The NRL clubs have called for the return of a true reserves competition, believing that the current system promoting the under-age competition at the expense of its reserve grade is damaging the game.
Hopefully, this ignites calls for similar action in the AFL.
There is no doubt that a reserves outfit bearing the same name and jumper as the senior team, comprising only players from the club’s squad, and playing immediately prior to the senior match, is beneficial to the supporters, and more importantly, the players.
As The Roar‘s Vince Rugari pointed out earlier in the year, the current system of AFL-listed players being farmed out on match day to clubs in the respective state competitions (VFL, SANFL and WAFL) is detrimental to the development of those players.
They train permanently with the senior AFL squad and, despite wearing different coloured tops during match simulation and being forced to stand as a separate group while the coach addresses those selected for that week’s senior game, are part of the team.
But on match day, while their ‘teammates’ warm up at the MCG, they’re trying to stretch out with blokes they have never seen before in a cramped change room in North Ballarat or Williamstown.
Playing on suburban grounds does not prepare you for games at the major stadiums. The extra space changes the nature of the game. Coaches who think they can always judge a player on his readiness for AFL while playing on a VFL arena are fooling themselves.
Mick Malthouse said in his 2010 premiership year that many in VFL sides are as skillful and talented as those in the AFL teams, but it’s other attributes, like the ability to handle the pressure of AFL, that are more important.
So getting to play in a reserves match on the bigger stage – on a vast ground and in front of a big crowd – is vital for a player’s development.
Football sites are filled with inquiries about the progress of young players, the recovery of injured ones and the performance of those who have been dropped. The answer, of course, is to go and see them play or, as I did this week, watch them train.
Watching the VFL can be intriguing when older players ( who may have previously been AFL listed or who failed to venture beyond a preseason trial or two) dominate younger listed players who have been identified as having something special.
While watching a training session it’s also interesting to see a fringe player upstage his more fancied teammate. Was the latter not trying, is the coach missing something?
The reserves allow supporters to make their own assessments on the development of players hoping to make the senior team, without having to venture out to a suburban oval, to see them in another competition, and in another team’s jersey.
Often the coach is blind to the attributes of some players or they simply don’t fit into his plans. Or, the environment of a club may adversely affect a player’s performance. Then it’s time for them to move on.
As in the NRL, there has been an over-emphasis on underage recruits who are not yet ready for senior football.
Recently we have seen a resurgence of older players, or ones who had previously missed out on being drafted. A reserves competition will require a larger squad and provide more opportunities for unappreciated players, who may prove to be champions, to find a new home.
Somehow I think the AFL will ignore calls for the re-establishment of the reserves. It will mention the costs involved in extending squads, providing additional flights and accommodation, and the hosting of the extra games. But since when has money been a problem for the AFL?
The real reason is that being the host of an ultra-professional competition, it doesn’t want to show the messy business of player development.
Game day, or night, is devoted to the elite event. The advertisers want their brands linked to that.
Curtain raisers involving players who are past it, on a developmental curve, or showing an unseemly desperation to prove their worth, just don’t belong.