BRAD JOHNSON: With New Zealand and youth, AFL looks to future

Brad Johnson Columnist

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Shem Tatupu of New Zealand in action during the match between the AIS Academy and New Zealand Hawks at Westpac Stadium in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo:Sean Garnsworthy/AFL Media)

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After spending a fortnight in New Zealand with the AFL’s elite junior footballers it has been interesting to see two aspects of the league’s future starting to take shape.

The Australian Institute of Sport has two AFL academies. Level Two players are those eligible for this year’s draft.

The Level One boys who travelled with us are two years younger, picked from the under-16 championships.

This means we get the best 30 kids in that age group coming through. They’re put through three or four different camps, to learn about the requirements for high performance.

It’s a good introduction to get their heads around what it takes to be involved at AFL level.

The New Zealand trip is one of the big challenges for the young guys. They do things like trudge 16 kilometres over a mountain, handle their recovery, and maintain their training in between some time to relax and see the sights.

Their other challenge is that you throw together 30 guys from all over the country, and they’re expected to get along and understand each other from the outset. They need to, because at the end of the trip they play the New Zealand national team.

They know that’s ultimately where they’re judged, with recruiters coming to see the game.

Some of this year’s New Zealand team members play at various levels in Australia, but most are local residents. That’s the purpose, for them to start growing their own players within the country, and the match was pleasing from that aspect, with some good colour on show.

The other movement in New Zealand is that in 2013 St Kilda will play Sydney in an ANZAC Day clash over there. The Saints were there at the same time as us to pump up the game.

There was certainly a lot of engagement from the public with the Saints players, and you just got that sense that the game will sell out. Not only will Australians travel over, but I’m confident a lot of Wellington people will come too.

As early as 1908 New Zealand and Australian teams played AFL games against each other, but there hasn’t been much trans-Tasman action since. With the growth of Auskick in New Zealand, a game for premiership points could be a real positive.

Of course there’ll be sceptics about AFL’s future in New Zealand. No-one is expecting the sport to take on rugby, but early signs are positive.

Hawthorn are the frontrunners, with three young Kiwi players already signed to International Scholarships. Once guys like these succeed, I’ve no doubt the interest and the options will improve. Like the Irish experiment, recruiters will be close behind.

It’s all part of a long-term effort to grow the game around the world. Overseas recruits have three or four years of work ahead of them just on reading the play, the flow of the game, ball-in-hand skills.

Athletically they’ve probably got everyone on an AFL list covered, but lack the natural aspects. Given the chance to start at a younger age, they could come here a lot more comfortably.

Another 15 or 20 years, and we might start seeing the benefits.

That’s not to take away from tradition. The sport is only going to improve here in Australia. Just look at the skills of the young guys today. They’re at a different level than when I was in their place.

But a lot of things are different now. The AIS scholarships are about personal standards, not just training standards. The motto of coaches Chris Johnson and Michael O’Loughlin is ‘Building better players, better people.’

The New Zealand trip is good to show the boys something outside Australia. The Level Two boys also travel to Europe, visit Gallipoli, and discuss our involvement in wars. We want to give them the broader education to set themselves a high standard.

You need talent and skill, but also to hold yourself in the highest regard, and hold your teammates in the same way. You need to present yourself in a fashion that allows you to succeed on a daily basis. At AFL level you’re judged 24/7.

For myself, this personal development is the most pleasing aspect. Players get guidance from Glenn Jakovich, Matthew Lloyd, Brad Ottens, and Kennelly, premiership players who achieved so much throughout their careers.

It’s a great experience for all of us to have an impact on the next batch of potential players, and build relationships that will hopefully continue through drafting and a career.

If they need anything, they’ve got people to call. And hopefully over time more of these young players will come from overseas, starting with New Zealand.

In both cases, the future looks bright.

AFL champion Brad Johnson retired after the 2010 season, and has moved into a coaching role at the club he captained and called home: the Western Bulldogs. His first column for The Roar is today.

Six-time All-Australian Brad Johnson is a former Western Bulldogs captain, Team of the Century member, and played a record 364 games for the club. He now commentates for Fox Footy and writes for The Roar.
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