You gotta hand(ball) it to Disney+. The streaming service’s new six-part sports documentary Fearless: The Inside Story of the AFLW drops on the eve of AFL Women’s seventh season, riding a massive wave of fanticipation ahead of the league’s biggest season yet.
Fearless chronicles AFLW’s sixth season, which ran from January to April this year. Each episode zeroes in on the highs and lows experienced by a handful of players from four teams: Collingwood Magpies, Adelaide Crows, Western Bulldogs and Greater Western Sydney Giants.
It’s an easy watch, presented in a tried-and-tested sports documentary format: a fly-on-the-wall view through a season, jumping back in time to pre-season and previous seasons to fill in a bit of backstory, interspersed with interviews with peeps involved in each narrative thread.
Think F1: Drive to Survive, but for AFLW. Just as that series follows F1 drivers at different levels of seniority, Fearless sticks an interesting, varied array of players under the microscope.
Such as Collingwood’s Bri Davey.
Davey, like many AFLW players, is a ‘cross-coder’. She was goalie in the national women’s soccer team, the Matildas, and played W-League for Melbourne Victory and Melbourne City before playing Aussie Rules. She played three seasons with Carlton, then was traded to the Pies in 2019.
At the start of 2022, everything’s coming up Davey. She’s fresh from being named Most Valuable Player for 2021 by the AFL Players Association. Her hopes, and those of her teammates, are high.
But these are quickly dashed when in the first match of the season – against her old side Carlton, no less – she ruptures her anterior cruciate ligament and tears her medial collateral ligament. It’s an injury that sidelines her for the rest of the season, as well as the next.
The other Melbourne-based side in Fearless, the Western Bulldogs, puts a new recruit in the spotlight: Amanda Ling.
At the start of 2022, the Doggies might better be rebranded the Puppies. They have a young side, with 15 players under 21 years old, including 19-year-old Ling, who makes her debut in the Doggies’ first-round match against Melbourne.
But it’s a game to forget for Ling, whose self-confessed tendency to get in her own head and dwell on mistakes gets in the way of a decent performance.
The Doggies lose – then the situation goes from bad to worse.
Catching the wave
The first episodes of Fearless were filmed during the height of the Omicron wave, and footballers are obviously not immune to the virus.
Too many Bulldogs test positive before Round 2 and there simply aren’t enough players to field a team against Geelong.(The Doggies weren’t alone in their predicament, and the fixture shifted all season as matches were cancelled or rescheduled due to Covid absences, restrictions or border closures.)
North of the Victorian border, meanwhile, the GWS Giants are regrouping after a middling 2021 season.
As we hear, it’s tough trying to recruit in Sydney. Despite having a men’s VFL/AFL side since South Melbourne relocated in 1982, the city is dominated by rugby league, and women’s teams are no exception.
So the Giants looked further afield for talent – like, Ireland far. And in 2020, they recruited 11-time All-Ireland Ladies’ Gaelic Football Championship winner Brid Stack.
To say Stack’s AFLW debut was highly anticipated doesn’t come close. She’d been supposed to play in the 2021 season but fractured a bone in her upper spine – yep, she broke her neck – during a pre-season match and was was told she’d never play again. But as we join her, at the start of 2022, she’s back – and named in the Giants’ Round 1 match.
As the crow flies
In the first two episodes, Fearless spends the least amount of time in Adelaide, but early on it’s obvious the Crows have their eye on a third premiership cup.
Spoiler alert: they get it, too.
And that’s the thing with documentaries like Fearless. If you follow the sport, you already know the major twists and turns in the story. But as the title promises, this is the inside story. There’s plenty here for even the most die-hard fans. The players, their coaches, doctors, physios – everyone in their orbit – are refreshingly candid in front of the camera. No language is bleeped.
Fearless doesn’t shy away from tough topics, such as the shock that reverberated through the Giants and AFLW community after GWS forward Jacinda Barclay died by suicide in October 2020.
But snapshots of players’ home lives are where Fearless really shines, and I wish these were fleshed out a little more. Take the brief glimpse we get into Ling’s mum making satay sticks, or Collingwood midfielder Brittany Bonnici, who unwinds with her dogs after working her day job in a prison. They’re nice insights, but don’t go any further than that.
Still, we’ve seen the most successful sports docos bestow a new level of stardom for the people involved while whipping up legions of new fans.
Can Fearless do the same for AFLW?
Fearless: The Inside Story of the AFLW premieres on Disney+ on 24 August, 2022.