Australian News

Programs encouraging more women, of all abilities, to play wheelchair sports

When wheelchair basketballer Jess Cronje played her first game for a national mixed team, one of her opponents warned if she got in his way again and stopped him from scoring, he was going to squash her like a bug.

Instead of taking her off the court, her coach decided to give the then 16-year-old the job of guarding the much bigger man.

“She said something to him, then scooted off somewhere and the look on his face, that whole quarter he was just out of sorts, he was really off his game,” recalled Cronje’s mum, Kris Riley.

After asking her daughter what she had told him, Cronje replied “I just went up to him and went ‘buzz buzz’.”

The 22-year-old, who’s part of the Australian Gliders national squad, admits she was daunted when she first had to line up against grown men.

Now she thrives on it.

“When you compete against them, it makes you feel really good and like ‘yes, I can do this’.”

But not all young girls, or even women, have that same confidence to stand up to smack talk, and back it up.

Why do so many girls drop out of sport?

A woman in a wheelchair on a basketball court smiles .
Many women worry about being judged on how they look while playing sport and agonise over whether they’re good enough.(ABC Sport: Amanda Shalala)

It’s estimated nearly 50 per cent of girls stop playing sport by the time they’re 17, and women have lower rates of participation in sport and physical activity than men.

Many worry about being judged on how they look while playing or exercising.

Some wonder whether they’re good enough, and others, particularly mothers, don’t want to be questioned over their priorities (aka mum guilt).

It can be even harder for those who want to participate in wheelchair sports, because they’re largely unisex at the junior and recreational/sub-elite levels.

And playing with and against boys and men brings a whole other set of issues.

“The men have this idea that they can only pass the ball to themselves, to the other men in the team,” said wheelchair basketballer Patricia Luff.

A woman in a wheelchair holds an Aussie Rules football.
Patricia Luff started playing wheelchair sports to keep up with her sons and now she plays wheelchair basketball and Aussie rules.(ABC Sport: Amanda Shalala)

Luff started playing 15 years ago for the sake of her kids.

The 54-year-old and her two sons are all wheelchair users, and she wanted them to experience being part of a team.

But being involved in sport has been just as beneficial for her.

And now that she plays for the Sydney Uni Flames in the Women’s National Wheelchair Basketball League, she knows the difference female-only teams can make.

“You get to have a chance at doing everything, with the women.

“They force you and tell you to dribble the ball down the court, even though you say ‘I don’t want to’. But they get you to and you realise you can do it.”

Tracey Carruthers was a keen netballer when she was young, but at 17 her knees deteriorated significantly, and she decided to try wheelchair basketball.

A woman in a wheelchair smiles for the camera.
Tracey Carruthers decided to try wheelchair basketball after her knees deteriorated.(ABC Sport: Amanda Shalala)

While she’s a self-admitted extrovert, she believes many girls and women are lost to wheelchair sport because they have to play in unisex teams.

“Men’s basketball is very different and I’m still a little bit intimidated playing against the men. They’re taller, they’re bigger, they push harder, they get up on one wheel, something I’m hopeless at doing,” the 42-year-old said.

“Some of the girls can absolutely match it, but not me and not at the level that I’m at.

What can be done to encourage more women to play?

Wheelchair Sports NSW/ACT has started running a series of “HER SPORTS” events, to give women and girls a chance to try different sports in a welcoming environment.

A group of women sit in wheelchairs and hold Aussie rules footballs.
A series of events is underway to give women and girls a chance to try different sports.(ABC Sport: Amanda Shalala)

“There are too many girls and women out there in New South Wales and the ACT who are missing out on the opportunity that sport provides.

“And it’s not just the physical aspect, it’s about belonging somewhere, it’s about the mental health benefits and the social benefits of participating.”

Wheelchair Aussie rules is a new offering for the organisation, and unlike most para-sports, there aren’t classification requirements.

That means anyone, of any ability can join in.

“What we know from girls is often they’ll want to bring other people along with them when they try something new,” Garnett added.

“So if you have the opportunity to bring your able-bodied girlfriends or mum or sisters or whomever, then that’s a reason why we think that girls will be particularly attracted to wheelchair Aussie rules.”

Why wheelchair Aussie rules is more accessible to women of all abilities

The sport’s rise in popularity has taken on extra significance for Carruthers, who’s a mad GWS Giants fan.

