Courtney Ugle has been a staple of Essendon’s VFL Women’s team since its inception in 2018.

And while she’s achieved stardom on the field, perhaps her greatest legacy will be the work she’s doing off it.

Almost a year into her role within the Bombers’ community team, the 23-year-old has been a guiding light in the development of women’s football at the club. 

Her vision, like everyone else at the club, is to see Essendon competing in the AFLW, and she's prepared to do whatever it takes to make it happen. 

And if that inaugural AFLW team features rich Tiwi talent, much credit will come her way.

Making several trips to the islands during the off-season, Ugle has gone above and beyond in engineering the recruitment of three Tiwi stars who will don the sash in 2020 – returning forward Freda Puruntameri and newcomers Aggie Singh and Jamie-Lee Puautijimi. 

These girls are “paving the way”, as Ugle puts it, idolised back home for their courage to take the leap and follow their dreams of becoming the first Tiwi-born players to feature in the AFLW. 

There will no doubt be challenges in the transition from a remote community to a big city, but under the guidance of Ugle – a proud Noongar woman from Bunbury in WA who also took the leap of faith to Melbourne – they’re in good hands. 

Speaking with essendonfc.com.au, Ugle detailed what’s involved in the transition, why the Essendon-Tiwi connection is about so much more than the game, and how inspired she is by the Bombers’ vision for women’s footy. 

Courtney, it’s been a special fortnight for the VFLW Bombers but for you in particular, being at the forefront in welcoming Tiwi trio Freda Puruntatameri, Jamie-Lee Puautijimi and Aggie Singh to the club ahead of the 2020 season. What can you say about each of them?

We’ll start with Freda, who many would know about. She’s a returning player from last year, who can play forward or back but plays her best footy in the forward line. I’m very excited to see her back after her strong finish to last season, and she’s improved since with Palmerston – her local footy club in Darwin - moving really well and looking a lot stronger and fitter. 

Jamie-Lee is 26 and the oldest of the crew, and this will be her first VFLW season. She’s from Tiwi and lives there, occasionally going to Darwin to play for St Mary’s. She cares for her niece, so she has a bit of responsibility. She’ll take on a mentoring role in the team, and on the field she’ll bring genuine spark and smarts.

Aggie is also new and in her draft year, and everyone in the Northern Territory is excited about her. She’s freakishly talented, especially around goals. She can run through the guts or play as a high half-forward. Even though she’s from Tiwi, she’s been living in Darwin with her auntie. 

Aggie Singh, 18, will be eligible for this year's AFLW draft. (Photo: Essendon FC)

It’s so exciting to have them all here, and it’s great that they can do almost a full pre-season, which wasn’t the case with our Tiwi players last year as they arrived two weeks before the season started. These girls are so determined and ready to immerse themselves in the VFLW program, and that’s a massive credit to them.

You first met Jamie-Lee at a talent identification session on the Tiwi Islands in October last year. What was involved in the three months since to have her don the sash? 

Straight after that talent day, she was identified as someone we were really interested in. (VFLW coach) Brendan Major played a big part in wanting to bring her over, and I didn’t have a direct relationship with Jamie-Lee, so I put the feelers out to those I know in Tiwi to find out more about her and do a background check, mainly to see if she was going to be in a position to move to Melbourne.

As soon as I got in touch with her, she was already aware we were interested in bringing her down for a trial. The communication between us really started from there, along with some help from Freda and Tiwi College. There was no hesitation from her end, and the communication has been consistent since that trial day.

I went up and watched her play the other week as well, so just being a recognisable face there goes a long way. Even though Jamie-Lee is the primary carer for her niece, she’s got support from family at home that they’ll look after her so she can chase her dream.

Jamie-Lee Puautijimi (left) during October's talent identification session on the Tiwi Islands. (Photo: Essendon FC)

You mentioned Freda being a sounding board for Jamie-Lee. She was just 18 when she left Tiwi to join the Bombers last season, so how significant is it to have her commitment again? 

