AFL will rue Hunt switch while NRL marches on

Matthew ONeill Roar Rookie

By Matthew ONeill, Matthew ONeill is a Roar Rookie

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    Queenslanders Scott Prince (left) and Karmichael Hunt (centre) embrace after the final whistle of the NRL State of Origin match between Queensland and New South Wales at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane, Wednesday, June 11, 2008. AAP Image/Dave Hunt

    Queenslanders Scott Prince (left) and Karmichael Hunt (centre) embrace after the final whistle of the NRL State of Origin match between Queensland and New South Wales at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane, Wednesday, June 11, 2008. AAP Image/Dave Hunt

    It was described as a coup, the “biggest shot” fired yet in AFL’s battle with the NRL. If so, that shot fired by the AFL – its signing of Karmichael Hunt – was a shot fired at its own foot.

    Despite hysterical reporting that Hunt’s switch from rugby league to the Victorian game is cause for concern for the NRL, it’s the AFL that should be most worried. In Hunt, the AFL inherits huge risk – on and off-the-field – with few likely benefits, while recent history shows the NRL marches on from player defections.

    Gold Coast AFL officials were quick to say Hunt hadn’t been signed as a publicity stunt. Hopefully that’s true, because if Hunt was signed to create buzz for the new franchise and generate more support, the AFL has chosen the wrong player.

    The risk for the AFL in signing Hunt was best summed up by Andrew Webster

    in the Daily Telegraph. Hunt was involved in a major off-field incident last year, along with Sam Thaiday and Darius Boyd, which derailed the Broncos finals campaign. He was also part of the Queensland squad embroiled in drug-taking dramas before State of Origin 3.

    Hunt has had a reputation for being a party boy of Brisbane. Considering Andrew Demetriou’s recent attempt to claim the moral high-ground over rugby league’s handling of on-field violence, his willingness to sign a player with considerable poor off-field form looks pretty strange.

    Look at the contrast. Gold Coast’s new rugby league franchise – the Titans – first signed players were Preston Campbell and Scott Prince – two players at the top of their games, and who the public relate to and trust. Campbell and Prince have since proved themselves to be outstanding citizens and family-orientated people, and set the standard for the new club.

    Gold Coast Titans CEO Michael Searle confirmed their impact: “The first person we recruited was Preston Campbell, and as soon as you say that, you set the culture for the club. What has this recruitment done – when, no offence to Karmichael, but they concentrate their recruitment on a gun for hire, a mercenary.”

    In Australia’s cut-throat sporting market, positive players such as Campbell and Price are like gold, and crucial to rugby league success – and hopefully AFL’s demise – on the Gold Coast.

    At the moment Hunt is rated below fullbacks Brett Stewart, Billy Slater, Jarryd Hayne and Kurt Gidley. As a crowd-pleaser he is perhaps behind Campbell, Matt Bowen, and the returning Anthony Minichiello. In terms of commitment and whole-heartedness, he falls behind elusive Kiwi Sam Perrett and Luke Patten, a player getting better with age.

    So who should the AFL have targeted? Rugby League and AFL are completely different sports – for those that call the latter a sport – and demand different skill sets. The two rugby league players best suited to the AFL game are Darren Lockyer and Jamie Soward. Both players glide around the field, have a sharp kicking game and solid hands. They would thrive in the mid-field. Lockyer played AFL as a youngster and former rugby league coach Phil Gould believes Soward to be the most similar to Lockyer, but with added acting ability.

    Hunt will have to get used to lower standards in the AFL. Fortunately for many AFL players, you don’t have to fully catch the ball when taking a mark in the southern code (unlike taking catches in cricket).

    Players who you miss the goal target are also rewarded with a point – something not available to league goalkickers such as Hazem El Masri and Johnathan Thurston.

    I’m not an avid AFL watcher, but of all the players I’ve seen the one that most resembled a rugby league player was former Sydney Swans captain Paul Kelly. It’s no surprise to know he played both sports in his younger days in the Riverina.

