By Ben Pollard
The Under 12 Hampton Rovers girls have a Saint watching over them.
With star St Kilda defender Sam Gilbert as their assistant coach, it’s no wonder the girls are improving rapidly.
Gilbert’s dash off the half back line has been a staple of the Saints’ defence in recent years, and now he’s passing on wisdom gained throughout a 128-game career.
Three weeks ago during AFL Women’s Round, the Rovers took to Etihad Stadium at half time of the Western Bulldogs-Carlton match, for the first game featuring suburban girls’ teams at an AFL match.
In the week before their big night, Gilbert assisted with a special training session for the girls at Trevor Barker Oval in Sandringham.
Fellow Saints Jamie Cripps and Sebastian Ross, as well as several Sandringham Zebras VFL players, worked on their basic skills.
The girls’ team manager Felicity Frederico says it was part of a big build-up to the game of their young lives.
“There were probably about half a dozen extra coaches (at the session)… Channel 7 was there filming and they did a special segment on it, so the whole thing was just a feeling of hype,” she says.
Felicity says the hype carried right through to game day, when even strong opposition – an East Sandringham girls’ team – didn’t break the Rovers’ spirit.
“East Sandy was probably counting the score, but we weren’t. We were just there for the fun and enjoyment of it, and for the experience,” she says.
“The girls just thought they were very special and they were really appreciative of the opportunity that the SMJFL and AFL provided for them.”
The Rovers also have the opportunity to learn from some dedicated and passionate football figures, such as their coach Jo Adams and, of course, Sam Gilbert.
“The St Kilda Football Club has just been fantastic with the support they’ve given us. Sam has probably attended about 90 per cent of our training sessions,” Felicity says.
“He’s built up a really good rapport with all the players. He knows all of their names… He’s just got a really special relationship with them.”
In her role as a Bayside City councillor, Felicity can already see the Rovers’ impact on community spirit – there’s even a “waiting list” of people wanting to play a support role for the team on game day.
“As a community, we invest so many resources in boys’ sports… It’s an incredible contrast (to girls’ sports),” she says.
“They (the Rovers) know they are ambassadors for girls’ football. It’s an incredible honour and it’s an incredible responsibility they all carry, and they just do it so well.”