In his highly acclaimed book Moneyball, writer Michael Lewis showed how sometimes you can win, or at least be competitive, by focusing on the basic skills of the game and looking through the athleticism to find value players who have an innate ability to play the game.

He showed that sometimes there’s no replacement for intuition, and that players who have a natural feel for the game can sometimes overcome physical liabilities by being able to read the game better than someone who is more athletic but less experienced.

In the AFL everyone knows Israel Folau and Karmichael Hunt were signed by new AFL teams to promote the game in the northern states. Both players were known as gifted athletes in respective codes, and the thought was their natural athleticism would go some way to helping them acclimatise to their new game.

However, it seems that both players are probably in the wrong era to succeed in the AFL. These days recruiters place a premium on disposal skills, especially kicking. And in this modern era of lightning-quick football, the ability to kick accurately at speed has never been a more difficult skill.

More and more players need to rely on intuition in making split-second decisions and executing under extreme pressure. More than ever players need to rely on their years of training. Many elite junior players are never given the chance these days to live out their dream of playing AFL simply because they have never quite mastered the art of kicking.

In the older less professional days players could still eke out a career even though their kicking skills were dubious. Some players even looked as though they were being asked to kick for the first time when you saw the awkward kicking style.

Ex Collingwood and Fitzroy ruckman James “Charlie” Manson made kicking a football seem more difficult than flying a space shuttle.

Genuine athletes stood out in that era because players were not fully professional. These days most players are above average athletically and guys like Folau and Hunt would not have as greater advantage as they would have had in the past.

Due to their lack of ‘Moneyball skills’, players like Folau would never achieve more than below average results. Years of playing in the AFL will no doubt improve his skills as it would with most players, but the years of fundamental skills that are drummed into most players will always be missing, and hence the ceiling on how far he can go will always be far lower.

The AFL has had success with Irish players in the past, such as Jim Stynes and Tadgh Kennelly – players that only started playing with the oval ball in their late teens or early twenties.

But these players grew up kicking and handling a ball in a comparable fashion. And even for Irish players the failure rate has been high in the AFL, with not many going on to rival the success of the few.

Rarely if ever in top-level sports do players ever successfully transition to a sport they did not grow up playing. One of the greatest sportsmen ever in Michael Jordan could not make the leap from basketball to baseball. And Jordan grew up playing some baseball.

One of the few exceptions is Aussie Rules players succeeding in the NFL as punters, but the skill set required is virtually the same.

Sydney ruckman Mike Pyke converted from rugby union. He’s managed to eke out 28 games with the Swans but still struggles with his kicking and marking. It’s safe to say he will struggle to elevate himself above a below average footballer.

While the Folau and Hunt experiments are more for promotional reasons, other clubs would be best advised to look for players with “Moneyball skills”, such as in the local leagues to find hidden gems – players who have honed their skills over most of their lives.

I would go as far to say that any of the top 10 players in the VFL would have more successful careers in the AFL than Folau .

Professional sports is a tough caper. To think someone can just walk into your sport and make a decent fist of it is in a way insulting to all the other players in the league. It’s saying that this isn’t so difficult.

AFL teams can continue to search other countries for talented athletes in the hope of converting them to our game. But in the end they are doomed to fail. The real talent is on their own doorstep.

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The Crowd Says (67)

  • Roar Guru

    March 28th 2012 @ 8:16am
    The Cattery said | March 28th 2012 @ 8:16am | ! Report

    There is one major flaw in your argument Lou. An AFL team has 22 players (squad of around 45), and logically, all 22 cannot be in the top quartile for kicking skills, can’t be, won’t be, will never be. But that’s ok, because of the 18 players that take the field, a number of roles exist where you can get away with not being in the top quartile, in fact, there are roles where you can contribute to the team effort without even getting a single kick all game.