    Hailing from the same town as Kelly was former Canterbury and Australian Test fullback Greg Brentnall. Brentnall – who was close to the famous Mortimers – was actively courted by two VFL clubs before deciding to join Canterbury in 1977.

    Brentnall’s style as a rugby league player offered glimpses of the Victorian game. It was clear he used skills gained playing Aussie Rules during his league career. Brentnall possessed the best kicking game in his era, and was the first kicker to experiment with the banana kick. He was also a fantastic jumper for the ball.

    Commenting on Hunt, Brentnall said, “It’s a huge risk. AFL’s changed a lot from when I was involved. It’s certainly a lot more sanitised, it’s a possession game. That’s where it’s a bit more of a risk because of the kicking skills in particular.

    “Whilst our kicking skills have evolved over the last 10 years or so, they have to hit a target every time. When I was playing AFL you’d kick to a contest, but now you’ve got to kick to a target. You can’t just kick to a contest because the game is so much about possession.

    “He’s got the attributes that would indicate he’s got what it takes to make the level, but I don’t know whether I’d be hanging my hat on him, and building the club around him.”

    NRL CEO David Gallop described Hunt’s decision to join AFL as a personal one, and not a reflection on the game. He would never say so publicly, but he is probably happy Hunt is going. In his article Webster suggested the Broncos too would be relieved to see the back of an off-field headache.

    Gold Coast Titans CEO Michael Searle was scathing, but accurate, in his analysis of the signing. “It reeks of desperation if you’ve got to recruit a rugby league player to play AFL.

    “Now the monster’s out of the bag, they’re not going to be able to put it back in, and they’ve paid top dollar to do it. It’s the worst decision they could have made. Rest assured, the Gold Coast region won’t tolerate a circus.”

    “It could be the most expensive media stunt in the history of sport. If the AFL have got to recruit rugby league players, geez they’re in trouble.”

    Worse still for the AFL, its expensive publicity will barely affect the NRL. Hunt may attract certain supporter elements to AFL, but the NRL wont shed a tear about that.

    Rugby league has also shown itself to be resilient to raids from other codes. Despite the ARU’s raid on rugby league in 2001-02, most of those players have found their way back to rugby league and it has widely been reported rugby union paid a heavy financial price for little value.

    Some credit must go to Hunt who unlike Willie Mason – who has talked endlessly about switches to boxing, rugby union and NFL – has followed through.

    But the desire of the man – who the AFL is building its Gold Coast franchise dreams on – to play so many different codes in such a short period of time brings its own set of problems for the AFL.

    After rugby league and rugby union in 2010 and AFL in 2011, what will be next for Karmichael Hunt?

    In Edition 16 of Discord this week, Rleague.com weekly feature columnist Steve Mascord says the ARL must act tough against clubs that won’t make players available for Test selection, he looks at rule changes to govern on-field fights, touches on Karmichael Hunt’s code switch and signs off with a crack at the RLIF’s planning ability. You can read Discord by clicking here. Matthew O’Neill is a Director and Columnist with www.rleague.com.

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    The Crowd Says (137)

    • July 31st 2009 @ 8:44am
      Mick from Giralang said | July 31st 2009 @ 8:44am | ! Report

      Well reasoned article Matthew. Eddie McGuire has made a hysterical outburst trying to make out NRL clubs would now target AFL players in a counter attack. As your article correctly points out, our great game has been supplying athletes to other codes both here and overseas for decades, while rugby league continues to go from strength to strength. The NRL has no need for Aussie rules or union players in its ranks, thanks very much. I recently saw an indigenous rugby league carnival in the NSW bush — the talent on show was mind boggling and is evidence why mercenary defections from our great game should cause no concern.

    • Roar Guru

      July 31st 2009 @ 9:02am
      Redb said | July 31st 2009 @ 9:02am | ! Report

      sour grapes anyone?

      You miss the point. This is not about hurting rugby league it is about increasing the profile of Australian Rules at grass roots as an increasingly viable alternative in QLD.

      That is something the ARL/NRL are desperate to do in Victoria, make no mistake about that.

