“Best State league in Australian football,” proudly proclaims the SANFL, Australia’s oldest organised football competition.
The slogan sounds much better than “second-best league”, living in the shadow of the vastly bigger, richer AFL. But how long will this last?
The prospect of a national AFL reserves competition – with the inevitable and effective marketing power of AFL House – has been on the cards since 2018 when the AFL was preparing to sell a new second-tier competition to television executives as the “D League”.
D for development – the prime objective for most of the 18 AFL clubs.
COVID, with its cuts to football revenue and spending, and the need to further invest in the fast-growing women’s sector with the AFLW has dramatically changed the AFL’s agenda.
But this does not mean a national reserves competition will not emerge by stealth, particularly while AFL clubs Port Adelaide and West Coast feel more and more compromised by their presence with their reserves teams in the SANFL and WAFL.
There are two major questions today.
Can Australian football afford two sets of teams at each AFL club flying around the nation for a new reserves competition?
And can the SANFL – and by extension the WAFL – survive by being pushed to a third tier?
InDaily asked these questions from coast to coast. Opinion is united on questioning the significant cost of a national reserves competition, but divided on the future of traditional State leagues such as the SANFL.
Tom Harley has followed up his ultra-successful football career – starting at Norwood and passing through Port Adelaide for one AFL game before moving to Geelong to captain it to three AFL flags – with a promising football administration career.
He is currently Sydney Football Club chief executive after working as the Swans’ football boss, a consultant to Greater Western Sydney and in the development of New South Wales AFL talent pathways.
Today, Harley’s knowledge of the SANFL, AFL and the “new markets” north of the Murray affords him a great read on this topic and its contentious sub-topics.
Is a national AFL reserves competition feasible?
“It would be expensive for West Coast and Fremantle and to a lesser extent Port Adelaide and the Crows,” says Harley. “It works for the clubs in New South Wales and Queensland (that this season joined an expanded 22-team VFL) because the fixture is being manipulated (to control costs).”
When could a national AFL reserves series emerge? “That is totally dependent on the West Australian and South Australian AFL clubs,” he says, echoing the response AFL football boss Steve Hocking gave West Coast and Fremantle.
Each of these four clubs west of the Murray have differing agendas:
PORT ADELAIDE: Football boss Chris Davies, who led the SANFL football department in 2013 when Port Adelaide and the Crows were granted access to the State league for their AFL reserves from 2014, and club president David Koch are completely frustrated by the SANFL not adopting AFL rules, and by the State league’s restrictions on recruiting concessions for their reserves team.
Port Adelaide, unlike the other three clubs in the SA-WA bracket, has a longstanding record in State league football, being a founding member of the SANFL in 1877. It is under member pressure to win the SANFL premiership, a celebration not known at Alberton since 1999 – the longest drought in the club’s history.
Koch has expressed his growing frustration, saying: “The SANFL rules differ from those of the AFL. There are limitations on who you can have play in the SANFL.
“It does make it difficult to be part of the competition you helped as a foundation club. If the rules get to the point where Port Adelaide is further disadvantaged, if it does get much harder, you do have to ask why (stay in the SANFL).”
But can Port Adelaide – while it seeks to build an AFLW powerhouse at Alberton – afford to buy a VFL licence (a fee that is not publicly disclosed but is described by Harley as “extraordinarily expensive”) and find the $500,000 budget to run a VFL team? Currently, Port Adelaide – like all original SANFL clubs – pays no licence fee and forfeits its SANFL dividend.
There also is the emotional issue of removing Port Adelaide – and its black-and-white jumper and “Magpie” nickname – from the SANFL to be part of a national reserves competition where Collingwood would again hold exclusive rights to wear the black and white.
ADELAIDE: New chairman John Olsen, a former SANFL president, is steadfast in his commitment to honour the 14-year licence signed in 2014 to play in the SANFL until 2028.
The Crows have successfully argued to have their $450,000 annual licence fee cut to $230,000 this year easing the temptation to look elsewhere.
Adelaide, unlike Port Adelaide, is not under fan pressure to win the SANFL premiership. Rather, most Crows fans have their own SANFL allegiances and prefer the Crows to be no more than a trial horse in the State league. No Glenelg supporter who barracks for Adelaide in the AFL wants the SANFL Tigers to miss a top-five finals berth to the Crows reserves.
In 2013, Adelaide football manager Phil Harper costed entry to the NEAFL or VFL to be cheaper than joining the SANFL.
“I argued we should commit that $450,000 to South Australian football by joining the SANFL rather than spend it on airfares and hotels by playing reserves games interstate,” Harper said.
But Adelaide knows its development would be better served outside the SANFL by playing against other AFL teams – a point hammered home two years ago when the Crows played a trial against Greater Western Sydney at Football Park.
Crows SANFL coach Michael Godden reaffirms this saying: “If we are talking about development (of AFL draftees), a national reserves competition is better for the player. The chance to play against similar age players in the same stages of their careers is the best way to develop the individual.”
Experienced Crows defender Daniel Talia came to Adelaide in the summer of 2009 as the No.13 pick in the AFL national draft, and was then assigned to South Adelaide in the SANFL mini-draft. Today, Talia says Crows draftees are better served in their development by staying in an Adelaide reserves team under the watch of Crows coaches.