    Rocket Eade was speaking on Insiders last night that all recruiters and coaches these days put a premium on players being able to win contested footy, in the air and on the ground (especially the latter). Of those 18 players on the field, you can carry a couple of outside runners who can’t win contested footy, but they must be the best of the best in terms of disposal, speed and stamina – if these other attributes aren’t at the top end, then they are no good to the team.

    You’ll take a bloke who can win contested footy with 70% kicking over a bloke who can’t win contested footy with 80% kicking, etc

    In other words, you can only carry a bloke in your 18 who specialises in kicking if he is the absolute best at it – but rule numuber one remains that you want blokes who can win contested footy.

    These are the other roles on the field where the coach won’t care about kicking stats if he has done his job:
    1. tagger
    2. in and under ball winner (feeding it out with quick hands – Karmichal Hunt can actually become this)
    3. key defender stopping opposition best tall forward
    4. tap ruckman
    5. crash and bash key forward, main job is to stop opposition getting an ease def 50 clearance, and bringing ball to ground for the crumbers

    At the moment, you don’t really want the ball in Izzy’s hands around the ground, and it’s true he has zero intuition for the game, but can he spend the rest of the season learning the role of no. 5? Yes, definitely – and then the delivery from his team mates becomes every bit as important (plus his endurance is well below AFL standard at the moment).

    • March 28th 2012 @ 12:12pm
      Ian Whitchurch said | March 28th 2012 @ 12:12pm | ! Report

      “you don’t really want the ball in Izzy’s hands around the ground”

      Im not sure about that – that play against the Suns comes to mind.

      • Roar Guru

        March 28th 2012 @ 12:37pm
        The Cattery said | March 28th 2012 @ 12:37pm | ! Report

        The hurried, frenetic nature of the game means you often have a split-second of decision making, you need to know what you’re going to do next before you get your hands on the ball – Izzy wouldn’t have that sense of automation yet, he might be able to develop it to a degree. The other night he helped create a goal when he got involved with three separate acts within 10 seconds, which was great work, no question about it, but that represented half of his involvement for the whole game. As Sheeds said On the Couch, it’s about getting a few more of those good moments in a game, rather than those good moments being sporadic, as they are now. That’s ok, he’s a first year player, he has to be in their mixing it to learn it. Someone like Izzy won’t appreciate how fast the game is till he’s out there in the middle of it – he now knows.

    • March 28th 2012 @ 4:41pm
      Lou Lando said | March 28th 2012 @ 4:41pm | ! Report

      Good post Cattery, agree with what you say. I suppose i focused on kicking but by intuition i meant peripheral vision, knowing where to run etc that’s honed simply by years of playing. Also as you say winning the contested ball is paramount. Again though instinct and intuition are what leads you to the ball, knowing where it’s going to drop from a tap, how far ball will travel from a kick etc. Guys from other sports with no junior grounding will always struggle with this skill. How many Irish are in and unders and collect 25+ possies a week?

      I think you’re right, no 5 is probably Izzy’s best chance. But i’d argue there are more players in the VFL who would be better equipped to do the same role.

      • March 28th 2012 @ 6:06pm
        Norm said | March 28th 2012 @ 6:06pm | ! Report

        Are you suggesting that NRL players do not play with intuition? What about the intuition to run into a guy & slam him into the ground!

    • March 28th 2012 @ 8:20pm
      Westie said | March 28th 2012 @ 8:20pm | ! Report

      He will have served his purpose once his contract runs out. I personally do not think he would bring in too many fans to the sport and the exercise is quite futile.

      End of the day Folau will be chewed up and spat out by the AFL machine and he will have his 30 pieces of silver. He might not be able to get back to rugby league as the same player.

      • Roar Guru

        March 28th 2012 @ 8:31pm
        The Cattery said | March 28th 2012 @ 8:31pm | ! Report

        Possibly, however, if down the track he starts taking a few contested marks per game, that will attract pundits.

