THERE SEEMS to be plenty of money available for the AFL’s favourite causes, but where are the funds and the fervour for footy at the grassroots level? GEOFF POULTER wonders what’s going on and what the future holds for his favourite state:
ANYONE who spent their first 23 years in Tasmania could not help falling in love with the tiny heart-shaped island. Its attractions, quaintness and everything it stood for. God’s own country!
I grew up in the deep south, but my parents’ ancestors settled in Devonport on the North-West Coast in the mid-late 1800s. Devonport, and its hinterland, stretching even past picturesque Sheffield, provides stunning scenery. A countryside of evergreen forests and gently rolling fields, a certain stillness, a step back in time.
It makes one massively proud to be a Taswegian, as we term ourselves. Little Tassie, with never more than 500,000 locals, just 2.3 per cent of the Australian population and 1/113th of its area, had always performed well, per capita and size, in the sporting area. Particularly in Australian Rules Football.
But now, for all sorts of reasons, particularly national administrative level neglect, footy seems to be close to striking rock bottom. The local standard of the game continues to deteriorate and far fewer players are featuring in the national draft, just one in the past two drafts of a combined total around 150 players. Tassie had 16 players drafted in 1990.
And the area most recent focus was on this week was the NW Coast. The two major towns in the district, Devonport and Burnie, similar in size to Mildura and Shepparton, now don’t have teams in the state-wide competition.
The coastal strip from Latrobe to Wynyard, about 75 km long by 20 km inland, much of it rural, carries a combined population of fewer than 100,000. Yet this is the local competition, which years back thrived as the North Western Football Union, and produced the likes of Darrel Baldock, Matthew Richardson, Alastair Lynch, John Greening and, more recently, Grant Birchall and Ben Brown.
Just to indicate the depth and strength of the district, here is a composite NW Coast team of those recruited to play in the AFL (previously VFL).
B: Robert Neal, Peter Marquis, Jade Rawlings.
HB: Graham Wright, Alastair Lynch, Grant Birchall.
C: John Greening, Ray Stokes, Arthur Hodgson.
HF: Matthew Richardson, Darrel Baldock, Ray Groom.
F: Russell Robertson, Ben Brown, Graeme Lee.
R: Brendon Gale, Colin Robertson, John Bonney.
I-change: Michael Gale, Simon Atkins, Stephen Febey, Brady Rawlings, John Heathcote, Chris Bond.
Tasmanian football has been neglected for so long. And it is puzzling to understand why the AFL has been so frugal in its spending to try to revive the state’s fortunes. There is plenty of money to invest on Queensland and Sydney and AFLW and X and YZ! But Tassie, in comparison, gets a pittance. What two per cent, as a wild guess, if that, of all the pet projects?
Are they so mean and cold-hearted that they simply consider it too much of a poor investment? An assured, captured TV market. Even money spent unwisely is better than virtually none. One would think, after so many years of poor publicity, the AFL would be shamed into pumping cash into one of the four fundamental football states. Just out of sheer conscience. Alas, no.
My humble advice to the AFL? Launch a massive junior development scheme for kids from six to 16. Give them saturation treatment and, if they emerge, after all that effort, still preferring soccer, BMX or the luge, then so be it. At least you tried. You can wipe your hands and with a clear conscience. Surely there is enough left from the TV rights deal to fund this type of scheme.
Tasmanian Martin Flanagan wrote in mid-2015 that the AFL treats Tasmania like a colony. It’s hard to disagree. Has any AFL official spent a few weeks moving from one corner of the island to the other to talk to those at grass roots levels about the plight of the game there? To study the problems. Surely that would be a productive, worthwhile exercise.
Several ex-pats have expressed concern with the plight of Tassie footy. Nick Riewoldt noted signs that the game was weakening down south. Chris Fagan questioned why, also from a cultural perspective, as a foundation state, it hasn’t a national team. And I tend to agree with Tim Lane that the long-term plan may be to push North Melbourne down there, at least to play a few more matches. Appease the natives that way and get them off our back.
It is exactly 60 years ago this year that, at the centenary national football carnival in Melbourne, Tasmania defeated the state teams from both South and Western Australia. Today they probably wouldn’t get within 200 points. How the mighty have fallen. It is all so depressing. Let’s hope there is a quick reversal and a fairy-tale ending to this sad “state” of affairs.
GEOFF POULTER, 69, has spent 51 years in sports media. He was the last Melbourne Herald chief football writer. CV: Sports oracle, author, historian, impersonator, raconteur, poet, quiz whiz, philosopher, song-writer, intellectual scholar – and still employable!