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Desperate football: The Crows' rebuild and the numbers game

Football

The Adelaide Football Club is deep into a rebuild – and knows there’s a perception it’s starting to stall. As the club asks fans for patience, seasoned observers predict a long wait before it’s again a serious finals contender. Michelangelo Rucci reports.

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It’s approaching five years since the Crows played and lost the 2017 AFL grand final.

“They are five years away (from contending again),” says Matt Rendell, the Crows recruiting master from 2007-2012 – a critical role in AFL list management that he continued at Collingwood.

Another five years would extend the Crows’ current AFL premiership drought to 29 years. This would test the patience of every Adelaide fan,  and the mettle of the current Crows administration and football department to stay firm to the principles of their rebuild.

“Rebuilds – they are tough,” says Crows coach Matthew Nicks.

“I am pleading for patience. It does take time. There are ups and downs that you have. I understand the frustration of the members at the moment.”

Adelaide started its rebuild after the Crows went from AFL pacesetter in 2017 (when the club won its first minor premiership since 2005) to the league’s headline grabber after the contentious 2018 pre-season game in south-east Queensland. Senior coach Don Pyke, with two years left on a contract, resigned noting he was “part of the problem, but not part of the solution”.

I am pleading for patience. It does take time. There are ups and downs that you have. I understand the frustration of the members at the moment.

The dismantling of the Adelaide player list was extreme – some say too drastic and too dramatic. But just nine weeks ago, after the Crows beat the highly fancied but inconsistent Western Bulldogs by one point at Ballarat to have a 3-3 win-loss count, there were many Adelaide fans believing the rebuild was ahead of schedule. Even Nicks was declaring the squad was more advanced than a year earlier.

Adelaide has won just two of eight games since, against teams ranked below it: West Coast three weeks ago and North Melbourne last weekend. Both of these clubs have greater list-management issues than those at West Lakes.

“I know the rhetoric is we are starting to stall,” Adelaide chief executive Tim Silvers told InDaily. “But my view is that these things take time.

“I have been part of a successful rebuild (at Hawthorn from 2004). When you make the decision, you need to stay the course.

“You identify elite talent through the draft. You keep that core group together, and we have done that over the past few years. Even in our most recent draft, there is some talent we have picked up. Our next phase is to start to get games and experience into these players so we can take the next step.

“That (next step) is to challenge for finals and then challenge for the ultimate success. Our next phase of the rebuild is the need to look at topping up our list. We have gone to three or four drafts. Now we need to work to a ‘needs’ basis: who are some of the talented players we need to get in? How can we use trade and free agency to our advantage?

“If you look at Brisbane in their rebuild, they have gone to a couple of drafts and then they started to cherry pick – Lachie Neale, Charlie Cameron. Hawthorn, they built a core nucleus from the draft and then they went to get (by trades with rival AFL clubs) David Hale, Josh Gibson, Brian Lake.

“We have committed to the draft. We have done that part. Now we need to look at potentially topping up our list as we go.”

Rendell has studied the rebuild theories used by three AFL clubs during the past 20 years. Geelong, at the turn of the century; Hawthorn from the start of the successful Alastair Clarkson era from 2004, and more recently Brisbane. Each was different.

Regardless of the method, Rendell’s conclusion is every rebuild, no matter how it is fashioned, takes nine years to put a team back in the so-called AFL “premiership window”.

“The Crows are two-to-three years into their rebuild, so they are five years away,” Rendell said. “That is the story of the AFL for the past 20 years.”

GEELONG: “They had two great drafts in 1999 and 2001 – super drafts. (Recruiting manager) Stephen Wells picked up six or seven blokes who each played 300-plus games from those two drafts.

“But it still took them eight years to win a flag, 1999-2007, and the coach, Mark ‘Bomber’ Thompson almost lost his job at the end of 2006. Then they win another flag with ‘Bomber’ (2009) and win one (2011) with Chris Scott.

“Same with Richmond (the league’s champion side of 2017, 2019 and 2020). Dustin Martin (pick No.3, 2009 national draft) and Trent Cotchin (pick No. 1, 2007) came to the club as top draft picks, Damien Hardwick – like Chris Scott at Geelong – almost lost his job as coach. It took Hardwick eight years to win that 2017 flag against Adelaide after having a really good draft.”

Geelong’s gains in the four AFL national drafts from 1999 to 2002 built a premiership dynasty, even if Wells did better with picks Nos. 35, 38 and 47 in the 1999 draft than he did with 15, 17 and 23.

