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Rebuilding the Crows: the unthinkable becomes the strategy

Football

Rebuild was once a dirty word at the Adelaide Football Club – now it is a prime strategy for the Crows list-management and recruiting team. Michelangelo Rucci looks at the rewards and risks.

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“Times change,” the Adelaide Football Club repeatedly responds when challenged to explain a shift in policy.

But these are uncertain times for change, particularly when there are so many unanswered questions on how the 18 AFL clubs are to operate beyond the cash stripping from the COVID pandemic.

The Crows are in a rebuild… “an aggressive rebuild,” says board member and list-management committee chairman Mark Ricciuto.

There was a time when Adelaide – and many other AFL clubs and senior coaches – would avoid the “r” word. “Rebuild” leaves the impression of long, depressing winters watching an uncompetitive football team struggle to avoid a bottom-four finish.

This is the Adelaide Football Club 2020. Winless after 12 matches for the first time in its 30-year story in the big league. Destined to hold its first wooden spoon – and a bottom-four finish for just the second time, following the 14th placing among 17 in 2011 when the Crows won just seven of 22 matches and Neil Craig departed as coach.

This was when Craig – and the Crows management and advocates, such as Ricciuto – would bark “cop out” to describe rebuilds, the concept based on falling to the bottom of the AFL ladder to collect prime draft picks.

“We don’t believe there is another way to do it,” says Ricciuto today. “You need to get quality draft picks into your club to form the nucleus of your side…”

The alternative – looking for missing pieces of the list-management jigsaw puzzle in the free-agency and trade market – is less attractive.

Port Adelaide president David Koch noted this after his team fell out of the top-eight rankings – and into the dreaded “no man’s land” of ninth to 12th on the AFL ladder – in 2018 despite loading up its list with experienced and lauded talent in No. 1 draftee Jack Watts from Melbourne, former Brisbane captain Tom Rockliff and Steven Motlop from Geelong.

Koch calls the middle rankings on the 18-team AFL ladder the “death zone, between seventh down to possibly 13th”. To get away from this trap, adds Koch, “you need to make hard decisions – ruthless calls to be elite”.

Can the Adelaide fans endure three consecutive seasons of winning less than four games a season?

In the past two years, Port Adelaide has moved on a club champion Chad Wingard (to Hawthorn), a supposed team “barometer” in Jared Polec (who now is failing at North Melbourne) and promising key position player Dougal Howard (to St Kilda) to revive its finals fortunes and set up an encouraging future with draftees Zak Butters, Connor Rozee, Xavier Duursma and Mitch Georgiades.

Port Adelaide list manager Jason Cripps says he intends to work the draft – even if he has to trade out established players – to build the AFL’s best under-22 squad at Alberton.

Former Crows strategist Rob Harding emphasises the grand dilemma or trap in list management, saying: “You can become caught between contending and rebuilding… that’s football’s no-man’s land.”

Adelaide has picked up the template. Hence, as Ricciuto puts it, there is an “aggressive rebuild” at Adelaide. Times do indeed change.

Carlton premiership captain Mark Maclure tells InDaily the once frowned upon “bottoming out” for early draft picks is the smart way to manage an AFL player list.

“Go straight to the bottom, get the kids in, free up your salary cap – and away you go,” Maclure says.

Managing the salary cap ($13 million, plus $1.1 million in third-party deals) is an issue at Adelaide where this season Eddie Betts (Carlton) and Josh Jenkins (Geelong) are at rival AFL clubs but collecting pay cheques from the Crows.

Next season, with the salary cap under review from the COVID fall-out on football spending, former captain Taylor Walker and Carlton recruit Bryce Gibbs could burn the cap from the retirement lounge.

This limits Adelaide’s trade prospects – and puts in question the timeline on the rebuild.

“What is the point of hanging around 10th, 11th and 12th spot for three or four years in a row?” adds Maclure.

“Hanging around the middle of the table is wasting time. You don’t move forward, you either get stuck in no-man’s land or go backwards slowly.

“North Melbourne did that (eighth in 2015 and 2016, then 15th, ninth and 12th last season). Where are they now in the premiership race? Going backwards.

“Essendon… they should have sold Joe Daniher (to Sydney) last year, opened up the salary cap with big dollars saved on Daniher’s contract and taken the early draft picks that would have set them up for the next three or four years. Not trading Daniher will go down as one of the dumbest moves in the history of the game.

