The rebuild. A forbidden term in many football circles, and one that sparks panic and outrage in even the most loyal of fans. However, it’s not the apocalyptic scenario that many are led to believe, yet is it the most effective method of list management? The ‘Recycling’ strategy has produced multiple premierships over the last 5-10 years, with the likes of Sydney and Hawthorn rejuvenating and bolstering their already-strong lists with mature faces. Of course, every dynasty begins with a rebuild of some degree, but which blueprint works best?
Let’s take a look at the ground-up rebuild. This is where a club plays a predominantly young, inexperienced side, with a strong focus on building a threatening team for the coming 5-10 years through consecutive cracks at the National Draft talent pool. The patience and uncertainty surrounding a genuine rebuild are what adds significant risk factor, yet executed correctly can lead to sustained success (just look at the reigning premiers). Additionally, gathering a talented young core has been difficult in recent years as a result of the privileges handed to both Gold Coast and GWS.
Melbourne are an intriguing case study in this respect, a club that has been a laughing stock (until the last few seasons) for the best part of a decade. Their initial re-build under coaches Dean Bailey and Mark Neeld in the late 2000’s/early 2010’s was a clear failure, yielding underwhelming high draft picks such as Cale Morton, Jack Watts, Jack Trengove and Tom Scully over consecutive seasons. A singular failed draft pool can be manageable, yet as the case was with the Demons, multiple failures can set an entire club back years in development. Compare this to the current list advancements Melbourne have achieved, now possessing one of the most exciting young line-ups in the league, as a direct result of consecutive successes at the National Draft. Starkly contrasting to the previously mentioned draftees, the likes of Jesse Hogan, Jack Viney, Christian Salem, Clayton Oliver and Christian Petracca have placed the Dees in a promising position for the next decade.
Melbourne rebuilds comparison:
The alternative list management strategy is known as the ‘recycle’. The recycle is where a club decides to bolster their playing list with mature players who can make an immediate impact for the short to medium term. Premierships sides over the last decade in Sydney and Hawthorn have perfected the recycle, acquiring players from other AFL clubs to address specific needs. Of course, these sides originated from successful drafting over previous years, however, the ability to remain at the top over a period of 4-5 years is a direct result of recruitment.
Hawthorn’s three-peat featured recruiting gems in David Hale, Shaun Burgoyne, Brian Lake, Josh Gibson, James Frawley and Ben McEvoy, all utilised to fill team needs as they arose, resulting in sustained team success. These names assisted the drafted foundations of the club’s mid-2000’s rebuild in Lance Franklin, Jarryd Roughead, Sam Mitchell, Jordan Lewis, Luke Hodge etc., to deliver the improbable feat, thus illustrating the rebuilding success required to effectively ‘recycle’ necessary players.
So, what does all this mean? Well, obviously it’s too complex a discussion to simply state that one method is more effective than the other, as both blueprints intertwine in the vast of majority of premiership cups. But one thing we can do is analyse the last 10 premiership sides in terms of predominantly utilised methodology. Below is a Venn-diagram displaying mainly rebuild-based as opposed to recycle-based flags in the past decade (note that all are a combination to a certain extent, e.g. Pies recycled Ball, Jolly, L.Brown):
List management is vitally important in a 22-a-side sport, as unlike sports like Basketball where a singular superstar can turn a franchise around in the click of a button and the shake of a hand, an AFL club must have a deep array of meaningful contributors to thrive. For the NBA fans out there, a Sam Hinkie 76ers ‘trust the process’ simply isn’t possible in the AFL landscape. Loyalty, patience, personnel, trust, and most importantly thorough research, all contribute to whichever path an AFL club follows. At the end of the day, it’s up to the players to reach the holy grail.