Many Brisbane Lions’ supporters, despite being salved somewhat by 3 premierships in the years following, still curse the year 2000 rule change that saw them prevented from recruiting a tall, blonde, local, key forward prospect. During that year the Lions’ local recruiting zone, from which they could access players from prior to the draft was contracted from 100km to 50km. Before the ink was dry on the amendment, Brisbane was lobbying the AFL for its reinstatement. The Lions well aware that with one stroke of a pen, the AFL had ensured that Southport’s Nick Riewoldt was no longer within the grasp of his home state club.
After having lost one Queensland bred superstar at the beginning of the century it is perhaps apt that the rules of AFLW allowed them to grab hold of another local hero before any other club had a chance. Much like the one that got away, Tayla Harris is a tall, blonde, brave, and strong, pack marking key forward. Unlike Nick Riewoldt however, Harris was able to be snapped up by the Lions prior to the AFLW draft as one of the clubs’ Marquee Players.
Harris has been kicking a Sherrin around for most of her life. Determined to play from a young age, she first stepped onto a football field as a player as a 5-year-old in the brown and gold of the Aspley Hornets in the Brisbane junior competition. A talented youngster, at 15 she graduated to senior footy. An instant sensation, Harris won the league’s Best & Fairest in her very first season. It was no surprise then, that Harris’ rise saw her rewarded with selection in the women’s exhibition games. Initially selected for Melbourne for their clashes in 2014 & 15 against the Western Bulldogs before selection for her hometown Lions in 2016, her high flying, high kicking highlights meant her signature was much sought after by the inaugural AFLW clubs ahead of the the 2017 season. Already employed as a Community and Communications Officer by Brisbane, there must have been a great deal of relief within the organisation when they discovered they could sign her under the AFLW’s Marquee player provisions.
A pre-season training mishap saw Harris pitted into a race against time to be available for the Lions’ season opener with Melbourne. Conspicuously still in a sling at the last Brisbane practice match, she appeared a long shot to be available for the historic opening round the following week. Single-mindedly, she refused to yield and was eventually cleared to tackle Melbourne at Casey Fields. Unfortunately her doggedness was no match for mother nature. The torrid conditions in Cranbourne tempered Harris’ ability to have an influence in her team’s victory. If round one left any fans impatient to see the best from Brisbane’s marquee, they didn’t have to wait long for the 19-year-old from Zillmere to stamp her impression on the outcome of a match.
Despite having proven the pundits wrong with their win over the Dees, the Lions were again predicted to struggle when they arrived in Fremantle for their clash with the highly fancied Dockers. Much like the week before, pre-game predictions counted for little as Brisbane went about out-running, out-muscling, and out-scoring their opponents. Whether it was taking settling marks in defence or providing an imposing target up forward, Harris seemed to be everywhere as she helped lift her team to victory.
On this day in Fremantle, Harris and her sure hands were a class above her contemporaries; her six contested marks and two goals were the difference in a hard-fought contest. It was an eye-catching performance and it was a surprise to no one when it was announced by the AFL that Harris was a round two nominee for the Rising Star Award.
After the announcement, Harris spoke with the Brisbane Lions’ website about what the nomination meant to her “It’s an absolute honour to be nominated for the AFL Rising Star Award, the other girls that have been nominated for this award are really quality people and players. To be up alongside them is something I can be proud of.” Despite being obviously proud of the individual accolade, the 19-year-old was quick to point out the result of the game was more important than individual awards, “Also on the back of such a great team win in Fremantle, that makes it just a little bit better.”
The Queenslander spoke of her instinctive daring approach to each contest, “I like being able to do that (inspire the team). Whether that is taking a big mark and putting my body on the line, probably getting smashed, I’m happy to do it.” The ultimate team player she explained “If we end up getting a goal or our team benefits from it, then I wouldn’t even think twice.”
There was no greater example of the truth of her words than in the final pulsating minutes of the game at Fremantle Oval. With the Lions clinging grimly to a narrow lead, the ball was driven long in the direction of Harris, surrounded by more Dockers than has ever been seen on any dock, despite the close attention she led with purpose to the dropping ball. Backing into the drop zone was Fremantle’s Belinda Smith, rather than cause a spilt ball, the Docker was unceremoniously bumped aside by the force of Harris’ efforts as she claimed a mark and the chance to ice the game.
It was a breathtaking moment illustrating the rugged beauty of Australian Football in all its glory. Dusting herself off after having won a victory in a most dangerous of contests, but before setting her sights on taking her free kick, Harris instinctively looked to her beaten opponent, Smith, who lay stricken on the ground. After helping Smith to her feet, Harris calmly kicked truly to secure a famous victory for her club.
It was a touching moment of sportsmanship just as the contest was at its absolute fiercest. It was yet again another way in which Queensland’s newest home-grown superstar reminded the football world of one of its more decorated. The blind courage and determination Harris showed in taking the spectacular mark was very Nick Riewoldt-esqe. The kind of mark they have rued the champion Saint taking after he was so cruelly stolen from them so many years ago. Thankfully now for the very same supporter group it now the kind of mark that has them, and football fans in general, eagerly anticipating Brisbane’s next AFLW fixture.