Former Canadian rugby international Mike Pyke was a key player in the Swans' 2012 premiership win
Photo: Getty Images
OPEN FOR DEBATE: Ten potential AFL players from overseas will attend the Draft Combine. Is there any point?
Some 200 of Australia's finest young footballers will gather at Etihad Stadium this week to strut their stuff under the eyes of club recruiters. With its battery of fitness, physical and psychomotor tests, the AFL Draft Combine has become a crucial part of the talent identification process as clubs prepare for the national draft.
So far, so blah. But there's something different about this year's Combine: it will also feature 10 of the finest young footballers from outside Australia. Or, at least, 10 of the finest potential footballers, given that a few of them have hardly ever played the game.
The AFL has been preparing for this international Combine for years, says Kevin Sheehan, a talent manager who has scouted his way across four continents, assessing basketballers, hurlers and high-jumpers. This gathering of would-be players from Papua New Guinea, Nauru, New Zealand, Ireland, China and the US is nothing less than "a glimpse in to the future of the AFL".
But is it really? Or is the AFL just wasting its time?
In 2009, the AFL's media department made a video designed to encourage elite young US athletes to try Australian football. It featured an interview with a college basketballer from Wisconsin who'd been rookie-listed by Collingwood that year. "I chose to play AFL because it's a combination of all the sports I grew up playing," says a fresh-faced Shae McNamara. "I saw it as a challenge and I knew I wanted something new and different in my life."
But Shae McNamara never got a game at Collingwood, and has since been cut from their list. The American simply found learning the game too much of a challenge – it was too new and too different – and, if you look at the numbers, he's far from alone. For all the much-vaunted success of the Irish experiment begun by Melbourne in the early 1980s, it's had many more misses than hits. For every Tadhg Kennelly or Jim Stynes, you have a dozen Paul Cribbins or Daniel Farmers. Or Conor Merediths. Or Lachlan Smiths.
And that's just the Irish: boys who have grown up playing Gaelic football. With drafting exercises like the Combine, the AFL is hoping to make footballers out of boys with no football background whatsoever – boys like Chen Shao Liang, a 20-year-old volleyballer from Guangdong province, who just happens to have a "brilliant" jump.
It seems optimistic, to say the least. The struggles of rugby league convert Israel Folau this year should remind us that footy is a tough, tough game. Karmichael Hunt was able to make the transition from rugby league star to adequate AFL midfielder because he played the game a bit as a kid.
Scratch an AFL footballer and you'll often find a basketballer underneath. Nic Naitanui, Scott Pendlebury, Jarryd Roughead, Kurt Tippett, Jack Watts and Todd Goldstein were all junior stars of the game.
And if you scratch Boomers like Joe Ingles and Mark Worthington, you'll find a few basketballers who could have played AFL.
As the AFL's international development manager Tony Woods points out: "There is increasing evidence that athletes from a basketball development background can make the transition (to AFL)". With drafting exercises like the Combine, the AFL is "not trying to compete with professional sports in the US, but rather provide another opportunity for elite college athletes who may have missed their chance."
And, really, why the hell not? It's worth nothing that only 3.1 per cent of American high school basketball players go on to play top-level college basketball – and only 1.2% of those get to play in the NBA. What you have left are tens of thousands of big, quick athletes, who can run, jump and catch a ball. Surely at least a few of them could be taught how to kick it as well?
Those who are still sceptical need only cast their mind back to Saturday's grand final between Sydney and Hawthorn, where the Swans' ruck division was held together by a Canadian rugby union international who once scored a World Cup try against the All Blacks. Four years ago, Mike Pyke had never played Australian football. Now, he is a premiership player and what's more, the Swans might not have won it without him.
There's probably something wrong with your argument when it involves quoting Jason Akermanis, but what the hell - let's push on. Writing in the Herald Sun a few years ago, Aker recalled a conversation he'd once had with the AFL's game development boss at the time, Dave Matthews.
"I asked him straight up, 'Why hasn't our game become international?'"
Matthews, now the CEO of Israel Folau's GWS Giants, replied: "That's simple. We have never tried."
Let's give it a try.
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