Resilient St Kilda defender Tarni White receives AFLW Rising Star nomination and coaches award votes in comeback game

Resilient St Kilda defender Tarni White in her comeback game after a left knee reconstruction impressed with her composure, agility, ball-winning ability and ball use to have 20 disposals, take seven marks and receive a Rising Star nomination in the Saints nine point victory against the Western Bulldogs in Round 1 of the 2021 AFLW season at RSEA Park on Friday 29 January.

White who turned 20 years old on Sunday 31 January, two days after her Rising Star nominated game had a decorated junior career and was selected in the 2017 Under 18 AFLW All-Australian team at 16 years of age after an outstanding carnival playing in the midfield for Queensland. Since then White has had to overcome adversity, tearing the Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) and requiring a knee reconstruction twice in three years, White’s first ACL injury was early in the 2018 QAFLW season playing for Coorparoo.

During 2019 White returned to playing football with Coorparoo and had a positional move, playing in defense and excelled with her kicking efficiency. At the 2019 NAB AFLW Draft St Kilda selected White with pick 30 and she played the first four games of the 2020 AFLW season including an 18 disposal, 10 mark performance in a Round 2 away game against Adelaide which earned her votes in the AFL Coaches Association AFLW Champion Player of the Year Award.

Early in the Round 4 2020 AFLW St Kilda home game against Fremantle White tore the ACL in her left knee and required a knee reconstruction for the second time. Two and a half months after her knee injury White was back running again and in August 2020 signed with the St Kilda Football Club for the 2021 and 2022 AFLW seasons.

Tarni White’s football career at junior level, with Coorparoo in the QAFLW and St Kilda in the AFLW is covered in more detail below:

Early life, junior career and QAFLW with Coorparoo

Tarni White was born on 31 January 2001 and grew up in the suburbs of Brisbane, Queensland. At nine years of age Tarni began playing Australian Rules football, initially in boys teams and then in the under 15’s she started playing in girls teams. In August 2014 at 13 years of age White became the first girl to play 100 games for the Wynnum Vikings, on achieving the milestone White commented to the Courier Mail “It feels amazing to be playing 100 games and to be the first girl at Wynnum Vikings to achieve this. Its going to be an exciting game to play. Aussie Rules is basically my middle name … Watching my sister’s partner play from when I was eight. He taught me how to kick and handball properly and encouraged me to sign up. My brother Korey and I then kicked the ball in the yard for years also.”1

White grew up in Brisbane and from an early age had a goal of moving to Melbourne and playing football at the highest level she could. In  January 2020 she told saints.com.au “A few years after I first started playing, Katie Brennan moved to Melbourne to play, and I thought if she can do it, then so can I. Melbourne is the home of footy and coming here was always my goal, and I never really considered anything else.”2 Brennan has been a captain of an AFLW club in all five seasons since the league commenced in 2017, captaining the Western Bulldogs from 2017 to 2019 before joining Richmond in 2020 and being their inaugural captain.

In 2015 White joined the Coorparoo Kings and after playing football in the juniors for a couple of seasons played senior football for Coorparoo during 2017 in the Queensland Australian Football League Women’s (QAFLW) which is the highest standard of four Women’s leagues in Queensland.

At the 2017 NAB AFLW Under-18 Championships White played five games for Queensland predominantly in the midfield, averaging 9.4 kicks, 4.8 handballs, 7.6 contested possessions, 6.2 uncontested possessions and 4.0 tackles per game. White was selected in the 2017 NAB AFLW Under-18 All-Australian team, being named on a wing and was joined in the team by four of her Queensland teammates – Kalinda Howarth who was named at half-forward and a trio – Sophie Conway, Lauren Bella and Arianna Clarke who were all named on the interchange. White was one of only two 16 year-olds selected in the All-Australian Team along with Lucy McEvoy who represented Vic Country and two years later was selected by Carlton with pick 2 in the 2019 NAB AFLW draft.

