Bragging rights for "next best" unresolved
Sunday, May 29 2005 @ 02:11 am ACST
Contributed by: Brett Northey
International footy is still searching for its first home-grown recruit to make it to the AFL, the undisputed premier Aussie Rules league in the world. We're also yet to see such a footballer make it to the second best league in the world. But what is that league? The top three contenders would clearly be the state competitions of Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia. For our international readers to understand better what sits beneath AFL level, we look at the matches which see the best non-AFL players from each league come together to play traditional interstate footy, with one match each year, giving a 2 year cycle of matches. On the line is bragging rights for the winners to claim theirs to be the best comp outside of the AFL.
Australian interstate matches are certainly lower profile than they were in the pre-AFL era, when they represented the highest level in footy. With the drain of players to the expanding VFL competition, which ultimately became the AFL, state of origin football was introduced, probably reaching its pinnacle in the 1980s. Victories were then evenly shared amongst the big three Australian Rules states of Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia. But now in this period of the modern AFL, state of origin has been abandoned, and the primary interstate football played is at the next tier down, between the respective state leagues. These leagues have undergone some major changes in the last 20 years. The Victorian Football League (formerly the VFA), was reconstructed in the late 1990s and early 2000s, in part to stem the flow of players out of the state, as they sought the highest standard possible to force their way into the AFL. The South Australian league was widely regarded as the best place to play to prove yourself to AFL talent scouts. A major change for the VFL was from 2000, when the unselected players from Victorian AFL clubs started playing in the VFL, initially with AFL reserves sides and eventually with each Victorian AFL club having a relationship with a VFL club (although some VFL sides remain unaligned). Similarly the unselected players from the SA and WA AFL clubs play in their local state leagues, although there are not fixed club alignments, with the players spread over the clubs.
So it is in this environment of change that the leagues do battle. In 1999, the SANFL defeated the VFL by 4 goals at the MCG as a curtain raiser to the last ever state of origin match. In 2000 the SANFL defeated the WAFL by 42 points, and in 2001 the Croweaters won again, by 38 points over the VFL at Adelaide Oval. The SANFL were thus very comfortable in the knowledge that their's was the best state league in the country. But 2002 saw a rude shock for the South Aussies as the VFL crushed them by 56 points. SA bounced back quickly, with a 60 point win over the WAFL in 2003 in Fremantle. In 2004 the Victorian Football League (which includes players from Tasmania) also defeated the Western Australians, by 11 points in Perth. Last weekend was the SANFL's chance for revenge over the Big V, when the SANFL headed to Teac Oval in Melbourne, one of the venues for this year's International Cup. In a close battle, the South Aussies stayed in front for much of the match, although the lead changed hands 12 times. Thanks particularly to more accurate kicking on goal, the SANFL managed to win, by just 4 points, in a high quality match. Two former Victorians were involved in the winning goal for SA - perhaps ironically given the number of times South Aussies used to line up for the Big V in years past (perhaps none more notable than champion Malcolm Blight, who captained both states at various times).
So what has all this proven, besides being a review of recent history? Probably that in the current era, there is very little between the VFL and SANFL, with the WAFL not far behind. The other state leagues also compete occasionally, with Queensland, Tasmania and New South Wales matching up against each other. In 2002 the WAFL beat the Queenslanders soundly by 111 points, indicating a significant gap below the big three, although this should be closing as Aussie Rules grows in popularity in Queensland and NSW. And we're starting to see a few international footballers making their way into Australian leagues, such as New Zealanders in Canberra, Americans in the amateurs in Melbourne and Sydney, and Papuans playing for various Queensland clubs. So perhaps the next step won't be an AFL draftee as we all hope, but rather an international moving up from amateur to state league level in Victoria, SA or WA. Let's hope we see it happen within the next five years.