Go North Or South, Afl, Not West Of The East

The Age

Saturday May 10, 2008

Martin Flanagan

The AFL is ignoring the strong football traditions and rich pickings of Tasmania and Darwin in its reckless determination to gamble on Blacktown.

I ONCE sat beside Jimmy Krakouer, North Melbourne's Aboriginal champion, at a dinner when he was awarded the prize for The Age Footballer of the Year. Jimmy was shy and ultra-polite, never once saying no to a waiter. Plates of food and glasses of wine accumulated in front of him. He touched none of them. I asked Jimmy how he dealt with fame. "You never forget where you're from," he said.

I'm from Tasmania. The push is on to get a Tasmanian team in the AFL. The AFL, meantime, has committed to expanding the competition by starting new teams in western Sydney and the Gold Coast. Both projects are highly speculative. The Gold Coast has some existing football culture. Blacktown, where the AFL has said it will base its new Sydney club, appeared to have none when I visited a couple of months ago until I went into the local TAB and was told that 40 per cent of the agency's clientele follow the Swans.

If the Gold Coast and western Sydney initiatives come off, those who made the new teams happen will be hailed as visionaries. You can't fault the AFL for trying to take the game to the nation's growth areas. But that doesn't guarantee either project's success. Rugby league has got off to a fearsomely good start on the Gold Coast through the Titans. Soccer is on its way. How much potential for growth exactly is there? As for western Sydney, putting a team in place is one thing. Getting the locals to attach themselves in numbers is quite another. But any serious discussion on the future of football should also consider Darwin and Tasmania.

Darwin is critical to the future of Australian football. How important? As important as the next Cyril Rioli. For me, the question to be asked in relation to the future of the AFL is which game, which code, is the next Nathan Buckley, the next James Hird, the next Andrew McLeod, likely to play? Hird and McLeod both played soccer as kids and it's not too hard imagining them excelling at that sport. The AFL needs a team in Darwin and I reckon it needs it now. Nothing - I repeat nothing - would fire interest in Australian football more than an AFL team coming out of Darwin. The excitement generated in recent years by indigenous players would look small-scale if the Darwin football community, which includes the Tiwis, got seriously involved.

Tasmania is a different case. It is one of the original football states. Its football history is nearly as old as Victoria's (older if you believe a historian down there who says a game approximating football was played in Tasmania before 1858). Tasmanian Premier Paul Lennon has an approval rating only marginally better than that of US President George Bush due to his perceived closeness to giant woodchipping company Gunn's and its deeply unpopular mill on the Tamar River. Getting a Tassie team into the AFL is the sort of miracle he requires to restore his public appeal to manageable levels.

Having previously opened the Tasmanian Government's chequebook to back the Hawthorn Football Club's visits to the island, Lennon's Government is now spearheading the drive for a Tassie AFL team. The local media have mustered behind him, former greats such as Peter Hudson have climbed aboard and the bandwagon is about to get rolling.

To come from a place and follow footy is to know where the game comes from. In my case, that's not only towns but also particular paddocks where games were played because my father remembers back to the 1920s. There's also a lineage of great players in Tasmanian football whose stories touch my own - for example, Ivor Warne-Smith. My grandfather went to Hobart only once in his life. Why? To see Warne-Smith play.

I wrote a few weeks ago about the old Tassie guernsey, a work of football art in its own right. Some readers were distressed that in recalling great Tasmanian players, I hadn't mentioned Laurie Nash. That's because Laurie went to the same Catholic primary school in Richmond as Jack Dyer. His old man took the pub at Parattah in the Tasmanian Midlands when Nash was in his teens.

Nash is one of the few people I would consider calling a sporting genius. What couldn't he do? In footy, he played centre half-forward with the wind, centre half-back against it. In cricket, he opened the bowling for Australia and would have inflicted a lot more damage had his career not got entangled with the politics of the Bodyline series.

As a schoolkid in Launceston during the Great Depression, my father saw Nash play football and cricket. Believe me, I would have had Nash in my team if I possibly could have.

If, as is now said, the financial problems that precluded Tasmania from having its own AFL team have been overcome, then Tasmania has a right to be seriously considered not only now but in the future if a Victorian club has to consider relocation. True, were a licence granted to Tasmania, there would immediately be an insane power struggle over whether the team should be based in Launceston or Hobart.

The north of the island tried to secede in the early days and form a separate colony and, in this respect, not a lot has changed. But that feud is minor compared with the problems awaiting those responsible for getting the game to take root in western Sydney and flourish. In one place, the game is an organ of the culture. In the other, it isn't.

I know which I think is the bigger gamble.

© 2008 The Age

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