If there is one thing that characterised the feeling in the room at St Joseph’s Football Netball Club on Monday October 3, 2022, it was immense happiness.
This was a night of celebration. First, to commemorate the incredible 2022 season and the amazing result of the Geelong Dragons reaching the FIDA Div 2 Grand Final and the Second, to launch the inaugural season of a local AFL disability competition (2023)
Leisure Networks has been the driving force behind the Geelong Dragons, who participate in the AFL Victoria FIDA Football League, a competition for players with an intellectual impairment.
“The team formed in 2017 and was initially in the Western Conference of FIDA in 2018 with approximately 40 players registered. Since then, they moved into the metro comp with two teams, and despite the years of COVID, participation has grown to 76 players,” says Luke Maher, Program Coordinator, Leisure Networks.
“After extensive conversations with local clubs, AFL Barwon and FIDA, we are confident the Geelong Region is in a position to start our own local disability competition. We believe that keeping the competition local will attract new players and new fans.”
In addition to the current Dragons players, at least a dozen more future participants turned up to the information night. On top of this, Luke has been fielding emails and phone calls in the week leading up to the night, on the back of promotion through the local clubs and Leisure Networks social media.
“Extensive work has been done to make AFL footy accessible to all ages over the course of the last few years,” Luke explains. “Newcomb and Lara have All Abilities Aus Kick Centres. Leisure Networks and AFL Vic have pushed further commitment, running an 8-week program in four schools in the region: Nelson Park, Armstrong Creek, Hamlyn Views and Barwon Valley.”
By aligning this local competition with local clubs, Leisure Networks sees potential for the competition to provide sustainable opportunities for integration.
“The reality is,” says Luke, “some of these players could easily join the club’s reserves while some would prefer to stay in this competition.”
Four clubs will kick off the 2023 season, with Bell Park, Newcomb, Geelong West Giants and St Joseph’s each fielding a team. Lara and Surf Coast Suns are waiting in the wings with plans to develop their teams in readiness for 2024.
As well as overwhelming support from players, a good number of keen sponsors were also in the room on Monday night. This bodes well for ensuring the ongoing success of the competition over many years to come.
Leisure Networks will continue to be there to support the journey, assisting clubs to take ownership of their own teams through player and volunteer recruitment, membership, administration, and coaching.