The academy programs of the northern state clubs raise the old question at the heart of the AFL – do we want a national game, or to maintain a parochial passion?
Inside Sport took a visit to the QBE Swans Academy, and the story that came out of it is in the June edition of the magazine, out now. The academies were set up to encourage the growth of the sport in NSW and Queensland, using the brand of the AFL clubs to bring new talent into the fold – in short, a goal everyone could agree upon.
Instead, the academies have been a useful piñata in the footy news cycle, ready to be hung out there by critics below the Barassi Line ready to cry foul at the advantage that Sydney, GWS, Brisbane and Gold Coast get out of them.
Put this to the head of Swans Academy, Chris Smith, and he shrugs it off, dismissing it as “good banter”. The notion that these are laboratories churning out future stars is hardly backed by the numbers – as Smith notes, in six years of operation, the Swans Academy has produced five draft picks.
At a training session for the under-18s group at Lakeside Oval, in the shadow of the SCG, Smith points at a boy setting up in the forward-50: “Very good soccer player. Goes to Kings, which doesn’t have an AFL curriculum. He’s a real talent, good at athletics, cricket. His school absolutely give it to him. He tells me that he can come Tuesdays as well. I don’t want to see you, mate – I only see him once a week, and we even manage him when he’s here …
“I’m trying to wait until he’s 20 before he’s a prospect. He won’t be drafted when he’s 18, because we can’t get enough into him. That’s some of the things that an academy in a non-traditional AFL zone has to think about. We’re trying to manage all these boys, and it’s simply not about Isaac Heeney and Callum Mills.”
Therein lies part of the problem – in Sydney’s case, it jumped ahead of the curve of developing players in depth and went right to turning out future stars (GWS has encountered this problem too, based around its former recruiting zone in the Riverina). Factor in the Swans’ privileged position in drafting their academy products, and the outcry was predictable.
Player development isn’t quite so easily controlled. As Smith says, you can't predict that you'll get a Heeney and Mills right off the bat.