Footystats Diary, footy's best kept secret, 2007: Worth repeating



Footy's best kept secret ...

2007: Worth repeating
(January – December)


see also – Worth Repeating – 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003



most recent –
Dec 31 HAPPY ANNIVERSARY:
PATHS OF HISTORY INTERSECT FOR 150th
Dec 26 THE YEAR FROM HELL FOR AFL
Dec 10 NO MORE POINTS OFF THE OLD FIG TREE
Dec 10 DOUG NICHOLLS: STATUE SALUTES A CHAMPION
Dec 10 RICHARD COLLESS: NO NEW SYDNEY TEAM BEFORE 2015
Dec 5 WICKET SLEEPERS: AFL NOW TAKES IT ONE YEAR AT A TIME
Dec 4 AT 21, TIME IN THE SUN IS UP FOR THIS SON OF A GUN
Nov 23 WHAT'S IN A NAME?
Nov 22 PIES LAUNCH BID FOR COAST
Nov 16 AFL MISSES THE GOLD RUSH
Nov 15 DEACON BLUE A WORK OF ART
Nov 11 TAC CUP FLICKED FROM MCG IN REVAMP
Oct 21 AFL LEADERS TARNISHED BY COUSINS CRISIS
Oct 18 A STORY OF OPPORTUNITIES SQUANDERED
Oct 13 CHINA'S AFL LINK IS KICKING GOALS
Oct 1 ANALYSIS: FASTER PUSSYCATS
Sept 21 THE FIRST FOOTY GAME
Sept 14 BUTTERSS CANNY IN RETALIATION ON SAINTS DISPUTE
Sept 6 FOX WINS $780M AFL RATINGS WAR
Sept 6 FROM MAYBLOOMS TO HAWKS (ROY CAZALY)
Sept 5 IT'S A WONDERFUL GAME
Sept 4 WALKING WOUNDED
Aug 25 CATS ARE THE APPLE OF COL'S EYE
Aug 25 CLAIMS TWO PLAYERS TEST POSITIVE
Aug 21 MAGPIE SET TO ACCEPT SIX-GAME BAN
Aug 16 DONS ACT TO HALT SHEEDY STRIFE
Aug 6 DRUGS, TANKING CLAIMS A THREAT TO GAME'S INTEGRITY
July 18 THE ALIENATION OF FANS
July 14 SUPPORT IN THE NORTH CAUSING CONCERN
June 23 RADIO OUT, PAY-TV IN?
June 21 3AW TAKES AXE TO VAUDEVILLE FOOTY
June 14 SWANS CELEBRATE SILVER ANNIVERSARY IN SYDNEY
June 7 THOMAS TOLD TO BUTT OUT OF SAINTS' AFFAIRS
June 2 CYNICAL POLITICIANS DESERVED TO BE BENCHED
May 27 TIME TO GIVE RULE THE PUSH
May 23 ANALYSIS BACKS LONG KICKING
May 17 SEVEN, TEN START WAR OVER FOOTBALL
May 3 NUMBER OF DRUG TESTS SET TO TRIPLE
May 2 BIG SPENDING PIES TOP INTERSTATE RIVALS
May 1 COUSINS FLIES HOME TO CALL FOR 12-WEEK BAN
Apr 27 AFL DRAWS PLAN FOR ROOS' MOVE
Apr 26 NORTH NEEDS TO GO NORTH
Apr 18 LEN FITZGERALD: STANDING TALL IN GAME HE LOVED
Mar 29 BEN ON THIN ICE AS WADA THREAT LOOMS
Mar 26 PUTTING OUT SPOT FIRES AS DRUG HYSTERIA SPREADS
Mar 26 CLAIMS WITHOUT NAMES TARNISH THE INNOCENT
Mar 25 THE NIGHT I SNORTED COKE WITH A BROWLOW MEDALLIST
Mar 25 EAGLES WINGED, BUT DRUG TAPES DRAW A BLANK
Mar 25 POLICE TARGET FOOTY 'RAT-PACK'
Mar 23 FLYING TOO HIGH
Mar 21 ONE BIG NIGHT TOO MANY
Mar 21 SCANDAL BRINGS EAGLE STAR TO EARTH
Mar 19 FLETCHER HOLDS OFF ON KEY REPORT
Mar 17 LOVE, TEARS AND FOND MEMORIES FAREWELL RON EVANS
Mar 16 LOCKOUT OF WORLD MEDIA MAY BE BLOW TO AFL IMAGE
Mar 15 CLUB BLAMES ALCOHOL FOR FLETCHER COLLAPSE
Mar 15 AFL CLUBS SET NEW FINANCIAL GOALS
Mar 11 DRUG ABUSE, SHADY DEALINGS RAMPANT AMONG FINEST
Mar 10 RON EVANS, 1939-2007
TRIBUTES FOR SERVANT OF AUSTRALIAN FOOTBALL
Mar 9 VFL HAS ROLE TO PLAY, SAYS LOCAL FOOTY BOSS
Mar 8 AFL TOYS WITH PLAN TO BRING BACK RESERVES
Feb 28 FOOTBALL'S CHANGING LANDSCAPE
Feb 24 THEY CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH
Feb 22 CAREY BOUNCED AS CALLERS LINE UP
Feb 22 BOUNDARY, GOAL UMPS TO GIVE FREE KICKS
Feb 20 MAN OF VISION OF AFL's BIG PICTURE STEPS DOWN
Feb 17 TRIBUNAL REVIEW: BANS FOR HIGH SHIRT-FRONT
Feb 17 HEAD RULES STRIKES AT INJURIES
Feb 14 TV PAYS TOP RATING NRL HALF AS MUCH AS AFL
Feb 14 JUST GRAND, BOYS!
Feb 10 FINDING AFL CHAMPIONS OUT OF AFRICA
Feb 8 BLUES BOTTOM OUT, THIS TIME ON STATS SHEET
Feb 5 BOWLS ASIDE, THIS IS A REAL GAME
Jan 31 BLUES' FINANCIAL DIRECTOR QUITS
Jan 30 BLUES: WE'RE FAR WORSE THAN FITZROY
Jan 20 AGM PUT ON HOLD AS DUFF FACES BOARD CHALLENGE
Jan 13 POOR CARLTON BUDGETS TO BREAK EVEN
Jan 11 SAINTS BOSS SEEKS TO RECOVER $1m FROM THOMAS
Jan 7 CAMP BEGINS WITH A LECTURE IN KEEPING IT NICE
Jan 1 SOCCER ON THE RISE AS AFL TREADS WATER


