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Friday, December 06 2019 @ 08:47 pm ACDT

So, what might the Anzac Day Game mean for footy in Wellington?


Having had the great good fortune to be in Wellington as a foundation member of the NZAFL Board, formed when the AFL decided to support international football financially rather than in a tokenistic fashion, for the three pre-season games held there from 1998-2001 it is fair to say I have some good memories of football development at that time.

Having been at the coalface of player recruitment and development during this period as a local Club President, a Wellington player and League President at The Basin in 1998 and coach of the victorious Wellington team at the two Stadium Games’ curtain raisers I think that gives some real perspective on what the Anzac Day game may mean for future game development.

That said, things change. Since the last Stadium game so many initiatives have developed for NZ and International footy. The AFL has seen international development as a key development area. They have supported this not just through various funding arrangements but through the support of competitions at junior and open age level.

The International Cups grew from the pioneers at Arafura’s efforts, running of events such as the South Pacific Cups and the inclusion of South Pacific and World representative teams at the Australian Championships. This list continues to grow and I realise is not exhaustive.

The AFL are no longer alone in looking to develop the game in New Zealand. Hawthorn were the pioneers but now St Kilda have joined them in promoting the game. The structure in development provided through the Hawks support of school age football I would think has really advanced this aspect of the game. The raw talent is there as evidenced by the Giants, Melbourne and the Hawks all listing players from New Zealand.

Another factor that NZAFL struggled with was the inability to retain a leader in the foundation years from 1998. A string of capable people filled this role but moved on quickly as the funds available for salary were always low. Things may have changed regarding funding since 2005 but I think it has been of immense benefit that Rob Vanstam has given the role continuity.

One area that seems to have not yet benefited from the increased focus on development is the actual competitions in New Zealand.

The 6 Club Auckland competition once had a Reserves Grade and some Clubs had U 17’s but now the AAFL seems to have a single competition with the University Club fielding two sides, Waikato managed to get to three teams but seems to have two at best at present and Wellington had a 4 Club League and a Reserves competition but did not even have a competitive League game in 2012.

On the positive side has been the emergence of competitive football in Otago, however that is very much in its infancy, and also that Christchurch has sustained a strong 4 team competition.

From my own experience investing time, effort and passion into international footy competitions requires a huge commitment. In many senses it is unrewarding with the weakest elements often holding back those ready to move forward. Sure a Club can organise enough players for an 18 a side senior team and a 12 a-side Reserves team but if their opponents can’t even organise 9 players to turn up the good work of the proactive ones becomes a waste of time.

I have heard all the arguments about sharing the players around but that is not what happens. They come to play because their mates are in a team and that team is well organised on and off the field. They want to give the game a go but will not stick around with another Club because they haven’t got a commitment to the code in the first place as footy is just one of many recreational choices, they haven’t bonded with that group of players or they become sick of wasting their time with ‘scratch’ matches when their new Club doesn’t show with enough numbers, if at all.

To run a Club well is probably a 10 month a year commitment, at the minimum, and so few in the international arena have the passion and time for this. Often those capable of doing so are already tied up playing, coaching and managing their sport of origin still rather than their adopted sport of AFL.

The last three paragraphs have clarified the real nuts and bolts reality of life at the coalface. In fact I have probably put a positive spin on it!

The reason I have outlined these issues attached to the positive developments around the growth of the AFLNZ programs is that the very few people who used to commit the time in Wellington to try to promote local footy have found their efforts better rewarded delivering the AFLNZ objectives. That way they are supported by the AFLNZ staff and have the opportunity to run short term ‘project/competition/talent identification’ programs that often involve the bonus of football-related travel. Put that up against the continual slog of trying to build a Club and League when others don’t share the same passion and it easy to see why such a choice is made.

It is to be hoped that in the end all of the talent identification and junior development programs eventually build a critical mass that will demand serious local competitions. At present in Wellington add-ons such as AFL 9’s, which is a format best served for newly establishing areas and the more social attachment to the game in traditional centres, seems to be the focus.

I thought it might be informative to capture some views of some of the greats of Wellington football on their perspective as to what has, and is, happening with what was once a NZ dominant competition.

I had the great fortune to work with Mike O’Donnell in the mid 90’s in rebuilding the WAFL (Wellington Australian Football League) when it had only 2 functioning teams and 37 registered players at the end of 1994. He established the League with his brothers in 1973 as a young man when his family moved across from Melbourne. He is a NZAFL, Wellington and Eastern Suburbs Bulldogs Life Member. He was also part of the first NZ team in 1979 to tour Australia once football had been re-started in NZ in the 70’s.

The next two players I introduced to the game and they have contributed mightily since.

John ‘Jacko’ Jackson came to the game in 1995 as a Provincial Rugby Rep in his late twenties. From their he has captained and coached many local Bulldogs Premiership teams and captain and coached at NPC level very successfully. He played for NZ at Arafura in 1997 and 1999 as the team’s vice captain and World Team selection and captained the inaugural NZ team at the International Cup. Off field, besides his coaching roles, he has had a variety of committee roles at Club and League level.

