"If I block and clear a path for you, f***ing take it. If you run into us, that's your own f***ing fault. You can see what is happening in front of you, so it's on you to change direction," she told the midfield group, making it clear she was admonishing them.

Moana Hope was late to a training session, spending time with her ill mother until a sibling could relieve her. There had been a plea earlier that day from 21-year-old midfielder Caitlyn Edwards to support Hope, saying she needed her football family around her.

Tesoriero took that advice on board in her own unique way, crashing into Hope in her first training drill with a vicious shepherd.

The two picked themselves up and trailed after the rest of the group, not looking at each other but simultaneously slapping hands, as if to say, "No hard feelings". Tesoriero gave her a tap on the bum. Footy family. 

Lauren Tesoriero's robust approach to training carries through into games. Picture: AFL Photos

Onwards and upwards

Siekman is happy with what he saw in Friday's practice match, a three-point win over Melbourne.

"The most pleasing thing was that we asked for an effort at half-time, and we saw the clear intent of the team," he said in his post-match address to the players.

"You listened and went out there and executed what we wanted you to do. We turned a three-goal deficit into a win.

"It's tremendous credit to the group. We know we now have a group that is willing to listen, take instruction on board and follow through. That sets us up really well.

"I'm really proud of this group and the way you responded. And I reckon you ran out the game better than they did. It shows the hard work we've put in. If we're close at three-quarter time and run sides down like that, look out." 

Earlier that week, Ash Brazill had led the way during a series of sprints in 40-degree heat.

As the group recovered from their last sprint, Brazill, who's played national-league netball since 2010, spoke up.

"Don't wait until the last lap to beat someone. We're not going to get better that way. Aim to beat them every time."