<>

Happy anniversary:
Paths of history intersect for 150th

Carolyn Webb
The Age
December 31, 2007

It's business as usual at Nelson Brothers funeral services over the Christmas-New Year break. Business manager Adrian Nelson is on call around the clock, because people don't stop dying, or grieving, on a holiday.

It's something Mr Nelson's great-great-grandfather, Robert Simeon Nelson, realised when he came to Australia from England during the 1850s gold rush.

He ran a carpentry business as a sideline to his general store at Linton, near Ballarat, and would make coffins whenever locals needed them. They also needed funeral-arranging. There was a year-round demand, so Nelson funerals was born, in 1858.

Nelson Brothers is among a slew of institutions marking their 150th anniversary in 2008. Three of them – Australian football, Melbourne Football Club and Melbourne Grammar – have intertwined origins.

The Melbourne Church of England Grammar School opened on St Kilda Road, South Yarra, on April 7, 1858, helped by a colonial government land grant of six hectares.

Dr John Bromby was the first headmaster and there were 77 students. The school still occupies the site next to the Royal Botanic Gardens, but has expanded to 1800 students, including a co-ed Caulfield campus for prep to year 6.

Melbourne Grammar played Scotch College in the first properly organised and widely reported game of Australian football on August 7, 1858.

It was umpired by Tom Wills, who had written to the newspaper Bell's Life in Victoria and Sporting Chronicle a month earlier calling for a "foot-ball club" to keep cricketers fit during winter.

An experimental match was played by Wills and others at the Richmond Paddock in late July 1858.

Australian football's 150th celebrations will include a Victoria versus All Stars game at the MCG on May 10. The AFL has also commissioned a book on the history of the game. An Australian football international cup, played in Melbourne and Warrnambool in August, will for the first time feature a combined Israeli and Palestinian team.