Even though she needs a double knee replacement, and has a genetic condition which prevents her from participating in able-bodied sport, recent changes to wheelchair basketball classification rules means she’s no longer eligible for international competitions.

Wheelchair Aussie rules is played on a basketball court, and a handball is actually a kick, while a throw is a handball.

A woman handballs a football from a wheelchair while on a basketball court.
Jess Cronje has made a name for herself in wheelchair basketball, but has recently started to play wheelchair Aussie rules too.(ABC Sport: Amanda Shalala)

There are goals and behinds and a mark is the same.

Carruthers believes the nature of the sport means it’s accessible to more women than wheelchair basketball — where the hoop is kept at the same height as the able-bodied game.

“Basketball is a little bit discriminatory when you first start, it’s really hard to hit that ring when you start off. So given that you can score anywhere from the ground to the roof means that you’ve got a lot more capacity.”

While Cronje wants to represent Australia at next year’s 2021 Tokyo Paralympics in basketball, she’s also proven to be just as good with a Sherrin in hand.

And she hopes it will open doors for many more women to get active.

“In basketball, I’m not exceptionally tall like most people are. So I think in AFL it doesn’t matter about your size or what you can and can’t do, because there’s always something for you.”

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AFL recruiters face ‘huge challenge’ of judging draft prospects who can’t demonstrate abilities

AFL players and coaches are safely ensconced in opulent hubs with temporary gyms and team baristas, umpires are blowing their whistles and fans are back to receiving their maximum weekly heaping of games.

But spare a thought for one of the game’s most maligned species, the club recruiter.

At the best of times, talent scouts are on a hiding to nothing.

This year, with COVID-19 restrictions scuppering elite youth competitions and gutting AFL club football departments, the recruiters who haven’t been stood down or cut back to a couple of days’ paid work per week face their greatest puzzler of recent years: how do you assess the potential of teenage footballers who can’t play football?

“When people look back on this draft, it’s going to be the one where there are more mistakes made than any other in the last five years, because of the challenges we’re facing,” GWS national recruiting manager Adrian Caruso says.

“During a normal season, we’d be out every weekend watching live football, whereas this season, we might not see any live footy.

Refining the process

For now, the process goes something like this: recruiting teams, reduced in number from seven or eight staff to two or three, pore over notes from last season, assess as much video footage as they can get their hands on, and conduct player interviews via zoom.

Most recruiters hope restrictions will be eased by the time the draft takes place — the date is not yet finalised, the AFL says but until then, many can’t watch live football or meet with prospects.

Adrian Caruso
Greater Western Sydney Giants national recruiting manager Adrian Caruso has a tough task this year.(Supplied: GWS)

Some of the hardest work is already done.

Around 70 per cent of 2020’s selections that come from the NAB League are set in stone based on players’ performances as ‘bottom age’ players in 2019.

A significant number of the players in that 70 per cent are already tied to clubs via the father-son rule or academy rights (that means, 17 of the 48 players from last season’s NAB All-Stars Under-17 teams).

Although this crop’s performances at the Under-16 championships of 2018 left some seasoned recruiters thinking they’d witnessed the worst draft class in a long time, many have since revised that assessment up to ‘middling’.

A consensus that most of the 17 ‘taken’ players sit outside the elite, early-pick category, means those with claims on the best ones will look to trade away their early draft picks so they’re only using later-round picks to match opposition bids.

Adelaide, Port Adelaide, Western Bulldogs, Hawthorn and Collingwood will likely sit in this category.

But with 2021 playing list numbers not yet established by the AFL, uncertainty reigns, and all manner of chicanery lies ahead via the bid system — the annual scramble of pick-trading — and a potentially large pool of delisted talent (players who could find immediate senior team roles elsewhere).

It won’t be a year for draft ‘bolters’

The largest question marks are penned on the foreheads of hundreds of 17-year-olds who will form the significant percentage of ‘unknowns’ in the draft pool.

“That group is usually made up of kids who need to develop (in their final year of junior football) to give you confidence that you could call their name out,” Caruso says.

“And there are also kids in that group who just haven’t been on the radar.”

Tim Taranto celebrates a goal for GWS
Tim Taranto is now a mainstay of the GWS Giants’ midfield, after joining the club in the 2016 AFL Draft.(AAP: David Moir)

Virtually every season, a small but significant group of those players come from nowhere and climb the pecking order drastically — think Clayton Oliver, Jack Macrae, Tim Taranto and Hugh McCluggage — but that phenomenon is harder to foresee in 2020.