      Redb

    • July 31st 2009 @ 9:34am
      Michael C said | July 31st 2009 @ 9:34am | ! Report

      First – it’s obvious as you’ve stated that you don’t like AFL and you wish for it’s demise on the Gold Coast.

      – – – some of your points:

      The Gold Coast team is far from ‘building’ their team around K.Hunt. That would obviously be a complete folly. The big action from AFL perspective will be when GCFC flew their draft/trade muscles next year and we’ll then see who they are building their team around. K.Hunt is a cute project player that may have tremendous ‘upside’ – – and presently, for GC17, given they can’t play him – – he’s actually already paid for himself (for GCFC and the AFL and AFLQ as contributing ‘stakeholders’) several times over in publicity, awareness and media coverage.

      The notion of a targeted campaign to recruit players is over stated. This really was a unique set of circumstances – not likely to be replicated. The AFL isn’t actually ‘poaching’ Hunt – – well, not from League. It’s been accepted for a while that he was leaving League anyway. There’s only so many NRL ‘stars’ (and he IS a star of the game – is representative record backs that up) who are known to be walking away from the game, looking for something else and who have played a bit of footy (Aust Footy) and who were on the scouting radar…………but, all that said, who else other than GC17 could entertain the option of even offering him a phone call. No one.

      It’s a very odd circumstance. Would other clubs look at targetting NRL players?? The simple fact that Storm x-train with AFL clubs – you’d think someone might’ve entertained the notion before – but, thus far, nothings been heard. Inglis now has suggested he wouldn’t rule it out one day. Generally speaking – the costs involved, the lack of certainty etc etc prohibit established clubs entertaining such options.

    • July 31st 2009 @ 9:34am
      Luke W said | July 31st 2009 @ 9:34am | ! Report

      Rugby League and AFL are completely different sports – for those that call the latter a sport –.

      I stopped reading after this line. If you want to write an intelligent article, leave the bias out of it.

    • July 31st 2009 @ 9:38am
      Richard said | July 31st 2009 @ 9:38am | ! Report

      Your vitriolic, caustic attack on Hunt and the AFL betrays how deeply you have been hurt by this move Matthew. Your deep prejudices are revealed by comments like “Rugby League and AFL are completely different sports – for those that call the latter a sport ” and your quaint dismissal of AFL as “the Victorian game”. If Mr Hunt sees a career opportunity in moving to Australian football then good for him. Australian football is the most loved, most followed sport in our great country. Seems to me that Rugby League supporters feel really threatened by the AFL. AFL supporters on the other hand kindly tolerate the other game from up north. Probably a reflection of the relative strengths of the codes. As for you. If you have had as much practice dealing with defections from NRL as you claim, then get over it and get on with it.

    • July 31st 2009 @ 9:49am
      oikee said | July 31st 2009 @ 9:49am | ! Report

      Seems like this guy knows something the rest of us dont. Love the properganda he is spreading about league in Ireland.

      AUSTRALIAN VIEW: The economic crisis has nothing to do with the Aussies’ decision not to travel to Ireland this year, writes PAUL DAFFEY

      SO THE AFL wants to postpone the International Rules series because of the global financial crisis. I don’t believe that for a minute. Tadgh Kennelly is more likely to become the next Pope (bless him) than the AFL is likely to face a funding shortfall in the next 12 months.

      I believe the AFL has pulled out because it’s got bigger fish to fry at home.

      In 1999 I covered the first International Rules series since the resumption of matches between Ireland and Australia. On the night of the first match, I remember watching in amazement as 64,000 fans filed into the Melbourne Cricket Ground. All the talk was about the pace and attractiveness of the hybrid game. A Melbourne columnist recently claimed that Australian football is to Melbourne what jazz is to New Orleans, a second language a lot of people speak.

      After that 1999 game, a lot of people in Melbourne were speaking about International Rules. I was among them, but in hindsight I was more interested in the circumstances of the Irish players than I was in the actual game. Jarlath Fallon, the flying postman from Tuam, was an exotic figure compared to the professional players with more money than taste.