Melbourne Football Club evolved from Wills' experimental games of July to September 1858, and has been known variously as the Invincible Whites, the Redlegs, the Fuchsias and the Demons.

Its own 150th anniversary celebrations include a $500-a -head 150 Heroes gala dinner on June 7 at Crown Palladium, the release of two history books, and a Red and Blue Army walk for supporters, from Federation Square to the MCG, before the Melbourne-Collingwood game on Monday, June 9.

Melbourne Football Club is also calling its estimated 250,000 supporters to register their names on its website.

Melbourne Grammar has scheduled 14 events, including a service for all students at St Paul's Cathedral on March 13, a ball on May 10 and a youth leadership conference featuring World Vision CEO Tim Costello and Aboriginal leader Pat Dodson, from July 28 to 30.

Other institutions turning 150 next year include National Australia Bank, Tyrrell's Wines and Bendigo Pottery.

Alberton Primary School in South Gippsland is having a three-day festival of games, a fete and a dance from February 22.
__________

Note: A design mistake to their anniversary logo will result in Melbourne FC in 2008 celebrating its *
I50th* birthday, not the *150th*.

Back to the Diary

The year from hell for AFL

Sam Edmund
Herald Sun
Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The 2007 AFL season was the year of the Cat – but it will probably be best remembered as the year of football's bad boys.

Some of the biggest names in footy engaged in drugs, boozing, punch-ups, family feuds, gambling on games, arrests, court appearances, and club-imposed suspensions and fines in a turbulent 10 months.

The litany of off-field indiscretions, unprecedented in the VFL-AFL's 150-year history, resulted in issues outside the fence receiving as much air-time and newspaper print as those inside it.

It was a season that would almost have driven AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou and his colleagues mad.

The trouble started in January when Geelong forward Steve Johnson was banished by teammates after being arrested for drunkenness in Wangaratta on Christmas Eve.

He didn't tell the club of the incident for nine days.

Daniel Kerr kicked off West Coast's year from hell when he and his father were charged with assaulting three people at a house party.

In February, just hours before the Eagles were due to begin their NAB Cup campaign against Fremantle, Kerr was locked up by police after an incident in a hospital car park.

The drunken midfielder jumped on the boot of a taxi, ripped off its aerial and threw it at the driver in a fit of rage about 12.30am.

He was charged with disorderly behaviour in public and fined $1800 in Perth Magistrates' Court.

West Coast fined him $10,000 and slapped him with a $20,000 suspended fine.

In the same month, Carlton's Heath Scotland sought counselling and five teammates were fined for being out late after a fight outside a Ballarat Hotel.

Weeks later one of those teammates, former captain Lance Whitnall, was embroiled in a bitter family feud with his brother Shane, with death threats allegedly flying between the pair and their wives.

A stream of abusive text messages and phone calls landed the two couples in Melbourne Magistrates' Court.

Lance claimed his brother told him he would end up "10 feet under" while Shane alleged the Blue warned him he would end up "in a body bag".

The bizarre feud, which is ongoing, involved more court appearances, intervention orders and egg throwing.

On the same day the Whitnalls appeared in court, Simon Goodwin was hit with the heaviest AFL penalty handed to an individual, for betting on matches.

The Adelaide midfielder was fined $40,000, half suspended, and ordered to receive counselling for breaking competition rules that prohibit players betting on football.

Melbourne's Daniel Ward (fined $10,000) and the Kangaroos' David Hale ($5000) were also implicated.

The season had not even started yet.

Barely a fortnight later West Coast Brownlow medallist Ben Cousins was suspended indefinitely by the Eagles so that he could deal with "private and personal" problems.

The ban sent shock waves through the football world and sparked Cousins' sad season-long fall from grace – a fall that would underpin the AFL's off-field woes.

Cousins would go on to spend almost a month in Malibu's Summit Centre in the US battling drug addiction.

He was then sacked by West Coast after being arrested with teammate Daniel Chick on drug charges while driving through the Perth suburb of Northbridge.

A series of police bungles saw the charges dropped, but the AFL maintained its tough stance and charged Cousins with bringing the game into disrepute.

Cousins apologised to fans and finally admitted he was a drug addict after a landmark hearing at league headquarters saw the AFL ban him from playing football for a year.