The fact that she’s hungry to come back is a massive tick. That in itself is also a credit to our Tiwi Women’s Pathway Program, which was launched in 2019.

Last year she battled with trying to complete year 12 while being off-campus and away from teachers, but for her to go back to Tiwi at the end of the season and get her graduation certificate was incredible.

I’ve seen her grow so much as a person over the past 12 months, and now she’s come back and wants to not only play footy, but work as well. She’ll join me in the community team while she does a part-time traineeship with AFL Sports Ready and completes a Certificate III in Sport and Recreation. She’s got great support from her family to chase her dream of playing AFLW, but all credit to Freda for really wanting to come back. 

Freda Puruntatameri, 19, has become a strong role model as she approaches her second season in the red and black. (Photo: Essendon FC)

Obviously there are significant challenges in moving from a remote community to Melbourne, but it must be rewarding for you and the club to earn the trust of the players’ families. 

100 per cent. Ever since I got the job, it’s been my priority. We can’t expect to bring these girls to Melbourne, out of community and live in essentially a Western world without trust from their families.

The most recent trip I did was to meet not just the girls, but also their families to just touch base again and put my face on the island, and make sure they know the girls are going to be looked after. It’s really important when you go to Tiwi that you are spending time with everyone. Time is just so valuable, and I’ll always pride myself on making connections. That comes with a lot of responsibility, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

What does the transition look like in those early stages and how does the club support the girls? 

It’s tough. It’s a very different way of living on the island to what we’re trying to get them to adapt to. The first thing is building relationships with key players and staff, so they quickly have familiar faces. We make sure the entire playing group is culturally aware of what life is like for these girls, so those conversations are already happening about what it may be like for them when they start pre-season. Everyone’s role is important, and they don’t have to necessarily do much, but just have an understanding of where they’re coming from and that sometimes they need to return home. 

The club does a great job in supporting the Tiwi girls, providing a home across the road from The Hangar, employment and education opportunities. I’ve always said it, but we’re lucky here at Essendon. We’re known for our Aboriginal legends and special events like Dreamtime at the ‘G and The Long Walk. We know that the club is culturally aware and culturally appropriate, and when you walk into it, you see the Aboriginal flag swaying and you know it’s a culturally safe place.

I’ve always said it, but we’re lucky here at Essendon. We’re known for our Aboriginal legends and special events like Dreamtime at the ‘G and The Long Walk. We know that the club is culturally aware and culturally appropriate, and when you walk into it, you see the Aboriginal flag swaying and you know it’s a culturally safe place.

- Courtney Ugle

You also had to move across the country to join the VFLW Bombers. How challenging was it to make that leap, and how does that experience allow you to empathise with what the Tiwi girls will go through?

I made the move to Melbourne about two years ago by myself. I had six days to pack up and say goodbye to everyone, so because of the short turnaround, it was very daunting. I definitely felt ready, but was probably not fully aware of the challenges I was going to face in Melbourne. There was a lot of the unknown, but the one thing I was sure about was football, and that's a similar situation for the girls now.

We’ll never shy away from the fact that these girls are great footballers, but I know how intimidating it is to leave family and the people you’re familiar with who have seen you grow up, to go to another state where you know just a few people. I can empathise with them, because they’re like me.

I remember at times questioning whether I was doing the right thing, but I came to realise with all the support that I got from the football club that I was in the right place. Now in a unique position with my role at the football club, I’m making sure the girls are getting that reassurance because I know how valuable it is. That happens through not just my role at the club, but as a bigger sister to these girls. I’ll be with them every step of the way, and see so much of myself in them. I want to be that missing piece for them, and my role is one I'll never take for granted. 

I’ll be with them every step of the way, and see so much of myself in them. I want to be that missing piece for them, and my role is one I'll never take for granted.

- Courtney Ugle

We all know about their freakish skills, but can you shed some light on the girls’ personalities and what they’ll bring from a cultural perspective? 

