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Priority picks are not the solution for the AFL's strugglers

Tom Lynch and Steven May of the Suns sing the club song. (Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)
Expert
4th September, 2018
112
1304 Reads

The AFL looks set to decide in the next few weeks whether to grant priority picks to Carlton and the Suns.

The Blues met with top brass last week to discuss the club’s future and ask for a priority selection, while Gold Coast are expected to do the same shortly.

Awarding such a pick is at the AFL’s discretion, as well as where in the draft such a pick would fall. Historically, this has either been at the end of the first round – so after each club has had a selection – or in the middle of the first round, after each club that finished in the bottom half has had a crack.

Theoretically, the pick could be awarded at the beginning of the first round, but this would be vehemently opposed by the other non-recipient clubs as being too generous (which is the main issue with free agency compensation, but that’s another issue altogether).

When deciding whether to award a priority pick, factors considered include the club’s overall list position, its off-field financial and management position, on-field form over the past few seasons, and what other avenues of support might be available to improve the list.

Based solely on their on-field results over the past few seasons, dispensation to both clubs seems warranted.

The Blues finished 2018 with only two wins, their fewest since 1902. The club experienced several 100-plus point losses, and were regularly uncompetitive.

Gold Coast had a similarly abject season, finishing second last, which was compounded by the news that co-captain and foundation player Tom Lynch wishes to seek a trade to a Melbourne club.

Tom J Lynch

Tom Lynch of the Suns. (Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

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Both clubs have also experienced several years of poor form – Carlton have not won more than seven games over the past five seasons, while the Suns’ win numbers have decreased each season during that period.

The parlous state of both clubs’ lists have been well-documented. Both lack players in the coveted 23-26 age bracket, both have struggled with player development, and both have used the strategy of trying to supplement their young talent with top-up players from other clubs, which has not been a raging success.

In particular, the Blues’ strategy of picking up former Greater Western Sydney players who weren’t able to break into that side has not paid dividends – of the ten players taken under this strategy, only Lachie Plowman, Caleb Marchbank and Matthew Kennedy have looked like becoming decent players.

Gold Coast has had slightly more success in this venture – Michael Rischitelli, Matt Rosa, Michael Barlow, Jarryd Lyons, and Lachie Weller have been useful – but haven’t attracted a star player.

This has been compounded by the loss of seven of their best, most experienced players – Jaeger O’Meara, Dion Prestia, Adam Saad, Harley Bennell, Brandon Matera, Zac Smith, and Charlie Dixon – over the past few years.

O’Meara, Prestia, Saad and Dixon have become first-choice players at their current clubs, while Matera and Smith have also been handy inclusions at times.

Jaeger O'Meara Hawthorn Hawks AFL 2017 tall

Jaeger O’Meara of the Hawks (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

Their departures were due to both the well-document cultural issues plaguing the club, as well as the difficulty of being a northern club in a non-traditional football environment.

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For both clubs, these are long-standing issues which won’t be fixed overnight.

Carlton CEO Cain Liddle said recently that the club’s aim when embarking on their rebuild had been to try and stock up at three drafts. They’ve done that, but clearly more work is needed. Given the egregious state of the list when Steven Silvagni took over, it will likely take several more years to become competitive.

Little also noted the need for more balance, with the club looking to target more players in the 23-26 age bracket. Similarly, Gold Coast chairman Tony Cochrane said the club’s concern in previous years was losing its best players for high draft picks only – aware of the need for a balanced list – and that the young players selected with those picks would likely take many years to develop.

Given this, priority picks are not a useful mechanism for either club to mitigate their on-field dilemmas in the short-term.

While there needs to be equalisation measures in place to avoid self-perpetuating, long-term cycles of entrenched inequality, there also needs to be recognition of recruiting as a science.

The clubs that have performed best over the past ten years have, for the most part, done so without access to many high draft picks.

Sydney recruiter Kinnear Beatson, Hawthorn’s Graeme Wright, and Geelong’s Stephen Wells have made their reputations on an ability to find good players with later picks. They have also traded astutely, with a specific plan.

It’s unfair to the clubs who have mastered this science to reward those who finish lower down the ladder with high draft picks – historically more likely to turn into good players.

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Another aspect of this is the development factor – these successful clubs have also developed recruits, wherever they are selected. Too often, this is an area where struggling clubs find themselves falling behind. Even allowing for the fact that higher draft picks are more likely to turn into good players than lower picks, clubs still need to develop them. This, of course, often relies on resources, both financial and personnel, so is not an issue that will be solved through awarding priority selections.

So, could other mechanisms be looked at to assist Gold Coast and Carlton?

I was pleased to hear that the AFL is considering allowing struggling clubs first access to mature-aged players in state leagues. This would go some way to addressing the dearth of players in the 23-26 bracket. Of course, there’s no guarantee that they will become first-choice selections, but one would hope that their experience helps develop the youngsters.

However, if the AFL does ultimately decide to grant the Suns and Blues a priority pick, this should come with some strings attached. It should be awarded at the end of the first round, and the clubs should be made to trade it, in a similar way to GWS’ ‘mini draft’ selections in their first two years in the competition.

If no players appealed to either club this year, they could save the pick for next year. Either way, this may mean paying ‘overs’ to prise a player out of a team, but in reality, any club trying to attract a decent player needs to pay more than market value.

There are obviously pros and cons to both these proposals, and I don’t pretend that either will be panaceas for all the clubs’ issues, but they are a start.

The AFL has a difficult task in balancing too much and inadequate equalisation measures, but priority picks shouldn’t be seen as the ultimate measure of assistance.