In April, Jeff Farmer was convicted and fined $3000 for assaulting a nightclub bouncer, while the Eagles' Adam Selwood was accused of making derogatory remarks about a tattoo depicting Fremantle player Des Headland's six-year-old daughter in a game.

May was quiet, but Richmond's Ray Hall filled the void, suspended by his club for three weeks after being involved in a nightclub fight in Prahran.

Collingwood trio Leon Davis, Chris Egan and Shannon Cox were suspended for a week for breaking a hotel curfew after the Pies defeated the Crows in Adelaide.

However things got far worse in June when another Magpie, Alan Didak, admitted he had spent several hours on a drunken night at strip clubs with Hells Angel Christopher Wayne Hudson.

Didak had been drinking heavily when Hudson offered him a lift home.

However the lift became a nightmare ride when Hudson allegedly insisted the Collingwood star accompany him to a bikie gang clubhouse.

After leaving the clubhouse Hudson allegedly fired shots near police in Campbellfield.

Didak did not report the matter to police and six days later Hudson allegedly shot dead solicitor Brendan Keilar, and wounded model Kara Douglas and Dutch backpacker Paul de Waard in the city.

Brendan Keilar's mother, Moya Keilar, said Alan Didak's inaction after the earlier incident could have cost her son's life.

Didak's former teammate Chris Tarrant had only been with Fremantle a matter of months when he punched Northern Territory coach Damian Hale, who confronted the footballer after he flashed his buttocks at a female patron in a Darwin nightclub.

He was fined $5000 and suspended for a match.

The AFL was rocked by allegations in August of widespread drug use at a top Melbourne club in one of the biggest footy stories of the year.

Channel 7 reported that some players had twice been detected using illegal substances under the code's drug-testing policy, citing private medical records as proof.

A court injunction prevented the club, its players and the type of substances used, from being named.

Police charged two people with theft of the medical documents.

Channel 7, which paid $3000 for the records, was later interviewed by police and branded a "disgrace" by Chief Commissioner Christine Nixon.

Not even Grand Final eve was immune from trouble.

Geelong defender David Johnson was chased by police, doused with capsicum spray and handcuffed in a violent arrest after an all-night bender.

Johnson, who was not selected in the Cats' premiership-winning side the next day, had been earlier driven home by police after a drunken eviction from another club, but caught a cab back into town.

In a tragic end to the season, former West Coast champion Chris Mainwaring collapsed and died in his Perth home on October 1.

Cousins was with Mainwaring just hours before the two-time premiership hero died with cocaine, ecstasy, cannabis, anti-depressants and alcohol in his system.

Earlier this month, Kangaroos premiership player Shannon Grant was hit with capsicum spray by police as drunk teammate Aaron Edwards lay unconscious during a wild night at a Lionel Ritchie concert.

The footballers, with teammate Hamish McIntosh, were involved in a confrontation with police at a Drysdale winery, near Geelong, for the A Day On The Green concert.

Just hours later, 20-year-old Matthew Campbell, recently promoted from the Kangaroos' rookie list, was charged with resisting arrest and being drunk after drinking at a Queen St nightclub about 1.30am.

He has been summoned to appear at Melbourne Magistrates' Court.

Back to the Diary

No more points off the old fig tree

Michael Cowley
The Age
Saturday, December 15, 2007

Sydney AFL fans may have seen their last village green-style game of football played at North Sydney Oval, with confirmation the annual pre-season game at the venue will not be played next year, and uncertainty hanging over its future.

North Sydney Oval has hosted a pre-season, 15-a-side game every year since 2001. The contest was unique and created plenty of publicity for the code – not only due to the limited numbers on the smaller field, but also because, at the northern end, goal-kickers had to negotiate the overhanging Moreton Bay fig.

When Kevin Sheedy's Essendon met Rodney Eade's Swans in 2001, kicks from Sydney's Daryn Cresswell and Ben Fixter hit the branches of the tree and fell back into the field. Under the modified rules, both were called behinds.

But Sydney's general manager of football, Andrew Ireland, said yesterday that with the AFL season beginning a week earlier this year and a shortage of other clubs available to take part in the clash, fans may have seen the last of those "fig tree" games. Indeed, a new stadium at Blacktown – part of the AFL's investment in Sydney's west – may push North Sydney Oval off the fixture list altogether.

