West Coast fans have jumped at the opportunity to welcome Willie Rioli back to the Eagles – none more so than Perth couple Denise and Bob Green who finally had the chance to show their support for the banned forward.
The popular small forward’s return to Mineral Resources Park coincided with the club opening the doors to supporters to watch training on Tuesday, bringing to an end a string of necessary closed sessions for health and safety reasons during the COVID-19 era.
The Greens took it a step further, debuting their custom-designed ‘Free Willie’ sign for the first time at Eagles training.
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The couple were getting ready to go and watch West Coast’s AFLW team take on the Adelaide Crows in January when they decided to design the placard, a show of support for Rioli who at that point didn’t know his AFL future.
“I had the words ‘Free Willie’ in my head but I thought that was a little bit suggestive so I said to my husband you have to put his number on there so people know it’s not the whale,” Denise said.
“It was mainly due to the fact we were waiting so long for a decision. We would have accepted the decision. It was derogatory to Willie the way they did it.
“He’s a young fellow who made a few mistakes. He’s paid a big penalty for that and it’s been very hard.”
“We thought we’d walk around with it at the AFLW game.
“I had a few people say to me ‘if you walk around with that sign, you’re going to have to leave’ and I said ‘well throw me out!’ I would have got more publicity for him.”
The couple hung the sign over the fence at West Coast training in full view of players, some of who signed it at the end of training.
“I told them they didn’t have to sign it if they didn’t want to but they were all happy to,” Denise said.
“Once everything has blown over a bit, I want to leave it in the changerooms for Willie to have.
“I cried my eyes out when I heard he was coming home. He just needed a chance. We’ve all done something silly.
“I think the people spoke with their feet today.”
The 2018 premiership player can train with West Coast for a two-month block before a potential August 20 return-to-play date once his ban comes to an end.