In Round 2, 2018 playing for Coorparoo in the QAFLW against Wilston Grange White tore her Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL). After having a knee reconstruction White missed the rest of the 2018 season.

On the rehabilitation process after her knee injury White commented to afl.draftcentral.com.au “It was definitely a huge rollercoaster ride. I’d turn up to every training session and every gym session but some days were harder than others. You’ve just got to grind through those and lean on your teammates when those darker days do come up, but yeah it was really hard but those 12 months came up really quick and I was able to get access to really good facilities from the Gabba and they helped me with my rehab.”3

After missing 16 months of football due to her knee injury White made her return playing for the Queensland Under-18’s team in 2018. On her return White commented to aflq.com.au “It’s a pretty indescribable feeling [returning from injury], not many people will know that feeling unless they’ve had a long-term injury, but if I could put it into some words, I’m so grateful just to even be out there again. I can’t get 100 touches like I used to, but what’s keeping me in the game is my talk and organisation.”4

In 2019 while making her return from her knee injury and building match conditioning White played in defense for Queensland at the 2019 NAB AFLW Under 18 Championships. At the tournament White played five games, averaging 4.2 kicks, 3.2 handballs, 3.6 contested possessions, 3.8 uncontested possessions and 3.0 tackles per game. White’s profile in AFLW Prospectus 2020 said “A member of the AFLW Academy, she played five games for Queensland at the 2019 NAB AFLW Under-18 Championships and excelled with her ball use – recording an elite ranking for kicking efficiency and was above average for disposal efficiency. White also finished fifth in the agility test at the 2019 NAB AFLW Draft Combine.”5

In White’s first game back with the Coorparoo Kings on 9 June 2019 she kicked a set-shot goal. Playing at half-back White was a member of Coorparoo’s 2019 QAFLW premiership side with the Kings defeating Bond University by 76 points in the Grand Final at Leyshon Park.    

White spoke to afl.draftcentral.com.au in October 2019 about her strengths and areas of improvement as a player, commenting “Probably my (strengths are my) aggression on the ball, my tackling pressure, I’ve played on the half-back role and I’ve learnt just to shut down really quickly and keep my opponent out and do my role for the team that way. Definitely my game fitness (is an improvement) really. Just coming back from an ACL. Everything’s still relatively new, but coming back now I need to work on this, and jump through all these hoops. Definitely all these games help with fitness.”6

2020 AFLW season with St Kilda

After commencing with eight teams in 2017 the AFLW expanded to 10 teams in 2019 with the new entrants being North Melbourne and Geelong. There was further expansion in 2020 with another four teams in St Kilda, Richmond, Gold Coast and West Coast joining the AFLW, making it a 14 club competition.

Due to the part-time nature of the AFLW the league has a region based draft where players are able to nominate which region (usually a state) they want to play in. The vast majority of players nominate the region they are living in, White was an exception and stuck to the plan she formulated years earlier of moving to Melbourne and nominated the Victorian region for the 2019 AFLW draft.

In the lead-up to the 2019 NAB AFLW draft White commented to aflq.com.au on her decision to nominate the Victorian region for the draft “It’ll be a new environment. It’s a challenge in itself to live down there, live by myself but I’m excited by it and to become an adult. It’ll better me as a person. A lot was thrown into making this decision. If I’m being completely honest, I won’t know where I’m going until my name gets called out. That’s very exciting in itself but also very nerve wracking.”7

At 18 years of age White was selected by the St Kilda Football Club with pick 30 at the 2019 NAB AFLW draft. White was one of 12 QAFLW players selected in the 2019 AFLW Draft however the other 11 were drafted by Brisbane or the Gold Coast and remained in Queensland with eight players joining Brisbane and three players being selected by Gold Coast.

