Carlton's AFLW players pose for a photo during their pre-season camp in June, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

LAST year, Carlton's AFLW program tore it all up, and started again.

External review, new coach, new head of footy, a move to day training, the works.

There were some bright spots through the season – a thumping 53-point win over West Coast on the road, grinding out a five-point win against Sydney – but the playing group tired as the months progressed, losing the last four games of the season.

The new-look Carlton finished 12th, winning four of 10 games and recording a final percentage of 86.

How are these second-year Blues handling the next stage of their development? was invited to spend a day with Carlton. Read on for the first half of our behind-the-scenes feature.

Harriet Cordner celebrates Carlton's win with teammates dueing round five, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos/Getty Images


About an hour north of Melbourne sits Strath Creek, a small town of a couple of hundred people at most, nestled in the bush off the Hume Freeway.

A couple of dirt tracks later off the main road sits the Village Green, a most unlikely retreat space which had been carefully manicured by the parents of former Australian test cricketer Chris Rogers.

It's a beautifully maintained oval, surrounded by a white picket fence more commonly found in the English countryside, with the aptly named Mt Buggery looming over one end of the ground.

Now cared for by the parents of former AFL footballers Tom and Ed Phillips, goal-posts have been added, while the walls of the pavilion with two long wooden tables are adorned with a curiously eclectic mix of cricket and football memorabilia – an autographed Pat Cummins top, a framed print of Keith Miller (aged 19), a signed Richmond AFLW guernsey and a small framed photo from Tom's debut.

It's here that Carlton's AFLW program has landed for three days, players and staff alike hunkering down in bunk beds.

Carlton players celebrate a goal during the club's AFLW pre-season camp in June, 2024. Picture: Carlton FC

The first night saw the group broken up into four teams – led by senior players Gab Pound, Jess Good, Harriet Cordner and Darcy Vescio – competing in a chaotic "Olympic games" partly to determine just who would be able to sleep in the "homestead" up the hill, with Pound’s crew emerging triumphant.

But Thursday was main training day, and as players emerged into the dining room for breakfast at 7am – nothing too fancy, cereal, toast and fruit, with a handful of pod coffee machines working overtime – the focus was evident.

An hour later, the temperature may have read six degrees, but the more trusted "feels like" sat at an icy 1.4, as trainers swaddled in navy blue puffers, hoodies and beanies strapped ankles and warmed up backs and hamstrings on the massage tables outside.

Players were told to warm up however best suited them – a group of seniors headed for the "gym" up the hill, dodging a litany of kangaroo poo in the thick grass as they made for a green shed, decked out with exercise bikes, ski erg machines, weights, mats and medicine balls.

Darcy Vescio in action during Carlton's pre-season camp in June, 2024. Picture: Carlton FC

Peterson, slamming a 4kg ball into the ground, managed to bust it open, posing for a club media pic with a wide grin.

Draftee Lila Keck – normally a source of buzzing energy – sat quietly for quite possibly the only time all day, reviewing notes around game plans and structures before the main training session, ex-Pie Tarni Brown holding onto a piping hot cup of tea for dear life as she did the same.

The Moody twins, Breann and Celine, are united for the first time at AFLW level after the latter moved from the Dogs. They did their prep before ducking off to the local store for a "proper" boost of caffeine, returning near-identical in their white training caps and large coffees, Celine wearing a ponytail and Brea opting for a low bun.

A series of silly, on-going competitions pervaded the camp, continuing the battle from the night before, in a push for fun competitiveness. Everyone had to wear lanyards with a form of ID, only a smattering of licences dated prior to 1997 remaining among the group as a sign of the side’s youth.

Pegs appeared and disappeared on random pieces of teammates' clothing, and only first names – not the all-pervasive footy nicknames – could be used outside of training. The team headed up by Cordner was judged the overall winner by the end of the three-day camp, despite having missed out on rights to the homestead on the first night.

