As the round one predictions and season forecasts come flooding in quicker than Winx hitting the home stretch, there can be no mistake that footy is well and truly back. While the start of the AFL season is no doubt a massive event for for footy fans around the country, this weekend also marks two significant milestones for the AFL.
Unless you’ve been under a rock for the last two months, you cannot fail to have noticed the exciting groundswell of support around the brand new AFLW competition, which holds its inaugural Grand Final on Saturday – albeit with a dash of controversy. The weekend also marks the beginning of another new, or modified, competition – the Academy Series.
Never ones to shy away from making changes to the competition, the AFL has decided to reformat the U18 National Championships. For years we have seen the competition split into two divisions, with the main football states of South Australia, Western Australia and Victoria (Country and Metro) competing in Division One, while New South Wales, Queensland, Tasmania and the Northern Territory battle it out in Division Two. Last year saw the a significant step forward, with the cream of the Division Two players forming a new ‘Allies’ team to compete in Division One. This year sees an even bigger leap forward with the New South Wales and Queensland teams replaced by the Academies from GWS, Sydney, Brisbane and Gold Coast – essentially doubling the amount of talent from those areas that will play in the competition. The northern Academies are often looked on negatively, especially from footy’s heartland in Victoria, but the move really highlights the hard work these Academies have put into making our indigenous game the first choice for promising athletes around the country.
Its significance isn’t lost on Jason Torney. The 195-game AFL veteran with Richmond and Adelaide is the Talent Academy Manager at the Suns, and has seen their numbers swell by over 20% in the last three years.
“50-60 Queensland players now get to play as opposed to just 30. More players are getting a chance at that level, and it’s really encouraging more young players to take up footy. They can see that they will be given opportunities to play and be seen, and get a really high level pathway through to an AFL program,” he said.
The benefits of the change certainly aren’t limited to attracting more talent to take up the sport, but also have offer significant bonuses within the academies themselves.
“It’s definitely a positive pathway within the Academies,” Torney stated.
“You get to play a full pre-season, and then sort of a ‘mini-season’ with five games in seven weeks,” he continued.
“Instead of just having to select the elite talent in the group, we have look to put a team together, and really get a chance to put some culture and gameplans around that.”
“It will be interesting to see how we go against the Northern Territory and Tassie who, although they have a smaller population, are football based states,” he concluded.
This more holistic approach will no doubt benefit the players, and especially those who may have missed out when it was just one State squad. And for a side like the Suns, who are really starting to produce some AFL talent, this a big sign that things are heading in the right direction.
One area in which it will really help development is in the remote areas that the Academy setup was designed to nourish. For Torney and the Suns, the hard work is really starting to pay off.
“Within our program, we have a different opportunity with a whole host of undeveloped talent in North Queensland. With our programs in these regions – starting in Gladstone and going up to the Cape – we’re really starting to ID the talent up there, and in their 17th and 18th year bring them down to the Gold Coast,” he said.
“Huge development and depth of talent comes out of North Queensland in those later years. They are highly, highly talented, but they just need a little extra coaching,” he added.
This influx of talent gives a major boost to the Suns Academy, significantly strengthening them in their 18th year. One such player that has made the journey down is Cairns native Jacob Heron. Blessed with speed and athleticism, Torney likened his game to that of Bulldogs gun Jason Johannisen, and was interested to “see how he can develop over the next year”.
But what of the rest of the squad? Torney gave us the lowdown on who to watch out for.
“Our Academy has seen some unique players that are high in talent year on year, and Brayden Crossley is one of them,” he said.
“He’s been able to make every State team and perform well, and he’s made the AFL Academy. We’ll be looking for a big year from him – as will he. He’s looking forward to the challenges of becoming a key member of the Academy team, and the expectation that goes along with it.”
“Harry Simington has great awareness and is an elite kick, and along with Sam Davidson, Jacob Dawson and Brodie Foster, has done a full AFL pre-season with the Suns.”
“We also have Kwaby Boakye, who is an exciting prospect with great athleticism and speed.”
“We have high hopes that they’ll all play well and have a really good year this year.” he finished.
Boakye, in particular stands out as an interesting prospect. Tall, strong, quick and with a big leap he has certainly caught the eye – enough in fact to be fast-tracked into the AFL Academy. His Ghanaian heritage meant that soccer was his number one sport growing up, but after converting to footy his progress has been rapid.
The AFL Academy Series begins on Saturday 25th March with the Suns Academy taking on the Lions Academy, and runs through to the 6th of May. The best players from the competition will go on again to form the Allies to compete in the U18 Carnival starting in June.