Grace Maher takes three measured steps backwards, raises both of her arms in the air, and pauses.
The players shuffle and wrestle around in the penalty area, vying for the best position, their faces turned towards the corner flag.
The crowd in the small grandstand that hugs one side of the field begins to swell. The chorus is led by the bright, chirpy voices of dozens of young girls dressed in club colours.
They watch, starry-eyed, as their idols jostle and zip around the bright green Lambert Park turf.
The swell builds. The 1000-strong crowd breathes tension into the moment. Maher lowers her arms and takes two confident strides forward, her left leg curling backwards; a pistol-hammer ready to fire the ball through the barrel of the air.
Her connection is powerful and clean. The ball bends towards the back of the six-yard box and dips into a sea of blue and white. Mackenzie Hawkesby reacts quickest, meeting the ball with her thigh, trying for a first-time clearance. But her control lets her down; it ricochets awkwardly, bouncing out towards the penalty spot where Matildas legend Lisa De Vanna is waiting, coiled like a spring.
The ball barely has time to land before De Vanna pounces, blasting it into the roof of the net, past a bewildered Jada Mathyssen-Whyman. The crowd erupts; the screams of the tracksuited girls piercing through the afternoon.
De Vanna is swamped by team-mates: Rhianna Pollicina, Georgia Yeoman-Dale, Deborah-Ann De La Harpe, Tori Tumeth, Susan Phonsongkham. Maher comes hurtling in from the right and joins the crushing team hug. Matilda McNamara, Jess Frampton, Charlotte McLean, Aimee Phillips and Angelique Hristodoulou take a breath before rallying their side to go again.
You may recognise many of these names; they’ve played on television, at major club finals, and in some of the biggest international competitions in the world.
But this isn’t the W-League or the Matildas.
This is APIA Leichhardt against Sydney Olympic FC in the NSW Women’s National Premier League, a competition that has, season after season, muscled its way into becoming the strongest state-based women’s league in Australia.
And the 2021 season may be the most entertaining and competitive yet.
Take this past weekend’s game between APIA and Sydney Olympic; two of Australia’s biggest and most storied NPL clubs. At the inaugural “Best In The Inner West” festival on Sunday on APIA’s home turf, both senior women’s teams traded blows.
De Vanna’s opener for APIA in the 8th minute was cancelled out in the tenth by a looping, curling effort from Olympic’s Alexia Karrys-Stahl. A slicing midfield move by Olympic early in the second half was finished superbly by Taylor Ray before APIA’s Maher equalised just on the hour.
But the game was put to bed by the visitors as midfielder Sarah Yatim launched a shot from 30 yards that crept in over the outstretched fingers of Sophie Magus, the win taking Olympic to within two points of their cross-town rivals.
It’s not just in the “bigger” clashes that excitement reigns, though.
Elsewhere this past weekend, while separated by five spots on the ladder, North West Sydney Koalas and Northern Tigers went toe-to-toe at Christie Park. It was the higher-placed Tigers who emerged 3-2 winners after a Lauren Allan Brace and stunning Malia Steinmetz strike.
A top-of-the-table clash between the Macarthur Rams and Football NSW Institute in Campbelltown saw the Rams cement first place with a 2-0 win thanks to goals from veteran Leena Khamis and young Canberra product Hayley Taylor-Young.
The shock of the round came from Bankstown City’s 1-0 win over traditional heavyweights Illawarra Stingrays after a lung-busting half-field sprint and finish by Meleri Mullan in addition to some crucial goalkeeping by Annalee Grove.
Last year’s Grand Final winners Manly United were also humbled by a new-look Blacktown Spartans outfit, who came from behind to score four goals (including a Maja Markovski hat-trick) to dampen an early Tara Andrews double, while Sydney University breezed past Emerging Jets in a 3-0 win thanks to goals from Holly Caspers (2) and Clare Wheeler.
With dozens more W-League-level players moving from across the country to play in the National Premier Leagues NSW Women’s this year, the standard of the competition continues to improve. Even a brief glimpse across the Goals of the Week contenders shows how much individual and team quality the league currently contains.
With almost 90 2020/21 W-League footballers now calling the NPL NSW Women’s home, and many more talented players emerging through the ranks, there has never been a better time to pay attention to Australia’s best women’s NPL competition.
-By Samantha Lewis (@battledinosaur)