In 1999, Geelong claimed Joel Corey (276 games) at No. 8, Paul Chapman (280 matches) at No. 35, premiership captain Cameron Ling (246) at No. 38 and Corey Enright (332 games) at No. 47. The three players called at picks 15, 17 and 23 achieved a total of 81 AFL games with one, pick 15 Erza Bray not playing AFL at all. Even Geelong made “errors” in its rebuild.

In 2000, Geelong did not call until No. 44, and scored Josh Hunt (212 games).

In 2001, Wells found Brownlow Medallist James Bartel (305 games) at No. 8, James Kelly (313) at 17, Steve Johnson (253) at 24 and was blessed with the father-son pick of Gary Ablett Junior.

In 2002, the gem from South Australia was Andrew Mackie (280 games) at No. 7.

HAWTHORN: “Alastair Clarkson comes in 2004,” notes Rendell, “and they get Lance Franklin, Jarryd Roughead and Jordan Lewis in one draft.

“They fluke a premiership in 2008; they really did fluke it. That grand final against Geelong should have been over at half-time. So a flag four years into a rebuild is the outlier. It took Hawthorn until 2013 to win their next flag – nine years into the rebuild with players such as Luke Hodge, Franklin, Roughead, Lewis and Co.”

Hawthorn’s rebuild was built on claiming Roughead (283 games) at No. 2, Franklin (182 before moving to Sydney) at No. 5 and Lewis (264) at No.7 in the 2004 AFL national draft, and then taking advantage of the earlier-than-expected flag in 2008 to lure proved talent to build the three-peat premiership dynasty from 2013-2015.

From 2009-2013, Hawthorn “cherry picked” with trades with rival AFL clubs for Josh Gibson (North Melbourne), Shaun Burgoyne from Port Adelaide, David Hale (North Melbourne), Jack Gunston from Adelaide, Norm Smith Medallist Brian Lake (Western Bulldogs) and ruckman and future captain Ben McEvoy (St Kilda).

BRISBANE: Rendell notes the Queensland club has blended the Geelong-Hawthorn blueprints.

The rebuild, with former Crows football chief (now North Melbourne coach) David Noble ending the exodus of early draftees by recruiting country Victorian teenagers who adjusted best to Brisbane’s lifetstyle, started in 2016. Brisbane drafted at No. 3 Hugh McCluggage and Jarrod Berry at No. 17. in 2017. The No. 1 draftee was Cam Rayner, and at No. 15 the impressive Zac Bailey.

The trades gained goalsneak Charlie Cameron from Adelaide and Brownlow Medallist Lachie Neale from Fremantle. After taking the wooden spoon in 2018, Brisbane has been a top-four team in the AFL premiership window since 2019, but has a poor record in the past three finals series (one win, five losses).

Nicks told the Adelaide members at their annual information meeting at Adelaide Oval in March that his club’s list-management team had – like Rendell – reviewed every rebuild undertaken across the AFL: the successes of Geelong and Hawthorn; the failures of Carlton.

“By no means will we copy other clubs,” said Nicks, while declaring one rebuild blueprint did capture his club’s attention. He did not reveal which club.

Adelaide coach Matthew Nicks. Photo: Michael Errey/InDaily

“It is important to look back through history to see what those clubs have gone through in their rebuilds,” Nicks added. “We have taken in a lot of information. And we have learned that rebuilds are tough on everyone, particularly when the wins are not ticking over week in, week out. But it turns fast, so stick with us.”

The 43-point loss to Gold Coast a fortnight ago, with a late fadeout, put Nicks and his club on the front foot to keep the frustrated fan base on side with a rebuild that, as Rendell notes, needs more time. It’s not turning as fast as Nicks had promised in March.

“We are in a rut,” Nicks admitted before Saturday’s confidence-boosting 57-point win against North Melbourne in Hobart. This game against the AFL’s lowest standard revealed little; the real test comes this weekend against AFL premier Melbourne.

“We are in one of those downs (that come with rebuilds) at the moment. It is making it tough for people.”

Adelaide’s rebuild should be judged from the 2018 AFL national draft that was headlined by the draft picks conceded to finally claim Bryce Gibbs from Carlton. Since then, the Crows have drafted Chayce Jones (No.8, 2018), Ned McHenry (No. 16), Will Hamill (No. 30), Lachie Scholl (No. 64), ruckman Kieran Strachan in the 2018 rookie draft along with Paul Hunter and impressive defender Jordan Butts (No. 39 in the rookie draft).

In 2019, Adelaide picked Fischer McAsey (No.6), Harry Schoenberg (No. 24), Josh Worrell (No. 28), Ronin O’Connor (No. 42), Lachie Gollant (No. 48) and “recycled” Ben Keays and Ben Crocker from Brisbane and Collingwood respectively.

