AFL Round 20: Sydney vs. Collingwood
Saturday Night, 4th August 2018 at the SCG
He’s the best player in the draft, or one of the best two or three, and it’s frustrating to watch him. Philosophically everyone would be in favour of the academies because they’re adding to the talent pool, growing the game and getting kids into footy, but the bidding system is flawed when Sydney might make a grand final then get a kid who could be rated No. 1 on talent. It’s not right.
Anonymous Recruiter 
Midway through the 2014 AFL season, seeds of discontent were surfacing within the AFL community (primarily from Victoria) due to the unfair advantage that the Northern State clubs (Sydney, GWS, Brisbane and the Gold Coast) were receiving as a result of their player academies. The AFL introduced the academy concept as a means of attracting talent from other codes and increasing the available talent pool. This in itself wasn’t a problem until one of the academies produced a genuine superstar talent. And in 2014, this became a reality when Isaac Heeney became the envy of AFL recruiters.
Not only was Isaac Heeney one of the best talents of his draft year, most pertinently he was produced out of the Sydney Swans Academy. Sydney had only just secured superstar Lance Franklin as a Free Agent at the end of 2013 and the Swans were still perceived by other clubs to be enjoying the benefits of a 10% cost-of-living allowance to their salary cap. Off the back of this, any potential additional draft benefits for the Swans was simply unpalatable to the rest of the competition.
Under the rules at the time, the Swans only had to give up their first selection in the draft to secure Isaac Heeney. But by midway through the 2014 season, when it was clear that Sydney was a premiership contender (they would ultimately lose the Grand Final to Hawthorn), it was evident the Swans were going to get Heeney for a bargain price (ultimately it was pick 18). Sydney were effectively beating the draft system by grooming footballers from a young age and getting easy access to them through the draft. What made matters worse, Callum Mills, another player regarded in the top handful of his draft year, would be available to the Swans in the following year. Opposition clubs were outraged, with Collingwood President Eddie McGuire leading the revolt:
I am red hot on this. This is going to impact on every Victorian and South Australian and West Australian club. We have given New South Wales and Queensland four academies where they can go and get players and hide them away and train them from twelve years of age. We have to get back to giving the game back to the supporter base and back to Victorian football, which has been drained through the last period of time. 
The idea of course was that that the Academies would start producing so many good players that the host clubs could not take them all, thereby increasing the pool of players available to the whole competition. This was the theory at least. And it was the central theme behind Sydney Chairman Andrew Pridham’s rebuttal:
The academy system is designed to promote AFL in non-traditional football states and to develop a higher standard of player both for local leagues and at the elite level. As can be seen from the facts, we are a long way off this objective being met in terms of the development of elite talent.
The facts are that the introduction of two expansion clubs has diluted the national talent pool. Therefore, it is vital to have a robust system to develop the game and talent outside of Victoria such that the game can become truly national. The academy system is doing a fantastic job, but there is a long way to go. If the AFL competition becomes flooded with talent from New South Wales and Queensland, it will be the best problem we have ever had. 
The drama became a tit-for-tat between the figureheads of Collingwood and Sydney, with others joining in for good measure. The new AFL chief executive officer Gillon McLachlan tried to play peacemaker, all the while developing a new and fairer bidding system in the background.
In 2014, the way the bidding system worked was that the clubs first had to decide whether they wanted to nominate any of their eligible academy players. Then, at a meeting held on the first day of the trade period, other clubs had the opportunity to bid a draft selection for any of the nominated players. If they did, the nominating club needed to use its next pick in the draft order to match it, or let the player go.
As it eventuated, the Melbourne Football Club bid the number 2 selection in the draft for Isaac Heeney. Sydney was able to match the bid with selection 18. The bid by Melbourne was perhaps not completely unsurprising, as their coach at the time was Paul Roos, whose previous role was coaching Heeney as head of the Sydney Academy.
Sydney’s seeming ability to cherry pick elite players out of the draft for minimal spend was untenable. And the AFL introduced a new bidding system the following year to make the system fairer. This bidding system has remained in-place since 2015 and was discussed in more detail in The Weekend Preview’s Round 7 article, presenting what Sydney will likely need to give up for their next potential Academy star draftee Nick Blakey.
The bidding system has certainly improved the overall fairness of the academy system, but has it achieved its intended aims? First of all, are more players being brought into the AFL from NSW and Queensland? The answer to that is a resounding yes. Figure-1 and Figure-2 present the number of AFL players on AFL lists that originated from NSW or Queensland. Year on year there appears to be a steady rise in numbers. So far so good then.
