Grow­ing the game

Belleville’s Hilmi plays and pro­motes Aussie Rules foot­ball

The Intelligencer (Belleville) - - SPORTS - PAUL SVOBODA

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 info@aflcanada.com,” she said.

SUB­MIT­TED PHOTO

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.

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