On moving away from family and friends to Melbourne White commented to saints.com.au “It’s the hardest thing I have ever done, but really if this is the hardest thing I have to do then I am pretty lucky in life. In the back of my mind, I know this is what I have wanted since I was nine, and so it drives me every day.”8

In St Kilda’s first ever AFLW game on Sunday 9 February 2020 at RSEA Park in Moorabbin against the Western Bulldogs White at 19 years of age was one of 11 Saints in the 21 player team that made their AFLW debut, being joined in this category by Rosie Dillon, Clara Fitzpatrick, Caitlin Greiser, Molly McDonald, Kelly O’Neill, Georgia Patrikios, Hannah Priest, Olivia Vesely, Nadia von Bertouch and Nicola Xenos. In her AFLW debut White had four kicks, one handball and laid four tackles.

In Round 2 against reigning premiers, the Adelaide Crows in an away game at Richmond Oval White had seven disposals and five marks in the third quarter and finished the game with a team-high 16 kicks, two handballs and a game-high 10 marks in the 13 point loss. White polled three votes in the AFL Coaches Association AFLW Champion Player of the Year Award to be the fourth ranked player for the game behind Adelaide duo Ebony Marinoff (10 votes) and Courtney Gum (8) and St Kilda team-mate Georgia Patrikios (5).  

After her impressive performance White was voted the Round 2 Dare Sainter of the Round and commented to saints.com.au “I played okay, but I’m always looking to improve. We were pretty relentless and our tackle pressure was insanely high.”9

In one of the upsets of the season St Kilda defeated Melbourne by five points in a Round 3 Friday night game home game at RSEA Park to record the club’s first AFLW victory. In the win White had eight kicks, two handballs, two marks and laid two tackles.

With just over 10 minutes remaining in the first quarter of St Kilda’s Round 4 game against Fremantle at RSEA Park White injured her knee, tearing her ACL. In tears White was assisted from the ground by two St Kilda trainers.

On White’s knee injury St Kilda AFLW head coach Peta Searle commented “Tarni is a great up-and-coming talent, and sometimes it’s hard to believe how young she is. She’s incredibly mature for someone her age, and her resilience, courage and commitment are at another level. It’s heartbreaking news for her, especially given her injury history, but we know she’ll bounce back stronger than before.”10  

On her second ACL injury White commented to ‘The Age’ “I was heartbroken. But I remember, when I got off into the changerooms, the Saints’ men’s captain Jarryn Geary came down from wherever he was watching, and he came down and put his arm around me and asked if I was OK. I think in that moment right there I realised that I wanted to be at St Kilda for a very long time. Because of how authentic it was, to realise that this was a men’s player, he doesn’t have to do that but he’s just shown the love and the care, what the club’s about.”11

As a result of the corona virus and the impact it was having on society including restrictions on inter-state travel the last two rounds of the 2020 AFLW home and away season were abandoned, as a result St Kilda didn’t get to play their scheduled Round 7 and Round 8 away games against Collingwood and fellow expansion club West Coast. St Kilda finished the 2020 AFLW season fifth out of seven teams in Conference B with two wins, four losses and a percentage of 90.6%, two wins behind Melbourne and Collingwood in third and fourth position respectively and one win ahead of the Western Bulldogs and West Coast in sixth and seventh position. During 2020 White played four games for St Kilda and averaged, 7.0 kicks, 1.3 handballs, 3.3 marks, 1.8 tackles, and 3.8 rebound 50’s per game.

Two and a half months after injuring her knee White commenced running in early June 2020 and commented to Saints.com.au on her recovery “You couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. Getting back up and running after two-and-a-half months has been unreal, especially with how long it was before I started running last time I did my knee.”12

Due to her knee injury White had to quit her casual job as a bartender at Hotel Brighton, however she commented to ‘The Age’ “In my eyes there’s a silver lining in everything. I found the good that has come out of this. I’ve been able to study now and become a personal trainer and developed my plan B just in case football doesn’t work out.”13

2021 AFLW season with St Kilda

In August 2020 White re-signed with St Kilda for two seasons and was one of 13 players to commit to the Saints for the 2021 and 2022 seasons, with other players in this category including all four joint 2020 St Kilda best and fairest winners Georgia Patrikios, Caitlin Greiser, Rosie Dillon and Olivia Vesely along with Rhi Watt, Tilly Lucas-Rodd and Hannah Priest.

