Contributed by: Brett Northey
In two tremendous announcements for international footy, AFL South Africa are now mentioning the possibility of hundreds of thousands of players, and there is confirmation that an elite Australian under age side will play a full Test match against the Africans in April - as far as we know the first such Australian Football international featuring a true Australian representative side.
A possible exception has been brought to our attention - an invitational juniors match between Australia and PNG in Adelaide in 1977, as mentioned here). We've also been told by reader John Milton that there were age concessions, with the Aussies under 17s and PNG under 19s, with the taller Australians getting up in a close one. Similar concessions are likely this time around.
The explosion in player numbers in South Africa continues apace with AFL South Africa CEO Jean Verster now aiming for the remarkable target of 28,000 players by 2010, up from around 3000 currently. Most of this growth will come in junior programs, and will accelerate with the expansion into more provinces. Even the most optimistic footy fan would have been deluding themselves 5 years ago if they thought without doubt that Australian Football was definitely on track to become a massive part of the sporting culture of other countries other than Australia, Nauru and perhaps Papua New Guinea. Hopes were high but growth had only been steady. Gains were being made but not in the numbers that would project the game being heavily entrenched within the next couple of decades. The numbers being talked about by AFL South Africa change all that. Verster even raises the possibility of hundreds of thousands of players - it would be a truly astonishing transformation of a country's sporting culture and raise the real possibility of competition for Australia not within 50 - 100 years as some of us hoped but maybe as soon as 20 years.
AIS/AFL Academy Assistant Coach Jason McCartney has just spent time with the Fremantle Football Club, honing his skills with the quickly emerging AFL club. It was on their website that the new details of this story first emerged. In past years the Academy side has played a two Test International Rules series against Ireland, but with the GAA pulling the plug in 2007, and the AIS requiring international competition, the logical choice was a trip to South Africa. Although this developing region for footy can't realistically expect to compete equally with the Australian squad, a great experience can be expected from both sides, and hopefully this will be the first of many such exchanges. It already follows on from the Indigenous Australian tour to South Africa last year and a return junior tour that will reach its pinnacle with a curtain raiser match in Darwin in February before the AFL QANTAS Indigenous All-star side takes on Essendon. Then in South Africa in April the Academy will first play an intra-squad game, with 10 local players invited to train and play with them - a huge experience in itself. Then the historic youth Test will be played against the South Africans. (Critics of International Rules be assured that we are seeking to confirm that the Test will indeed be Australian Football). With the Australian Convicts side also touring in February, AFLSA staff will be very busy indeed - but no doubt very pleased as well.
Critical to the game's development so far in the North-West Province has been support through organisations such as Tattersals, SCORE and the local government. AFLSA CEO Jean Verster is quoted as saying that "In the North-West province we are one of 11 official sports, and one of three or four priority sports, so we have made a lot of inroads. We believe there is going to be big growth in the game because we have a very big population that has no access to organised sport. We’re going to try to create those opportunities for kids that are almost left behind (by the lack of structure in some sports). Plus we feel that the sport will sell itself because AFL is a great sport". It has previously been revealed that besides North-West Province and smaller moves into Gauteng (such as Johannesburg), that with an expansion from 4 to 20 paid staff in 2007, a push will also be made into Western Cape (such as Cape Town) and KwaZulu Natal (its capital being Durban). Verster again: "With new staff and budgets, we can conservatively aim to have around 28,000 registered players in three years. The only stumbling block is getting our structures in place and staff trained properly. The actual number of players we can target is unlimited – not thousands, but hundreds of thousands". These current exchanges run by the AFL should certainly help to convince South Africa's national government that they are serious about developing Aussie Rules there. Given that the majority of people that will benefit are from the less well-off communities, fans of the game around the world have added reason for pride in the sport.
WFN is often first (and sometimes only) media to get these stories as we talk directly to various leagues around the world. However as the numbers of players overseas swell and journalists can see the AFL is serious about the developments, increasingly mainstream media in Australia is starting to pick up the stories and even get the scoops. When similar stories start appearing in the main media streams in other countries then footy will well and truly have arrived as a wider game. In the case of the latest information it was pleasing to see it appear on the front page of the Fremantle Dockers' website, and also high in the news on the AFL website. The story From Fremantle to an African Adventure by Daniel Davini is perhaps the best story written on international footy by mainstream media in some time. Not only does Davini be the first to report the details of the junior tour in April, and the quotes from Jean Verster above, but he also gives a deeper background to the South African developments. Perhaps one day WFN will be made obsolete by mainstream media - we certainly won't mind that - though there may always be small pockets of new developments that deserve attention. Let's hope we see major Aussie newspapers, television and radio build their coverage right through to the 2008 International Cup and beyond.
Further background on the AIS/AFL Academy and Jason McCartney's involvement can be read in McCartney joins Academy players at Fremantle.
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