Every season after the drama of the draft and its over-hyped build-up, clubs quietly make their last moves as final list lodgement approaches at the end of November.
It can be announced at any time of the year, but the Category B rookie spots are only officially confirmed once all the dust has settled and the League has signed off on player movements numbering in the hundreds.
But in the scheme of things with the draft already being so hit and miss, the Category B rookie list has to be the longest shot any player has of achieving success. Or is it?
The Rookie list concept has been around since the 90s, but it was in 2006 when the International rookie position was added and later morphed into the Category B rookie in 2013 and over a couple more years became a separate process outside of the draft.
Taking a look at the aftermath of the 2016 draft there were 13 of the 18 clubs filling up on talent, quite remarkably Geelong’s Irish recruit Mark O’Connor, GWS pair Zach Sproule and Jake Stein, and Hawthorn’s Irish ex-rugby player Conor Nash, are all playing regular AFL games in 2021.
From the same year, the concept threatened to devolve into farce when the Brisbane Lions opened up a Category B rookie spot to the winner of a reality TV show Matt Eagles, however, it proved an astute move and he showed that it is never too late to have a crack at the big time despite being delisted after 5 years.
In 2017, Collingwood’s Jack Madgen, Giants Academy’s Jack Buckley (son of North Chairman, Ben Buckley), Hawks NGA product Changkuoth Jiath, and Swans Academy’s James Bell have also played regular footy in 2021 after starting from Category B status.
The 2018 Category B class is huge, with James Madden and Tom Fullarton at Brisbane, Matt Owies at Carlton, Mark Keane at Collingwood, Callum Brown at GWS, Matt McGuiness at North, Martin Frederick at Port Adelaide, Sam Wicks and Barry O’Connor at Sydney all in the mix to play in 2022.
Notable Category B players recruited since who are still on a list, which is significant in light of the massive list reductions across the league, include; Tom Hird at Essendon, Paul Tsapatolis at Geelong, PNG pair Patrick Murtagh and Ace Oea Hewago at the Suns, and Buku Khamis at Western Bulldogs.
There is often confusion regarding exactly what Category B eligibility is and that’s because it changes from club to club.
Put simply, if a player is a citizen of another country, they can be added to the list without going through the draft, which is why the rule was developed in the first instance for converts from Ireland.
Similarly, if a player is born overseas or has a parent who was a migrant, they are eligible as Next Generation Academy players if they have gone through undrafted, which is also the case for indigenous players and father-sons that missed out on the draft.
However, in the Northern Academies there is no NGA, so all of the academy players are eligible for Category B selection at their own club at any time provided they have entered the draft and not been chosen or they are international citizens.
There are also three special academies, the Darwin Academy tied to the Suns, the Riverina NGA players connected to GWS, and the Tasmanian Academy indigenous players may be claimed by North Melbourne.
The AFL has also widened the rule to include converts from other sports, with basketball and cricket being the primary competition for football, but over the years there have been converts from a range of sports coming into the AFL via this pathway.
With the reduction of list sizes in 2020, the new rules allow for list flexibility, so while each club may have 2 Category B rookies, if they have 43 or 44 players on their list already then they can only have one or even none when it comes to Category B rookies.
As a result, where there previously might have been up to 36 Category B players across the AFL, there are less than half that this year and there’s not much incentive for that number to grow unless a club has a vacant slot and an eligible candidate to elevate.
The draft in 2021 featured 8 indigenous players, five of whom were selected by St Kilda, with four overall getting their chance as NGA Category B rookies, namely Jack Peris, son of Olympians Nova Peris and the late Daniel Batman, Josiah Kyle (also St Kilda), while Melbourne took Andy Moniz-Wakefield and the Bulldogs upgraded their top-aged prospect Cody Raak.
This year there were four internationals, three from Ireland’s Gaelic Football, which has long been a source of fine AFL players through the Category B rookie pathway, Ultan Kelm to the Pies, OIsin Mullin to Fremantle and Fionn O\’Hara to the Hawks while Collingwood has also recruited a Senegalese basketballer Bassirou Faye to join their ruck division and Carlton promoted their South Sudanese NGA prospect Domanic Akuei.
The rules for NGA are part of what Category B gets criticised for because while the program is meant to assist multicultural families, you just have to look at Adelaide’s Egypt-born recruit James Borlase who has benefited from a program designed to help migrants, through the loophole of being born to parents travelling for work.
It is a concept many love to hate because there are some clubs with better access to talent for the concession, or that’s their perception, but if it keeps a developing player in the system for longer there is undeniable proof that such players can flourish.
For list watchers, several clubs may yet name Category B rookies, including Fremantle, Gold Coast, Hawthorn, Melbourne, North Melbourne, Port Adelaide, Richmond, Sydney and West Coast who have invited players to train on knowing they can use either Category A or B depending on the recruit.
All clubs will continue to look for a tactical advantage to improve their lists and even those with the maximum are still recruiting for the preseason in the case of season-ending injury or unexpected retirement.
The list reductions, supplemental selection period and mid-season rookie draft have reduced the importance of the Category B rookie list, yet the inevitable list increases may see it surge back to popularity.