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.