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- Two veteran recruiters are warning the new Tasmanian team not to prioritise instant success.
- The AFL heeded lessons from Gold Coast’s experience in handing the Giants extra concessions.
- AFL Tasmania and the AFL plan to introduce elite programs for players as young as 12 years old.
- Ex-GWS recruiter Neville Stibbard thinks Tasmania should target Kinnear Beaton and Scott Clayton.
Two veteran recruiters with experience building lists from scratch have warned the incoming Tasmanian AFL team not to chase instant success over long-term viability.
Neville Stibbard, who handpicked GWS’ inaugural list, and Peter O’Sullivan, the talent-spotter behind the NRL’s new club the Dolphins, are wary of the AFL’s wish for Tasmania to hit the ground running.
Ex-North Melbourne recruiter Neville Stibbard (left) hopes the Tasmanian team takes a long-term view.Credit: Patrick Scala
Outgoing AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan told this masthead at last Wednesday’s Tasmania licence announcement: “I think this team needs to be competitive from day one”.
The Gold Coast and Giants – who entered the league in 2011 and 2012, respectively – endured serious struggles in their early years.
GWS won only three games across their first two seasons, and the Suns had double as many in the same period but suffered repeated hidings. Gold Coast are yet to make finals in any of their 12 completed campaigns, while the Giants reached the 2019 grand final and lost preliminary finals in 2016-17.
“No one can be good straight away,” Stibbard told The Age. “Getting too many older guys in would be a mistake. You’ve got to suffer the pain before you get the gain.”
Stibbard and O’Sullivan were envious of the long runway the Tasmanian team will have before joining the AFL in, most likely, 2028. They will have time to plan properly and hire the right people.
O’Sullivan, who helped orchestrate Melbourne Storm’s extraordinary success, was hired in late October and the Dolphins played their first match barely four months later, under legendary coach Wayne Bennett.
But the gun recruiter needed one reassurance before he agreed to join the Queensland team.
Dolphins recruiter Peter O’Sullivan.Credit: Stan
“I said to the coach [Bennett] and CEO [Terry Reader]: ‘I’m not taking this unless you’re taking a longer-term approach’,” O’Sullivan said. “I said we would do the best we can at the start, but that a longer-term approach was what works. Wayne was a big factor, and if he wasn’t there, I daresay there would be a list of players who would not have come.”
How the Dolphins did it
The Dolphins are entrenched in the top eight with a 6-4 record in their first season. O’Sullivan admits their list demographics are on the older side, in part because they missed out on some mid-tier recruiting targets.
He promised himself from the outset he would not over-pay for established players if they did not fit Bennett’s coaching style or would not foster the desired club culture. But without a draft system, O’Sullivan aggressively hunted the best youth prospects in NSW, with the offer of a quicker transition to first grade – and was particularly successful in raiding Penrith’s feeder squad.
“You need those top-end experienced players to drive the culture of your footy club and be the pioneers. But you also need the best young players,” he said.
“Any club – a new club, reigning premiers, or one in the middle – if you haven’t got good young players coming into your system, you’re pushing shit uphill, and you’re going to have a bad year at some stage.”
Suns v Giants
Much is made of how much more successful the Giants have been than their fellow expansion team, but there are some excuses for why the Suns didn’t fare so well.
The AFL learnt quickly from Gold Coast’s entry that GWS would need more support, and beefed up the Giants’ list concessions.
The league designed “mini-drafts” in 2011 and 2012, where teenage stars Jaeger O’Meara, Brad Crouch, Jack Martin and Jesse Hogan were taken, but the catch was GWS had to trade those picks to other clubs, with the AFL hoping they would acquire mature-age talent.
Instead, the Giants turned those mini-draft selections into seven first-round picks, and could have up to 42 players on their primary list into their seventh season.
The Suns, on the other hand, had to slash their primary list from 48 to 38 within five years.
Gary Ablett jnr and his troublesome left shoulder.Credit: Getty Images
The sliding doors moment came in 2014, when Gold Coast boasted a 7-3 record, then 9-6, only for superstar captain Gary Ablett jnr to suffer a season-ending shoulder injury. The Suns finished 12th, winning just one of seven games without Ablett jnr.
