FROM sobbing in the Carindale food court, to winning a second AFLW premiership, Brisbane's Dakota Davidson experienced the full emotional gamut in the space of nine days last year.

Her Lions, perennial finalists, were forced to approach the 2023 season a little differently after significant player turnover in the previous trade period. But against the odds they had reached yet another preliminary final, hosting Geelong at Brighton Homes Arena.

Davidson had been key to that surge deep into finals, heading up a new-look forward line and playing career-best footy.

But just a quarter away from another Grand Final, Davidson buckled in what looked like a textbook anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) rupture.

What ensued was a week of scans, second opinions, and a harsh spotlight on the key forward's availability for Brisbane's fifth Grand Final in eight seasons.

"I cried every night, it was just hectic," Davidson told

"To go from tearing my ACL to playing in a Grand Final. It's pretty mind-blowing."


Fearing the worst

In a see-sawing preliminary final against an impressive Geelong outfit, the Lions were up by four points as the seconds ticked down to the final break.

Davidson, who had kicked two important goals to that point, worked into the pocket to lay a tackle on Cats captain Meghan McDonald. In the contest Davidson's leg folded awkwardly under the defender's body.

As the siren blew, the Lion was still on the deck clutching her left knee with a pained look on her face.

Helped from the ground, the joint was tested by physios on the bench while tears streamed down her face.

"I remember them doing testing and they were like 'brace for the worst'," Davidson said.


It was nearly a year to the day since the Lions' Grand Final loss to Melbourne. On that day Brisbane captain Breanna Koenen injured her knee – a posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) – at the same ground, inside the same 50m arc.

In that game, Koenen's injury sucked the air out of the side despite the defender's strength to play through the pain.

The Lions, and specifically head of women's football Breeanna Brock, weren't going to allow a knee to impact the mindset of the group again, still with a quarter to play in a tight final.

"Bree Brock looked me dead in the eyes and she was just like 'pull it together, show the girls nothing's wrong, win the game and we'll sort it out tomorrow'," Davidson said.

"So, I went to the sheds and got my s*** together and then came back out and sat on the bench."

Dakota Davidson celebrates after the preliminary final between Brisbane and Geelong at Brighton Homes Arena on November 25, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Once the game was over, and the Lions had edged out Geelong in a thriller, Davidson let the reality of her situation wash over her.

"I went home and just bawled and cried. Your doctors tell you to brace for the worst, so I'm trying to mentally set myself up for my season to be over, plus the 2024 season," Davidson said.

"I can get really in my head about injuries."

The aftermath

Davidson was sent for a scan the following day, before meeting with then-Brisbane AFLW player development manager Sally Young to work through the emotion of it all.

"I remember sitting in the Carindale food court just sobbing," Davidson said.

"We tried to come up with a plan on how to do it. Where to go, how to go about it. It wasn't just the footy, it was my off-season as well, thinking well into the future. I know you shouldn't do that, but you've got to prepare."

After that hard conversation, Davidson went to watch the other preliminary final, between North Melbourne and Adelaide, alongside her teammates that afternoon. That game was to decide Brisbane's opposition for the Grand Final.

"I was with the girls and that's when I got the phone call," Davidson said.

"It was a whirlwind because I got, not the wrong news, but (the doctor) didn't have the full prognosis. I got told 'look, it's probably an ACL but let me just get a second opinion' and I just ran with that. I said 'f*** I've done it' but he said 'no, just let me get a second opinion'.

"I gave myself five minutes alone to break down before I went back out to the girls."

Brisbane players celebrate a goal during round five, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos/Getty Images

A mere hour later, however, another phone call brought better news.

"He got another person's opinion and goes 'you haven't done it. You haven't. The second opinion was you've torn your meniscus, so you have done something'," Davidson said.

"He said he didn't know how, judging by how I collapsed… I was the one per cent that hasn't done it."

She was reassured that, although it would be painful, playing through the injury would not cause any further structural damage.

Davidson was now wholly focused on getting herself right for the Grand Final in a week's time.

Speculation and elation

Since then-Western Bulldogs captain Katie Brennan's suspension ahead of the 2018 Grand Final, there had not been so much intrigue around a player's availability for an AFLW decider.

Davidson's role in Brisbane's attacking structure could not be overstated in 2023. The side's leading goalkicker, she had played all but one game that season – only missing a round four clash with the Kangaroos through suspension – and provided a crucial target inside 50.

External expectation was that without Davidson, a Grand Final victory over a humming North Melbourne outfit seemed near-on impossible.

"I was very tense and anxious. We sat down as a group and I said to everyone 'look, obviously the media has been hectic this week, I'm pretty overwhelmed'. I was just trying to focus on one of the biggest games of my career," Davidson said.

