Already a double international in her teens, Killarney Morey was on the verge of breaking into the big time of the AFLW, but a cruel knee injury has slowed her down
Last year, Killarney Morey came one step away from her dream of playing professional Aussie Rules across the Tasman.
The New Zealand women’s AFL captain was the first New Zealand-based player to be selected in a combined states team, Eastern Allies, for an U18 national tournament – from which players are often drafted into the pinnacle AFLW competition.
But her chance to take that next step in her AFL career was cruelly ripped away when she put one foot wrong, and ruptured her ACL early this year – playing netball.
“It was in the first minute of the first trial for this year’s team,” says Morey, who was trying out for the South team in the Beko League. “I just heard the pop. I ruptured my ACL and did both meniscuses as well.”
Morey grew up playing netball – and has represented New Zealand at secondary schools level – and only picked up AFL in her first year at high school. Although the AFLW grand final attracts crowds of over 50,000, it’s still a small sport in New Zealand. But the women’s game here is growing – to the point where New Zealand could have its own franchise team playing in the AFLW in the next five years.
The 19-year-old thrived on her taste of the game in Australia last year. After each match with the Eastern Allies, the players were called in for one-on-one video analysis sessions to break down their game.
“It was just a bit more of a professional environment – seeing what that next level could look like, which was really interesting,” Morey says. “And some of my teammates from that side are now playing in the AFLW.
“Seeing them go to the next level was pretty cool and inspired me to want to do the same. I would love to try to go to the top level.”
But the young sport fanatic will have to wait a little longer to play either sporting code, after initially waiting four months to go under the knife.
Morey was unable to book in for surgery straight after her knee gave way, as New Zealand went into Covid-19 Level 4 lockdown. She now has about four months of recovery to go.
“It’s been a bit different, but at least with Covid I haven’t felt as though I’m missing out too much with everything else happening. I guess it’s not the worst year to do it,” says Morey.
But she admits the first couple of months were really tough. “It took a while for me to even just accept that I was going to be out for so long, because I’ve been playing sport my whole life,” Morey says. “And then to just have it taken away like that, it took me a long time to get a hold of it.
“But once I did, I just wanted to give everything to the rehab, so that I could use this time to get stronger and fitter than I was before and come back in the best possible shape.
“It’s also been good for me mentally – I feel like I’m stronger than I was before. Having to train on my own a lot and relying on myself to just push through things has been good; I’ve learnt a lot from it.”
Morey grew up in Kaitāia but moved to Auckland’s Epsom Girls Grammar for her secondary school years. The young boarder then made the move further south to Dunedin last year to study physiotherapy fulltime.
One positive from this disrupted year has been the amount of free time Morey has had to focus on her degree. Last year the sport-study juggling act meant returning home from playing AFL in Australia to face end of year exams three days later.
“This year I’ve been able to go hard with my studies and it’s paid off,” says the Te Rarawa descendent, who won the junior female sportsperson of the year at the Māori Sports Awards in 2018.
Her physiotherapy degree is also coming in handy with her own rehabilitation process and she jokes it’s helping her career too.
“There are so many ACLs that come through, so the fact that I’m going through all of this, I’ll always know how to treat the ACL really well,” she laughs.
“Even seeing my MRI and the surgeon explaining the process, I understood all the terms they were using and what was going on. And if I’m stuck or want to find something out, I know what to research to see what could be good for it or when to do certain exercises. All that kind of stuff helps out a little bit.”
Succeeding in netball is still on the radar for the Auckland age-grade captain, too. “Playing high performance netball in the New Zealand Secondary Schools team in my last year at high school is probably the highlight of my career so far because I’ve always wanted to push for higher levels in that as well,” she says.
Morey got into netball through her mum, who also played. But it was one of her PE teachers who introduced AFL into her life after her first athletics day at Epsom Girls.
“She just said ‘There’s this opportunity that you could probably play AFL for New Zealand if you wanted to’,” says Morey. “And me and my friend were like that would be so cool to play for New Zealand. We didn’t even know what it was at the time so I went home, looked up AFL and showed up to training on Sunday.
“We learnt how to kick, and some of the rules – obviously it’s quite complicated to get it straight away – but we just found it really fun. We both really enjoyed it and I just kind of stuck with it. The more I understood the game, the more confident I got with it.”
AFL NZ national community and communications manager, Tom O’Keeffe, has seen the growth in the sport in New Zealand over the last 10 years and would like to push even further in the women’s space.
“Within five years, we’re gunning for an AFL women’s franchise in New Zealand. We’re backed by the board and the CEO – they want it to happen. And it can, there’s a lot of opportunity there,” he says. The AFLW is entering its fifth season in Australia, with crowds and interest growing each year.
Locally, a women’s premiership competition has been organised and this weekend will be their final game of the year. There are only two teams, but O’Keefe knows they need to start building a pathway from grassroots to senior level if they want to achieve their AFLW goals.
Morey, he says, has probably been their best example of someone to keep an eye on as the sport continues to grow on this side of the Tasman.
“She’s still very young. Being selected for the Eastern Allies at the U18 AFLW national champs last year was sort of the next step up, before AFLW. It’s the first time we’ve had someone selected into the Eastern Allies team.”
With Morey’s accolades in both sports she might not have to cross the ditch to reach her dreams.