Growing the game
Belleville’s Hilmi plays and promotes Aussie Rules football
Belleville native Lara Hilmi is a pioneer.
And, a well-decorated one at that.
The local athlete made her debut at the International Cup Australian Rules football tournament Down Under in 2014 and has been one of Canada’s top players ever since. Now, she’s trying to help recruit more Canadian players to the game.
“I’m hoping to get a bit of support behind Aussie Rules in an effort to try and nab some of the ex-rugby, basketball and soccer players and help them discover this amazing sport so that we can try and grow the league and boost the number of players across the country,” said Hilmi.
Hilmi fell in love with Australian Rules football while living and working in that country’s largest city — Sydney. She’s now back in Ontario and doing her best to help promote a fledgling female league in the GTA.
“As much as I miss living and playing in Australia, it’s been great to move home and stil have the opportunity to play Australian Rules football,” she said. “The league in Ontario is growing and I’ve been really impressed with the skill level here. Although it’ll never reach the level of popularity in Australia, it would be great to see Canadians adopt what I really feel is the greatest and most exciting sport in the world.”
Combining elements of traditional rugby, soccer, basketball — and, sometimes, even wrestling — Australian Rules — or, ‘footy’ — is extremely popular in its native country. Especially in the states of Victoria, South Australia and West Australia, the game’s top professional league, the AFL, is akin to the NHL in Canada.
In her most recent appearance for the Canadian women’s Australian Rules team, Hilmi was instrumental in helping the national squad reach the finals of the 2017 International Cup.
Playing in Melbourne, the Mecca of Aussie Rules, the Canadians advanced to the IC Grand Final with consecutive wins over Fiji, Pakistan, Great Britain and the USA. Facing Ireland for all the marbles, Canada dropped a tough 25-21 decision in the gold medal match.
Five Canadian players — including Hilmi — were named to the posttournament All-World Team.
Canada won the IC in 2014, and Hilmi’s goal is to help restore the national team to its former place of prominence among the sport’s emerging nations.
“The more we can grow the leagues, locally, and develop local talent, the better our chances on the world stage,” she said. “With such a tight loss to Ireland, our vision is now set on becoming bigger, stronger and better so we can take the title back to Canada.”
Hilmi said AFL Canada is “really focused on the women’s program and looking for opportunities for players to gain experience playing internationally.” Most recently, that included a spring tournament across the pond in London where Hilmi served as player-coach of the Canadian entry and was named tournament MVP.
Hilmi’s next challenge is helping her Ontario team — the aptlynamed Etobicoke Kangaroos — capture the provincial AFL title. The final is set for Saturday, Sept. 23 versus the winner of a semifinal contest between the Toronto Central Blues and High Park Demons.
“I would strongly encourage anyone at all interested in playing or learning more about Australian Rules to get in touch with AFL Canada at firstname.lastname@example.org,” she said.
Belleville's Lara Hilmi gets a kick away for Team Canada in a semi-final game vs. USA at the 2017 International Cup women's Australian Rules football tournament held recently in Melbourne.