In promising signs for the 2021 NAB AFLW season, Victorian players have been granted an exemption from the state government to return to training next week.
Clubs from states outside of Victoria have been able to run voluntary academy programs for their players over winter, to continue to build strength, fitness and skills in their players, but the COVID-19 outbreak in the southern state meant that was impossible.
The Victorian AFLW players have been classified as "high performance and professional athletes", and will be able to return to their clubs, training in small groups up to three times a week on a voluntary basis. Draftees will be able to join in once selected.
The AFLPA has approved this plan for a mini "pre-pre-season", and Victorian players will undergo COVID-19 testing, operating as part of the AFLW Return to Play program.
The academies of non-Victorian clubs had finished up last week, but will now be allowed to continue to offer sessions once a week.
Pre-season will officially start on November 4 with an induction period, as was the case last year, with training to begin in earnest on November 18.
"For everything we do, we have a player health and safety lense on, so from a risk mitigation point of view in terms of injury, we believe it's important to have at least an offering from clubs to get some loading and work done," AFL head of women's football Nicole Livingstone told womens.afl.
"It is voluntary though, because they're not on contract during this period. The clubs will host these sessions and the players are free to come along and train.
"We've had to put in some fairly extensive protocol plans to the Victorian clubs, because not only do we have to look after our people, we need to be good community citizens when it comes to the risk of COVID.
"We've had a working group up and running for about three months now, and the members of that working group are all the same members that were in the AFL Return to Play group.
"We're able to utilise that experience and expertise in getting the men's competition up and running, particularly around their testing regime and risk mitigation."
On the 2021 season itself, Livingstone was hopeful the improving situation in Victoria would allow for as normal season as possible but said a variety of options – including hubs – were being considered.
If it came to it, hubs would be more difficult to implement in the AFLW than it has been for the AFL. Given the part-time nature of the players, the vast majority having external work or study commitments.
"We're fully determined to get the season away, and not only get it away, but get a result. We'll do what we need to do to make that happen," Livingstone said.
"If we weren't considering a range of scenarios, we wouldn't be doing our jobs properly. We're really hopeful with the way Victoria has transformed, but we don't know what we're going to face in February 2021.
"Hubs or high performance centres would be one of those scenarios we are planning for, but that's not to say we'd need to go into them.
"Our preference is to get the season away, as agreed, and that's nine (home and away rounds) and three (weeks of finals), but we don't know what is coming our way for February, we're just trying to control what we can."