When Emma O’Driscoll jumps on the phone to chat, she’s taking a quick break from studying for her final assessments at uni. A fourth-year physio student, she’s a bundle of energy.
“I graduate in about 30 days, so I’ll be a physio if that goes to plan,” she laughs, thanking me for the chat so she could “actually think about something else, for at least half an hour anyway.”
O’Driscoll was drafted ahead of Fremantle’s undefeated 2020 season, and played four of a possible seven games in defence, averaging a handy 5.5 intercepts a game. In 2021, she featured in all ten matches, and was thrown a surprising role in round nine against the Kangaroos.
“The training session the day before [senior coach Trent Cooper] got me to stand in front of goals and kick a goal. And I said 'why the hell is he giving me this football to kick this? when kicking isn't my strength, let alone goal kicking!’” she laughs.
“And then we had our team meeting that night, and he started having this spiel about a player that will be playing in the forward line. He's really excited to see what they can do and I was just thinking, 'oh please don't say me, please don't say me' and my name pops up on the board in the forward line.”
I comment that she did get a shot on goal in that game, but she’s quick to quash any talk of that.
“Oh, God, we don't talk about that. That was the most nerve-wracking moment of my whole entire life.”
O’Driscoll’s role in that game might have been in the forward line, but it wasn’t necessarily to score. She was tasked with making Kangaroos star Jess Duffin accountable, limiting her ability to play as a spare and take intercept marks at will. And make Duffin accountable she did.
Coming into their final round stoush, Duffin was averaging 15.5 disposals, 5.5 intercepts and 2.8 one percenters each game. O’Driscoll, however, kept the All Australian to 11 disposals, two intercepts and zero one percenters, significantly limiting Duffin’s influence on the match.
Not only did she succeed in the role that day, O’Driscoll admits to having learned a lot from Duffin by playing on her.
“Playing on her, and watching where she positioned herself and how she read the flight of the ball so well has definitely added a new dimension to my game. Just being able to be that opposition player and know, ‘oh, okay, she's taking me to the ball here. Maybe I can try that next time I'm playing on my attacker’.”
When we joke about how she might just get that role again, O’Driscoll laughs loudly.
“Oh, absolutely. Trent Cooper, if you're listening, bold decisions this year! Just put me back in the forward line!”
We both know she’s not being the slightest bit serious.
It’s also not surprising at all to hear O’Driscoll describe herself as “the biggest socialite at the club” given her enthusiastic, friendly and fun-loving personality, which was recently shared across the league’s social media. More specifically, a video from training where the defender was casually showing off her ability to backflip.
“My secret talent that I do not know how it's only come out this season in a random Thursday night training session,” she says when asked about the video. “Everyone said to me, ‘why don't you say anything?’ And I said, ‘what do you want me to say just oh, hey, by the way, guys, I can do a backflip’. I'm not sure where that comes up in conversation to be honest.”
She’s also keen to add how pleased she is that she’s finally earned an appearance on the AFLW’s Instagram account. And, to be honest, it’s a deserving appearance.
Underneath all the bullish energy and laughter, however, O’Driscoll admits that finding balance in her life between footy, work, study and friends is a tough one, and that learning to practice mindfulness has helped her cope with the stress of it all.
“I'm kind of stressed out. Analysis paralysis is what I get on the field,” she tells me earnestly.
"I've found in the past that I really try and get ahead of myself and think about all the what ifs and things that you can't control.”
Coming into her third season, O’Driscoll acknowledges that a shift in mentality has been the most significant change for her improvement.
“I used to use ‘I can't do that, I can't do this, I can't kick’ and really focus on my RFIs (Room For Improvement) whereas now I'm more like, focusing on my strengths and making them the best strength in the competition.”
O’Driscoll identifies her goal for 2022 as “playing [her] role for the team” and not focusing on any personal accolades. This might seem like a party line that players are asked to toe, but there’s a genuine honesty to everything she says. And there’s little doubt that she’ll be putting it all out there next year, no matter which line she’s playing on.
Gemma Bastiani is the co-founder of Siren Sport, a collective of Australian women’s sports advocates, content creators and fans providing coverage to women's sport across the country. To read more of Gemma Bastiani's work, head here.