Contributed by: Brett Northey Tuesday, March 20 2007 @ 02:19 am ACDT
The Adelaide Football Club[*1] has inadvertently demonstrated just how long the journey may be for any other country to be in a position to be competitive against a true All-Australian senior side. Back in 2005 top Victorian country club Maffra flattened New Zealand before the Kiwis went on to win the second International Cup. Again in 2006 the Falcons were on the end of some hidings at the hands of country representative sides at the Australian Country Championships. Those results demonstrated the gulf between quality country players and the best international footy had to offer, but the Adelaide Crows recently showed just how big the gap is between the top two tiers of Australian Football within Australia itself.
Although the size of New Zealand's losses were disappointing, close followers of international footy are realistic that powerful national sides won't come to the fore until tens of thousands of players are involved in the game in any given country. But as nations slowly develop junior programs and grow their participation numbers, the sobering thought is that the AFL clubs continue to draw further away from all other sides in the world, including in Australia. This has never been more clearly demonstrated than in Adelaide's demolition of Norwood[*2] in February this year. As Australian Football evolved through the end of the 19th century and into the 20th, the three strongest leagues were the VFL, SANFL and WAFL, and generally in that order, though there were exceptions along the way. As has been well documented before, by the 1980s the Victorian league was drawing in the best players from around Australia at a rate that was severely damaging the game both across the country, but also in Melbourne where expenditure was unsustainable. Depending on how you view these things, the VFL either simply changed into the AFL, or evolved to that position. The WAFL and later the SANFL entered sides and the slow process of the number of Victorian clubs decreasing began. Today the 16 AFL sides are all powerful, with the cream of the country's players and turning over $30 million per annum. Meanwhile former proud clubs across the land have shrunk to be shells of their former glory. Norwood is one such case. The Redlegs were once South Australia's second strongest club behind arch rival Port Adelaide. The SANFL is a shadow of its former self, but has come to accept the new football paradigm and confidently markets itself as Australia's second best league, a message backed up by state wins against the WAFL and VFL, though clearly little separates SA and Victoria's state leagues. But the gulf between the AFL and SANFL clubs has never been greater. In the Adelaide Crows' first non-intraclub pre-season match, they defeated Norwood at The Parade (the Redlegs' home ground) by 179 points. The Crows rested several stars, and the scoreline of Adelaide 30.18 (198) to Norwood 2.7 (19) has thrown into doubt the benefit to Adelaide of the match, and whether it damages the SANFL brand. Proceeds go to charity, so it would be a shame if the annual "contest" ceases, but a better formula must be sought. The result also again emphasises the difficulty international sides face in limiting the damage against Aussie clubs - the attractive attacking nature of Australian Football likewise makes an imbalance between teams all the more obvious.
There is however some light at the end of the tunnel. With players being full time professionals in the AFL, it is fairly clear that a fringe player who just makes it onto an AFL list will be developed to be far superior to a similar player who just missed out. Full time physical, tactical and reaction training is producing a breed of players the likes of which the game has never seen before. The reality is that champion teams of 15 years ago almost certainly wouldn't get within 100 points of the top AFL sides. International leagues are still at an amateur stage. Increasingly their better players will come to Australia for the opportunity to improve and to earn a living. This may be to the detriment of their own leagues, but such changes are inevitable. Hopefully at some point their own leagues will become semi-professional, but even so they will be in no position to produce national sides that could compete with Australia. The good news is that with an International Scholarship List, AFL clubs will probably start bringing talented young players into the system, which will give them the opportunity to reach a far greater standard. This will start producing a core of international players the equal of other AFL players. Perhaps the first time we'll see an All-Australian side tested will be in 10 to 20 years, with the scenario of the AFL's best Aussies taking on an All-Star Internationals team made up of the AFL's best non-Australian players. One could easily forsee that in a decade such a side may well be able to draw from a dozen Irishmen, a dozen Papuans, several South Africans and perhaps a smattering of players from other countries. This isn't the dream end goal of growing footy worldwide, but it will be an important marker along road.