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AFL encourages international apprentices

  • Thursday, October 26 2006 @ 05:39 am ACST
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General News

The AFL's scholarship program for young talent in NSW/ACT commences in 2007, with clubs already allowed to sign up players (see NSW apprenticeship scheme in full swing). Recently General Manager Game Development, David Matthews, released details of the much anticipated equivalent for international juniors. Here we discuss the rules of the program with AFL Talent and International Manager Kevin Sheehan (including details not widely reported), gauge his thoughts after a recent trip to South Africa, and ponder whether the new scholarship scheme will have an immediate effect on AFL recruiting strategies.

AFL International Scholarship List basic rules (including specifics detailed by Kevin Sheehan):

- clubs can sign up to two young players from overseas each year (up to a total of six players), including them on a separate list for international rookies (previously international recruits had to be placed on a primary or rookie list, taking positions clubs have preferred to use on local players)

- clubs can select players aged between 15 and (under) 23 who are not Australian citizens

- as expected, Irish juniors are excluded from the scheme to satisfy concerns from the Gaelic Athletic Association which would otherwise have threatened the senior and junior International Rules Tests. But it has been reported such players can still be recruited to an AFL club's regular rookie list (with a higher age limit)

- AFL clubs must pay at least AU$20,000 if they relocate a player into Australia but can pay a lesser amount if they leave them to develop in an overseas country. Payments are outside the AFL salary cap

- although AFL clubs will not be granted exclusive development zones, a club which signs a player on an Internationship Scholarship List has first call on the player when they are eligible for the draft

- the scholarships aren't compulsory and won't be subsidised by the AFL (whereas the NSW scheme is)


South Africa is likely to be one of the initial recruiting grounds. AFL Talent Manager Kevin Sheehan recently visited South Africa to review the coaching and development programs. WFN spoke to him about how their system is going. Sheehan: "I went to South Africa in the last week of August in my capacity as the AFL's International Manager to strengthen our relationships with partners including provincial governments, Australian embassy, media outlets, our own staff and board etc. making them aware of our planned expanded program in South Africa. It increased the belief the AFL has in the enormous potential to develop our code in South Africa."

Back to the scholarship scheme, and AFL Development Manager David Matthews was quoted in The Age as saying: "We're not anticipating that all 16 clubs will decide to invest or speculate, but what we wanted to do is make sure there's a mechanism in place that would allow them to take a chance. At the moment, to list an international player means you miss out on an Australian kid who's clearly far more developed, so we've at least got to lower the opportunity cost."

"There's incentive for clubs, and there's incentive for the volunteers running international competitions to try and push kids through. We think at some point in time someone will use that list, and that a player will progress through."

Kevin Sheehan was optimistic some AFL clubs would take a punt, telling WFN: "Clubs can sign players aged between 15 years and under 23 years onto a third list, known as their International Scholarship List. Should they develop sufficiently they can progress when eligible age wise to the club's Rookie or Primary List as an upgraded player (they escape the draft process). This is a big incentive to attract at least a few clubs to speculate."

We asked whether young players from all countries are eligible for the International Scholarship lists, or only players from leagues affiliated with the AFL. "Its open to all overseas countries except Ireland - we value our relationship with the GAA and our rep football (International Rules) at senior and under 17 levels".

Sheehan is better placed than most to speculate on whether AFL clubs will quickly embrace this new concept, so we asked him just that. Sheehan: "It will be interesting to see which AFL clubs make the first move. I'm aware one club in Essendon is contemplating a testing camp in Tokyo in November as part of its relationship with the Japan-AFL. It may well be the first to move. Other AFL clubs will wait until the AFL itself brings international players into our AIS-AFL Academy camp."

Seven international hopefuls attended the 2005 camp, whereas this year the only overseas attendees were the South Africans and New Zealanders as interested onlookers. So what does the future hold? Sheehan: "The AFL will invite, through a rigourous application and screening process, up to 10 international scholarship prospects into a development camp with our best Australian under 17 players. Given the approval of the International Scholarship list was only ratified in August it hasn't allowed sufficient time this year to set up a comprehensive screening and application process - so this will start in 2007."

So it appears that the increasing momentum for internationalising our great game continues. The structures are progressively being put in place to encourage international kids to realistically hope for cracking the big time, and to encourage AFL clubs to take a chance. With Papua New Guinea well placed to provide AFL standard juniors it may well be Australia's near northern neighbour that yields the first selection. South Africa and possibly New Zealand will be close behind, but the truth is that finding such talent is not an exact science nor purely a numbers game, and the opportunity is now there for the dozen or so countries with junior programs, such as Denmark, Sweden, the UK, USA, Canada, Tonga and Samoa. Hopefully further initiatives will also be put in place to support the leagues based around the world.

See also the article Clubs to get new overseas talent scheme (by Emma Quayle August 25, 2006) in The Age.