Questions over her fitness continued to swirl until teams were announced that Friday.

Adding to the emotion of the week, on the Monday evening Davidson was named in the All-Australian side for the first time.

"I said to myself in the mirror after a week of preseason, I go 'Daks, you're going to make All-Australian this year'. I remember this very specifically," Davidson said earnestly.

"I said 'Daks, you're going to make All-Australian, you're going to be the best forward in the game' and it sat with me. Before every game, or before I left for travel, I looked myself in the mirror and said it. Then I got named in the squad, and I kept manifesting it in the mirror.

"When I got named All-Australian, it was a pretty mind-blowing moment."

Brisbane's All-Australian players Ally Anderson, Dakota Davidson and Sophie Conway during the 2023 AFLW Awards on November 27, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

The enjoyment of that moment was stymied, however, with focus quickly switching to doing all she could to be in the best possible shape for that Sunday's Grand Final.

"I had physio, I had the ice machine, I had the compacts," Davidson listed.

"I did everything in my capability, knowing that I could play if I passed the (fitness) test, so I did everything I could… I'd never had bigger quads in my life."

Passing the fitness test meant she could play, but it didn't mean it wouldn't be without pain. Learning to adapt to that pain, and still be the powerful presence her team had come to know her as, was the next big challenge.

"I remember doing a little running session on the Wednesday with a bit of 'S' running and changing direction. It was pretty heavily strapped, and I could definitely feel it, but I was like 'just wait for adrenaline. I'll just wait for the adrenaline to start pumping'," Davidson said.

Dakota Davidson at Brisbane training in November, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

The big day

Soon enough, it was game day.

It was Davidson's third Grand Final, so the build-up was familiar, outside the intense scrutiny on her knee.

"Everyone had faith in me, I'd been cleared, so I just had to mentally get myself out of that pain zone," Davidson said.

"I wasn't fully ready until I did the warm-up on game day. (Head coach Craig Starcevich) was like 'take as much time as you need'… I did that, I felt alright, there were a few tweaks here and there, but I knew adrenaline would kick in."

Dakota Davidson warms up ahead of the 2023 AFLW Grand Final. Picture: AFL Photos

From there, trying to take in the Grand Final was the focus, but it passed in a blur.

G-Flip performed before the game, with two former Lions forwards at their side. Erin Phillips was honoured after announcing her retirement a month prior. Fans packed into the sold-out stands of Ikon Park. Melbourne's sun shone bright.

"I don't even remember running out. I don't remember what I was feeling, I don't remember what I did, or who I looked at, or who I ran next to," Davidson admitted.

But once the opening siren sounded with the roar of the crowd, Davidson's focus was singular; do as much for the team as she could.

Statistically her opening half was a quiet one, but that didn't worry her coach, Starcevich. A quiet word at the main break was all that was needed to keep Davidson's head up.

"Craig actually came up to me at half-time and said 'Daks, this is a game of moments, you haven't had much obviously in the first half, but just relax. Your time will come, and when you do take it with both hands'," Davidson said after the game.

Isabel Dawes and Dakota Davidson celebrate a goal during the 2023 AFLW Grand Final. Picture: AFL Photos

Her aggression and chatter continued throughout the third quarter, again generating little reward on the stats sheet, but she and her teammates knew they were on the right track.

"I went into three-quarter-time, and I didn't feel like I had two touches, I didn't feel like I hadn't made an impact… I didn't catch a ball, but I made it to contests, I tackled," Davidson said.

And, as Starcevich had assured Davidson, taking your moment when it comes is all that was needed. That moment came early in the final quarter with Belle Dawes twisting out of danger on the boundary line and neatly hitting up the forward at the top of the attacking 50.

Down by seven points, but swiping back the game's momentum, the Lions held their breaths as Davidson went back to take the set shot. One that was eerily similar to one she had missed in the Grand Final a year prior.

"I said to myself, 'I'm kicking this goal'. I didn't even realise how far out it was," Davidson said.

Kick it she did, adding another six minutes later to put the Lions back in front. It was a lead they didn't again cede for the day. At that point, her knee was merely an afterthought in premiership celebrations.


After that hectic week, Davidson gave herself some time to just enjoy what she had achieved, the personal goals she was able to tick off as well as the club-wide success.

Once things had settled down, surgery to repair the torn meniscus in her knee took place in February, giving her plenty of time to be fit and firing for the official start of preseason in June.

But one eye is already on the prospect of becoming the first AFLW club to go back-to-back, and defying external expectation once more.

"We always get written off, but we love it," Davidson said.

"We prefer that status."