Inner East Review
Tuesday, 5 December 2023

Hard work pays off for AFLW trailblazer

Updated August 9 2022 - 12:48pm, first published 5:00am
Rebecca Miller ... "I love playing for this club". Photo: Morgan Hancock
Rebecca Miller ... "I love playing for this club". Photo: Morgan Hancock

Rebecca Miller had to bend not only her head but also her knees to receive the runner up best and fairest medal from club president Peggy O'Neill at the Richmond AFLW awards night in May.

The 184cm player, looking not entirely at home in heels and a long emerald dress, then fronted the mike to thank a legion of people, inside and outside the club, who helped her get to where she is.

A country girl with a close knit family, Miller has a clear-eyed view of the price of success and gave up a lot when she moved to Melbourne from Sydney to play for Richmond's VFLW team in 2019.

On her first trip south, to try out, she slept on an old schoolfriend's kitchen floor in Richmond for three nights.

"It wasn't too bad," she says.

What left a more lasting impression was the condition of Punt Rd oval. "Compared to my home ground in Sydney, it was schmicko!"

Since then she has found "a second family" at the club and a home and partner in Richmond VFLW player Lisa Davie. The couple have been together for about three years and live in part of Davie's family home, a short walk from the MCG.

In that time Miller has moved into the big league, having been "elevated" to the trail-blazing inaugural Richmond AFLW team in 2020 and named one of the league's best 40 players as a member of the All Australian Squad in 2022.

Miller breaks through the banner in Richmond's inaugural AFLW match in 2020. Photo: Wayne Ludbey, Richmond FC
Miller breaks through the banner in Richmond's inaugural AFLW match in 2020. Photo: Wayne Ludbey, Richmond FC

"I love playing for this club and I love playing with these people," she says.

"I've got a great job here at the footy club, got a great job in my marketing career and have a wonderful girlfriend.

"People laugh [when I say it], but I'm dead-set living the dream."

That doesn't mean life is easy.

In addition to the many people around her who have provided support, the footballer attributes her achievements simply to effort.

"It just shows hard work pays off. That's literally all it comes down to," she says.

"I think I'd be one of the most consistent trainers over the last three years, week in, week out, applying myself consistently and just working hard when no-one else was watching."

In the off-season this means following running and weights programs prescribed by the team's strength and conditioning coach.

In the pre-season Miller spends around 15 hours a week in club training sessions, comprised of a range of activities, from gym workouts, on-field training and gymnastics to massage and performance mindset coaching.

She also takes up options for extra kicking or boxing sessions when she can.

"Everyone sees you get the accolades, get the awards but they don't see you going to the gym on a Saturday night or saying no to a friend's [invitation] because you have to get to sleep. But that's my job."

It's a job the 27-year-old still has to remind herself to refer to as work.

A 94 per cent average pay rise for AFLW players this season will increase top tier salaries to just under $72,000 and the minimum wage to just under $40,000.

By comparison, in the men's competition players earn an average of over $370,000 a season.

But the women's league, which only played its first season, with eight teams, in 2017, is still working its way towards professionalism.

This year for the first time all 18 AFL clubs will be represented in the competition, with Essendon, Hawthorn, Port Adelaide and Sydney joining.

To avoid the summer heat, the season has been brought forward, with round one launching on Thursday, August 25, just four months after the last season ended.

"It was either play in August this year with the short turnaround or play in August next year, which is a long wait for footy," Miller says. "So I think it's a bit of short-term pain for long-term gain, essentially."

The pay rise has enabled the dedicated player to reduce her commitment to her digital marketing job from 25 to 15 hours a week, which she says has been "awesome".

"I can get in the extra sleep-ins or go to the extra kicking sessions or do an extra gym [session]. It just allows you to prioritise football more and more, which is only going to benefit our team and the competition," she says.

But while it is awkward to complain about it - especially given getting paid to play football at all is such a dream come true - there is still a yawning gap between the expectation of the women as elite, fully-committed athletes and the part-time salaries they are receiving.

Rebecca Miller ... "I love playing for this club". Photo: Morgan Hancock
Rebecca Miller ... "I love playing for this club". Photo: Morgan Hancock

The AFL and the Players Association anticipate a move to full-time pay rates by 2026 or sooner, with the AFL's "aspirational target" to see the AFLW players "the highest paid sportswomen in a domestic competition in the country" by 2030.

Whatever the timeframe for 12-month contracts, the next couple of years will be "very interesting", Miller says.

"I think in the immediate future, this season and next season, girls are going to have to make the hard decision, because now you are getting paid more you're expected to put more into it, which is fair enough.

"So that wrestle between a football career and your off-field career has become very hard.

"I don't know if I'll see it through to a full time career just because it is a challenge and it is mentally draining trying to balance a career and a football career as well."

The keen sportswoman credits her brother with developing her early coordination and ability, particularly a talent for "selling candy" - "you sort of fake one way and go the other with the ball".

"When I was really young he'd drag me out in the front yard and we'd play so many different sports.

"Being four years older, he was faster and stronger so when he got fired up, I didn't want to get tackled by him and had to develop ways to dodge and get out of his grasp essentially."

Growing up in Wagga Wagga, where the family moved when she was young, she played pretty much whatever sports were on offer - soccer, water polo, touch football, cricket and hockey.

Although she won best and fairest playing a season of under 12s Australian Rules, after turning 12 the rules prevented her from playing in male teams, and she gave footy up.

The only option to continue had been to join an open-age women's team, which would involve regular travel to Canberra.

It wasn't until after finishing school and doing a gap year in London that Miller found footy again when one day in 2018 when she was living in Sydney she went along to a women's game at Drummoyne oval, near where she lived.

"It was Carlton-GWS. And I remember watching these women on the field, and going, 'How strong and fit do they look? I want to look like that!'

"And I'd been in an office job for a couple years so was sort of unfit and looking for new friends."

Finding her local club, the Western Wolves - now the Inner West Magpies - she joined up and played with them that year.

"It wasn't the most successful season there," she says. "I can't recall any words to their song."

However, playing for the Wolves she rediscovered her talent on the field and love of the running, contact and culture of the game.

"I probably rekindled the passion from under 12s, you know, I probably forgot how much I loved it over 10 years before," she says.

"I think the combination of physicality with some really good people just rekindled that love."

As luck would have it, the Wolves' coach had a contact in the Richmond Football Club.

"So long story short, I sort of found my way onto the VFLW list and then, right time, right place, with a bit of hard work got elevated to AFLW."

Miller, who was moved from ruck to defence at Richmond, was pre-listed for the inaugural women's team, which joined the competition in 2020.

She thinks stories like hers will become fewer and fewer as AFLW continues to evolve.

"I played one season before I got to VFLW and two seasons before AFLW.

"I think you'll see less cross-coders or girls who are having babies and coming back to AFLW because it will just get harder and harder to crack as these young guns who have done AFLW from NAB Auskick from five or six years of age [come] right the way through.

"You're going to have to have been playing it for quite a few years to make it now. So it'll be cool in the next 10 years to see what this becomes, it'll be pretty bloody cool.

"And hopefully I've played a small part in it."

  • Richmond AFLW will play its first ever game at the MCG this Sunday, August 14 - a practice game against Hawthorn, which kicks off at 10.30am ahead of the Richmond-Hawthorn men's match at 1.10pm.
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