AFLW 2021: How Greater Western Sydney dug deep after the Jacinda Barclay death, Brid Stack injury

Liz WalshNews Corp Australia Sports Newsroom
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Camera IconNot Supplied Credit: Supplied

A year on from the tragic death of their former teammate Jacinda Barclay, Greater Western Sydney is set to avenge the season from hell.

As the AFLW players paused during pre-season training this week to reflect on the one-year anniversary of the death of their beloved friend, players vowed to move forward together.

The passing of Barclay, who died aged 29 after a short but intense period of mental illness, rocked the sporting world last year.

Barclay, who also represented Australia in baseball and played American football, had played in the Giants’ first season in 2017, playing a total of 23 games in four campaigns.

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GWS battled not only their devastation of Barclay’s passing, but a series of events that derailed their season.

From being the only AFLW team forced into a hub, to their Irish recruit breaking her neck, to them being caught up in a Covid scare in Perth and being forced into self-isolation; the team has now returned to pre-season training ahead of the 2022 season starting January 6.

Giants ruck Erin McKinnon said last season was a lesson in resilience.

“(We know that) no matter what we come up against, we can deal with it if we band together … we’ve faced such adverse circumstances it puts it all into perspective,” she said.

“This pre-season, running the 2km time trial I’ll be hating every step, but if I can get through what I went through last season, I can sure-as-hell get through a bloody 2km time trial.”

McKinnon admitted the Giants still miss Barclay dearly.

“I was numb and in denial for ages,” she said.

“Cinda was such a loud personality at the club … no matter what was happening or what was going on, she was always someone who could do something to make everyone else crack a smile.

“Ironically, when we needed it more than ever, the person who would have provided that for us sadly wasn’t there any more.”

The team struggled with their collective grief as pre-season started, before seeing their preparation derailed by a Covid cluster on Sydney’s northern beaches.

As the Covid situation worsened around Christmas, training was suspended, only able to resume when the players were relocated to regional Albury in the new year, where they spent a fortnight before being sent to Adelaide.

The hasty evacuation out of NSW meant some players and the majority of coaching staff were unable to travel because of work commitments.

Then in SA, more tragedy struck the understaffed team when their Irish recruit, Brid Stack, fractured her neck in a pre-season match against Adelaide.

The incident turning into a highly publicised tribunal case for Crow Ebony Marinoff, who had her initial three-match ban for a dangerous tackle rescinded on appeal.

“We were like, if Brid can move across the world, break her neck and still put a smile on her face, then the rest of us can still keep going,” she said.

“But every time you thought things couldn’t get worse, they did.”

Things such as:

• No longer having access to a team doctor;

• Senior coach Alan McConnell hitting his head and suffering concussion while loading a van the night before a practice game;

• No group accommodation in Adelaide so the team scattered across three CBD hotels;

• Being forced into a mandated self-quarantine in South Australia after a Covid scare in WA.

Among GWS staff who were crucial to the players getting through it all was Gail Wykes, the team’s Player Development Manager (PDM).

This season, Wykes’s role was increased from an in-season to year-long position thanks to a boost in funding from BHP that has ensured all 14 AFLW clubs can employ a dedicated women’s PDM.

BHP’s Head of Inclusion, Diversity and Workforce Transition Fiona Vines said BHP and the AFL shared traditionally male-dominated histories.

Giants ruck Erin McKinnon with the team's Player Development Manager Gail Wykes. Supplied
Camera IconGiants ruck Erin McKinnon with the team's Player Development Manager Gail Wykes. Supplied Credit: Supplied

“But this partnership reflects a shared vision to create more opportunities for women to thrive in business and sport in communities across Australia,” she said.

Wykes, a former teacher who was team manager for Australia’s 1996 Atlanta Olympics softball team, said 2021 saw staff working around the clock with players.

Instead of life advice for job or househunting or being a pseudo-parent with an open-door policy, last season dealt with lockdown, death, horrific injuries and six staff travelling with the team on 24-hour call.

“I was the PDM, but I also did nutrition, logistics, I was a trainer, I was a runner,” she said.

“It was about stepping up and doing what needed to be done and sheltering the girls as much as we could.”

In 2021 GWS finished ninth, missing finals with four wins and five losses, and by the end, Wykes says the team was spent.

But for her, 2021 reinforced that the team comprises good, committed, resilient women who were breaking new ground in women’s sport.

And in a sign of things to come, McKinnon set a personal best in the 2km trial last week.

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Originally published as AFLW 2021: How Greater Western Sydney dug deep after the Jacinda Barclay death, Brid Stack injury

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