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AFL's Talent Manager commits to international youth development

  • Sunday, February 05 2006 @ 01:13 am ACDT
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General News

During the 2005 International Cup the AFL's National Talent Manager Kevin Sheehan was a keen observer. While followers of the international development of Aussie Rules will know that junior numbers have only begun to grow in recent years and much work needs to be done, it may still be the case that the first international draftee (other than the Irish Gaelic/Hurling player experiment) may not be far away. The next big step forward was the invitation of international players to the AIS-AFL draft camp late last year. When can we expect to see an international draftee, how well did the overseas players stack up, and will the camp invites go out again in 2006? WFN asks all these questions and more in an interview with Kevin Sheehan, in which he foreshadows changes in the very near future to fast-track international youth development.

Well known to Australian Football fans, Kevin Sheehan is regarded as one of the most astute judges of footy talent. The following records Kevin's positive thoughts on the future of the game in terms of international junior development, which of course is what will get AFL clubs excited and see the AFL's international development program continue and most likely expand in the years ahead.

WFN: Hi Kevin, thanks for talking to us. We noted you were a keen spectator at the 2005 International Cup, which was an encouraging sign that the AFL and AFL clubs are starting to think internationally in terms of future talent. You remarked then that the game was developing fast. Perhaps one of the most pleasing things to come out of 2005 was international players being invited to the AIS-AFL camp. Whose idea was it to invite the players?

Kevin: The AFL met with all teams during the International Cup on a range of issues with countries expressing the view that they desperately wanted opportunities for their promising young players to progress and develop. This was at a time when the AFL itself was considering its position in terms of a talent search program internationally.

After some discussion it was decided to trial a few invitees at the 2nd Camp of the AIS/AFL Academy squad to be held at the AIS in December 2005. This camp, under the direction of AIS/AFL High Performance Coach Alan McConnell included the 30 scholarship holders in the Academy with another eleven AFL prospects from around Australia. We decided to top up the camp with a few internationals.

WFN: I understand there were originally 15 invited, but only 7 made it. Was that an issue of the countries and players involved not being able to secure funding?

Kevin: Only seven Internationals were invited and all attended being two from each of Japan, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and one from Great Britain. This had us at a capacity of 48 places to make the camp manageable.

WFN: The players were training with some of Australia's elite under 16 talent. Most of the internationals were somewhat older - late teens and early 20s. Was there much interaction between the two groups?

Kevin: The International players and Scholarship holders integrated extremely well. In fact, the international players really enhanced the camp with their own unique skills, athleticism and personalities. A strong bond developed as the Internationals were recognised as pioneers in helping spread our game in different parts of the world.

WFN: How did the internationals stack up? At this stage their skills wouldn't be expected to be quite as high, but how far away were they and what about on athletic grounds?

Kevin: The most challenging part for the Internationals was the ball handling and kicking when mixing with the top 16 year olds from around Australia. However in the testing area two Internationals led the camp with their results – Michael Hayden from Great Britain recorded a level 14.13 “Beep Test”, whilst Alex Fakatoumafi ran a 2.89sec for 20 metres. Both these results would rank in the top 5% in their categories based on our AFL Draft Camp results over recent years – a terrific performance.

WFN: What are you hearing from AFL scouts? Do they all share your positive attitude that international draftees will be taken in future?

Kevin: I've no doubt International players will be selected by AFL Clubs in the future. Right now the AFL is considering a scholarship list for clubs (over and above the primary and rookie list each club has currently) to enable them to list players from new markets (Greater Sydney and selected International Markets). I’d expect the AFL will announce this new opportunity early this season.

WFN: Obviously these guys often start later in the game, and don't get as much contact with the sport. But were there 1 or 2 standout players amongst the internationals that you thought were close to the mark of deserving a shot at AFL level? What about state league level, such as VFL?

Kevin: The next step for the Internationals under the current system would be through a state league club or through an invite to tryout at AFL level. The higher level of training and matches would be needed to take the players further. All seven Internationals demonstrated enough capability to handle an opportunity at State League level. Already we have seen the Japanese duo of Michito Sakaki and Tsyuyoshi Kase impress with their skill and commitment at the Essendon Football Club with Kevin Sheedy.

WFN: A critical question is whether this is a one-off event or will be repeated. Do you think we'll see a group of internationals at the AIS camp in 2006?

Kevin: The appearance of Internationals at our AIS/AFL Academy Camp will not be a one off event. It is set to be an annual high level opportunity for youngsters from a number of countries to train with the best young players under the direction of our high level coaches and under the watchful eye of AFL scouts. Our future plans are being detailed right now.

WFN: There are a few players now having a shot at the VFL or upper levels of the VAFA, and the Japanese boys training with Essendon. In terms of raw numbers and elite pathways PNG seems to be in the lead with their work with AFL Queensland. Would you agree with that?

Kevin: Certainly PNG's link with AFL Queensland, particularly with it’s involvement with State Under Age Championships, has given a pathway for PNG boys. Other linkages and opportunities need to be explored immediately to enable youngsters from other countries to see a possible future in the AFL. This issue also is on the AFL’s agenda.

WFN: If you had to take a punt and crystal ball gaze, when do you think we'll see the first international developed player onto an AFL club's International Rookie List (developed overseas in footy terms, not like say the Irish experiment with former Gaelic / hurling players)? When might we see the first international to play a senior game of AFL? 2007, 2008 or do you think it could still be a 5 to 10 year process?

Kevin: Before the end of this decade (2010), we will see Internationals who first learnt the game overseas being listed by an AFL club (ie on its primary or senior list). The proposed AFL Scholarship system will encourage AFL clubs to scout for prospects and it will give the AFL Club and the player sufficient time (and as a result high level development) to enable the player to make the grade. Once listed a player should debut within 2 years.

WFN: Thanks for your time and it's great to see international footy has another important supporter like yourself.