Guy Ferguson is a player who came to the game in 1999 as a 15 year old. He is a direct result of The Basin Game and junior development at the time. He has played on until the present time being a key component of the 2005 Kiwi’s win at the International Cup. For me Guy is what The Basin game was all about, bringing youth to the game because that was where long-term NZ footballers would really develop from.

I have asked the guys a series of questions to which they have responded:- RS= Rod Shaw, MO= Mike O’Donnell, JJ= John Jackson and GF = Guy Ferguson

(RS) What brought you to the game in Wellington and when?

(MO) My brothers and I founded the Wellington Aussie Rules competition in 1973/74. We started with a game at Trentham Memorial Park and things just developed from there.

(JJ) In 1995, I was playing NPC Rugby for Horowhenua and premier club rugby for Poneke. AFL is a summer sport in Wellington and I went along to watch some good mates play a ‘game of Aussie Rules’ that they were raving about!

(GF) I think you guys might have come to school? Otherwise I think my good friend Alex Barker got me on board!

(RS) That’s right Guy, Matt Woodhouse who was on the WAFL Committee at the time, went in to Wellington College. The WAFL committee had developed a number of strategies to improve the competition around The Basin game and that was one of them.

(RS) What was your perspective of the game in Wellington?

(JJ) When I first played, the game was very social and lacked numbers but was very rough so I loved it! We lacked player numbers & umpires and it was basically run by expat Aussies, By late 90’s player numbers, skill level & standard of umpires was fantastic with a very competitive local comp where any of the 4 club sides could win. A lot of ‘word of mouth’ created player growth from other winter sport codes and the fact it was played in summer meant we did not compete with major winter sports i.e. rugby, rugby league & soccer.

(RS) Yes it was rough Jacko but, as must be done, some rather large penalties including a 2 year ban for one player supported the umpires to take control of the game and feel able to make a decision knowing they would be backed up at WAFL Committee level. There was a lot of time spent in organising Club and League Functions to get the ‘buy in’ from what might have been very casual participants.

(GF) It was fun, different from Rugby. When I first started out the level was above me and I just played Reserves. By the age of about 20 the grade was competitive and enjoyable. At times the quality of the competition has been really good, at times the Bulldogs have been a bit too good, which is not really that much fun.

(RS) Guy- it wasn’t above you skill wise as you won two B & F’s for the Bulldogs Reserves before you went in to the seniors full time. You were still not physically developed enough to play seniors regularly but that Reserve Grade allowed you space with 12 a side and more younger players to learn the game against. It served a great purpose as a development grade which meant when senior players left the sport at the end of a season or moved on, you had younger and/or new players to come up that could already play and had formed some attachment to the Club and the sport.

(RS) What did the Arafura tournaments mean for you and your attachment to the game?

(JJ) I absolutely loved going to these games (went on two trips). It meant that all the hard work and effort on and off the field meant we had a goal to aim for making the hard slog of local footy and much travel for NPC games in cars and at our own expense worthwhile. We got to represent our country. In 1997 the NZ team was dominated by Auckland players, coaches & administrators which proved uncomfortable for non- Auckland players. As Auckland’s national dominance declined a ‘new breed’ of player came through which meant more harmony and better prepared teams. The trips I was privileged to be part of created lifelong friends and memories. Whilst the NZ team probably did not quite get the next level i.e. win gold, this came down to a combination of the lack of resources (money), time together (warm up games) and in some instances the ‘holiday’ factor that often crept into the team!

(RS) Yes, representing the country made all the hard work at local level worthwhile when turning up was often just hard work with the Wellington weather, the on-going likelihood of a forfeited game and the familiarity that a 4 team competition brings. How good was it doing the Haka as we came by the Marrara Stadium in the walk by for all of the countries to launch the Festival? Arafura enabled players to see the bigger picture and generally return to their local competitions as more skilled and motivated to promote the game. The ‘holiday factor’ was not a big issue really- I think PNG had the wood on us. In reality when players almost entirely self-fund some trips they do become a ‘trip of a lifetime, to such an exotic destination as Darwin. This factor was certainly not in evidence on the 2002 trip to Melbourne for the International Cup.

(RS) What did the first AFL pre-season game at The Basin mean for you?

(MO) It was just great to see a live AFL game in NZ, and especially at a ground like the Basin Reserve.

(RS) Couldn’t agree with you more Mike but when big Dipper was out on the bank chatting up my wife I did have some concerns while I was standing at Full Back for Wellington against an Auckland avalanche of goals!

(JJ) Overwhelming playing in the curtain raiser. I was not used to the standard that a very good Auckland side played at. It however was the single most important game for me and a host of other Wellington players, coaches, administrators for us to be better and no longer the easy beats which just added to the rivalry and caused a huge lift in standards!