[Note: Data sourced from the AFL prospectus (2013-2018). The state origin of rookie listed players pre-2015 requires further data gathering]
But how are these players distributed across the AFL? If we take out the players playing in their home state, the number of players from NSW or Queensland playing in other teams across the AFL has only been steady, with perhaps a small rise in numbers from NSW in the past year or two. So although the overall talent pool is rising with an increased number of AFL-level players from NSW and Queensland, this localised talent does not appear to be spreading entirely across the country.
If we therefore take a closer inspection of the 4 Northern State clubs, we can confirm that the drive in AFL player numbers from NSW and Queensland has come from these clubs alone. Brisbane and GWS have had a steady climb in numbers over the past 5 years. Sydney actually peaked in 2016 and has had a small drop since then. Whilst the Gold Coast bottomed out completely in 2016 but have had a renewed focus in recruiting home grown talent over the past 2 years. The go-home factor has been a big issue for the Queensland clubs in particular and they perhaps have belatedly recognised the benefits of in investing in Queensland players. It could also explain why Gold Coast overspent in getting Queenslander Lachie Weller to the club in last year’s trade period in exchange for selection 2 in the National Draft.
However, these graphs only tell part of the story. Specifically, how has the 4 Northern State Academies contributed to the AFL talent pool. The academies took a while to get going, but in recent years, the number of players being drafted from the academies has taken off, with GWS and Brisbane in particular contributing the most. In fact Sydney, the team most attacked for having access to an AFL academy has produced the fewest players.
In total there have been 31 players selected at the National Draft that have come directly from the academy system. The 2016 AFL National Draft has been the high point with 12 players selected from the academies, including 5 players ending up at other clubs. In total there has been 6 academy players selected by opposition clubs:
- Declan Watson – Brisbane Academy (North Melbourne, Pick 34, 2016)
- Josh Williams – Gold Coast Academy (North Melbourne, Pick 36, 2016)
- Kobe Mutch – GWS Academy (Essendon, Pick 42, 2016)
- Harrison Macreadie – GWS Academy (Carlton, Pick 47, 2016)
- Ryan Garthwaite – GWS Academy (Richmond, Pick 72, 2016)
- Corey Wagner – Brisbane Academy (North Melbourne, Pick 43, 2016)
[Note: Data sourced from the AFL Record Season 2018]
So the Academy System appears to be working. More players from NSW and Queensland are being introduced into the AFL system, thereby increasing the talent pool, and in recent years that talent is starting to get spread to other AFL clubs. The new bidding system is much fairer than the original system, meaning the Northern States need to give up more to secure their talent, yet they are still being rewarded for doing the legwork in developing the players. And to appease the rest of the clubs, the AFL has introduced the Next Generation Academy program, whereby each AFL club has been allocated a zone to run their own academy targeting players from Indigenous and Multicultural backgrounds. This overall expansion in talent can only be good for the competition.
It has been a while since Eddie has aired his misgivings of the Academy System. But if Collingwood can poach home-sick Free Agents from the Northern State clubs such as Tom Lynch from the Gold Coast, he probably doesn’t mind too much anymore. Little of this impacts the game this weekend of course, which is an intriguing battle that will help shape the finals ambitions of both clubs. 6 weeks ago Sydney was looking very strong and sitting comfortably inside the Top-4. But after a poor run of form, their finals ambitions are in the balance and there has even been talk (perhaps prematurely) of their terminal decline. Collingwood on the other hand have gone from strength to strength this year despite their growing injury list. Jeremy Howe and Matthew Scharenberg are the latest casualties that will surely hurt the cohesion of their defence. With Lance Franklin in the Sydney forward line that normally would mean bad news for the Magpies, but Franklin’s form has dropped off significantly from the first half of the season, as he clearly is suffering from lingering injuries. However, the Swans have brought back into the side this week experienced players in Kieran Jack and Jarrad McVeigh, as well as the feel good story of the year in Alex Johnson - playing his first game since the 2012 Grand Final and after 5 knee reconstructions. All in all, I’m not willing to write off Sydney just yet.
Sydney to win by 6 points
References and Recommended Reading:
 Quayle, E. (2015).“The Draftees”. Penguin Random House Australia.
Post Round 19 All-Australian Team:
Figure-9 below presents The Weekend Preview's 2018 All-Australian Team after Round 19. The premise of determining the team is to assess each position based on an easily identifiable collection of variables. Each week the rankings for each position are updated and the All-Australian team is auto-populated. The metrics and rankings for each position are presented on a stand-alone page.