        • March 30th 2012 @ 11:13am
          Simmo said | March 30th 2012 @ 11:13am | ! Report

          It will for sure. Punters on the other hand might not even notice

  • March 28th 2012 @ 8:35am
    Jack said | March 28th 2012 @ 8:35am | ! Report

    Izzy has played one game of AFL One game!!!. Do the fans really expect him to be a dominant player already? Give him a 50 games to learn before your judge him so harshly. He’s a great athlete and will learn the game. Maybe he’s no Jim Stynes who grew up playing the game from the under 10’s but I’m sure he’ll become a very good ruckman with a few games under his belt. If he tires of AFL we’d have him down at the Brumbies in a hearbeat.

  • March 28th 2012 @ 8:57am
    stabpass said | March 28th 2012 @ 8:57am | ! Report

    Lou, I think you make a good argument, but i think the Cattery makes a better one, not every player can have great vision, kicking skills etc, and there are some that will get games, because of specific roles, ruckman spring to mind immediately, taggers and outside runners, etc.

    My view on the Irish recruits, is that many did not make it because of the huge huge distance, go home factor, not because of a lack of skills, fitness or changing from amatuer to pro, gaelic football like AF, basketball, soccer is a 360 % game unlike the rugbys, that IMO is the real reason Issy will strugle for some time to come yet.

  • Roar Guru

    March 28th 2012 @ 9:05am
    Redb said | March 28th 2012 @ 9:05am | ! Report

    This article is black and white. There are many shades in between, yes he might completely fail, but he also might succeed at a certain level. ‘Doomed’ is ridiculous.

    Folau has already shown an optitude as a ruckman. This is probably the easiest position for a transition player, we’ve seen several basketballers take the next step. Folau has an exceptional leap.

    I think the best analogy given recently was Nic Natiunui’s start, it was poor also, with no game sense. Look at him now.

    • Editor

      March 28th 2012 @ 9:17am
      Tristan Rayner said | March 28th 2012 @ 9:17am | ! Report

      Not pretending this is new, but NicNat should be heading to the next NBA draft! 😉

    • March 28th 2012 @ 9:18am
      stabpass said | March 28th 2012 @ 9:18am | ! Report

      Nic Nat played plenty of junior football, the AFL no matter how much junior football you have played is a different kettle of fish.

      • Roar Guru

        March 28th 2012 @ 12:57pm
        Redb said | March 28th 2012 @ 12:57pm | ! Report

        True, but he still looked lost. I think the coach needs to keep it simple & put him near the ball. The few things he did on Sat night were fine.

        • March 28th 2012 @ 3:43pm
          BigAl said | March 28th 2012 @ 3:43pm | ! Report

          I think Nic Nat is the type of player who is always going to have periods of looking lost – extending to complete games (sometimes in a row).

          You would hope that his already shown moments of games changing magic will more than compensate for this.

          Whether Folau will develop into this sort of player is the big question!

    • March 28th 2012 @ 10:02am
      Chris said | March 28th 2012 @ 10:02am | ! Report

      Redb, I presume you mean aptitude? 🙂

      It would be interesting to wonder how that game would have been described if he had played Aussie Rules all his life. Probably something along the lines of “had a quiet game, but popped up a couple of times and effected a great tackle (and followup effort)”.

      I reckon the Giants coaching staff would have been completely relaxed about his performance.

      • Roar Guru

        March 28th 2012 @ 12:59pm
        Redb said | March 28th 2012 @ 12:59pm | ! Report

        No optitude was right, a mix of opportunity & aptitude 🙂

        • March 28th 2012 @ 5:30pm
          Chris said | March 28th 2012 @ 5:30pm | ! Report

          Yeah OK, I’ll pay that…:)

  • March 28th 2012 @ 10:51am
    Steve said | March 28th 2012 @ 10:51am | ! Report

    The thing that will let izzy down is the fact that I don’t believe he is a great sportsperson, as silly as that sounds. He is a wonderful athlete with a great physique and obvious abilities. I look at Karmichael Hunt and think if he had a social hit of golf he would be handy, if somebody threw him a tennis racquet or a cricket bat he would show some technique, the same with say Ricky Ponting or Michael Clarke. I just couldn’t see that with Folau.

