Former elite female athletes writing a new chapter at historic Port

PORT ADELAIDE is a club steeped in history, and one that embraces traditions to the hilt. That doesn’t change with the introduction of its inaugural AFLW side this year.

"Females have always been a part of this football club, but this is a chance for them to be involved at a whole new level," Port Adelaide Head of AFLW Juliet Haslam told womens.afl.

Off field the club has done well to form a team of women who possess a broad range of experience across different sports – both domestic and international.

Haslam represented Australia in hockey for more than 12 years, winning two Olympic gold medals and a host of other accolades in the process, before moving into a corporate marketing and consultancy role. She's not the only former Olympian in an off-field role at the club, with former basketballer Rachael Sporn taking up a role as Operations Manager and the mastermind behind the club's brand new AFLW facilities at Alberton. 

Juliet Haslam has been named Port Adelaide's inaugural head of AFLW. Picture: Port Adelaide Football Club

Those facilities tread the line between club history, and an opportunity for the women's program to put its own stamp on Port Adelaide. The importance of a welcoming environment is evident, from club philosophies to be plastered on the walls, right down to all-gender bathroom facilities clearly signed throughout the building.

In the role of List Manager, Naomi Maidment brings years of experience developing South Australian talent and coaching junior athletes. And the cherry on top of this off-field team is head coach Lauren Arnell, the first former AFLW player to take the reins of an AFLW side.

"In terms of how grand or important that is, that's kind of beyond me at the moment," Arnell said frankly of being the first player to become a head coach.

Port Adelaide coach Lauren Arnell speaks with Ebony Marinoff during the SA Draft Combine on June 2, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

With the experience of captaining Carlton in the very first AFLW match back in 2017, Arnell is unflappable, able to brush off any amount of pressure or expectation and focus on the job at hand.

"I just control what I can. It'd be nice if this competition had been around a lot longer and I didn't need to be the first. I just want to make sure we do the best job that we possibly can. I've got great people around me to make sure that that we do provide the very best high-performance environment for our group."

The appeal of that high-performance environment alongside an opportunity to evolve as a player drew Ebony O'Dea back to her home state of South Australia.

"I was one of the first players to sign and there were already all these people in place at the club showing great commitment. All the staff that I've spoken to have shown great commitment, not just doing their job, but then going above and beyond and making sure the whole experience is easy as possible," she said.

Known across the competition as a tagging, defensive midfielder, O'Dea is determined to take her footy to a new level at Port Adelaide.

"I would love to be a genuine midfielder my own right, rather than just tagging the good midfielders, so that's a work towards. I'll hopefully get there but I don't want to take the defensive aspect out of my game," she said.

Bringing in a level of experience when it comes to players was a key pillar of the club's list build strategy, in an effort to support the younger talent that will fill out the playing list.

"From the very start, we've always said that we want to bring that real mix of some key senior players to the program that can help build the foundation," Haslam said.

"We need to have that core of senior, experienced players that have been in the system, that have - most importantly - great character. We are happy to still select some players that potentially may not be superstars, but they have that great character that we want to be able to filter through for our program."

Erin Phillips - another Olympian - is the obvious example of this, coming from Adelaide to continue a family legacy with Port Adelaide, but Angela Foley's addition to the side has immediately impressed O'Dea.

"Ange Foley's doing a phenomenal job organising everything, like in the group chat she's always like 'Oh yeah, I've put together this spreadsheet'. Clearly a teacher," O'Dea laughed.

Those spreadsheets, which encompass not just contact details but each player's coffee order and even their pet's names, adds a level of comfort and connection for young players who might feel a little daunted coming in to their first elite AFLW environment.

For Arnell, it's the next five years of talent development that presents as the most exciting prospect, which bodes well given the already impressive young players being produced in South Australia.

"When I was playing, it was day one of preseason, you get a true measure of how much better that next group of players is. I think that's still the reality. That might not even out for another four or five years once that talent pathway is complete," she said.

But what Port Adelaide's maiden AFLW program comes down to, according to Haslam, is simple: "Great experience, great people and good leaders."