Essendon’s Round 1 performance was one of the hardest to read of any club, making them a tough team to get a read on ahead of the AFL’s June 11 restart.
The value of the AFL’s second-tier leagues will only grow in 2020.
Looking to implement a hub-structure to the season, and with a divide between the players and league on allowing families to be invited, creativity must come to the fore with playing lists.
Inevitably, there will be players who refuse to stay away from their families for an extended period of time – a justified stance given the players never committed to this as part of the job, compared to tennis or cricket.
The midseason draft was introduced in 2019 and another draft of sorts may be held for the abridged 2020 season.
Given quality players may not be available every game, selecting the best players from state leagues on a temporary basis may be the solution.
Kane Lambert and Tim Kelly may be the two most recent examples of how mutually beneficial the VFL and WAFL have been for the AFL.
Players such as Stephen Coniglio (Swan Districts) and Simon Black (East Fremantle) enhanced their draft stocks by playing hardened, senior footy in the WAFL as juniors.
In recent times, former assistant coach Craig Jennings suggested the current model of the VFL should be “revamped” or “potentially scrapped”, adding that it was questionable whether these leagues would even be necessary.
And while the financial investment is a necessity, and the VFL itself has gone through significant changes with the continued loss of standalone clubs, Jennings’ suggestion would ultimately destroy the fabric of what the VFL has been.
Without the platform of the WAFL, VFL and SANFL, the quality and overall stability of AFL clubs would not exist.
Whether it be on an active or subconscious level, personnel within clubs have derived enormous benefits from the second-tier leagues.
Quality players have had immediate impacts when recruited, while some of the league’s best coaches have plied their trade and learnt skills at the level – Alastair Clarkson certainly benefitted from coaching Werribee and Central Districts.
If a draft is to be held, or the AFL opt to go down an NBA-style route of limited-day contracts, players targeted will be ready-made, experienced bodies.
Footage is readily available and enough resources have been placed into every state league for recruiters and coaching staff to know how to fill their lists.
Entering a unique period where a lot of unknowns have arisen, recruiting experience and reliability can provide clubs with a sense of normality and lessen the risk that can come with standard draftees from junior footy when searching for immediate impact.
The impact of this will be seen for years to come, and the AFL will have no choice but to fully support the leagues that have existed for far longer than the standalone clubs that are seemingly defining the current generation of state leagues, particularly from those such as Jennings who operated within the AFL system.
Smaller lists are likely to come into effect, which could see up to over 150 players who are currently contracted in the AFL let go at the end of 2020.
In previous years, some players have been delisted and look to earn the biggest cheque possible by heading to suburban leagues. The current state of finances due to the global pandemic may make that route less appealing.
If state leagues are properly managed and supported by the AFL, we could see an immediate improvement in the quality of competitions from 2021 onwards, with the top players from suburban leagues or from AFL lists willing to sign on.
This would inevitably have a flow-on effect, with AFL clubs able to select better, ready-made players and perhaps greater media rights opportunities becoming available.
Should the AFL not provide adequate support to state leagues, the league risks losing key stakeholders from the game overall, more than just talented players that have historically had an impact.
Leagues such as the WAFL and SANFL have rich histories and fan-bases with loyalty that can exceed that seen in the AFL.
Whether it’s an East Fremantle, a Norwood or a Port Melbourne, clubs with a history of producing top-quality players and coaches, and that have drawn generations of fans to the sport are far too valuable to lose.
While some may believe the emphasis on results are non-existent and the return on investment for top-flight clubs isn’t worthwhile, for the AFL as a whole, the ongoing maintenance and support of these leagues is imperative.
It’s time the plaudits recruiters receive for excellent mature-age draft selections equates to an appropriate emphasis being placed on these players’ breeding grounds.
Kane Lambert’s career didn’t start at Richmond at 23 years of age, his development into a quality player came from the Northern Bullants and Williamstown in the VFL.
Tim Kelly’s selection by Geelong was seen as a masterstroke, but his elite talent and quality was developed at South Fremantle in the WAFL, not at the Cats.
Without these established clubs’ strong cultures and history, that the general footy fan wouldn’t know about, the AFL would have missed out on some of its best players and the overall quality of the competition would have suffered.
Questioning the necessity of the state leagues may be a natural byproduct of the global pandemic and the necessary cost-cutting natures that will likely be implemented.
When the time is right and the landscape clears up, however, the AFL should announce its full support in whatever way possible to ensure that the state leagues and its clubs can continue.
Given there’s a rush to get the 2020 season started and for the money to start flowing through, the fact these players from across Australia could be relied upon to ensure the competitiveness of the league should be enough of a reason to believe in the contention.
If 2020 is going to rely on state leagues, the AFL needs to repay the faith.