Contributed by: Brett Northey Sunday, August 28 2005 @ 02:33 am ACST
One of the keen spectators at the 2005 International Cup was Kevin Sheehan. He is well known to most Australian Rules fans as the expert clubs and media turn to for guidance when it comes to the annual AFL draft. There is no better person to talk to about the prospects of international players making the big league, and worldfootynews.com did just that during the Cup.
As the AFL focus has shifted more and more to identifying talented youth, so has the profile of Sheehan grown. Like the United States' NBA draft, the AFL version is now telecast live with much hype about who clubs are securing. Sheehan, officially the AFL National Talent Manager, is a public face of that process, and travels the country evaluating the best talent available. If there was an illegal immigrant hiding in an Outback country town who could play a bit of footy, Sheehan would know his name, height, weight, beep test and agility results! There is always the risk of countries talking up their players, with best intentions, to try to get them a go Down Under. But in the case of Kevin Sheehan what he says can be believed.
Sheehan attended multiple rounds of the Cup and was Chairman of Selections for the "world team" named at the end of the tournament. Whilst in Wangaratta for Round 4 we discussed what he thought of the top players on show. New Zealand impressed him the most, and it was interesting to see that he had circled several names in his Official Souvenir Program, as well as noting their ages. He also liked the look of a couple of South African lads and of course PNG, where talent programs are starting to yield results through to representative teams playing in Queensland. But could they be considered by AFL clubs? The general impression he gave was that for the older players the chances weren't great, but for young players around 17 or 18 they could be considered.
Of particular interest is the proposed International Apprentice list. Currently each AFL club can field several "rookies" who are not under their normal playing structure. They can also have two internationals. The proposed changes go a step further and encourage them to bring a talented late 15 or 16 year old to Australia for schooling and immersion in Aussie footy culture, giving them access to elite training. Obviously such apprentices are more likely to come from countries with advanced junior programs, such as New Zealand, PNG, South Africa or Denmark, but with other countries also working on such systems, the options are wider. It is likely the plan will come into place at the end of 2006, so no sudden signings are expected.
It was also fascinating to get Kevin's opinion of the standard of what proved to be the top team New Zealand. With wonderful ball movement, strong athletic bodies and good vision, Sheehan was very impressed. The professionalism of the side also caught his eye. When I asked whether he thought some of the Kiwis' better players could make VFL level, it was pleasing to hear that his response was "definitely". With the gulf between the fully professional AFL and lower leagues seemingly increasing, suggesting anything further than that second tier would be a huge call. Sheehan put it roughly this way "with a couple of years at that level then you never know".
The 2005 International Cup saw improvement across the board from 2002. A wide range of ability was on show, from parklands level to polished player. Overall the AFL's top talent scout was encouraged by what he saw and was enthusiastic about the possibilities for the next 3 or 4 years. International footy has its ups and downs, but it seems it's on the right track.