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New player landscape suggests there’s no place like home


(From left): Jake Lever, Gary Ablett and Josh Schache. All have sought a return to their native states. Image: SPORTING NEWS AUSTRALIA

New player landscape suggests there’s no place like home

Rohan Connolly    

Whatever the potential explanations for its cause, there’s not much doubt the “go home” factor right now is looming larger over AFL than it has ever before.

It seems every way you turn, there’s a senior player wanting to return to his state of origin, from a young and still-raw Brisbane key forward Josh Schache, to a star in Jake Lever who was seemingly well settled in his adopted state, to even a veteran in Gary Ablett.

The Ablett story, specifically the tragic death last week of his older sister Natasha, was a salient reminder to those who’d judge harshly the motivations of those players that the call of family and friends is not one to be underestimated.

Some of the commentary over the past 12 months around Ablett’s desire to return to Geelong from Gold Coast had been scathing indeed.

The dual Brownlow medallist has given the Suns seven seasons of outstanding service, Gold Coast at times during his stay virtually a one-man team, his performance levels rarely waning despite the consistent, demoralising under-achievement of his club.

He’s been called selfish, self-obsessed and greedy. Now the full story has emerged, you can only hope some of Ablett’s harshest critics might feel just a little chastened and a lot more empathic.

Lever’s case has prompted widely polarised views, but seemingly an equal divide between those who feel he was duty-bound to stay in Adelaide and those right behind his wish to play for Melbourne next year.

Schache, meanwhile, seems to have plenty of public sympathy on his side as he seeks a return to Victoria.

Significantly, however, from a purely professional perspective, there hasn’t been much shown by AFL clubs, the No.2 pick in the 2015 national draft suddenly struggling to attract potential suitors. It’s as though the “buyer beware” sign has been hung over his head.

Why are players now seemingly less inclined to tough it out for as long in adopted football homes?

An old school view would be along generational lines about an alleged lack of resilience on the part of today’s football youth, a group who haven’t had to fend for themselves much and demand things on their own terms.

A far more likely explanation is the extent to which player movement has opened up over the last five years since the advent of free agency.

Whether free agency has had the consequences it was supposed to is highly debatable. But it’s beyond dispute it’s not only players of eight or 10 years service to a particular club who have been encouraged to seek a change.

Free agency seems to also have given the green light to far less experienced AFL players to attempt to engineer a shift elsewhere, as well as prompting greater fluidity of senior lists, making the trade period busier than ever.

Veteran coach Mick Malthouse certainly isn’t a fan.

“Too often now, young players — contracted or not — are deciding they’ve had enough of their clubs and are using the line ‘I want to go home’ to get traded,” Malthouse wrote in his weekend newspaper column. “ I can’t tell you how much I detest that excuse.”

Perhaps, though, another accidental consequence of greater player movement might actually prove to be a positive. And that’s more locally-based playing lists, and a stronger sense of geography about a team’s personnel, something which really isn’t the case now.

Adelaide, for example, in a list of 45 in 2017, had just 13 players hailing from South Australia, or under 29 per cent. Only five of the Crows’ grand final 22 were actually Croweaters, remarkable, really, given the state’s football heritage. Port Adelaide fared little better this season, with 17 of 45 players locals.

Even Greater Western Sydney, despite the lack of historical football roots, could claim a greater percentage of home-grown product, with 13 of the Giants’ 44 listed players New South Welshmen. Ditto Brisbane, with 14 of the Lions’ 48-strong list this year Queenslanders.

Western Australia seems to fare better on the home-grown front than South Australia. Indeed, West Coast this year had 24 of 46 players who hailed from the Eagles’ home state, or 52 per cent. For Fremantle, it was 19 of 44.

There’s obvious explanations, given the greater geographic separation of WA from the state in which 10 AFL clubs are based. Adelaide is a one-hour plane trip from Melbourne, Perth four hours. Of course, WA recruiters are going to be more cognisant of where their players are coming from, and more wary about hanging on to Victorian players beyond their initial contracts.

But a greater bias towards home-grown product could serve Adelaide well beyond just fewer concerns about players upping and leaving at the end of their initial deals.

When Malcolm Blight coached the Crows to those back-to-back premierships of 1997-98, it was under a philosophy of preferring older, more experienced types, and preferably coming out of the local SANFL competition.

Not only did the likes of Simon Goodwin come into the Adelaide side ready to compete at AFL level, no-one could dispute the extent to which the Crows really were “the pride of SA” given 15 of their premiership 22 in 1997 and 14 the following year were local boys.

That’s not to say the current crop of Crows are any less committed to the SA cause. But perhaps playing groups which in a truer sense represent the clubs they play for might just spark some intangible spirit which can carry clubs like Adelaide one step further than this season.

Not to mention avoiding the sort of heartache of having important players brought over from other territories, developed, become the subject of hope and adulation, only to eventually up and leave, a tale with which Adelaide, more than any other club, has become depressingly familiar.

This article first appeared at SPORTING NEWS AUSTRALIA.

1 Comment
  1. Hey Rohan,

    Mate, long time no see ☺ hope all good with you.

    Just a thought from me outside the square:

    Is a Stringer/Watts straight swap on the radar?

    Simple exercise, assuming Dees are comfortable with Stringer’s baggage.

    Plus for both clubs IMO, Doggies get a skilled, versatile straight shooter & Dees x-factor in fwd line.

    Your thoughts ?

    Cheers Gundy 😎

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