Inaugural Eagle reflects on 'fun journey' ahead of milestone match

IN AN AFLW competition that has advanced quickly in recent seasons with its defensive sophistication, West Coast's self-confessed "footy nerd" Belinda Smith has become a dedicated student of the League's best teams.  

The inaugural Eagle and games record holder will play her 50th AFLW game on Saturday, and she'll probably sneak multiple games in as a viewer after that, watching opposition backs for anything she can learn.

The irony, however, is that when the Eagles end their season against Melbourne at Casey Fields, there will be plenty of young defenders with an Eagle eye on Smith herself.

Belinda Smith in action in West Coast's round seven, S7 clash with Richmond at Mineral Resources Park. Picture: Getty Images

In seven seasons, the 27-year-old has grown into one of the League's better, but still underrated, intercepting defenders and is now a leader of the Eagles' talented young backline.

"I love analysing the game and really seeing players' strengths, especially the defensive side of the game and subtle little body-work things," Smith told ahead of her milestone game.

"Especially in the top five or six sides, the way they defend is definitely harder to score against and they're creating layers to their defence.

"Players are getting really smart in reading the ball and dropping off at the right time to impact and intercept and rebound, and teams are now creating a lot of their offence from the defensive side."

Belinda Smith and Taylah Davies contest the ball during round four, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

If launching scores from the back half is a big part of the AFLW's on-field growth in the past two seasons, it is also where Smith has been able to make her mark.

The 50-game milestone has snuck up on the physiotherapist, however, and was never a goal she set out to achieve when she made her debut as part of Fremantle's inaugural team, playing 12 games for the Dockers before she was delisted at the end of the 2018 season.

One year at the Western Bulldogs followed in 2019, where a snapped Achilles presented Smith with the biggest physical setback of her career, but she soon returned to WA to again be part of an AFLW team's birth.

Belinda Smith in action during a Western Bulldogs training session at Whitten Oval on November 28, 2018. Picture: AFL Photos

It's been a career that Smith says she has played feeling constantly "on the cusp".

"I got to see the very beginning of AFLW with Fremantle, which was an incredible and exciting time, and then crossing to the Dogs opened my eyes to footy in Victoria," Smith said.

"I got to play with some absolutely incredible players at both teams, and then coming to the Eagles and being back home in Perth, I've absolutely loved it.

"The journey has been a fun one, that's for sure."

Belinda Smith (left) runs through the Fremantle banner before the round one match against the Western Bulldogs VU Whitten Oval on February 4, 2018. Picture: AFL Photos

Helping lead a West Coast team that has shown improvement in its fourth season has been the most rewarding phase of her career, Smith said, even if the wins and a breakthrough finals appearance haven't come yet.

She has taken teenager Charlie Thomas under her wing in season seven and also played a leadership role with Sasha Goranova and Sophie McDonald as they continue their development.

Winning a premiership with the club she grew up barracking for remains her primary motivation, with the hope that a maiden AFLW flag for the club is not far away.

West Coast players celebrate a goal in their round nine, S7 09 clash with the Western Bulldogs at Mineral Resources Park. Picture: AFL Photos

"I think it's so exciting with the raw talent they have, and across the field as well," Smith said. 

"As we've seen in AFLW, once players have two or three seasons developing, they are absolutely taking the competition by storm at the moment.

"I'm really excited, not just for how they've gone this year, but for what the next two or three seasons look like.

"Knowing how hungry everyone is to keep improving and how dedicated we are to football and performing at our best, a flag is the ultimate goal and we're all striving to get there.

"There's no doubt in the group that that's where we're heading."