AFLW superstar Erin Phillips set to return
South Australia, the summer of 2016. The Adelaide Crows are little more than a twinkle in a fledgling competition’s eye – one of eight AFLW sides that haven’t yet played a game, kicked a ball in anger or even named their round one team.
“We weren’t training probably the best that we could have been on this particular night and I stopped a drill,” says Bec Goddard, the Crows’ inaugural coach. The players – who were barely teammates at this stage, and largely strangers – jogged in from the exercise. It was an eager Erin Phillips, who’d made her name as an Olympic basketballer and two-time WNBA champion, who made it to Goddard first.
Phillips asked if she could have a word with the squad and before Goddard could consider the request, Phillips was barking orders. “Erin absolutely ripped into them on how [poorly] they were training and the expectations of elite standards,” says Goddard. “At that moment I thought, ‘Wow, we’ve got something special on our hands here, and it is not just her playing ability.’ ”
The last time we saw Erin Phillips on a footy field, 53,034 people were in the stands. It was the 2019 AFLW grand final and, after already putting in a match-winning display to ultimately lift the Adelaide Crows (10.3. 63) over the hapless Carlton Blues (2.6. 18), Phillips was being driven off the ground on a stretcher. With three minutes to go in the third quarter, and her team leading by six goals, she had landed awkwardly on her knee while pursuing a Carlton defender.
In front of her appreciative home crowd, and with tears in her eyes and the job done, she was a soldier on her way to the medical tent while her team was en route to a premiership. “That audience really opened up a whole new era for women’s sport,” Phillips tells The Saturday Paper. “Even though it was a football game, to have 50,000 people at Adelaide Oval for a women’s competition basically showed the importance of women’s sport and particularly how AFLW has impacted us as a society.”
Phillips’ own role in women’s football capturing the imagination of a nation is hard to quantify. She has won two premierships and two league best and fairests, and was awarded the best afield in last year’s AFLW grand final despite leaving the ground with more than a quarter of the game remaining.
Goddard, who watched the Adelaide Crows’ first premiership from the coach’s box and second from the stands, delves deep into her mental catalogue of Eastern philosophy to find something that fits. “There’s an old Chinese saying that says you can have 100 stars, but they’ll never equal the light of the moon. That’s the best way to describe her,” Goddard says. “Because there’s only going to be one Erin Phillips.”
As easy as it is to wrap Phillips in hyperbole, Goddard – who is one of just three AFLW premiership coaches along with the Western Bulldogs’ Paul Groves and the Crows’ current coach, Matthew Clarke – is uniquely qualified to break down her skills as an elite midfielder.
“She has an awareness of time and space that not many other athletes [possess],” Goddard says. “I think that comes from a basketball background, where you’re operating in a really small space and you have to be able to do something in that to make an impact. While she may not be the fastest runner, and that’s not the thing that sets her apart from others, it is her consistency and presence in time and space that make it very hard to match up against.”
Basketball has played a part in Goddard’s sports story, too, after she left the Adelaide Crows to take up a position as an assistant coach with the University of Canberra Capitals, helping the ACT-based team to the WNBL championship in February last year.
As a savvy guard for the Australian Opals, Phillips represented her country in the Beijing Olympics (2008) and Rio Olympics (2016). In a basketball career that began with the WNBL’s Adelaide Lightning at 16 years of age, she plied her trade on the hardwood floor as far away as Israel (A. S. Ramat HaSharon) and Poland (Arka Gdynia and TS Wisła Can-Pack Kraków) before winning two WNBA Championships, one with Indiana Fever (2012) and the other with Phoenix Mercury (2014).
“I would definitely say that I was a footballer playing basketball,” Phillips says. “I grew up playing footy and that’s always what I wanted to be, but like many, many other girls in the competition with the same stories, the pathway wasn’t there.”
Even when the landmark Australian women’s football league was established, Phillips had to overcome a door slamming in her face before she could be welcomed into AFLW. “I had committed to Port Adelaide based on the fact that if they got a team, I would be a part of it,” says Phillips.
“But after their licence fell through, I was pretty shattered, actually. I thought that was the start of the end of a quick dream to play football again.” But Goddard would pick up the phone and recruit Phillips to the Crows, and what followed would shape sporting history.
In fact, Phillips has won so many awards playing AFLW that she is reaching the rarefied point where those awards will likely become named in her honour. Whether it be the equivalent of the AFL’s “Charlie” Brownlow medal for best in the league over the course of a regular season, or the Norm Smith, which is awarded to best afield on grand final day, it’s easy to imagine an Erin Phillips Medal draped over a triumphant women’s footballer soon.
“I don’t know how it would sit with her,” says Goddard of the prospect. “I don’t know how it would sit with anyone. You hope that one day in the future something like that happens. One of the great things about her is she knows about all the women that have gone before her to get this competition for her to be able to play in and excel in now.”
Phillips has been asked enough about awards named in her honour not to baulk at the question, but her response is circumspect. “If that happens, it would be incredible and I’d be very humbled, but if it doesn’t, it’ll be named after the right person and be the right award,” she says. “It’s not something I think about or lose sleep over or anything like that.”
Closer to the forefront of Phillips’ mind is managing her recovery from knee surgery to repair the ACL tear she sustained in last year’s grand final. “I’m feeling really, really close,” Phillips says. “The knee itself is fine. It is not a matter of rehabbing the knee now, it is just getting back into being able to physically handle the hardest game in the world.
“It’s just a matter of being able to play footy again. It has been 10 months since the last time I have played a game and now it is about getting some repetition in.”
AFLW fans will become reacquainted with Phillips’ time and space-defying techniques in coming weeks, as her Adelaide Crows begin their AFLW premiership defence around the country.
Goddard will be paying close attention, this time in a new role as head coach of the Hawthorn VFLW squad. Like so many girls of decades past, these young Hawks play in the state league before dreams of an AFLW expansion that would allow them to compete with the very best – and rub shoulders with the great Erin Phillips.
“There’s so much about her aura and the way she carries herself and what she’s done with women in sports,” says Goddard. “Hopefully, you know, I get to see her at Hawthorn one day.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 8, 2020 as "Captain Phillips". Subscribe here.