Even Daisy Pearce sometimes needs reminding what she’s capable of.
As one of the most acclaimed AFL Women’s players – Melbourne skipper, All-Australian captain, 10-time VWFL/VFLW premiership player, six-time VFLW best and fairest winner, esteemed football analyst – Pearce’s football brain is bursting.
Almost too much, recently brought back to what really matters by Demons premiership forward Ben Brown, who is working as a specialist coach.
“The most common thing he says to me is “sometimes you just have to play footy”,” Pearce laughs.
“Which is when I think I’ve asked too many questions.”
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New season, new role, new strength, new challenges.
It doesn’t get old.
A prolific midfielder, Pearce’s shift to defence in recent times will be no more – a deep forward position awaits.
“I’ve got a lot of trust with Mick (Stinear, Demons coach),” the 33-year-old said.
“I’ve worked with him for six years now, so he could tell me on a Friday night that he thinks I’ve got a role to play on the wing, and I’d just sit down with him and try my best to work out what it looked like and do it to the best of my ability.
“The forward thing kind of came about in the back-end of last season after a couple of losses and we were just lacking something in our forward line, so I went down there to play that role and it kind of worked for us.
“To go down there and try and offer some leadership as well has been a good challenge and I just can’t wait. I can’t wait to get on the end of a goal or help set them up.”
She’ll have a familiar face alongside her on Saturday night.
A goalkicker who last pulled on the red and blue in the AFLW’s exhibition game in 2016 – former Lion and Blue Tayla Harris.
“The dynamic with Tayla coming in this year, it’s probably helped (me playing forward) again,” Pearce said.
“So I’ve loved that position. I’ve loved the new challenge of playing there, having played midfield for a long time and then back for a little bit when I came back after having the kids.”
Stinear recently detailed Pearce’s physical transformation in the Herald Sun, declaring the star to be the strongest he had ever seen her.
Pearce agrees. Twins Sylvie and Roy, this week captured delivering a rousing rendition of the Melbourne theme song just in time for Round 1, arrived in 2019 and she was playing at the top level less than 12 months later, but was felled by an MCL injury on the eve of last year’s finals.
They know mum plays footy. “I don’t think they think she’s any good,” Pearce laughs.
She’s reclaimed her body. Her mind might take a little longer.
“Knowing that I was playing as a deep forward, rehabbing a knee that required a lot of leg strength, weights have probably been a bigger focus than my running this year. Whereas in previous season, I’d had to put a lot of time into making sure that I had a big engine and run out a game,” she explained.
“It’s probably flipped a bit now to a more strength and power focus. A combination of having had six years in an elite program and also position change has probably helped that.
“Physically, I’m a lot better off. The deficit after pregnancy that it takes on your body, with twins, I was probably constantly in catch-up mode in that first season.
“Knee aside, it was probably only at the end of last season that my body felt like mine again in terms of core strength and that kind of thing.
“I’m getting more regular sleep, which is a nice change. So physically I’m more sound. But the emotional and mental challenges keep coming. I find that side of things as challenging now as I ever have.”
It’s an incredibly “rewarding” mix for Pearce – who lives at Porepunkah and travels more than three hours to Melbourne to train and play.
“It’s at a stage now where I really see and can feel the impact that their mum playing footy in an elite program is having on them,” she smiles.
“So that’s cool. But it’s still got its ongoing challenges, as any working parent would know.”
Recent Herald Sun AFLW season predictions bore a recurring theme – a wish of many to see one of the game’s most admired figures achieve premiership glory.
It’s not lost on her. But there is no room for sentiment.
“I am a competitor and I would love to win a premiership with the Dees,” she said.
“But I know I’m no more deserving or entitled to one as the next person. I don’t think there’s any sentimental feeling towards it – it’s just that I’m competitive and I play in this competition and the ultimate goal for me is to have team success and hold up a premiership cup.
“But the reasons I play and the reasons I keep coming back are bigger than that. So I don’t feel like if I don’t achieve that, that there’s going to be a great big hole in my life.
“I just love the opportunity to train and play and better myself in an elite environment and the never-ending quest to improve my footy just keeps sucking me back.”