"As we move forward, it will be interesting to see whether the game stays on the agenda, simply because Blacktown will be up and running in a couple of years - probably by next year - so that might mean that more of the NAB Cup, and NAB Challenge games are actually played there," Ireland said.

"In the past, it has been because of the lack of games in Sydney prior to the season proper starting that the North Sydney game has been an important part of balancing things, so that might not be the case going forward.

"So we might have seen the last one at North Sydney. I must admit a lot of people actually enjoyed the village-green atmosphere, which was a nice way to start the season."

The North Sydney games proved extremely popular, with 12,460 fans attending the first clash in 2001 despite heavy rain.

Until 2005, the match was played between the Swans and the Bombers the weekend before the pre-season competition. Two years ago, it became a Friday night match under lights, and last year Collingwood replaced Essendon when the Bombers were attending a community camp in the Northern Territory.

Ireland said this year(sic) the North Sydney game would be replaced by a late-afternoon, inter-club clash at Lakeside Oval at Moore Park on February 8. The following Sunday, the Swans will play Hawthorn in the opening round of the NAB Cup at Launceston's Aurora Stadium.

Should Sydney not advance to the next round of that competition, Ireland said they might travel to Narrandera, north-west of Wagga Wagga, for a NAB Challenge match, as they did last year.

"There is a game down there again this year, and we certainly enjoyed playing there last year," he said. "The response from the community was really good and we'd look forward to being there again if we're not in the NAB Cup."

Back to the Diary

Statue salutes a champion on and off

Stuart Rintoul
The Australian
Monday, December 10, 2007

When Doug Nicholls left the bush and went to Melbourne to play football, the trainers at Carlton were so offended by the colour of his skin that they refused to rub him down.

He went to Fitzroy and made a name for himself, the first Aboriginal footballer to play for Victoria.

He became a champion off the field too, fighting for dignity for his people and what would later be called reconciliation. The whitefellas made him a knight and then a governor.

Yesterday, a bronze statue of Sir Doug and his wife, Gladys, was unveiled at Parliament Gardens in Melbourne – between the pomp and power of parliament and the old, mean streets of Fitzroy.

It was the first statue of a 20th century Aboriginal leader to be erected anywhere in Australia and the first to recognise the role of the woman behind the man.

Aboriginal people at the ceremony recalled that the best-known statue of an Aboriginal leader in Australia has been the statue of the 19th century warrior Yagan, in Perth. After he was killed in 1833, Yagan's head was removed and taken to London, where it was exhibited as an "anthropological curiosity". Within a week of the head being returned to Australia in 1997, the statue of Yagan was beheaded.

Pastor Sir Doug and Lady Gladys were both born in 1906 at the Cummeragunja mission on the NSW banks of the Murray River. When he was eight, he saw his 16-year-old sister Hilda forcibly taken from his family by the police and taken to the Cootamundra Training Home for Girls. He became a runner and a footballer, a tent fighter and a man of God, a pioneering campaigner for Aboriginal rights and the Governor of South Australia.

Lady Gladys became a charity worker and an advocate for women's rights and the underprivileged. The Gladys Nicholls Hostel was founded to ensure that her people were not homeless on the streets of Melbourne.

What would they have made of the state of Aboriginal Australia today, including the controversial federal intervention in the Northern Territory?

As she prepared for the unveiling yesterday, daughter Pam Pedersen said she thought they would be thinking "it's still a struggle; it's still a long way to go ... I think Dad would say, 'we have to fight on'," she said. "We can only keep fighting."

She recalled the rallies and street marches her father led and the trips her parents made to Canberra, pleading their people's case, how Sir Doug would sit at a little card table outside the Collingwood football ground, or the Northcote Town Hall, getting signatures on a petition for the 1967 referendum that voted to recognise Aboriginal people as citizens by counting them in the census.

But many things had also changed, she said, with opportunities that her parents' generation had only dreamed about. She tells her grandchildren: "You can be brilliant."

In 1991, the Canberra suburb of Nicholls was named after Sir Doug. But Ms Pedersen said it was wonderful that both of her parents had now been recognised in the city in which they lived and worked for change.

