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Calder Cannons strengthen partnership with VFL side Coburg as TAC Cup graduates look to keep AFL dream alive

Reported by Chris Cavanagh and Tim Michell for the Moreland Leader
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CALDER Cannons talent manager Ian Kyte would always toe the company line.

He would tell TAC Cup graduates who were not drafted by AFL clubs their best option was to head to VFL side Coburg, a traditional pathway club.

But deep down, he did not always believe what he was saying.

“Before I would be recommending that was a place that kids continue their career but I’m not sure I believed it myself,” Kyte said.

After splitting from its alignment with Richmond at the end of the 2012 season, some suggested Coburg would not survive a year as a stand-alone club.

How things have changed.

The Lions have thrived under the leadership of general manager Craig Lees and coach Peter German and building stronger bridges with the Cannons has been crucial to their success.

At least 22 of Coburg’s 60 listed players this year will be Calder graduates.

“If you look back to when Germo and I first got there at the start of 2014 there was maybe five Cannons on the list,” Lees said.

“No one wanted to go there. It wasn’t a pathway. So we’ve done really well.”

By the end of the 2014 season, Lees and German had a story to sell.

Former Cannons’ defender Adam Saad was drafted to Gold Coast Suns after two years with Coburg.

Saad played all 18 matches in 2014, becoming one of the VFL’s most dynamic half-back flankers.

His story of persistence has given other ex-Cannons who have since missed out on the draft hope they could follow in his footsteps.

Adam Saad came through the Calder and Coburg programs before being drafted. Picture: Chris Hyde.
“It’s like the Adam Saad story,” Lees said.

“If they keep persisting with Coburg, we’ll give them the opportunities to develop and ultimately if it is the goal to be drafted, we’ll give them the best opportunity to do that.”

The clubs have introduced an Adam Saad scholarship, which is given to a 19-year-old Calder player to help them take the next step in their football career.

Gisborne’s Jack James, who was the inaugural recipient of the award last year, subsequently signed with the Lions for 2016.

“He may have gone to another VFL club if we hadn’t listed him as a 19-year-old and given him another opportunity,” Kyte said.

“He was going to get exposed to Coburg (and) he enjoyed it.”

While it was certainly not when he arrived, Lees now likens the Lions to an AFL club.

“The program we’ve put together for first and second-year players is exactly the same as at AFL clubs and the framework we’ve got now, we’re like a mini AFL club,” he said.

“We’ve got a list manager, recruiter, player welfare, a director of coaching in Ron Rooney, good footy manager, good administration, great trainers and really good coaches. It’s just really exciting.”

Kyte agrees.

No longer is he saying what he should — but what he genuinely believes.

“They’ve made it a place that the kids want to go, that the kids enjoy. They try and continue on with the family atmosphere of involving parents in the club and having everybody around the place like the kids are used to when they come from the Cannons,” Kyte said.

“Benny Allan I think is a recent one that has been really successful. He played 10-12 senior games there last year and 7-8 with us. Nathan Blair played nearly every game last year, Errol McConnell played almost every game last year.

“They were reasonable, mid-range TAC Cup players and they’ve got themselves to a level where they start every game in a senior VFL team.”

Kyte said the improvement of Coburg’s Development League team made it an attractive option for aspiring AFL players.

“Coburg has made their development team a real focus, bringing the young blokes in and teaching them to play, that helps,” he said.

Small forward Josh Cauchi is another recent success story, stepping straight out of the TAC Cup to feature in 14 senior matches for Coburg last year.

Calder captain Matthew Stillman, ruckman Mark Kovacevic and winger Mitch Conn are among 10 2015 Cannons players who have committed to the Lions.