In 30 degree heat on 19 November 2020 the Saints AFLW team ran a two kilometre time-trial, despite the challenging conditions and returning after a knee reconstruction White run a personal best.

In an outstanding performance against the Western Bulldogs in defense White had 10 kicks, an equal game-high 10 handballs and took an equal game-high seven marks in St Kilda’s nine point victory in a Friday night Round 1 2021 AFLW game at RSEA Park.

White polled six votes in the AFLW Coaches Association Player of the Year Award, being judged the third best player on the ground behind two midfielders, teammate Georgia Patrikios (10 votes) and Western Bulldogs captain Ellie Blackburn (8 votes). White and Patrikios were each selected in women.afl’s 2021 Round 1 AFLW Team of the Week with White being named as a defender and Patrikios named on the interchange.

At a team meeting early in the week following their Round 1 victory St Kilda AFLW coach Peta Searle said “Tarni, likewise, your competitiveness is always there. Your teammates sometimes probably don’t like training against you because you compete so hard, but that’s part of making your team a better team and your teammates better. I just thought your game on the weekend was outstanding. Your contest, some of the agility that you showed, obviously you just went out there and was really focussed to do the best that you can and it really showed. Twenty touches, some really important ones at the end too and you helped set up some of our ball use from defence. You were fantastic and not only did I think you were fantastic, but so did the AFL, so you’ve been named the Rising Star.”

In a tremendous sign for St Kilda’s future the club has had four Rising Star nominees across the 2020 AFLW season and the opening round of the 2021 season which is the most of any club during this period, with White joining Patrikios, Greiser and Vesely in this category.

When players make their return after a knee reconstruction it usually takes time to build match conditioning and form. It is a testament to Tarni White’s resilience, competitiveness, determination and skill level that in her first game back for St Kilda after her second knee reconstruction she received a much deserved AFLW Rising Star nomination for her 20 disposal, seven mark performance in Round 1, 2021 against the Western Bulldogs at RSEA Park and was one of the best players on the ground.

Article and photographs by Dean Andrews

Twitter – @DeanAndrews7777

 References

1 https://www.couriermail.com.au/questnews/southeast/tarni-white-lives-and-breaths-australian-rules-football-and-will-be-the-first-female-at-wynnum-vikings-to-play-100-games/news-story/cdda96f0c39ec6906180b73ecb4d42b8

2 https://www.saints.com.au/news/551556/never-giving-up-tarni-white-s-inspiring-journey-to-aflw

3 https://afl.draftcentral.com.au/2019/10/03/all-australian-junior-white-returns-to-draft-radar/

4 https://www.aflq.com.au/im-so-grateful-tarni-white-loving-life-back-on-the-field/

5 Champion Data, AFLW Prospectus – the essential number-cruncher for season 2020, 3rd Edition, page 155

6 https://afl.draftcentral.com.au/2019/10/03/all-australian-junior-white-returns-to-draft-radar/

7 https://www.aflq.com.au/tarni-white-ready-for-latest-challenge-as-ten-year-aflw-dream-beckons/

8 https://www.saints.com.au/news/551556/never-giving-up-tarni-white-s-inspiring-journey-to-aflw

9 https://www.saints.com.au/news/564682/tarni-white-makes-her-mark-as-dare-sainter-of-the-round#:~:text=Tarni%20White%20has%20earned%20the,second%20game%20for%20the%20Saints

10 https://www.saints.com.au/news/571211/saints-duo-sidelined-with-knee-injuries

11 https://www.theage.com.au/sport/afl/operation-white-back-knee-injury-cost-saint-her-other-job-20210128-p56xhf.html

12 https://www.saints.com.au/news/702673/-you-couldn-t-wipe-the-smile-off-my-face-white-on-the-road-to-recovery

13 https://www.theage.com.au/sport/afl/operation-white-back-knee-injury-cost-saint-her-other-job-20210128-p56xhf.html

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