"It's just such an exciting moment for all Australians, and Aboriginal people throughout Australia," she said. She hoped it would herald many more statues commemorating the lives of Aboriginal people.

Back to the Diary

Colless: No new Sydney team before 2015

Samantha Lane
The Age
Monday, December 10, 2007

The AFL would be unwise to introduce a second Sydney-based AFL team before 2015, according to the Swans' chairman, Richard Colless.

And a 16-side competition, rather than the 18-club model the AFL is suddenly spruiking, is the more preferable set-up in the mind of Sydney's coach, Paul Roos.

League chief Andrew Demetriou has said that the AFL, in light of North Melbourne's abrupt rejection last week of a $100 million package to relocate interstate, would endeavour to establish teams "in parallel" on the Gold Coast and in western Sydney.

However, Colless says NSW's population remains a "significantly disinterested marketplace" in terms of what, to it, is a non-traditional football code.

"I think it would be unbelievably ambitious to be contemplating a team much before 2015," Colless, chairman of the Swans since 1994 and former head of AFL NSW, said last night.

"It's not just getting a competitive team together and the right administration in place, it's actually convincing a significantly disinterested marketplace as to why they should be supporting AFL and why they should be supporting West Sydney.

"In Western Australia, while it was a tortuous exercise for Fremantle, they only had one act of conversion to carry out and that was converting them from either not barracking for anyone or converting them from West Coast.

"In Sydney you've still got to convert them to Australian football."

The relocation of a Victorian side would be "the simplest way for all concerned", Colless said, but that was inconceivable — at least until the end of 2009.

"As I recall it, it was the decision of the other 13 clubs to provide North Melbourne, Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs with additional funding until then. I have no sense of whether the balance of the clubs would do that again," Colless said.

"I think post-2009 will be interesting."

According to Roos, only Collingwood, Essendon or Carlton, of the current 16 clubs, have identities that are sufficiently well known to enable them to transfer successfully to western Sydney.

"I think it would be hard to relocate a smaller-market team, for want of a better term" he said yesterday.

"I think to relocate a Melbourne team it would have to be one of those big-three-type teams, but I guess that's unlikely to happen, so I suppose the next best thing is to start one from scratch."

But a competition composed of 16 sides was, in Roos' opinion, "ideal".

"That's probably what the AFL would say as well I would presume, but given what North Melbourne's said they've got to go to plan B," he added.

"The other question is 'is North Melbourne dead in the water?' I wish them all the best, but if they didn't get through and James (Brayshaw, North chairman) put his hand up and said 'it's not workable in Melbourne' would they re-visit it?"

Roos said his past discussions with AFL executives led him to believe that the league had different time frames for the two rugby-league heartland areas.

"I don't sense there's the urgency with the West Sydney thing that there is with the Gold Coast thing," he said.

"I'd be surprised if they were talking about introducing a West Sydney licence and a Gold Coast licence in 2010."

Regardless, a second Sydney side would need to be propped up with sizeable, and long-term, financial assistance and draft concessions, Colless said.

"It seems to me that's an inescapable fact.

"The worst advertisement for the game in Queensland and NSW would be to have two new teams that were on the bottom of the ladder for 10 or 15 years."

Ultimately, Colless believes the AFL's greatest on-going challenge in NSW is the lack of young boys playing the game. Of the 69 footballers recruited by league clubs in November's draft only three were taken from NSW.

"Rugby is almost the religion of the independent school system up here," Colless said.

"The best young athletes, almost without exception, don't play our game and so there is a fundamental issue that has to be confronted.

"You're not going to dramatically increase over the long term the average number of kids who come out of Western Australia and South Australia …We think they can only come from one market (NSW), and right at the moment there's no evidence that they're coming through."

Back to the Diary

Wicket Sleepers:
AFL now takes it one year at a time

Jake Niall and Samantha Lane
The Age
Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Tomorrow night James Brayshaw, the former state level cricketer and scion of a noted cricketing family, will face a barrage from Melbourne's insatiable sporting media.

His topic? Not the merits of Muthiah Muralidaran versus Shane Warne, nor the rebel Indian Twenty20 competition.

No, Brayshaw will be dead-batting curly questions about his football club, the impecunious Kangaroos, who by then, might have decided whether their future is in North Melbourne or where the AFL wants them, on the Gold Coast.