(RS) No doubt Jacko- it further galvanised the key administrators and players in Wellington to further lift their game and that has only proved good for NZ footy as a whole.

(RS) What did the Stadium pre-season games mean for you?

(MO) Just great to see Kiwis having the opportunity to see a live AFL game.

(JJ) Some of the best sporting memories I will ever have. I captained Wellington twice at the stadium and we are unbeaten. We played on a quality sporting facility with my closest friends and the ‘best’ Wellington had to offer. Having family in the stand watching …… priceless.

(GF) I thought this was great, I will most probably go again this year!

(RS) Having access to such a venue specifically designed to accommodate AFL was brilliant. It is a top rate venue with a great playing surface. The work of Will McKenzie and the NZAFL Board at the time was visionary in creating this situation in a country that is obsessed with Rugby. It was very evident from the discussion around the events that the games had been well-received, though attendance figures were not spectacular.

(RS) What have the international Cups meant for you?

(JJ) I was privileged and honoured to be captain of NZ in 2002. As a team we under- performed, winning the Bronze medal after playing poorly against eventual winners Ireland. Nevertheless it was a fantastic opportunity for players again to represent NZ overseas and in a city (Melbourne) where AFL is a religion, just an incredible experience. I truly wished that I was younger at the time so I could have possibly made another International Cup. The fact that this competition continues with the NZ team often favourite is a true testament to how important it is for the AFL players in our country.

(GF) Don't get me wrong, it was a fantastic opportunity to play on the MCG, but for me footy is all about doing it with your mates, it was only myself and Byron Roff in 2005, it was extremely disappointing when Al Hunter was, very surprisingly, dropped from the squad. The competition at the International Cup was average except for two teams. We whipped most people bar PNG, it seemed for some international teams it was just a social trip.

(RS) The International Cups are something special. I have attended games at all Cups and the esteem in which the tournament has grown is very evident. I had the good fortune to watch Ireland and NZ in 2011 and that was a highly-skilled and very bruising affair. I also watched Jim Lucy’s Tonga play the Swedes and that was just an enjoyable game of footy. Sure the skill level was a big drop but the passion was very evident in the players representing their country. It really is what sport should be about!

(RS) What has happened with the Wellington competition and why?

(JJ) Sadly the Wellington competition is in a very poor state due to lack of administrators therefore the league is run by the same people that are either umpiring, playing and/or coaching teams.

Obviously lack of playing numbers has hindered the competition and growth. Shocking, bordering on complete incompetent, umpiring has left players/coaches frustrated and disillusioned with the sport. Playing on Sunday I believe has now hindered the game with many players having families and not having the time to give up on Sunday afternoon any more. Any chance to look at Saturday competition is often pushed aside by administrators again looking after their own club interests.

Remarkably, Wellington now has probably the best venue/facilities it has had in my time, Hutt Park, Seaview with access to changing rooms and Stop Out soccer clubrooms and a city council willing to help.

But regularly turning up on a Sunday afternoon to find the opposition team has 5/6 players or no umpire so coaches/players having to take the reins is not a great advertisement for the game…..disillusioned is a word that comes to mind!

(GF) I reckon Sundays is a killer, so some are hungover, but if you’re not, it’s your Sunday and do you really want to be trooping off to play footy on a Sunday. I reckon that has been the biggest hold back in attracting players. I reckon mid week / Friday night on an artificial ground like the one in Island Bay and it would be up and cranking.

(RS) Sounds like there are some constructive ideas there for re-invigorating the game. That said, I believe the challenge is on getting people to actually care about a local competition enough that they might find the time to develop this alongside the AFLNZ initiatives that would seem more rewarding and less stress.

(RS) What do you hope will come from the ANZAC Day game for football in Wellington, NZ and for future AFL games in NZ?

(MO) I hope it gets lots of support from the locals and that it is the forerunner to making more games in Wellington. I also hope that it leads to more locals joining the local competitions and the profile of AFL growing over time.

(JJ) Wellington/NZAFL has been here before. In my ‘time’ Wellington has had 3 such events and look where the League is now, so I’m not sure. I don’t see 100 people suddenly turning up and wanting to play AFL in Wellington. What are the 4 clubs actively doing themselves?, What is WAFL doing?…..I would not know or have any idea. Wish list would be for all 4 clubs to be on the concourse, in the stadium handing out flyers about their club with website details, club contact details, dates/venue for an ‘open day’/ training dates, season/venue dates times to try and it is an opportunity to capture people who want to play, some of them may never have known Wellington had a competition!

(GF) I reckon it will get some attention as it is different, but. . . . . . there are a lot of other options out there for people, but also even the Hurricanes and Wellington Phoenix are not filling out Westpac Stadium.

(RS) I hope there is a huge turnout and that the WAFL and AFLNZ have planned wisely on how best to leverage growth in the local game as a result. This has worked before very successfully but it will not happen without a focused effort which is strategically planned.

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