Opinion - An AFL pathway for South Africans?
While there is general consensus among the chiefs at the AFL that South Africans will be recruited to the AFL in the next 3-5 years the question is how? Although there has been plenty of development action and visits from Australia, the biggest issue facing the growth of the code in the African country could be a clearly defined pathway.
Papua New Guinea and New Zealand are benefitting from the proximity to Australia, in recent years they have forged much more clearly defined pathways than other Pacific nations and in many ways are leaving the rest of the world behind.
Along with their own senior, junior competitions and national championships, juniors and seniors from PNG and NZ now regularly participate in Australian national championships at various levels. This gives them the opportunity show their wares against seasoned opposition. Papua New Guinea has an affiliation with AFL Queenland which has seen almost half of its recently named national squad gain invaluable experience in Australian leagues on scholarships. New Zealand doesn't have a similar affiliation in place yet, but there are also a number of Kiwis crossing the Tasman to try their luck in semi-pro Australian leagues. Room in the AFL/AIS Draft Camp invitees list is becoming scarce and being limited to genuinely proven players. PNG's John James may yet prove the value of a well defined pathway.
A bottleneck in any pathway can seriously affect the potential of producing AFL talent. New Zealand have struggled with providing regular quality competition for its juniors.
There is no doubt that the AIS/AFL and Flying Boomerangs recent annual tours to South Africa (which replaced the junior International Rules series against Ireland) have developmental benefits for young Australian talent. The safari-like experience has been fantastic for producing well rounded young men. But what is often forgotten is that they are also the rare opportunites for South Africa's best juniors to show their stuff.
The often highlighted challenge for South Africa is regular competition at the Australian level.
To demonstrate, here is a snapshot of the current AFL South Africa pathway:
* FootyWild (Auskick)
* Clinics by visiting clubs
* Junior leagues
* Junior Barassi Tournament (every 3 years)
* A couple of regular senior leagues (only recently established and only in a couple of locations)
* Senior National Championships (only recently contested)
* One-off AFL club talent camps
* AFL/AIS Academy International Invitees
* Senior International Cup (every 4 years)
* AFL Draft
* Rookie Draft (International Rookie)
Even with professional and amateur Australian clubs and schools visiting South Africa every few months, the International Cup and Barassi Tournament every few years, this is simply not enough to get a South African player into the AFL. Many AFL recruiters monitor juniors over a number of years. It is too difficult for AFL recruiters to judge talent from one or two talent camps or form in an international tournament. In terms of recruiting, it just can't possibly compare with competitions like the TAC Cup and Under 18 AFL National Championships. Almost every single player from last year's AFL draft came from either one of these competition or a semi-professional Australian state league. With the exception of the Irish gaelic footballers, almost all rookies also followed the same pathway or a scholarship program (such as the NSW scholarships program) and very few rookies make a successful transition to senior AFL football.
What is needed is to fill the [Gaps] to nurture and identify talent. Some form of national junior championship or scholarship program needs to be established. Somewhere in between there is a need to regularly test players and to provide a secondary path for those who are good enough to play semi-professionally, but not quite AFL level. The perfect system would be a scholarship system with the WAFL (which is the closest Australian semi-professional league), similar to the PNG/AFL Queensland affiliation. The best young players would be moved to Perth where they could play for clubs in the WAFL competition. By making the players eligible to play for Western Australia in the Under 16 and/or Under 18 AFL Championships, this would reduce the infrastructure needs by linking them to the well oiled Australian pathway which sees so many players drafted to the AFL each year.
Without it and unless a semi-professional league can be established in the next decade in South Africa (which is unlikely due to the living standard of the majority of its participant), much of the great work done may be wasted and much of the rainbow nation's talent may be missed. As previously mentioned on WFN in the article New Zealand junior programs at the crossroad?, the same could also be said for New Zealand.