“Hawthorn now realises it should be playing kids – but they have none because (coach) Alastair Clarkson has kept giving away draft picks to buy senior players. And now those senior players are not up to it.”

Ricciuto says Adelaide is halfway through its rebuild.

There is much attention on the state of the Crows player list, particularly since Justin Reid (who was once Ricciuto’s manager) became Adelaide’s list manager in December 2014. From 2015, the entry and exit doors to the Crows changerooms have welcomed and farewelled the following:

DEPARTURES

2015

Patrick Dangerfield (154 games on leaving Adelaide to Geelong)

Sam Kerridge (27, Carlton)

Brodie Martin (38, delisted)

Jack Osborn (0 to Sturt, SANFL)

James Podsiadly (104, retired)

Brent Reilly (203, retired)

Sam Siggins (0, retired)

Anthony Wilson (0 to Norwood)

Matthew Wright (94, Carlton)

2016

Mitch Grigg (20 to Norwood, SANFL)

Ricky Henderson (90, Hawthorn)

Matthew Jaensch (74, retired)

Luke Lowden (1, delisted)

Jarrod Lyons (55, Gold Coast then Brisbane)

Keenan Ramsey (0, delisted)

Nathan van Berlo (205, retired)

2017

Jonathon Beech (3, delisted)

Charlie Cameron (73, Brisbane)

Dean Gore (0, delisted)

Jake Lever (56, Melbourne)

Troy Menzel (44, delisted)

Sam Shaw (24, delisted)

Scott Thompson (308, retired)

Harrison Wigg (0, Gold Coast to North Adelaide)

2018

Kyle Cheney (85, retired)

Harry Dear (0, delisted)

Jackson Edwards (0, delisted)

Sam Gibson (135, retired)

Curtly Hampton (63, retired)

Mitch McGovern (48, Carlton)

Ben Jarman (0, delisted)

Matt Signorello (0, delisted)

2019

Eddie Betts (316, Carlton)

Richard Douglas (246 to Norwood)

Cam Ellis-Yolmen (39 to Brisbane)

Hugh Greenwood (51 to Gold Coast)

Paul Hunter (0, delisted)

Sam Jacobs (201 to Greater Western Sydney)

Josh Jenkins (147 to Geelong)

Alex Keath (30 to Western Bulldogs)

Andy Otten (109, retired)

ARRIVALS

2016 (10)

Jonathon Beech

Tom Doedee

Dean Gore (from Geelong)

Hugh Greenwood

Curtly Hampton (GWS)

Paul Hunter

Alex Keath

Troy Menzel (Carlton)

Wayne Milera

Paul Seedsman (Collingwood)

2017 (6)

Ben Davis

Jordan Gallucci

Elliott Himmleberg

Ben Jarman

Myles Poholke

Matt Signorello

2018 (7)

Jackson Edwards

Darcy Fogarty

Sam Gibson (North Melbourne)

Bryce Gibbs (Carlton)

Andrew McPherson

Lachlan Murphy

Patrick Wilson

2019 (8)

Jordan Butts

Chayce Jones

Will Hamill

Shane McAdam

Ned McHenry

Lachlan Scholl

Tyson Stengle (Richmond)

Kieran Strachan

2020 (9)

Ben Crocker

Billy Frampton (Port Adelaide)

Lachlan Gollant

Ben Keays

Fischer McAsey

Ronin O’Connor

Harry Schoenberg

Ayce Taylor

Josh Worrell

Since losing the 2017 AFL grand final, the Crows have cleared out 1978 games of AFL experience from their player list – and added less than 300, most with the 267-game Gibbs who has fallen out of favour at senior selection.

The timing of Adelaide’s bottoming out is risky for all the unknowns that come amid the COVID pandemic – and while the AFL national draft, slated for December this year, becomes heavily compromised by academy and father-son picks. Prime talent that the Crows could have expected in previous years will be gone before Reid can make his call at the draft table.

So what are the uncertainties with Adelaide’s new strategy?

RECRUITING: Crows recruiting manager Hamish Ogilvie is under pressure to make sure Adelaide picks well – and he is not short of criticism for his recent calls at the draft tables.

“There is a reason Geelong has not fallen like other teams do – they pick well at the draft because they have the best recruiter in the business, Stephen Wells,” Maclure said. “If you don’t have a great recruiting manager, get one. He is the most important person at your club.”