In 2020, the calls were for Riley Thilthorpe with the No. 1 pick (that came at No. 2 after the Western Bulldogs matched Adelaide’s bid for Jamarra Ugle-Hagan), Luke Pedlar (No. 11), Brayden Cook (No. 25), Sam Berry (No. 28), James Rowe (No. 38) and kept Gibbs on the rookie list to clear away his contract.

Last year, Adelaide picked opportunist forward Josh Rachele at No. 6 and followed with Jake Soligo (No. 36), Zac Taylor (No. 44), Luke Nankervis in the pre-season draft and Ben Davis in the rookie draft while making a major gain from Sydney with Jordan Dawson in the trade period.

The external critique of Adelaide’s list-management is list manager Justin Reid and recruiting manager Hamish Oligivie have assembled, particularly in the midfield, too many “same-same” players. Even Crows assistant coaches Scott Burns and Nathan van Berlo concede there is a need for a “new dynamic” in the one-dimensional Adelaide midfield.

“It seems to me that the overarching view of Adelaide’s list,” says noted critic, Port Adelaide premiership midfielder Kane Cornes, “is they have a lot of players who are too good for the SANFL, but not good enough to be very good AFL players.”

Nicks – and his development coach Michael Gooden – disagree.

If you talk bigger picture,” says Nicks, “the rebuild is on track. If you talk about some of the players we have brought in, it is quite pleasing to see how some are developing. And the way we have added to that group over the past couple of years to bring in Jordan Dawson (from Sydney) has been a real positive thing for the footy club.

“To get the guys we have through the draft as early picks – Josh Rachele (No.6 in 2021) and Riley Thilthorpe (No.2 in 2020) – is another positive for the club. We can all see we are optimistic where they will get their footy game to.

“Then you talk about some of the guys around the edge of that – Jake Soligo (No. 36 in 2021), I hope people are happy with what they are seeing from Jake – and maybe the possibilities of where his game goes to.”

Gooden is charged with developing the promise of the young draftees brought to West Lakes.

“It is going very well,” Gooden says of the rebuild. “I know people are getting impatient. I get that. I respect that. People want to win. But when look at the ‘games played’ demographic – I am not a big on age – it comes back to experience.

“Experiencing things in football for the first time or second time is nothing like when you do it for the 15th or 20th time. That is what some senior players have. We have to keep giving these kids those experiences, and they will grow quickly. They are growing together. We have been able to get a group of lads together who are really gelling well. We are in a good space. I know win-loss is not there. That is where the frustration is. But a lot of the numbers are starting to point in the right direction.”

Externally, the fans’ and critics’ eyes are still on Reid and Ogilvie with their list-management decisions.

I understand the frustration of the members at the moment. We are in one of those downs and we are going to fight our way out

“I believe we do have a strong list-management team,” answers Nicks. “When we talk about list management, it is all of us – we are all a part of that. We don’t work in silos. We are constantly in conversation about what we feel our group needs. We are all under pressure.

“To pick up Jordan Butts in your rookie draft and have him now spoken about as a really important key back in the competition; to pick up guys like Josh Rachelle … we don’t talk often about the hits, we talk about the misses a lot.

“Every club has hits and misses. Our job is to have a lot less of those misses. And do the work we need to do in the development space to make sure we give them their best opportunity.

“We have built the culture that will attract people, and attract good players to come and join us. That is why we got Jordan Dawson. We opened our doors to him: we said we would love you to come and join us. We rated him as a person, as a footballer. He was a perfect fit. We will do that again. We will continue to look at how we can improve what can we add to our group we will go after the right people. I am confident we have the right culture to do it. It is then finding the right person.

“I am more glass half full with the guys we have brought in and the squad we have. I love our group. I am pleading for patience. It does take time. Rebuilds are tough. There are ups and downs that you have. I understand the frustration of the members at the moment. We are in one of those downs and we are going to fight our way out. If you give these young kids time you are going to be really pleased with what see comes out the other end.”

There also is the question of Nicks. Australian football’s most provocative panel show, Footy Classified on Channel 9, last week asked why did Adelaide extend Nicks’ contract at the start of the season to include 2023 and 2024, when four-time premiership mentor Alastair Clarkson was to return to the coaching ranks?

More so when the club’s new chief executive, Silvers, has a long association with Clarkson from their time at Hawthorn?

“We are 100 per cent convinced on Matthew Nicks,” Silvers told InDaily. “He is part of this rebuild. He is committed. He has the support of the playing group. He has a great game plan that will hold up in finals. The board, the chief executive were all aligned (on the decision to extend Nicks’ contract and give him “clear air” in which to do his work with the distraction of speculation on his tenure).

“I have worked with Clarkson for a long time. He is an amazing coach. An amazing leader. But I think he might be suited to another club.”

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