Lara Dunkley has good reason to believe in winning-a-premiership-in-your-first-season fairy tales. After arriving at the Western Bulldogs via the 2015 AFL draft, her brother Josh did exactly that.
Lara’s entrance to the Melbourne Vixens during the 2019 pre-season played out rather differently - tinged with the bittersweet circumstance of being called into the 10 as a replacement for her injured friend Tayla Honey.
The happy ending part, though? A Suncorp Super Netball title in her debut year as a Vixen?
“Well, you never know, and wouldn’t that be a dream come true!’’ says the 24-year-old midcourter. “That would just be amazing. We’d love to see it happen, and it definitely can, so fingers crossed.’’
Dunkley was born into a sporting family, her father Andrew having played 217 games for the Sydney Swans from 1992. When he retired a decade later, the family shifted to Yarram in Gippsland - Lara the eldest, Josh next and Kyle, who was recently listed by Melbourne in the mid-season draft.
The siblings now share a house in Melbourne, their supportive parents pulled in multiple directions each weekend. Over Queen’s Birthday, however, Josh’s Bulldogs had a bye and Kyle’s Casey Demons played their VFL game on Sunday, which meant the family was out in force when the Vixens played the Magpies at Melbourne Arena.
The only court-time Lara had this time was with Victorian Fury in the Deakin University ANL, but her entry to the big-time had come in the form of a five-minute cameo against the Lightning on the Sunshine Coast in round six.
“It’s a hard one to describe. It’s a memory that you’ll never forget but it’s also a feeling that you’ll never forget,’’ she says of her last quarter entry in place of vice-captain Lizzy Watson.
“I ran on and I had Teags and Kate around me, and just seeing them smile and be so proud of me I just felt so comfortable. I’m just so super proud and excited to be able to represent the Vixens.’’
Yet the achievement has not come without some bumpy moments. Having not taken up netball until she was 13, Dunkley had to endure some setbacks trying to progress along the Netball Victoria junior pathways that others seem to, comparatively at least, glide along.
From 17/U level, she failed in three attempts to gain state selection, before a switch from the shooting circle to the midcourt after moving to Boroondara paid dividends when she was picked as a top-age 19/U. From there came five ANL seasons with the now-defunct Melbourne Flames and then the Fury.
Now this. Just over 10 years after it all began.
“Coming from a country town, I didn’t really even know anything about Melbourne, let alone netball competitions in Melbourne; I was just this country girl, playing local netball and just trying to be the best netballer I could be,’’ says Dunkley.
“When I was about 17, I was lucky enough Mum and dad actually would travel 2000km a week for me to get to Melbourne to play. When I turned 18 they were so happy because I could finally drive myself, but they still came to watch me play (VNL), so it didn’t make much difference!’’
For last year’s Fury captain, what was scheduled to be her second year as a Vixens’ training partner took an unexpected turn through what she describes as the “sickening” Achilles rupture suffered by Honey during a practice match.
But, sometimes, with misfortune comes opportunity, and Dunkley’s came in the form of a full-time training invitation from coach Simone McKinnis, then court-time in three games at the pre-season #TeamGirls Cup in Brisbane.
“They were super-happy and decided to have me on board, which was yet again a dream come true to be a part of the team,’’ she says. “I remember coming home after I’d found out that day - Mum and Dad had actually come up to Brisbane to watch, and they were still in Melbourne.
“I tried to play it cool and said ‘I got some pretty good feedback’, and then I just burst into tears telling them the news because I was so excited and I knew how much it meant for them, as well, so I was pretty pumped.’’
Still is. And with the really happy part of the ending hopefully still to come in September.
Written by Linda Pearce