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  • March 28th 2012 @ 11:43am
    Gucci said | March 28th 2012 @ 11:43am | ! Report

    I haven’t read the book but if it’s similar to the movie, that’s not my take on Moneyball at all. I thought the point was that traditional scouts focus on individual attributes, but the Moneyball formula is different because it is results based. In the movie, Billy Beane was a top draft pick because of his many different skills, but then failed in game situation because of the lack of that something special which cannot be measured. The Moneyball formula only looks at results.

    Translating that into AFL, what it means is “the best forward” is not the one who can kick the longest, kick the most accurately, mark the best, strongest, etc. It is simply the one who kicks the most goals. Translating that across the whole team, it simply means you need defenders who can stop goals, you need forwards who can kick goals, and you need some midfielders who can get the ball and pass it efficiently and need others to stop the opposition doing the same.

    For Folau, the Moneyball formula simply won’t work because he has played ONE game, so there are absolutely no stats to show if he’s good or not.

    Is it me or is it you who don’t understand the Moneyball formula?

    • March 28th 2012 @ 4:48pm
      Lou Lando said | March 28th 2012 @ 4:48pm | ! Report

      the book showed that traditional scouts were focused on the “five tools” but placed a big emphasis on athletic ability and too often would dismiss a player if they did not possess athleticism. For example in the book scouts scoffed at Brown (can’t remeber his first name) that Beane wanted to pick up, because Brown was overweight. However Beane’s stats showed the kid knew what to do at the plate. Same with Scott Hatteberg (who was in the movie), scouts dismissed him because he couldn’t field (run/throw etc). Again Beane could see that he was good at the plate and get on base.

      Scouts loved speed for the field and running bases, but Beane and sabermetricians regarded these skills as secondary to a guy getting on base. Hence fundamental pure baseball skills rules.

      • March 28th 2012 @ 5:03pm
        Ian Whitchurch said | March 28th 2012 @ 5:03pm | ! Report

        The real “anti-Moneyball” of this article is in the general approach – the author starts with his conclusion, which is “AFL teams can continue to search other countries for talented athletes in the hope of converting them to our game. But in the end they are doomed to fail. The real talent is on their own doorstep”, and then looks for evidence to support it.

        I say the only two things you cant coach are height and pace, and that Folau has both that, and can take a contested grab, and can kick straight, and thats good enough for me.

      • March 29th 2012 @ 2:25pm
        Gucci said | March 29th 2012 @ 2:25pm | ! Report

        You’re missing the point. The point here is not about athleticism. The point is that traditional methods look at various attributes, with athleticism being one of them, but other AFL KPIs would be things like speed, endurance, standing jump height, power, ability to mark, kicking/handballing accuracy etc. The whole point of Moneyball is that traditionally there are the same equivalent KPIs for baseball, and the Moneyball formula ignores them. Instead, it focuses on the ability to get on base, the ability to bowl balls that get people out (regardless of how the guy bowls). Whereas, you missed the point by simply focussing on athleticism, ie you’re twisting the argument to say “traditional” scouts rate athleticism in Folau, but that Moneyball formula would focus on other skills, and therefore Folau must fail. That is completely wrong. The real Moneyball formula would ignore every one of those attributes and simply rate him in terms of can he kick goals, can he stop goals, when he’s rucking can he get his onballers first use (irrespective of whether he taps the ball or whether he stops the other ruckman from tapping or however else he does it), etc.

        And what I’m saying is that because he’s played only one game, you have a sample size of 1 game’s worth of stats to put into the formula, which would be a completely wrong use of the formula.

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