We talk a lot about cultural fit and bringing good people into our program, and these girls tick all the boxes – they’re great people, they want to be here, they want to learn, and they want to become strong Aboriginal role models. 

At first, they might not say much but they’ve got cheeky personalities and can have a laugh. They’re just genuinely happy people, and it’s rare that they come to the club in a bad mood, even if something has upset them. They’re just so happy to be here and build relationships. 

For someone like (teammate) Alex Quigley, she had a very close relationship with the Tiwi girls last year, and it opened her eyes to so many things from a cultural respective. They bring a different dynamic, and one that a lot of the rest of the girls aren’t used to.

On the field, they’re obviously going to make us better. They have a natural spark and unique style that pretty much all of us don’t have. They’ve been playing footy since they could walk, and I think they don’t realise how much they bring. It’s incredible and something I feel so lucky to be a part of. 

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You’ve spoken about them wanting to become strong Aboriginal role models. Are they already idolised back home for what they’re doing?

Absolutely. Everyone knows what they’re doing and that they’re coming to Essendon for footy. When the games come around, they’ll get around the telly or stream it live on the VFLW website like they always do. Everyone is talking about them and everyone is behind them, because we know what footy means on the Tiwi Islands and these girls are doing their people proud. They are paving the way, and I’ll always reiterate that what they’re doing is absolutely incredible.

The girls are going to enrich the VFLW squad this year, but how do you think being involved in the program enriches them?

I’ll use Freda as an example. She graduated from school last year and went back to Tiwi as a more confident and mature person, and a better player. She started working a couple of days a week there, and I can’t believe just how much she’s grown as a person in such a short time. 

We obviously want the girls to return as better footy players, but more importantly, better people and role models. As for the education piece, Freda is going to do a traineeship with us, and that qualification can be transferable back to the Tiwi Islands, so they can work here, but can also gain employment when they return.

Most importantly, we want these girls to become strong, independent role models who are happy with who they are, because they have rich traditions and we never want them to shy away from that. We want them to be exactly who they are - confident women, because we know they can play footy. 

When you see the growth of Freda and how you’ve helped that, does that remind you of the important role you’re playing?

Absolutely. I have a very unique role with working and playing here, but it’s important because I see so much of myself in these girls, and I know how important is to have a role model and a leader, and someone you can trust to advocate for you. I’ve always had the goal of encouraging and inspiring young Indigenous females, and who knows, maybe one day someone like Freda could be doing the role I’m doing at the club. 

I’ve always had the goal of encouraging and inspiring young Indigenous females.

- Courtney Ugle

You’ve witnessed the evolution of Essendon VFLW since its inception. There are several huge developments coming in year three, but what have you made of its growth so far?
  
When I first came in, I was just so happy to be here, so anything I was given and had access to I was just in awe. To see the evolution of where we’re going, I just can’t explain how bloody awesome it is for our VFLW team.

At the moment, we’re in temporary change rooms as a whole new women’s facility is being built, which will be the best in the comp. It’s a credit to the club on where it wants to get to in this space. I consider us very lucky that we have access to this at Essendon.

In terms of the growth, not only in the program but the people involved like coaches, support staff and players, we’ve got a great culture and we’re only at the beginning of something great.

We’re in the third week of the 2020 AFLW season, and you’re no doubt a keen onlooker. Does the fire burn in your belly more than ever to see the Bombers granted an AFLW licence?

It does, massively. If you look at our VFLW program now and how good we have it, it’s setting us up for a successful AFLW licence. And it’s not just about aiming for success on the field. With the people involved (in pushing for an AFLW licence), there’s fire in the belly. We’re building a new $21 million facility for it. We’re hungry, we want it, and we have the support. We want it really bad. It’s a credit to what (former VFL/VFLW operations manager) Ash Brown did all those years ago in helping to set this up and we’ve got great people leading the program now, so I reckon that licence needs to hurry up and come.

Stay tuned for the second part of Courtney Ugle’s interview, as she shares insights on her comeback from a broken leg and how the VFLW Bombers are shaping up for a big 2020.