      Last year only 45,000 turned up to the MCG for the match between Ireland and Australia. That’s not a bad attendance (the stadium holds 100,000), but it’s certainly a drop-off from 1999. I’m a sports journalist who writes mainly about Australian football. I took no notice of the game and I can’t remember hearing anything about it other than the fact there was none of the embarrassing violence that marred the series of 2005 and ’06.

      I imagine if I’d turned up at a good honest footy pub like the Rose Hotel in Fitzroy, where they serve rissoles and mashed potato to give you more energy to yell at the game on the television, I might have heard something about the Irish horses who were preparing for the Melbourne Cup, or a conversation on whether Jamesons or Bushmills is the better Irish whiskey, but I’d have heard very little about the Irish footballers trying to knock over the Australians.

      I imagine a similar scenario if the AFL had sent a squad to Ireland later this year.

      The AFL is flush with funds because of lucrative television rights. Its plan is to use those funds to expand the game until it becomes the country’s dominant football code. The plan in the immediate future is to add teams from the Gold Coast and western Sydney to the 16 clubs that play in the AFL.

      The Gold Coast and western Sydney are traditionally resistant to the charms of Australian football. AFL officials say they’re prepared to spend 25 years and many millions of dollars to make sure that western Sydney, especially, fields a settled and viable team in Australian football’s national competition.

      Yesterday, on the same day that the AFL announced it was pulling out of this year’s series with Ireland, the AFL’s Gold Coast expansion team announced that it had persuaded a rugby league star to switch codes in a breathtaking coup.

      Karmichael Hunt plays with the Brisbane Broncos, the strongest club in the strongest rugby league competition in the world. He’s played for Queensland and Australia. He’s been less of a dynamo in recent times but, at 22, he should have been able to return to his former prowess.

      Gold Coast’s luring of Hunt away from the game he’s always played to a game that he tried for a few seasons as a teenager in Brisbane is a costly publicity stunt. Hunt is more likely to fail than succeed in his venture to switch codes at a mature age.

      Tadgh Kennelly was able to become a star for the Sydney Swans after taking up Australian football as an 18-year-old, but his success is proving to be the exception. Fellow Irishmen such as Marty Clarke (Collingwood), Setanta Ó hÁilpín (Carlton) and Colm Begley (Brisbane and now St Kilda) are showing just how difficult it is to adapt to a game that their team-mates and rivals have been playing since infancy.

      Teenagers like Michael Quinn (Essendon) and Pearce Hanley (Brisbane) most likely have five years ahead before they know whether their dream to become professional footballers is going to end in tears or glory.

      Hunt’s signature for the Gold Coast AFL team is a blow to the credibility of rugby league. It comes at a time when the Australian Rugby Union is also striking blows against the credibility of rugby league.

      The AFL wants to see off both codes, as well as soccer, before it begins a campaign to spread the Australian game to distant shores.

      The Irish tour would have been a pleasant diversion but, just at the moment, the AFL is shying from diversions.

      In my view, it’s concentrating on stoking the fires of football expansionism at home.

      ——————————————————————————–

      Journalist Paul Daffey is a former Irish Times columnist who is now based in Melbourne, specialising in Australian Rules football.

      • July 31st 2009 @ 12:08pm
        Michael C said | July 31st 2009 @ 12:08pm | ! Report

        Paul Daffey is good – he focusses a lot on grass roots footy – that’s why he’s often got the eye for the unusual, and the story behind the story.

        The thing to remember as well –

        the AFL converted much of their investments to cash – prior to the down turn – they have protected the ‘dollar value’ and have fluid funds available. That put’s them in a very good position for now.

      • July 31st 2009 @ 1:30pm
        macavity said | July 31st 2009 @ 1:30pm | ! Report

        lol @ the assertion that the ARU is “striking blows against the credibility of rugby league”

        or the AFL for that matter.

        RL is in a win-win out of this. He fails, the AFL look stupid. He succeeds, AFL looks easy.

        Hunt went because he wants to stay in QLD and needs the media protection AFL offers.

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