Alastair Clarkson has made a habit in 2020 of generating headlines with his post-match comments when the Hawks lose, and given they’ve been doing a fair bit of the latter, he’s had plenty of opportunity to do the former.
On Tuesday last week after the Hawks became the first team this season to lose to the Adelaide Crows – but evidently not the last – Clarkson spoke out about the compromised nature of the draft, casting doubt upon the viability of a draft-based rebuild as the strategy of choice for his club.
“When people say why don’t you just rebuild and go to the draft – you can’t go to the draft, it’s so compromised,” said Clarkson. “You have to do it with other mechanisms like free agency and the depth of your rookie list.”
Some commentators have accused Clarkson of deflection – looking to distract attention away from his side’s poor on-field performances by lobbing criticism at the game’s governing body. And maybe that’s a fair description of his behaviour – I’ll leave it for you to judge.
But deflection or not, Clarkson isn’t wrong when he says that the draft is compromised. The flourishing of northern states academies, which has in turn led to the introduction of ‘Next Generation’ academies, has seen more and more draft prospects tied to an AFL club pre-draft as years go by.
The 2020 draft was billed as the most compromised in the history of the game. There was a little bit of Henny Penny in that, but it’s not far off the truth – right now there’s probably half a dozen father-son or academy prospects in the likely top 20, which makes it roughly as compromised as the draft in 2015, when five of the first 16 picks were academy selections.
Some of these compromises are necessary – “good for the game”, as is often said. The AFL’s father-son rule is universally admired, and while it’s been a hotly debated talking point at times, most would agree that giving clubs in New South Wales and Queensland priority access to local talent is the best way to counterbalance some of their geographical disadvantages.
But the next-generation academies, which were brought in largely to placate clubs in traditional footy states who rallied against the northern states academies once it became clear they would produce quality talent more often than once in a blue moon, have been a step too far.
Seeking to strengthen pathways for players of Indigenous or multicultural backgrounds to enter the AFL is a noble goal, but the eligibility rules for NGA players are much too broad and have captured many players whose backgrounds were never going to stop them from getting onto an AFL list.
Take, for example, 2020 draft prospect James Borlase. His father Darryl was a Port Adelaide SANFL premiership captain, playing 246 games for the Magpies, but by the technicalities of the NGA rules Borlase is considered an academy prospect for the Adelaide Crows because he lives in their zone and was born in Egypt (while his father worked there for the Australian Wheat Board).
To pretend the NGA system is setting up a pathway to football that otherwise wouldn’t have been there for Borlase is just farcical. It’s a compromise we can do without.
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In good news, it appears the AFL will scale back the concessions afforded to clubs under the NGA system over the next few years, although the exact details of how much change will occur and over what kind of time frame remains unclear.
In brief, a rule will be brought in that makes NGA players part of the open draft if they’re bid on early, with their zoned clubs only eligible to match bids for them should those bids come in the later rounds of the draft.
This won’t affect the 2020 draft (breathe easy, Bulldogs fans), and it’s not clear just where the boundary between bidding rules will lie, but without yet knowing the full details it seems like a sensible decision that allows for the best of both worlds.
It’ll mean more of the best draft prospects are freed up to be drafted by the clubs that need them most while still offering AFL clubs just a little bit of incentive to pick up players of diverse backgrounds who they might otherwise overlook.
Another matter that needs the AFL’s attention is: should the Gold Coast Suns still retain the priority concessions that have been given to them over the next two drafts?
The Suns have been big improvers in 2020 – five wins is a modest tally, but it belies their 101.8 percentage, currently the only team north of 100 in the AFL’s bottom eight. It’s clear that big strides forward have been made from their seemingly dire position at the end of 2019.
But Gold Coast currently retain the ability to add academy players to their list without needing to match a bid for the next two years, which in 2020 would mean they can add possible top-20 prospects Alex Davies and Joel Jeffrey to their list without surrendering any draft capital.
They also still possess a priority pick at the end of Round 1 in the 2021 draft.
I don’t say this to make a target of the Suns – their rise to relevance has been one of the best stories of 2020 and their talented young team is a delight to watch.
But the AFL when doling out their assistance package last year stated that it would be reviewed on an annual basis. It’s time to conduct that review and recognise that they are no longer in need of extra assistance.
The league has a larger and more pressing task ahead of them, though, in the form of negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement with the AFLPA which, among other things, will define the sizes of AFL lists in 2021 and the future.
A senior list of 38 or 40 and a rookie list of just two seems the most likely outcome for 2021, though the change may be delayed, or further shrinking of list sizes may be forecast for seasons further into the future.
Clarkson himself stated last week that he “can’t understand what the delay is on that”, and issued this plea to the executive: “So please, AFL, give us some information. We need it badly”.
The Hawks won’t be the only club waiting on clarity around list sizes and the salary cap to begin making list management decisions, but they are the club for whom the choice of direction appears least clear.
They are the league’s oldest team and also one of its worst, a situation which usually sees all signs pointing towards a rebuild at the draft. But Clarkson’s public rhetoric suggests he’s still far from convinced that’s the right direction to go in.
“When did you think the Bulldogs piece of silverware was going to come in 2015? What about Richmond? What about Hawthorn in 2006, 2007, when did you think there’s was going to come? When did you think Hawthorn’s was going to come when we were 1-6 in 2010 and played off in a prelim final next year?” Clarkson asked reporters on Tuesday.
“The game can turn very, very quickly … right now it just seems like we’re a world away from that, but it turns.”
Whether or not this is a view shared by those who manage the playing list at Hawthorn remains unclear. And if indeed a difference of opinions does arise, we don’t yet know who will get their way.
All I will say for now on the matter is that the biggest (and at times seemingly only) shining light for Hawthorn this year has been the form of first-year player Will Day. And how did he arrive at the club? With a first-round draft pick. More of that might not be a bad idea.
Perhaps the Hawks will rebound quickly and history will vindicate Clarkson – or perhaps the paths he and his club want to go down are about to diverge like roads in a yellow wood. Either way, what happens next will make history.