Whatever lines Brayshaw utters – no matter how newsworthy – will soon saturate radio airwaves, fill the late TV sports bulletins and, the following day, will adorn the sports and possibly the news pages of Melbourne's daily newspapers.

If it wasn't the Kangaroos filling the breach, it would be Ben Cousins, surely the first Australian sporting figure to have his drug addiction covered Truman Show-style. It might be a Queen's Counsel's interrogations of other West Coast players, or the latest instalment from the Ablett family.

Worthy stories all, but where is the competition for our attention in Melbourne and the southern states? Cricket has done little to deprive footy of its oxygen of publicity in summer.

As AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou boasted to the television networks, footy is the best "reality TV" available. Cricket's best reality program, known as the life of Shane Warne, has been off-air since the leggie legend retired.

Once cricket and football carved up the sporting hemispheres.

Footy started in March, ended in late September. Cricket owned the summer, with some minor competition from tennis and golf. The horses had their 15 days of fame in spring.

Football gradually crept into autumn and spring and, like the cane toad, its presence multiplied. Now, the month of December – traditionally, a period when cricketers are front and centre in our living rooms – has been invaded, indeed conquered, by the rapacious AFL.

Yesterday, the league announced its "off-season" schedule for clubs, which involves the carefully planned photo opportunities of community camps, which stretch from Darwin to South Africa and, ominously for cricket, from December 8 to February 15.

The AFL has seen to it that hardly a day, much less a week, goes by without a draft, a draw or the trumpeting of a new venture (nowadays featuring Kevin Sheedy in an exotic locale).

From a media perspective, there is no longer a "footy season" per se. The AFL now takes it one year at a time.

Unless it has an Ashes series, a World Cup or a team seriously challenging the Australian cricket team's hegemony (or a Warne text message scandal), cricket is struggling for air-time and column inches against football's relentless media imperialism.

This November, The Age dedicated nine sport covers to AFL. Twelve front pages pointed to cricket stories, six to horse racing, two to golf and one to soccer.

In the same 30 days, footy provided the Herald Sun with 15 back-page leads.

Whoever drives the obsession – whether it be readers, PR machines, or news media themselves – it has continued into December.

On Monday just past, Lance Whitnall – no longer on an AFL list – claimed the back page photo of the little paper. The accompanying story detailed Whitnall's three-goal performance in a local match in Darwin.

On five days in November, football commanded the Herald Sun's front page – Cousins on three occasions. St Kilda's move from Moorabbin made it four and, fittingly, an interview with Gary Ablett snr was number five.

As a matter of course, AFL clubs pump out self-promoting "events" throughout December, from the unveiling of recruits to the signing of a new recruiting manager.

The canny Essendon Football Club even trod on the summer game's toes with a release announcing Brett Lee would bowl to Matthew Lloyd and company at Windy Hill.

Cricket dropped the ball, in terms of coverage, because the Sri Lankan tour failed to inspire, the Lankans bringing insufficient competition, or controversy, to the table. It did not help that the first Test in Brisbane started on November 8, or that the Lankans arrived in the middle of a spring racing carnival.

Much of the scheduling is beyond the reach of Cricket Australia, since the Australian summer has to fit in with other countries and a rotating 12-month international timetable.

Whereas the AFL can devise its own "draw" with annual blockbusters and showdowns, cricket is at the mercy of whether the visiting team cuts the mustard with fans.

Cricket's nigh invisibility this month has been caused by a simple lack of action.

The Australian team plays on only four days prior to Boxing Day – in three 50-over one-dayers, plus a Twenty20, both against the underwhelming New Zealand.

It is remarkable that December appears (deliberately?) barren, when there has never been so much international cricket.

In 2008, the Australians will play an unprecedented 19 Tests, plus the usual 30 or so one-day dates. If you allow four days for each Test, that's at least 106 days – even more than the AFL's official 95 match days, including the pre-season competition.

But cricket, for whatever reason, does not command the headlines outside of its "season". The Allan Border Medal, cricket's successful impersonation of Brownlow night, is held in February and is a rare instance when bat and ball receives unseasonal coverage.

Cricket's Hall of Fame is on the same night.

