Players' perspectives: What it's like to play your first game in the league

Isadora McLeay and Imogen Evans are AFLW players currently taking part in an internship at Disney and ESPN, where they are given the opportunity to gain real-life work experience while having the flexibility to pursue their footballing goals and aspirations.

This week, the girls discuss what it feels like to learn you're making your professional debut, as well as how the emotional week plays out.

Imogen Evans, Collingwood

A professional sporting debut is something very few people ever get to experience. And it's something I will never forget.

I was 18 years old and in my first season at the highest level when my opportunity to play senior football came. It was Round 1, 2022 - the season opener with Collingwood taking on long-time rivals Carlton under Thursday night lights.

A few days earlier I had been washing dishes at a local café I worked at when our coach Steve Symonds walked through the door, media team in tow, to let me know I would be making my AFLW debut.

It was an emotional moment as I honestly didn't think I would play a game that year. I immediately Face-timed my parents to share the news. Neither of them could believe me at first. After that, it was back to the dishes. They certainly weren't going to wash themselves!

I'm still not sure why but I didn't feel nervous for my debut. Nobody knew who I was, therefore nobody knew what to expect. I think that gave me the freedom to just go out and enjoy the experience. I really thrived off having no external pressure and, fueled by adrenaline, played the game of my life.

Unfortunately, my next few games were less successful. I was omitted from the team in Round 5, returned in Round 9, and was then dropped for the rest of the season. It's so tough to miss out when you desperately want to be playing but it's an honor and a privilege to don the Collingwood jumper and I knew I had to earn another opportunity.

That next opportunity to play AFLW came in Round 8 of this season; 12 months on from my last game on the big stage. Once again, it was an amazing feeling to get the call up.

Unsurprisingly, the game itself was completely different to the scrimmages I had been playing in the prior weeks. The stakes are far greater and the intensity ratcheted up enormously. Mistakes here have real life consequences. But this is where I want to be as I grow as an AFLW footballer.

Isadora McLeay, GWS

It was pure shock and it all felt very surreal when, in the lead up to Round 7, it was announced I was making my AFLW debut. The reaction from my teammates in the club gym made it an incredible experience. It was something I could not have scripted.

Looking back, It was probably the best week of my life. It's difficult to imagine anything topping it!

Making the occasion so special was that it came after a very long ACL rehab, one which had several setbacks. To be able to finally get the call up was very rewarding. As was the moment I was able to share the news with my family and friends.

In the lead up to the game it was pure excitement and nerves, and with it being my first proper game, I had forgotten all my pre-game rituals. It was like starting on a blank canvas, but everyone at the Giants made the week so special for me.

I arrived at RSEA park to take on St Kilda on a beautiful deck. I dusted off a pregame playlist I hadn't properly listened to for two years and as we edged closer to the opening bounce, I was presented with my jersey by one of my best friends in the team. It really helped calm down whatever thoughts were racing through my mind and made me realise how special the moment was. The same can be said for a few chats with coaches and teammates in the rooms before the first bounce.

Running onto the field felt like a dream and within the first five minutes I was heckled by a Saints' fan in the crowd. It weirdly settled me down!

Throughout the whole game I just tried to take it all in. It was the biggest crowd I had played in front of and I wanted to really enjoy the first game. After all, you only get one of them.

Unfortunately we lost the game, which soured the mood, but nothing could take away from the experience. After our post-game team meeting, I walked out of the rooms to give my family a big hug. I had just got to live out a childhood dream.