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Tuesday, June 25 2019 @ 04:49 am ACST

Big guns get into Africa


The next major step in South Africa's rapidly unfolding football journey may well be led by the AFL clubs themselves. After the developmental South African youth team played their final tour match, in Perth last week, the AFL held a dinner at which they unveiled plans for powerhouse clubs West Coast, Fremantle and Collingwood to become heavily involved with fast-tracking the game in South Africa.

After many years of the game being mostly ignored overseas, Australian football has begun to embrace the prospects for our sport in Africa. This may appear to be a sudden change of heart, but is the result of much hard work by many people over the last decade. Australians such as Marty and Dale Alsford, Brian Dixon and Steve Harrison have all played major roles. There are many others, not to mention the hard-working local staff that have kept the dream alive on the ground in Africa through highs and lows along the way. But having convinced key AFL people of the game's potential, the last two years have seen a head-spinning acceleration in support that is now expected to see South African players drafted into the AFL within five to seven years (maybe less) and it would seem likely the national side, the Buffaloes, will soon be challenging New Zealand and Papua New Guinea for top spot as the best international side taking the field.  The sport has clearly made great gains and is fulfilling the potential we reported back in 2004 in A giant looms in Africa.

As reported in September 2006 in NAB Cup match likely for South Africa in 2007 or 2008, the two West Australian AFL sides have been keen to get involved in footy across the Indian Ocean, as has the WA Football Commission. Planning has been underway since then and the two sides will be joined by Australia's richest sporting club, Collingwood, in growing the game. The Eagles and Freo are logical choices given WA's capital, Perth, is around 8000 km from Johannesburg, whereas Australia's east coast is a further 3000 km away. Each team will be allocated a province, with each area offering its own challenges and potential. Fremantle will work with North West Province, home of AFL South Africa and by far the most advanced footy area. The reigning premier, the West Coast Eagles, will take responsibility for KwaZulu-Natal, which includes the coastal city of Durban, but which currently has no real Aussie Rules presence. Collingwood take on Western Cape, which includes the picturesque Cape Town and Stellenbosch region, where development has recently begun. The other prime candidate is Gauteng, home to Johannesburg and Tshwane (formerly Pretoria). An announcement on a fourth club to invest in this region is expected later, and one would expect it to be a financially strong club to make the leap.

Although AFL clubs have not been granted exclusive access to drafting players from their allocated province, it's expected that they will have a head start on identifying talent. It would be a further tremendous boost for international footy if some of the AFL's other clubs embarked on similar programs in other promising countries such as PNG where the game is well established with thousands of adult and junior players, the cream of which are following pathways through the AFL Queensland system. It is interesting to consider why South Africa is being embraced more strongly than other countries. Key issues include that the Aussie dollar goes further in South Africa, support from other sources such as Tattersals, and local government support. These combined with strong advocates, untapped potential in millions of people not exposed to organised sport and existing links between Australia and South Africa have all added up to this outcome. In addition there is no doubt that Africa has an exotic attraction which seems to fire the imagination of people more than other countries such as Papua New Guinea, which otherwise shares many of South Africa's advantages, though admittedly PNG has only about one tenth the population.

Also on the cards is a match between West Coast and Fremantle in South Africa, possibly even as a NAB Cup pre-season match in 2008.  There have been complaints about exhibition matches in London and the US as not doing enough to promote the game amongst locals.  After a decade away from Africa, but with genuinely good numbers playing the game, it will be fascinating to see how much effort is put into promotion and how much local interest is generated.  In terms of player development, Fremantle's coach Chris Connolly was very upbeat, saying "Fremantle wants to be the first AFL club to have a South African play for its club and we'll put our money where our mouth is. The club's looking to spend between $50,000 and $100,000 promoting the game and looking to recruit players from South Africa next season".  If the Eagles, Magpies and a third club all put similar money into their efforts, combined with other ongoing spending, the country could be the focus of anywhere between $200,000 and $500,000 (Australian dollars of course).  This will be on top of replicating what has helped make Aussie Rules such an important part of Australian culture - volunteers working at grass-roots level for the love of the game and to support their communities.

The approaching Convicts tour and the AIS Youth Tour in April will be the next chances to showcase the sport in South Africa, hopefully laying the foundations for a future AFL match.  So hold on and enjoy the ride as Aussie Rules gets very serious about international development, at least in one key location.

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