The Ballarat Lions won a premiership in 1995, but that didn’t stop the team folding after the end of the season. With no team to play for in the 1996 season, the Lions were looking for a new home and there was really only one option.
“We really wanted to go to Fairfield,” Patty Kinnersley said, citing the competitive and physical but fair games the Lions had enjoyed against the Falcons and also the fact that the Falcons were an all-women club. “It wasn’t a hard choice about where we would go. And so ten of us and a coach came down and played with Fairfield that next year.”
“The Ballarat players who joined the Falcons included Patty Kinnersley, Yasmin Horsham, Monique Kelly, Bronwyn Hutchinson, and her twin sister Meredith Flanner, Rhonda Rumler, Kerry Bond, Tanya Beecham and Larnie Johnson along with coach Rosalie Scott who took on an assistant role in 1996. Rosalie would take over from Deb ‘Henry’ Lawson as head coach in 1997.
For the Falcons, who had struggled in their early years to win a game, the inclusion of the Ballarat players lifted the team. “It just shot up our professionalism,” Fiona said. “We just got better as a team straightaway.”
The skills passed on by the women from Ballarat, the extra training and the knowledge of how to play the game was a game changer for the Falcons according to Sal [Rees]. “It all just clicked for us. It really clicked for us.”
Despite the positives, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. “It was a pretty big culture clash because Ballarat had been a really highly successful club, I think there were 10 or 11 of us playing state footy,” Patty explained. “Fairfield, I don’t even know how many games Fairfield had won at that point, so it was a pretty big culture clash in that first year.”
This ‘culture clash’ was front of mind for the Ballarat players who were careful about how they went about joining the Falcons—aware that some players might be pushed out because of them. It took some time for the players to come together as a team and the beginning of the 1996 season in no way foreshadowed the ending.
The Falcons lost every game in the first half of the 1996 season. But they won every game in the second half and propelled themselves into a grand final—the club’s first. “We sort of went in a little bit… as underdogs,” Sal said. Playing against Sunshine, a club the Falcons shared a friendly rivalry with, at halftime, the Falcons were down by 36 points. “They just jumped us big time,” Patty said. But what happened next is now club folklore.
“So we came in at half time just getting flogged. I don’t think anyone was winning their position. And [Sunshine] were just running all over us and celebrating,” Patty said.
Enter Meredith Flanner. The “beautiful pack marking forward, who was just so accurate” had broken a finger and couldn’t play. She took charge of the half-time break and delivered what Sal calls the “John Kennedy speech”.
“Everyone just lifted,” Sal recalled, laughing. “And it was like, you know, the coach is there [but] what can the coach say when Meredith’s just come out with this “lift, do something!”
“She seriously did, she just gave it to us,” Patty said. “And you know, I’m not somebody—and most women aren’t people—that rise to the getting yelled at challenge [but] I remember… Mer going, ‘Pat, do something!’”
“But that’s what got us over the line. It was pretty wild,” Sal said.
When the Falcons returned to the field after halftime, it was as if they were a different team. Patty says the team “transcended” that day.
“We kicked the first goal [after halftime] and I heard one of them say ‘Don’t worry, don’t worry, it’s only one’,” Patty said. “And I thought ‘Ahh we’ve got ’em!’ It was in the third quarter. We’ve got them here. And… we just rolled over them as a group.”
The Falcons would kick six unanswered goals to win their first Aussie rules premiership.
“[It was] amazing to be part of it. Especially after all the hard years, it was good to sort of get that success on the field,” Fiona said.”
“And I remember we rang up Sunshine and we sang, ‘We’re, walking on Sunshine.’ and they got really shitty,” Kris said, laughing.
In 1997, a Sports Inside story on the Falcons remarked that: “This year, they’ve regularly racked up more than 25 goals in games. No team has come close to them all season. If there’s any such thing as a sure thing in football, you can bet that this month the Falcons will seal their second premiership in a row—and get rowdy afterwards.”
Perhaps the story jinxed the Falcs because while they would make the finals in 1997, they would get knocked out—it would be another decade before that second premiership would arrive. Patty recalls the following three years, the team was “pretty much on the bottom of the ladder”. However, 1997 did deliver other accolades for the club with Bronwyn Hutchinson’s league best and fairest win.
While the Inside Sports premiership prediction failed, the story did something more valuable. It wrote about women’s football and the Falcons in a way that more accurately reflected the truth.
“And the Falcons can play football. They baulk with flair, pass accurately, mark strongly, tackle ferociously and shepherd with determination. And they don’t give up. Ever.”
The story also highlighted the many and various reasons why women might pull on the boots.
“Claire Sherman stands just 158cms, with barely a layer of flesh covering her slight bones. There’s much she should fear on the football field. Yet fear is exactly what attracted her to the game. For others, it’s the camaraderie, the fitness, fun, the need to try something different, or just the love of football that has drawn them together.”