Daisy’s big concession on looming AFLW issue
Superstar Demon Daisy Pearce has conceded there will be moments where this year’s AFL Women’s competition will be “unfair”.
As the grip of the Omicron strain of Covid-19 grows tighter on Victoria and New South Wales in particular, Pearce has admitted she is bracing for matches with lopsided team selection in the competition’s sixth season, which begins this weekend.
But she is adamant that it won’t be part of her psyche in her fifth season at Melbourne.
“Yep. I do (think it’ll have times where it’s unfair),” the foundation player said.
“And I just don’t think you can worry about getting caught up in that kind of pattern of thinking.
“If you sat down and analysed it, there will be weeks where it’s unfair on one team more than another, depending on which players are missing and that kind of thing.
“But it doesn’t serve you very well to approach the season in that way.”
The league has protocols in place regarding matches, with games potentially rescheduled or even cancelled if a team has less than 16 primary listed players available due to Covid-19 testing or isolation issues.
Pearce said every Demon is ready and will prepare as such every single week.
“Our mentality is that it’s going to require our entire squad, and in any given game, in any given week, whether you’re a first-year player who thought they were the third ruck on the list and there to develop, you may be called on,” she said.
“So prepare like you’re going to play on the weekend and we need every single player doing that, because your opportunity to play might come tomorrow.”
Key forward Tayla Harris will play her first AFLW match in red and blue on Saturday night, with Pearce saying the star had been a very welcome addition to the premiership fancy.
Gym junkie: Daisy ‘as strong as she’s ever been’
– Jay Clark
In the tiny town of Porepunkah about 320km northeast from the MCG, a goal kicking net has been erected in a back paddock.
In between the constant juggling of mum duties and frequent trips to Melbourne, hundreds of set shots sail through the big sticks in the heart of Victoria’s alpine region.
Unsurprisingly, the champion launching all those Sherrins through the middle of the makeshift goals ahead of the new AFLW season is Melbourne’s Daisy Pearce.
Whether this is her last season at the top level – after last year’s devastating knee injury on the eve of the finals series – is yet to be determined.
But, for now, the thrill of the premiership chase is what still drives this football pioneer.
It’s why Pearce recently erected the goals in her big backyard, as the right-footer set out to sharpen her goal-kicking craft in preparation for a second season playing as a forward target.
While she has been one of the country’s premier playmakers throughout the bulk of her sparkling career, this season the 33-year-old will be a focal point for a Melbourne team looking to make it back-to-back men’s and women’s premierships.
If there is a fairytale to be written in the AFLW next year, this mother-of-two’s comeback stands out.
And as Melbourne coach Michael Stinear explained, it is in that Porepunkah paddock that Pearce has laid the foundation for another supreme season, after hobbling off the ground with teammates in tears in her last game in 2021.
“She just sets a great example that you can never conquer our great game,” Stinear said.
“So she has put up the goal kicking net on her property near Bright to really hone in on her kicking and set-shot work.
“So it’s not a case of someone loving the game and just hanging on. Daisy is constantly chasing that continual improvement and trying to get an edge.
“She is continuing to educate herself and ask questions and upskill herself and invest in extras.
“I think she is as strong as she has ever been as well because off the back of her injury she has hit the gym and seen big improvement there, and it is translating to her game.
“She is very hard to beat one-on-one. That’s where Daisy, if she is unable to mark it, will be able to bring it to ground and compete at ground level.
“That is a real asset and to have her play as a key forward and ideally draw the ball in deeper and then she revs up the troops to get them to hunt on the deck.”
That Pearce is also one of the best analysts in the AFL in her special comments role for Channel 7 is an advantage for Stinear, when it comes to talking tactics and skill development.
And in the car, on Pearce’s regular trips back and forth to the country, there is plenty of time to wrap her mind around the challenges ahead.
Throughout 2021 Pearce would drive to Melbourne on Thursdays for the weekends, then return home to the country for the start of the week.
“Tuesday she is doing a session at home, and once her kids are in daycare, she is out in the paddock launching a few into the goal kicking net,” Stinear said.
