Max Gawn says stars like Ben Brown show AFL recruiters should look more at ‘second-tier’ footy
MAX GAWN, Herald Sun
April 29, 2018 7:00am
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I DON’T envy the role of AFL recruiters.

They pour over countless hours of vision of almost every game around the country.

They pick through all the data and are entrusted with making decisions that have a long-lasting effect on the club — good and bad.




The standard entry to the AFL is the under-18 competitions in Western Australia, South Australia and Victoria.

Almost every top 10 pick in recent drafts were plying their trade in one of these three leagues.

But we’re also seeing later picks falling to other competitions. Think VFL, WAFL, SANFL and various other smaller and obscure leagues around Australia.

Max Gawn battles with North’s mature-age star Ben Brown. Pic: AAP
Is the “drafting the best 18-year-old’s first” theory starting to change? The short answer is no, but the blinkers need to be taken off.

Dustin Martin, Nat Fyfe, Patrick Dangerfield and Lance Franklin — arguably the best four players in the competition — were all taken as teenagers.

So a talented 18-year-old should remain at the forefront of recruiters’ minds.

But what about all the guys who were taken at 18 who never made an impact? Or, like me, took six years to do anything at senior level?

Let’s look more, and invest more, in the second tier competitions around the nation.

Let’s look for more Ben Browns, who overcame injuries as a young teen and then showed his talents for Werribee in the VFL before getting drafted in his early 20s.

Seasoned against the harder bodies, he made a very quick transition for a first-year key forward.

My club, Melbourne, has started to move more in this direction in recent drafts.

Aaron Vandenberg, Josh Wagner, Tim Smith, Declan Keilty, Jeremy Howe, Bailey Fritsch, Mitch Hannan and Matt Jones just to name a few.

Michael Hibberd was a VFL star before earning his AFL chance. Pic: AAP
All of those mentioned played in their first year, all made an impact and the majority played senior football before their higher-regarded 18-year-old teammates.

During this time we missed with a few young draft picks, including some first rounders who are no longer in the system.

There are a stack of examples throughout the AFL of mature age recruits who have played some seriously good footy.

Michael Hibberd, David Mirra, Tory Dickson, Liam Ryan, Isaac Smith, Michael Barlow, Dale Morris, Tim Kelly and Paul Puopolo just to scratch the surface.

The James Podsiadly story was a brilliant one, but it shouldn’t be so unique.

How many Tom Stewarts are still out there, playing suburban or country footy, waiting to be given a chance like Stewart was by Geelong?

It’s been debated over the years, but what if we actually did raise the draft age? Drafted at 20 instead of 18.

You’re on an AFL list with two years of university behind you and two years of senior footy behind you.

In my opinion, it would have you in a much better position to launch your career.

I tuned in to Fox Footy on Monday night to watch the great Paul Roos on On The Couch.

He argued that putting money and resources into the TAC Cup would help filter greater high-end talent.

Yes, money directed to the TAC Cup is important and, yes, we need to properly develop the best players on the way through to the big league, but can you imagine how far that coin could go at VFL level?

Tom Stewart was starring in a local Geelong league before joining the VFL. Pic: Getty Images
Let’s invest in a competition that is a great provider of talent over the years.

And with the 18-year-olds we do draft, let’s make sure that the VFL games they do play are on good ovals against the best quality opposition.

That is not always the case in a competition where stand-alone clubs compete with AFL-aligned rivals.

Do all the best non-AFL players play second-tier footy? No.

To try and find the next Ben Brown or Michael Hibberd or Tom Stewart we have to get them to the VFL.

Having VFL teams fold in Ballarat, Bendigo and Frankston — even though the latter has returned — is enormously damaging.

That’s when we lose all those talented players in that area who don’t want to travel two hours to play that footy and instead stay local where, let’s be honest, the money is better anyway.

A VFL club needs to be able to cough up more cash for players than your local country or suburban powerhouses such as Balwyn and Strathmore.

Affiliated clubs should show interest in drafting their own as well.

Show more players that it is possible to make it as a mature age recruit.

Show these hopefuls that by playing VFL they can train on AFL ovals, play on AFL standard ovals, use good facilities and rub shoulders with some of the top-level players in the game.

Let’s get the best players playing AFL.