Coach Mathew Buck brought the group together around a large sheet of material printed with the outline of a football oval, using tennis balls as markers to talk through structures.

"Take your lanyards off, it's time for business," he yelled, summoning the group.

Dayna Finn in action during Carlton's pre-season camp in June, 2024. Picture: Carlton FC


Gab Pound was 21 when she was selected by Carlton with pick No.30 in the inaugural 2016 draft, the 16th pick in the Victorian pool.

Only Vescio and Brea Moody have played more AFLW games for the club, but with 62 matches under her belt, Pound sits at equal-41st all-time across the competition.

She hasn't missed that many games over the years – a couple with a broken finger, two with COVID, a few more for uni commitments – but finals have been few and far between in recent years, seeing inaugural Brisbane and Adelaide players race ahead.

Pound – once again nursing a freshly broken finger, but likely to avoid surgery – has seen first-hand the changes at Carlton.

"Every season has increased in terms of capacity and support, and particularly, it's been a really big jump in the last two seasons. A lot of factors come into that, increase of average pay, which means the entire list can now focus more into football and not have other stressors," Pound said.

Harriet Cordner in action during Carlton's AFLW pre-season camp in June, 2024. Picture: Carlton FC

"Carlton specifically have really turned a corner. It was a really gutsy move to have an external review, and we found some really telling things. It was amazing for our program, because we didn't know what we didn't know. We're really on track now. We're the first club to go to all day training (sessions), which turned into a bit of a joke by the end of the season, because we talked about it so much.

"We feel like we're really respected as athletes, rather than it being our second job. We can go home at reasonable times and get to sleep at optimal times, and pre-season is much more manageable.

"It's a bit of push and pull with the men's and women's programs, and the men have to sacrifice a bit too. Even the whole-club interaction, it's so beneficial – we can go to the (club) café now and have a coffee. Unreal coffee at the Carlton cafe, by the way. We talk about our 'Stronger Together' theme, and it's not fake or anything. It's really happening with what Carlton has been able to do in terms of really encompassing the W program."

Elise O'Dea and Gab Pound celebrate a goal during round 10, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos/Getty Images

Pound jokes about the day training commentary, but the Blues say it's made a tangible difference to the development of players, with staff also being able to be shared across programs a little more easily.

"Our typical days are 11 till six. We talk about a high-performance environment, and a lot of it is personnel and resources, but then it comes to scheduling," head of AFLW Ash Naulty said.

"It's been extremely beneficial and positive. Our group is able to physically and mentally recover. The learning aspect of the game is so important now, so being able to have the girls leave by six, eating dinner at an appropriate time, being able to rest, recover and go again.

"It holds us in good stead for being able to lay blocks of consistency, in terms of preparation.

"As part of the review, we had 32 staff in the previous season, and we've brought that down to 26, with 10 full-timers and four at 0.6 roles. So making sure their roles are really clear, and if they have dual roles at the club, making sure there are real, set boundaries."

Turning 30 this year, Pound has one eye one life outside of the game, studying a bachelor of outdoor education up in Bendigo, keen to maintain a close connection with nature, whether in the future that involves taking school groups bushwalking, kayaking or even rock climbing.

"I've always been pretty cruisey and not been the type of person to be like, 'I want to be doing this when I'm this age', I'm pretty open to it all. But it's not lost on me that this is such a special opportunity," she said.

"My dad always says – because he played football too – to make sure you enjoy everything. It's not going to last forever. And if you're really enjoying yourself, and getting the joy out of football, you get into this flow state, and you play really well as a team, and you know you're enjoying being around each other as much as it is a serious environment.

"Sport's a massive platform. AFL is a massive platform, and I feel very privileged to be able to use whatever platform I have to really talk about social issues I really care about. I've had opportunities with RSPCA for animal cruelty, and advocating for a queer space, and so many other things it's been, it's been unreal.

"The fact of what the W has done for the AFL, in terms of really shifting that whole social space, it's definitely been really positive. Hopefully another nine years down the track, it's going to be even better."