“It sums her up. It is what makes a great footballer.
“What makes her a great leader is that the same applies to the team because she is always thinking of ways how we can get better.
“It’s a pretty unique skill set, not only to be able to challenge yourself to be a better player, but then constantly thinking about others and the club. Trying to improve those around you as well.”
From that perspective, Pearce’s legacy in the AFLW is enormous. She has set the standard in training and professionalism for years. And now that water level has risen to a point where the rest of her peers have caught up.
Melbourne’s nine-person leadership group now carries that responsibility more evenly, so Pearce has the scope to focus more on her own game in her twilight.
Still, the skipper’s contribution over more than a decade – stretching back to the days when she dominated for Darebin – is what makes her a living legend of the women’s game. The best and fairest award in the VFL women’s league – which Pearce won six times – is named the Lambert-Pearce Medal in her honour.
“Early on (in the AFLW) Daisy had to carry a lot of that weight and lead by example and challenge others and try to raise those standards constantly,” Stinear said.
“I feel like over a couple of years that can be quite draining.
“But her influence has rubbed off and now those standards have certainly lifted across the group.
“It was always going to take a few years to upskill the rest of the squad.
“That has freed her up to really focus on her role and concentrate on being the best version of herself off-field and the best she can be in her particular role.
“She doesn’t feel like she has got to do everything and can lead by example by doing her role and hold others accountable to theirs.
“We have recruited accordingly with our list, and I would like to think this would be – and I have said this to Daisy – I hope this is her most enjoyable season yet.
“And (most) successful (season) in terms of her executing her role and just being part of a really strong unit.”
Melbourne has significantly bolstered its line-up, nabbing Tayla Harris (ex-Carlton) and Olivia Purcell (from Geelong), to supercharge a unit already featuring goal kicking star Katie Hore and Rising Star winner Tyla Hanks.
Clearly, the club is buzzing after Demons’ men’s side this year broke a 57-year premiership drought.
And the summer campaign started nicely on December 18 when Hore slotted four goals in a 19-point pre-season win over Collingwood, drawing a line on the Demons’ disappointing preliminary final exit.
Pearce watched from the sidelines late last season, hoping she could make a miraculous return in the grand final, but the Dees bowed out in the second-last week to Adelaide.
The brilliant matchwinner had surgery to repair her medial ligament, while there was also a small tear in her ACL, after going down in an incident in the final game of the home-and-away season against the Brisbane Lions.
It was terrible luck, and her teammates were visibly shattered as Pearce limped from the ground at Casey Fields with her right leg in a large brace after the final siren.
“Her teammates were emotional, and I guess we didn’t have all the answers at that stage,” Stinear said. “But she ended up reassuring them everything will be all right.
“To her credit, that was how she was that whole finals campaign. She knew it was going to be really unlikely to get back (in the team).
“She stayed in Melbourne that whole time in and out of seeing the surgeons, scans, rehab, everything she could possibly do to give herself a chance (to play in the grand final).
“It wasn’t until the final siren sounded in that prelim where it all sort of sunk in, but not for a moment did she make it about her.
“It was always, ‘How can we help the team, and how can we keep this momentum going?’”
Whether this is her last season or not hasn’t yet been really discussed.
While Pearce’s star continues to shine brightly off the field, and in particular in the commentary box, what’s best for her family, including her twins – Roy and Sylvie – and partner Ben, a Wangaratta firefighter, will be a key driver in her footy decision.
“They are currently doing some work on their house in Bright, so they will be in Melbourne for the AFLW season this year, which is perfect,” Stinear said.
“She just loves the group and the game and the opportunity, and then at the end of every season it will be a conversation for her and her partner Ben, and what’s best for the kids. And have they got the support around them?
“She is staying open-minded about what it all looks like.
“The club has been buzzing recently, and the girls loved and were inspired by what the boys did.
“List-wise, the work that we have done to get to the starting line in a couple of weeks’ time, we feel pretty confident in what our season holds.
“To see Daisy potentially be able to play in and win finals and be there on that last day that would be a pretty special moment.
“That is something that this group thoroughly deserves if we can put our heads down and execute this season.”