DEVELOPMENT: Carlton has not risen despite having collected a stack of early draft picks after serving its penance for salary cap breaches in 2000. The Blues are mocked for being “15 years in a 20-year rebuild” – and prove the point that it is one thing to pick talent, another to develop it.

So Ogilvie could find the gems in the AFL draft pool. But Adelaide also must have a strong development program – and this is challenging while managing a league-imposed $3.5 million cut in football department spending (capped at $6.2 million next season). Do the  Crows invest in development coaches and again – as Kane Cornes says – leave novice senior coach Matthew Nicks “hung out to dry” with a low-key coaching staff on match day?

Also in question, particularly while the AFL considers cutting list sizes from 44 to 35,  is whether the Crows can keep all their young draftees together under one coach in the SANFL. Will the Crows reserves return to the state league next season? If not, will the Crows negotiate to farm out all its draftees to one SANFL club?

RETENTION: Adelaide does have a much-criticised record on keeping valued players, be it either by questions on the culture at West Lakes or the impression the Crows are tight-fisted when out-of-contract players seek deals from rival suitors to be matched at Adelaide.

There also is the delicate task of knowing which experienced players stay on the list to guide the young draftees. Former St Kilda and Fremantle coach Ross Lyon argues these calls need to be based on keeping “role models” on and off the field.

Hawthorn premiership coach Alastair Clarkson warns against a clean-out of any list saying: “You need to keep the experience players while (the draftees) mature and strengthen their bodies and learn their craft.”

FANS: Will the Adelaide members and supporters stomach a rebuild that, by Ricciuto’s count, has another two years to play out – and others expect could take five years?

The most recent example of a successful rebuild is Brisbane – three seasons from 2015-2017 ranking 17th, 17th and 18th to reload on first-round draftees to become a premiership challenger in successive seasons.

Can the Adelaide fans endure three consecutive seasons of winning less than four games a season? They have been blessed in the past with sharp rebounds after poor seasons in the past decade – 14th in 2011 to second in home-and-away football in 2012; 11th and 10th in 2013-14 to a grand final in 2017.

“It takes patience,” says Ricciuto.

Maclure dismisses the fear of fans clearing the seats – even if there is evidence of such a backlash at Port Adelaide that needed to resort to covering the empty seats at Football Park in the late 2000s to hide the vacated terraces.

“You think a wooden spoon is a problem?” Maclure says. “We have collected more wooden spoons than ever before at Carlton (the first in the club’s history in 2002 followed by four more in 2005, 2006, 2015 and 2018)… and we have more members than ever.

“Richmond could not make a grand final from 1982 to 2017, but in 2016 had a club record 75,000 members.

“Essendon had a spike in membership when it was in all that strife (with the supplements saga) in 2012.

“Going to the bottom never hurt anyone.”

Except the senior coach asked to nurture the rebuild – and possibly hand it to another coach to collect the rewards from turning the nursery into a finishing school.

The big question today is: did Nicks, who eagerly chased the Adelaide job, know the Crows were intending to bottom out after years and years of publicly declaring a preference to stay in the fight rather than load up on early draft picks?

“No, I did not think we would bottom out,” Nicks said after Adelaide’s 11th consecutive loss last week. “But I knew we would have challenges.

“I came in with complete clarity around where we were going as a club and the direction we needed to take to basically improve our list.

“Bottoming out is an interesting term… we are in transition; we are rebuilding our list.”

Ricciuto adds: “Matthew Nicks knew what he was in for when he was coming (as Adelaide’s fifth consecutive novice AFL coach after Craig, Brenton Sanderson, the late Phil Walsh and Don Pyke).

“We were very clear: we wanted to do a rebuild – an aggressive rebuild. We knew we had to move on a few of our older players and we needed to try some of our younger players who have not been exposed to AFL football in the last two years.

“We have picked up five to six players a year for two years and they’ve hardly played. So this year we are number one for debutants with eight new players and we have used the most players of any team in the competition.

“So (Nicks) is finding out little bits about the new players which is really valuable. Plus we need to continue to go to the draft for the next year or two. We are following the footpath of a few other clubs in the competition that are now starting to play pretty exciting football.”

Times have certainly changed at the Adelaide Football Club.

For the rest of the AFL season, you can read news and insights from Michelangelo Rucci – SA’s most experienced and credible football writer – every Friday in InDaily.

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