There's no question that South Africa is the AFL's number one priority in terms of international development of Australian Football. The past couple of years have seen a significant roll out of support programs, some direct funding, and assistance in gaining major sponsorship from corporations such as Tattersal's and Costa Logistics.
Although there are many other programs being developed around the world, both with and without AFL support, the short term successful rise of Aussie Rules internationally would seem to be most closely tied to the South Africa experiment. So it is with great interest to see recent political changes in that country, and the predictions of possible future effects which analysts are now in demand to explain.
The West Coast Eagles have had plenty of media coverage this year - although its mostly for all the wrong reasons. The Australian media picked up over the weekend on a few more positive Eagles stories, with the club now on a pre-season training and development trip to South Africa.
The Eagles are based in the township of Umlazi in the Durban area, where footy only started being played this year. Former Eagles star and current coach John Worsfold was impressed by the progress of the local talent, stating he believes they'll be at WAFL (the West Australian state league) standard within 6-10 years, and infiltrating AFL club lists soon after.
The AFL website has listed all four of the community camps to be held by AFL clubs in South Africa in the coming months. All states and territories of Australia will also have camps (see Lets go camping for more details - also being shown on AFL club websites as "AFL's pitch to the nation and the world"). The South African travels are:
West Coast Eagles from Dec 8 - 15 2007 (KwaZulu Natal, especially Durban and Umlazi)
Collingwood from Jan 20 - Feb 6 2008 (Potchefstroom and Western Cape)
Carlton from Jan 21 - Feb 3 2008 (Gauteng Province)
Fremantle from Jan 27 - 4 Feb 2008 (presumably North West Province)
Exhibition match: Carlton vs Fremantle, SuperSport (formerly Centurion) Park, Pretoria (Gauteng Province), February 2nd 2008.
It's easy to take all this for granted, but if two years ago we'd predicted this much AFL involvement in another country our readers would be posting comments that we were crazy - and resist the temptation now people....
The AFL website is reporting new details of activities in South Africa (a talent camp in Pretoria) plus apparently confirming what has been reported as on the cards previously - an exhibition match in February '08 and a return tour of an Australian indigenous youth team.
The AFL's story says that former "Essendon premiership player Adam Ramanauskas will be the guest coach at the inaugural Talent Camp in South Africa in December. Ramanauskas will join AFL South Africa head coach Mtutu Hlomela at the High Performance Centre in Pretoria for the camp from December 19-20". There will be 40 players aged 13 to 16, participants of FootyWild, the South African version of Auskick. Hlomela is pictured at left.
The heartland for Australian Football in South Africa has been North West Province, with Gauteng also growing. The increased push into the Rainbow Nation has also seen development in Western Cape and KwaZulu Natal, and although the focus will be on juniors, open age footy has begun there, adding to the possibility that the 2008 version of the national side, the Buffaloes, could have representatives from all four footy provinces.
Perhaps after a 44 year premiership drought it was good karma that finally brought success to the Cats. At least that could be the view from an international perspective, with people involved with the club doing the right thing by international footy recently.
As we reported, Brownlow medallist Jimmy Bartel has been a regular visitor to Denmark and is off again soon, where he'll give some assistance to Australian Football development there.
Costa joined Geelong when the club was millions of dollars in debt and has been a big part of their turn-around. His company is now investing in South Africa, such as in the Alexandra region of Johannesburg, and as part of that they are also putting over half a million dollars over three years into AFL South Africa's program. As a sign of that commitment, a special guest was brought to the MCG. On AFL Grand Final day nine year old Tsepho Daniel Raphiri, a FootyWild participant in Alexandra, was involved with the half-time Auskick program. Let's hope the young lad was able to appreciate the atmosphere of the day.
A decade after the Australian Football League's seemingly one-off experiment in Africa, with the 1998 Brisbane versus Fremantle match in Cape Town, AFL footy is set to return to South Africa with Carlton taking on Fremantle in Pretoria in a February pre-season, pre-NAB Cup match.
As previously reported (Carlton v Fremantle in South Africa) and although not confirmed, The West Australian reports that the match is tentatively booked into SuperSport Park (Google image) on February 2nd 2008. The heart of Australian Football is in North West Province and the likely venue would have been Potchefstroom's Sedgars Park, which hosted the Australian Under 17's against a South African selection earlier this year (see Aussie talent all class on African footy's big day). Unfortunately cricket commitments are reported to have ruled that out. Nearby Pretoria lies in the province of Gauteng, and North West's loss will be their gain. Rather than reward the region where footy has its roots, perhaps this will introduce the game to a relatively untouched audience. Let's hope that it goes ahead and it would be tremendous to see AFL South Africa and the AFL arrange to bus in some of the players and volunteer officials from North West to see what for many would be their first live game of AFL.
Also headed across the Indian Ocean, in December this year, will be West Coast. In the PerthNow story West Coast trip to South Africa a good life lesson it's reported that the Eagles will spend ten days in KwaZulu-Natal, their development province under a four team agreement with the AFL. The players will also be conducting coaching clinics in what is AFL South Africa's newest football region. The other AFL clubs involved are Fremantle, who work with North West, Carlton with Gauteng and Collingwood with Western Cape.
Channel 7 Melbourne has scheduled a documentary prepared by their news team, called "Footy's Wild Frontier - AFL in South Africa". The stations blurb explains:
"Watch as reporter Nick McCallum travels to the shanty towns of Johannesburg and other regions of South Africa , discovering passionate AFL communities along the way. This program provides a rare insight to how the AFL views South Africa as football's final frontier and a viable market for players and television, having already expanded its presence into countries all around the world. In the documentary, AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou outlines his confidence over the sport's push into the far-off region".
The Age newspaper also quotes Demetriou as saying in the program "There's no doubt in 10 years, there will be a player drafted out of South Africa".
Sadly the show appears to only be scheduled for Melbourne, 5pm - 5:30pm, Sunday 23rd September. Channel 7 Melbourne have advised that there are no plans to air the documentary to the wider Australian audience, and Channel 7 Adelaide have no immediate plans to show it but have put a request into the system (fans shouldn't hold their breath).
As far as we've been able to tell from searching the internet, despite great gains by AFL South Africa in the past few years, there hasn't been a lot of media coverage within South Africa itself. This of course will slowly change with time, and no doubt they're up against entrenched sports that guard their coverage closely. So it's pleasing to see an article in called Now kids are to play new game by Tandie Ntsepe on the City-Vision Western Cape website. They spoke with Development Officer Allison Simons about the FootyWild program being presented to local schools in Khayelitsha and Nyanga. Let's hope interest continues to grow.
Also of interest is an article that reviews some of AFL South Africa's progress in part from the point of view of Australian Volunteers International, an important partner early in their program. See A game for all seasons.