AFL must rectify the non-existence of international AFLW pathways

Another AFL International Cup has passed by, with Ireland taking the title after defeating Canada at Etihad Stadium, Valerie Moreau announced as the best women’s player of the tournament, and 24 women named in the World Team.

After all the feel-good publicity of countries from outside of Australia playing our game, and slaps on the back of AFL executives of another job well done, one could be left with the feeling that the women who travelled down under to chase their footy dream would be forgotten about for another three years.

The Irish Banshees were crowned the new AFL International Cup champions. Image: Irish Banshees

And you’d be right.

What was forgotten about in all the hype of the tournament, was the lack of pathways developed by league bosses for women outside of Australia to make it onto an AFL Women’s list.

It was flagged as an aside in a tournament preview article by World Footy News co-founder, Brett Northey, and it’s something that wasn’t addressed by the league in the past two weeks.

“Speaking of AFLW, what a tragedy that the AFL has not made available an international rookie spot on each of the eight AFLW lists for the 2018 season,” Northey wrote.

“It seems a no-brainer and would demonstrate a genuine commitment to growing the women’s game internationally.

“Costs are one argument but I have no doubt that there are eight worthy international women out there who would leap, for free, at the chance for 6 months in Australia playing or training at the elite level, with the opportunity to pick up a professional contract the following year. ”

There’s no question to how badly the more than 200 women who played in the AFL International Cup would want a spot on an AFLW club list.

As the USA Freedom’s Kim Hemenway told the Girls Play Footy VFLW Match of the Day coverage, each player on her national team had to make a significant financial commitment just to come to Australia and play five matches in a fortnight.

“We do fundraising, but it’s pretty much all out of pocket.

“Plane tickets, depending on how early you got them, where you live… $1,000 to $1,500.

“We started a six-month payment plan, so every month you pay $300, and that goes into a pot, and the last two months were $400 and $500.

“I think [with accommodation, etc] it ends up being around $5,000 per player out of pocket, and whatever we fundraise we get back.”

For some international footballers, the cost extends past the tournament. It’s believed about half-a-dozen USA players, including those playing in the Liberty tour against local Victorians sides, had to quit their jobs (or in one case, fired) just to be able to take part in this two-and-a-half-week experience.

As we’ve pointed out with Valerie Moreau (Canada) and Katie Klatt (USA), there are women willing to put their lives on hold, and travel to the other side of the planet to play a game not many in their home country have heard of, let alone watched.

This commitment far exceeds the some Australian based AFLW rookies who have been gifted AFLW contracts despite never playing the game, even though they have the opportunity right now to walk into their local state league club and prove their talent.

While the current AFL focus of “international development” is currently distracted by China, and the opportunity for the league and its clubs to shakedown rich Chinese businessmen for a few million bucks, a golden opportunity to boost the impact of our game overseas is being overlooked, according to those in the Northern hemisphere.

Writing a guest post for Girls Play Footy last year, GB Swans Team Manager Jason Hill highlighted how the women’s game could be the breakthrough for our game outside of Australia’s borders.

“With the women’s game in Australia doubling in numbers in the last five years, record growth in junior and school programmes being noted and women’s footy taking hold in North America and Europe, there is a real thirst for the game,” Hill wrote back in September.

“In a world where there is no outright top women’s sport, especially in the team arena, what’s to say that Australian rules couldn’t be ‘it’?

“The AFL has long been looking for ways to grow the game outside of the Australian borders and the women’s game could be used as a great vehicle for this, but only if it’s done right.

“We are at a very unique point in the women’s game right now. The talent gap between the professional women’s game and the amateur international game is much smaller than the men’s due to the relative youth of both.

“Although this is the case now, it will not be forever; the longer we go without an international strategy, the further this skill gap will increase and we’ll lose the momentum that could be created now.”

Those words was echoed by [then] USAFL President, Denis Ryan, at last year’s USAFL Nationals in Florida last year.

Speaking on the Girls Play Footy Podcast, he saw an opportunity for American women, but warned it would be lost if AFL bosses kept their same ignorant attitude to football played outside of Australia.

“The women over here have much less opportunity, athletically, than the men do,” Ryan said.

“We could attract some amazing athletes with the women very quickly, if we offer a combine testing situation to them [like the men] and the possibility of going to Australia and playing professional sport.

“We have a bit of an issue that women’s footy is really taken off so big back home… and the standard is raising quickly, [that] we’re getting left behind.

“We don’t want to create a massive gap like there is between us with the men, we want to keep pace with the women, so really important that we don’t get left too far behind and there’s too bigger gap to make up.”

Unfortunately, despite the great performance put on by the women in the AFL International Cup, it appears both Hill and Ryan’s fears are being realised.

Although Carlton AFLW Coach Damien Keeping was spotted at Melbourne University watching the USA take on the European Crusaders, and is credited with recruiting a footballer who debuted in the AFL London competition (albeit, an Australian), it’s believed another AFLW club told its recruiters not to bother watching any of the International Cup matches.

Furthermore, despite having more than 200 international women’s footballers in Melbourne at the same time, no combine testing was conducted.

The problem lies in that there is no incentive. No incentive for women based overseas to lift their standard of football post International Cup, and no incentive for AFLW clubs to recruit them.

Considering they currently pay all AFL Women’s footballers playing contracts, the league could have made a decision and announcement pre-tournament that would have made everyone view things differently.

As Brett Northey wrote, announce there will be an International Rookie B category for women.

This would have meant clubs could look at recruiting these women as an addition to their current playing list, without having to cut anyone and at no cost to their bottom line.

It would have added extra excitement and media attention to the International Cup tournament, knowing a minimum of eight players would pick up an AFLW contract of the back of their performances.

Now obviously the International Cup only comes around only every two three years, so what can be implemented?

The answer is already there with something the AFL has done within Australia: talent zones.

For example, imagine the Western states of the USA being allocated to the GWS Giants, the West Coast of Canada to the Western Bulldogs, East Coast of the USA to Collingwood, Ireland to Melbourne, the South Pacific to the Brisbane Lions and so on.

As part of an International Rookie program, each AFLW club would get to recruit two players from their zone to join their club on a full-time, one-year $50,000 contract/scholarship.

Women in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Denver, Los Angeles and Sacramento would train and play with their local side, hoping to score one of two contracts on offer each year to play with the GWS Giants.

Likewise, the GWS Giants could occasionally send a development coach to those Western USA teams, to ensure the women are being trained correctly as to feed the Giants with future footballers.

Two International Rookies at $50,000 per each of the 2018 AFLW clubs would cost the league roughly the wage of a former senior AFL executive, with an extra $100,000 in change.

When the competition expands to 12 teams, it will still only cost the equivalent of a ten-minute set from a ‘past their used by date’ rock star at the AFL Grand Final ($1.2 million).

After all the smoke and mirrors treatment from the AFL this past fortnight about what a fantastic job it’s done with Australian football internationally, it’s time to quit self-praising speeches and articles, pull the proverbial finger out and make official a pathway for women’s footballers based overseas.

It’s clear the AFL has dropped the ball in this area; the question is, will they realise their mistake and rectify it, or will it be left for history to condemn league bosses for missing this rare opportunity.

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