“I was one of the first picks in that mini-draft and went to South Adelaide when they were at the bottom of the ladder,” Talia said. “We would regularly get beaten by 10 to 12 goals in my first year and you are expected to come in, meet a whole group of guys and play a different game plan to the one you have at the Crows.
“Now we have all our young draftees together and they are trying to replicate what the AFL team is doing with strategy and game plans. It is a big advantage for these young guys to stay together and develop together.”
WEST COAST: Like Port Adelaide, the super-rich West Australian club is fed up with having its WAFL team become uncompetitive when AFL injuries mount. It wants recruiting rules changed to allow for two or three more “marquee” players to bolster the ranks and to help on-field development of young AFL draftees.
Unlike Port Adelaide, West Coast has the money to fund a national reserves team and could force the agenda within five years.
FREMANTLE: Like Adelaide, Fremantle is happy to work within the WAFL. Since 2014 it has had an alliance with the once hapless Peel Thunder – the only AFL reserves team to win an SANFL or WAFL premiership (2016 and 2017).
Australian football’s tradition of league games being preceded by reserves matches disappeared across the AFL in 2000. Since then, the second-tier under the AFL – State league competitions such as the SANFL – has been a “muesli mix” of differing rule books (such as “last touch” at the boundary in the SANFL but nowhere else) and loaded recruiting guidelines to shackle AFL reserves teams.
Generally, the traditional SANFL and WAFL clubs want the AFL reserves teams from Port Adelaide, West Coast, Fremantle and the Crows to be middle-of-the-table teams that do not win State league premierships – competitive but not dominant. In essence the AFL reserves teams are “guests” in the SANFL.
The AFL this year – in response to the COVID pandemic wrecking the NEAFL that served as the reserves platform for Sydney, Gold Coast, Brisbane and Greater Western Sydney – set up the foundation for a national reserves competition with the new-look VFL.
“And it is working well,” says Harley. “Our last two reserves games against Geelong and Collingwood have been good hit-outs. Logistically, it is more challenging. This week our AFL team is in Perth playing Fremantle and our reserves are in Melbourne playing the Casey Demons (the Melbourne Football Club reserves). This will be our first test of our resources, which are already stretched by the cut to football department spending.”
The new VFL has three categories; old-style Victorian Football Association clubs with no AFL links (Coburg, Frankston, Northern Bullants who were once Preston, Werribee and Williamstown) and non-Victorian clubs Aspley and Southport; AFL reserves teams from Brisbane, Carlton, Collingwood, Essendon, Footscray (Western Bulldogs), Geelong, Gold Coast, Greater Western Sydney, North Melbourne, Richmond and Sydney; and affiliate clubs Sandringham (St Kilda), Box Hill (Hawthorn) and Casey (Melbourne).
Sydney’s biggest gain in the new VFL – a point certain to be noted by Port Adelaide – is the greater access to top-up players.
“In the NEAFL, we were vulnerable when our under-19 academy graduates were taken to national titles; we were calling up players from the Sydney local leagues, many of whom were below par,” Harley said. “Now we are able to recruit wise, experienced players to help our development programs – like our Sydney reserves captain, Adam Gulden (older brother of Swans AFL tyro Errol).
“Our top-up players are as strong as they have ever been.”
How does this all resonate among the SANFL clubs?
Norwood was the pivotal player in the political game that in 2013 decided to end re-assigning AFL draftees to SANFL teams and to allow AFL reserves teams from Port Adelaide and the Crows to play in the SANFL.
Today, Norwood remains the greatest political lever on the SA Football Commission.
Norwood president Paul DiIulio regards a national AFL reserves competition as “inevitable”. But he does not fear it.
“COVID has pushed that reserves competition back, so now the question is, ‘When can the AFL afford it?’,” DiIulio said.
“AFLW is going to be a higher priority for the AFL.
“The real threat to the SANFL is the AFL mid-season draft (on June 2). Ask South Adelaide how a premiership campaign is wrecked by losing a ruckman midway through a season to the AFL.
“I am not convinced a national reserves competition hurts the SANFL. Yes, in the first year we will take a hit while the AFL clubs recruit hard to build up their bigger player lists. But I am far from convinced that the SANFL becomes less appealing to watch or sponsor because there is a new league between us and the AFL.”
Harley is comfortable with today’s second-tier model saying: “Personally, I think the best option would be to maintain the VFL, SANFL and WAFL competitions as the second tier.
“The key matter to resolve seems to be the top-up issue. Greater good needs to prevail.”
Long-serving SANFL and AFL club administrator, inaugural Crows chief executive Bill Sanders, agrees with Harley.
“Otherwise,” said Sanders, “the SANFL will be diminished even further.
“Development of AFL draftees is more and more important in today’s football – this cannot be understated. This is why AFL clubs want their draftees working in productive reserves teams.
“I am not sure how it serves the SANFL to work to a different rule book to the AFL. It certainly does not help that AFL draftee who plays to one set of rules in the AFL and different rules in the SANFL.
“There needs to be a different attitude from some SANFL clubs. A few have worked it out and get great satisfaction in developing AFL draftees. They should take pride in being the pathway to the top of Australian football.”
How long before that pathway is through the AFL national reserves rather than traditional State leagues such as the SANFL and WAFL?
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