Lauren Arnell has travelled a scenic route to her first AFLW grand final.
The journey started on a warm, history-making February night at Princes Park in 2017, took a detour north and will end on Saturday at the Adelaide Oval when Arnell and her Brisbane Lions tackle the Crows.
Lauren Arnell will run out for the Lions in this weekend’s AFLW grand final.Credit:Getty Images
The former Carlton captain, the club’s first women’s skipper, hopes her 36th and final game ends with a premiership.
“From starting by captaining Carlton in that first game, I’m not sure anyone would have projected I’d end up where I have, I certainly wouldn’t have. I feel very fortunate and grateful that sometimes the biggest clouds have the best silver linings,” Arnell told The Age.
“There’s 14 teams now so to make it to this point at the end after a very challenging season for everyone, especially with a few little COVID hiccups in Brisbane, feels like a privilege.”
The 34-year-old, who is a year younger than the mother of her teammate Courtney Hodder, was one of the original faces of the AFLW.
“But before I signed as a priority pick the coach and list manager were framing my career at two years at best. There’d been a ceiling put on my career before AFLW even started,” Arnell explains.
When the Blues sacked coach Damian Keeping in 2018 after the final game of the season, and with no list manager, the skipper’s future was in limbo.
“It was really challenging for me personally. The CBA hadn’t been negotiated for AFLW so the club didn’t have anyone in place to immediately tell players where they stood. I was very much in limbo for four to six weeks not knowing if Carlton still wanted me or not.”
Over coffee with newly appointed coach Daniel Harford, Arnell asked whether she should look elsewhere. He suggested it would be a “really good idea”. Shortly after, Lions coach Craig Starcevich was on the phone.
Arnell, Carlton’s inaugural women’s captain, leads the team off the field after beating Collingwood in the first ever AFLW match.Credit:Michael Dodge
“Craig asked if I was serious or testing the water. I couldn’t even believe he called me, I was that short on confidence. I was leaning more towards that no one would want me,” Arnell says.
“That was a Friday night, the next day I played my last VFLW game for Carlton then the Monday at work [at Princes Park with AFL Victoria] the paperwork got done and I was a Brisbane player. It was basically one business day from when Brisbane found out I was available.
“Fortunately, Brisbane was very keen and I’m endlessly grateful. Even at the time there was a lot of self-doubt after the experience I had that season, knowing Carlton weren’t keen and none of the Victorian clubs were jumping up and down. I had zero faith Brisbane would be interested and fortunately I was wrong.”
When Arnell sets foot on the Adelaide Oval in the decider she will breathe in the moment. She knows the importance.
“Leading Carlton out in the first ever AFLW game, walking up the race, seeing the crowd, the banner and hearing that roar is very distinct in my mind. I worked with Chris Johnson [triple premiership Lion] at the time and he’d told me to make sure I soaked it all up,” she recalls.
“We had a reasonable lead in the last quarter so I did take a lot of time to look up into the stands, I probably lost a bit of focus on the footy. I’m grateful I had that advice and don’t look back on it as a blur.
“[Saturday] I’m looking forward to just walking out there, again soaking up the atmosphere and being on that surface, it looks very nice from behind the fence.”
A team effort will deliver Brisbane their first flag, with significance to many.
“It’s about the group we have on and off field. Eight players on our list were involved in the two losing grand finals [to Adelaide in 2017 and the Bulldogs in 2018]. I think about that them, our young, emerging players and Craig and Bree [chief executive Bree Brock] who have been the mainstays from day one,” Arnell says.
“The player, athlete and person I am are very much shaped by the lower times and those lows make the highs even better. To put a full stop on everything this weekend in Adelaide is really nice.”
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