Some of the heaviest hitters in Australian Rules football have descended into remote Western Australia in a bid to harness a growing production line of talent players emerging from the region.
- The CEO of the Australian Football League has been visiting remote communities in WA’s Kimberley region
- Five Kimberley players were picked up in last month’s AFL national draft, with the tiny town of Halls Creek now boasting nine AFL players in its own right
- Locals from the region want to ensure the right structures are being put in place to help overcome the tyranny of distance and support players as they reach AFL level
AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan traded the power suit and boardrooms for the football fields of Looma and Noonkanbah, 4,800 kilometres from the league’s Melbourne headquarters, before taking part in a local footy forum in Fitzroy Crossing on Wednesday.
The forum came as another five Kimberley players were picked up in last month’s AFL national draft, cementing the region’s status as one of Australia’s fast-developing “footy factories”.
On the ground, clubs, players and their families are thrilled, but also want to ensure the resources are there to support some of Australia’s remotest communities and their football clubs.
Geoff Davies is the Chairman of the Kimberley Football Association, and a key manager for the Fitzroy-headquartered Central Kimberley Football League.
“The mindset here was we want more kids going to school, less kids committing suicide and less kids dependent on alcohol and drugs,” Mr Davies said.
“And we want to have quality footballers that have the opportunity to play any level they like.”
He said Mr McLachlan listened more than he talked, but was enthusiastic about a “gravel to greatness” plan to build on the positive effects football can have in the Kimberley.
Kimberley players growing in number and stature
For those watching from the sidelines, the talent on offer in the Kimberley’s three football leagues has always been evident.
But the tyranny of distance made spotting talented prospects a trickier proposition, while the prospect of leaving home was daunting for many young, remote players.
The combination of technology (particularly the presence of smartphones on the sidelines of nearly every single game) and the desire of state and national recruiters to break new ground, has shone a much greater spotlight on remote players.
At the AFL and AFLW Drafts, Liam Henry (Fremantle — Derby), Jy Farrar (Gold Coast — Halls Creek), Leno Thomas (Fremantle — Warmun), Anthony Treacy (West Coast — Broome), Krstel Petrevski (Melbourne AFLW — Halls Creek) and Isaiah Butters (Fremantle — Halls Creek) were picked up by league clubs.
They join a Kimberley contingent including Sam Petrevski-Seton (Carlton), Cedric Cox (Brisbane), Francis Watson (West Coast), Shane McAdam (Adelaide), Irving Mosquito (Essendon), Joel Hamling (Fremantle), Toby Bedford (Melbourne) and Jason Carter (Fremantle).
Halls Creek, more than 2,800 kilometres from the nearest AFL stadium and with a population of just over 3,000, now boasts nine AFL players in its own right.
AFL National Talent Manager Kevin Sheehan said earlier this year that the emergence of Petrevski-Seton in 2016 was a wake-up call for AFL clubs; forcing them to dedicate more resources to scouting remote players.
Helping players with the transition
But the move from home to the city — often for the first time — is often a daunting prospect for young draftees.
It is a challenge clubs are committing an increasing amount of resources to helping players work through.
For Isaiah Butters, draft day was the culmination of a footy-mad upbringing.
“I think everyone grew up around footy, watching our big brothers and uncles, trying the kick the ball as far as possible and thinking footy, footy, footy,” he told ABC Kimberley prior to the draft.
“That goes for every little kid growing up in Halls Creek; before school, after school, forever.”
The small forward can dazzle with his pace and skill; his most recent game of football a four-goal effort that helped Claremont secure the 2019 WAFL Colts Premiership.
But he also admitted the move to boarding school from Perth was a challenge — and the prospect of a move to Melbourne was similarly daunting.
“First couple of years was a bit rough, I got a bit home sick trying to adapt to Perth and try not to think about home,” he said.
“Something about those cold winters and the bigger cities.”
Fostering the next generation
Butters faced a nervous wait during the draft but he also had an inside running, his ties to Fremantle’s Next Generation Academy (NGA) keeping both him and Thomas in WA as Category B rookies.
Set up two years ago — and part of an AFL-wide talent identification program — the NGA allows the Dockers to identify top level talent in the Kimberley.
But the group, overseen by former Docker Tendai Mzungu, also focuses on building relationships and ensuring the young players personal and professional development.
“You look at Leno and Isaiah and the development they’ve put into their footy — these guys don’t get to where they do without school support, the families and their football clubs,” Mzungu said.
“I was sitting next to Isaiah when he was named as a rookie and his reaction was pure joy.”
It echoed Liam Henry’s earlier reaction when he was taken at pick nine, his family visibly emotional that he would be staying in WA.
Support needed for remote clubs
A week after draft day, Mzungu was back in the Kimberley and attending the forum in Fitzroy Crossing.
“I think we can all recognise the significant talent that’s up here in the Kimberley,” he said.
“But there’s also some real challenges that we want to assist with at the community level.”
Challenges can be as basic as logistics, the West Kimberley Football League’s reigning women’s Premiers, the Looma Lady Eagles, cover hundreds of kilometres travelling to games each season and need considerable support to do so.
But while money helps; Geoff Davies sees structure as something more critical — particularly to seeing the benefits flow from local clubs to local communities.
“We didn’t ask for dollars, that wasn’t what the meeting was about,” he said.
“How do we speak to everybody and say ‘we can use football as a hook to bring people together’.
“To get them excited; teach, support and mentor them through things — to govern communities and organise lives better; that’s the sort of thing we want.”
He hoped the next stage of the “gravel to greatness” plan — a consultation group comprising of delegates from the AFL, WAFC, Fremantle, Claremont, Clontarf Academy and the West, East and Central Kimberley Football Leagues — will be up and running by mid-2020.