Originally published in the National Indigenous Times, June 2007.
By Chris Munro
“PULL your finger out” is the message directed from ex Penrith and Balmain hard-man Mark Geyer to the NRL.
It seems a recent push by the AFL’s recruitment arm into the league heartland of western Sydney has rustled a few league feathers, and rightly so.
There is little doubt the AFL will soon be poaching the best athletic talent in the land, because as Geyer suggests, the AFL just does it better. The AFL’s Sydney-centric recruitment drive is based around a scholarship program for younger athletes, targeting the 15-18 league-playing age group. And they offer a $20,000 dollar incentive to the best talent, ensuring they are affiliated with a Melbourne club.
So beware Sydney, those seedy looking characters with binoculars, long trench coats and clipboards might just be at your kid’s local match this weekend.
This latest push by the AFL is nothing new, in fact a similar program was initiated back in 2005 with the same intentions, and is just another in a long list of recruitment and development programs put together by the country’s most followed code.
Likened by Geyer to “an AFL tsunami”, the slightly insulting intrusion into league quarters is designed to give the most talented athletes making the transition into high school the option of a playing AFL. Through many of the AFL’s other development initiatives, the game has enjoyed its fair share of success at a junior level in NSW, but this is then weeded-out when kids graduate to high school and are only offered league or union as sporting options.
Despite being labelled the “Gay-FL”, by most school kids in NSW and Queensland, the hand-balling game is determined to crack into Sydney’s teenage market.
The competition provides 640 full-time jobs at an average salary of $180,000 dollars a year, and for a youngster with a bit of talent, that’s a pretty compelling statistic. In fact the AFL have the most significant opportunities in number and in salary than any other sport in the country is able to offer.
The NRL needs to put practices in place to safeguard Sydney’s youth, or the AFL will snatch the next Greg Inglis or Israel Falou in a heartbeat.
It’s the speed, body-type and ball handling skills the AFL are after, and tomorrow╒s league players have it all in droves. And with the recent grand final appearances and beefed-up following of the Swans, the AFL╒s ╘Auskick program╒ and rising Star Championships programs are the perfect tools to coax established league players in NSW to switch codes before they become too old.
The AFL’s general manager of Game Development, David Matthews disclosed plans on ABC radio for clubs to have a third list of “affiliate players” separate to the playing group and the rookies, made-up chiefly of players hailing from league strong-holds.
“We want to really present a far more competitive career offer in the Sydney market to young teenagers who╒ve got so many options with so many different sports.
“We just want to make sure that young athletes realise the potential opportunities if they chose our game,” he said.
Opportunities come in many forms, and for Indigenous youngsters in Sydney, choosing AFL over league might become even more attractive after the growing success of the AFL╒s recent Indigenous round. And having closely assessed both competitions, the game with the four sticks is making the greater strides towards the understanding and recognition of Indigenous players in what could only be a further attraction for young fellas looking at the game.
The Australian Rugby League’s (ARL) Indigenous development officer and former Dragons great Ricky Walford believes Indigenous youngsters from NSW are far from leaving the game in droves.
“I think Mark Geyer was being a little speculative there. I think there are a huge number of sports, aside from AFL that would love to have the league body type.
“I suppose if you╒re looking at the type of players coming up in league, they╒re tall, athletic and mobile, any football code would want them on board,” Walford told NIT.
Walford goes on to make a telling argument, denouncing claims the AFL simply goes about the process more successfully, especially on the Indigenous front.
“When you look at the stats, we have just about equal Aboriginal players in first grade to those running round in the AFL, and considering we have only a few states that have a grass roots background in league – we╒re doing pretty well.
“The fact that AFL is played in six of the eight states and territories in Australia makes it more accessible to recruiters looking for Indigenous players. We only have two states here in the heartland,” he said.
Walford doesn’t hold the Melbourne, Sydney grudge like every good league player should, and is disappointingly quite the pragmatist.
“Obviously the AFL has done a fantastic job over the years for Indigenous players. Blokes like Michael Long and Nicky Winmar have all been supported by the AFL, all credit to them.
“But I think that because the AFL controls their recruitment and development centrally, they seem to be doing more on the surface. It’s up to individual NRL clubs to run their own show in terms of development, so it has less impact,” he said.
While the order for the sand-bagging has been called off for the moment, the AFL tsunami seems inevitable. With its breadth of development, especially within the Indigenous communities, the AFL will surely steal some of league╒s would-be luminaries over the next decade. After-all, Melbourne is still considered the world╒s most liveable city. You can hardly blame these kids.