Fans can probably count on a few rough diamonds sliding through to a re-jigged NAB League (which might become an Under-19 competition) or state league teams in 2021.

In turn, those players might then be hot property by 2021 draft time. That is cold consolation to other young players who felt primed for a breakout year, but now worry their window will close.

Some recruiters say that if another Brownlow medallist slips through the draft net, it’ll be this year, when clubs are under-resourced and retained staff are wearing multiple hats. At the Bulldogs, for instance, list manager Sam Power has switched to the role of COVID-19 compliance officer.

Among the recruiters who remain stood down by the clubs are staff who were tasked with following the 2020 crop on a two-year cycle, starting with their ‘bottom-age’ year.

An AFL player handballs the ball as a defender tries to grab him from behind.
Hugh McCluggage was recruited to the Brisbane Lions in the 2016 draft pick and made his debut the following year.(AAP: Darren England)

The hardest players to judge are the taller, key-position players — often raw and skinny as 16 and 17-year-olds — whose final year of junior football tends to reveal traits useful for making speculative or outright risky selections.

A brave club — maybe Adelaide, which has a mandate to shake things up — might snare a future key position star with an informed punt.

The elite midfielders have mostly revealed themselves already.

Tough times for teenagers

And what of the prospects themselves?

In Victoria, which provides 50 to 60 per cent of the annual draft crop, they sit idle and anxious, wondering whether they did enough last season as ‘bottom age’ players, or if recruiters will notice their growth spurts, muscle gains and newfound maturity.

In other states, far more seems to ride on the games that can still take place.


Recruiters hold out hope that home interviews will be possible, because they are a crucial element of gaining a broad view of the player, his family influences, their home life, upbringing and influences.

“In a home interview you’re able to dig a bit deeper, and it’s always been a critical part of our process,” Caruso says.

“I don’t know how we’d be able to make those judgment calls without doing it.

“You’re always trying to reduce the guesswork and minimise your risk.”

In most ways, the insecurities of football prospects simply mirror the broader uncertainties confronted by a generation of teenagers.

Clubs have asked prospective draftees how they reacted to the onset of the pandemic, the initial abandonment of games, and the threat of no draft at all.

Most prospects felt anxious in the early stages of the pandemic but quickly turned their attention to solo training regimes and putting their best foot forward.

The South Australian and Western Australian prospects were soon back playing. The Victorians, on the other hand, have not been as lucky.

Clubs recruiters say the second lockdown has played on the emotions of Victorian prospects and raised their anxieties.

In purely mathematical terms, the greatest blow to the 2020 draft crop would be a significant reduction in AFL list sizes.

Based on 2020 list sizes, up to 65 teenagers would get their chance.

A reduction could reduce that figure to 40, and some clubs might opt for more mature-age picks.

If clubs are asked to trim list sizes by five players, for instance, to bring in one draftee, a club will need to delist six players from their 2020 list.

The best-case scenario

The best-case scenario for the NAB League (which provides approximately 60 per cent of draftees) is a four-round mini season, with games potentially played as curtain raisers to AFL fixtures, perhaps even for a TV audience if broadcasters are still starved for live sport content.

Jack Lukosius in action during the match between Victoria Metro and South Australia at the 2018 NAB AFL U18 Championships
Jack Lukosius, seen here playing in the 2018 NAB AFL U18 Championships, was Gold Coast’s first draft pick that same year.(AAP: Andy Brownbill)

“The AFL remains committed to staging a NAB League competition in some form for girls and boys when it is safe to do so,” an AFL spokesperson said.

“We will continue to work closely with the Victorian State Government and the Chief Health Officer on the timings.

“Right now, the most important thing to focus on is following the Government’s advice.”

Prospects are bleaker elsewhere.

The elite Melbourne private school competition, now a de facto football factory, is cancelled, and a national representative carnival very unlikely — although a standalone series played between South Australia and Western Australia remains a possibility.

The feasibility of the annual draft remains unclear.

With diminished manpower and more guesswork than they’d prefer, recruiting teams will power on and refine their strategies, no matter what picks they end up with.

“You’re still going to be able to find players later in the draft,” Caruso concludes.

“They’re just going to be kids that someone is willing to take a punt on.”

And hope springs eternal.

Despite the difficulties presented in assessing this season’s players, every recruiter seems certain of one thing: 2021’s AFL draft crop will be much better.

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