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AFLW pathways set to strengthen women's football competition as young players shine

The head coach of a north-east Victorian under-18 girls' football squad says the next couple of years will be an "exciting" time for women in the sport. 

Emma Mackie from the Murray Bushrangers anticipated an "explosion" of AFLW talent, with young footy players benefiting from increased opportunities to develop skills and play competitively.

The squad, based in Wangaratta, is part of the statewide under-18 girls' competition, which started in 2017 and is a pathway for players to be recruited by the AFLW competition.

"We are seeing women's teams starting up with established football clubs, some that are standalone, some that are side-by-side with the men's football and we are seeing girls playing more footy at school and being able to play footy at an NAB level.

"More playing allows us to develop more girls and, from that, you can have more of a talent of people to pick from."

Mackie has witnessed talent growth at the Murray Bushrangers.

"This year we have got 85 girls who have come into the under-18 girls' pre-season squad. We have just never had the depth," she said.

"The girls who are 14, 15 and 16 [years old] in our group, who won't be drafted for next couple of years, is where it's really exciting and where we have a lot of that talent."

Mackie, who played for the Western Bulldogs and the St Kilda Football Club in the AFLW from 2018-2020, played Aussie Rules as a girl growing up in Albury Wodonga.

She stopped when the opportunities ceased.

"There were no talent pathways, nowhere to progress, you couldn't play at a higher level like the boys did," she said.

"As a young girl I would have loved what's happening now. The sport will grow because of it."

AFLW Melbourne captain Daisy Pearce said having young players grow up seeing women play the game professionally would have an impact. 

"We are starting to see the 18-year-olds come into the competition and in their formative years, when they were dreaming of playing AFL women's, they would see women playing and see they had a team to play in," she said.

"They had something to aspire to … their mindset is completely different, so it is going to be incredible to where the game gets to [because of that] in the next couple of years."

Pearce said the game had changed quickly in a short amount of time and she was excited for its future.

"We are now seven seasons in, and it's gone from what was an eight-team competition back in 2017 [to an]18-team competition with the final four teams joining us this year," she said.

"The appetite for those last four clubs to get a women's licence was huge, and to see the whole competition this year — every men's team with the women's team — it has just been incredible growth."

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