But GWS’ strategy to recruit mostly experienced staff was also a key plank of their success, compared to Gold Coast appointing various first-timers, from the coach (Guy McKenna) to the football boss (Marcus Ashcroft), president (John Witheriff) and CEO (Travis Auld).
Stibbard, who now consults for the Suns but has worked for various clubs across the years, including North Melbourne during their golden era under Denis Pagan, was one of the Giants’ savvy appointments.
The now-71-year-old unearthed Jeremy Cameron before he was identified as a top prospect. Dylan Shiel and Adam Treloar were among the Giants’ other 17-year-old access selections, and Canberra-born Josh Bruce was a zone selection.
There was resistance at school level in NSW that Tasmania won’t have to deal with, as a traditional Australian rules football state.
“There were people at schools saying to kids, ‘Why do you want to play Gay FL?’,” Stibbard said. “A lot of schools didn’t want them playing Aussie rules football.”
Tasmanian talent pathway
Critics remain disappointed that Tasmania did not field football teams in under-12 and under-15 national school carnivals last year.
AFL Tasmania, in consultation with league headquarters in Melbourne, opted instead to play an intrastate competition that involved more children, but the situation was more complex than it seems.
There are exciting times ahead for Tasmania’s young footballers.Credit: AFL Photos
The School Sport Australia event is separate from the AFL’s own talent pathways, AFL Tasmania boss Damian Gill said.
Colby McKercher is Tasmania’s leading AFL draft prospect this year.Credit: AFL Photos
Gill’s organisation helped run the state’s involvement in that championships previously, and he said they were “very supportive” of players travelling to these types of events, but opted for a different approach last year.
Tasmania will be represented in under-15s at the 2023 edition, while they also compete in the under-16 and under-18 AFL championships and have full-time boys’ and girls’ teams in the Talent League. Tasmania won the division two boys’ title last year, and lost their Talent League boys’ preliminary final by one point.
Gill expects the Tasmanian AFL team to be a “game-changer” for the state, even beyond football.
“We have three strong regional talent bases within the state, and it’s already touted that academies will start from 12 years old, then the next phase will be the senior end of it,” Gill said.
“Those who graduate from the Talent League [and are not drafted] will eventually have a Tasmanian VFL team [possibly by 2025], then beyond that, an AFL team. Having that strong, complete end-to-end pathway, equal to any other in the country, is something we haven’t had. We’re pretty bullish about how much talent we have.”
The current development set-up has promising players transitioning to an elite training program at age 15 but is typically geared towards footballers 16 and older. The AFL’s head of talent pathways, Grant Williams, confirmed they wanted to start earlier.
“How we expand the existing Devils programs to younger age groups, and develop an academy model, is the next piece of work ahead of us,” Williams said.
Tasmania’s top AFL draft prospects this year are Colby McKercher, Jack Callinan, Ryley Sanders, James Leake and Heath Ollington, while Nathaniel Sulzberger could be a first-round pick in 2024. Georgia Clark and Brooke Barwick are standouts on the women’s side.
Tips for Tasmania
Stibbard thinks Tasmania should set up their recruiting team as soon as possible, with Swans list boss Kinnear Beatson and North Melbourne’s AFL Tasmania hall of famer Scott Clayton at the top of the wishlist. The ideal scenario would be Beatson and Clayton working as a combination.
From there, Stibbard said they should quickly identify the state’s best prospects and consider placing them in the same school, probably in Hobart.
Could Sydney Swans list boss Kinnear Beatson be a Tasmanian team target?Credit: Getty Images
“Get the kids a good education and even have a development coach working at the school on a daily basis,” Stibbard said.
There is even an idea that Tasmania could target top kids from interstate and offer them scholarships to relocate.
Picking players with the right personalities and football traits will be important, Stibbard and O’Sullivan said, as will be appointing a coach that they want to play for who can absorb pressure if defeats pile up early.
“We prioritised three things – competitiveness, athleticism, and having a good football profile, which includes skill level, footy IQ and decision-making,” Stibbard said.
“You had to think they could develop to be elite in at least two of them for us to pick them.
“Footy IQ is important but if they tick the other boxes, and you get them at 12, you can develop them by playing games.”
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