Perhaps, it would receive similar treatment to the AFL's own Hall of Fame were it more strategically placed on the sporting calendar; it could also do with a barbecue stopper, such as the debate over Gary Ablett snr's suitability for inclusion.

Now, cricket is faced with further erosion of its turf with the introduction of the round-ball code as a summer game.

Maybe, in a sense, the barbarian invasions from footy and soccer are precisely what cricket needs to become more pro-active in re-marking — perhaps even reinventing — its summer territory.

The AFL's imperialist design was born of competition. Once it went national, and took on rugby union and rugby league head-to-head, the AFL bosses had to be inventive and aggressive in their incursions into hostile terrain.

Spared such life or death competition, cricket hitherto has not needed to be on the front foot. It should be now.

THE AFL "OFF-SEASON" CALENDAR
Events that ensure football coverage:

■ The trading period, October 8-12.

■ The release of the AFL draw, October 27

■ AFL commission announces Ben Cousins' 12-month ban, November 19

■ The national draft, November 24.

■ The pre-season and rookie drafts, December 11.

■ Community camps for 16 clubs – December 8 until February 15.

Back to the Diary

At 21, time in the sun is up

Peter Hanlon
The Age
Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The reaction to Nathan Ablett's equivocation over continuing to lead the life of an AFL footballer says much about our deluded sense of ownership of the game. It's time to realise it's not all about us.

If a 21-year-old – one who was famously reluctant to enter the footy fishbowl in the first place – wants his life back, then let him have it. The mixture of shock, outrage and "he'll be back after Christmas" platitudes heard since last Friday have scarcely masked an essential disbelief — "but, but, but, how could you not want to be an AFL footballer?"

We've all heard the standard player/coach response to criticism: you wouldn't know unless you've played at the highest level. In most instances this is a cop-out; a shirtfront playing for Manangatang seconds can hurt just as much as one worn while playing for Melbourne.

But in this case, not even contemporaries can claim an understanding; only Nathan Ablett and his brother Gary can truly know what it's like to be their father's sons, carving out a career at his club, in the game in which some say he had no peer.

Gary jnr has only recently begun to shake off a similar reticence. Yet he willingly trod the path, working his way through the underage system with a clear goal of making it to the top. Nathan was happy playing with his mates at Modewarre, and seemingly would be just as happy to go back there.

Geelong is not at fault in this. It pursued a talent, but hardly stalked him. It has honoured a promise president Frank Costa made to his mother Sue that he would be shielded from the increasingly voracious gaze of the media, conduit to a public that no longer knows when to switch off.

He is not the first to walk away, not even the first in his family. Dad eventually came back, but if Nathan chooses not to, he won't be the last. With every passing season, more and more broad-thinking footballers wonder why they are putting themselves through it.

How much would he be missed? A work in progress, he has been good, ordinary and yet capable of flashes of brilliance, performing deeds that remind you he is, well, an Ablett. But he would not leave a gaping hole in the Geelong forward line; three of the Cats' five selections at last month's national draft are of similar size. All have no doubts about their career choice. And then there is Tom Hawkins.

Sport needs its Boy's Own Annual tales; they ground us. People still talk about Wayne Beddison, who played 10 games, kicked 18 goals and almost took the mark of the year for Essendon in 1983, before chucking it in and heading home to Dimboola. And Stephen Oliver, first drafted by Carlton in 1987, who ultimately eked out 13 reluctant appearances in navy blue from 1992-94.

Ablett has played 32 games and kicked 46 goals, the last three of them in a grand final. Imagine if the last image of him as a footballer is strolling a victory lap of the MCG with his brother, a premiership medal around his neck, boots in his hand, removed for the final time at 21. A modern-day Great McCarthy.

Perhaps the publicity generated by his father's recent reflection on where it all went wrong reminded Nathan that the spotlight will never dim. Perhaps he truly is privileged, in that at 21 he has led both lives, and decided he is happier on a building site than in a forward pocket.

Earlier this year, Ablett reflected on what kept him from giving footy his best shot sooner. Pressure was part of it, the media, doubts about whether he was good enough, a distaste for stories of people throwing up at pre-season training. "I just didn't want to play AFL football." If so, then let it be.

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What's in a name

The Draft Dodger
AFL web page
Friday, November 23, 2007

Among all the fearless, in-the-know, I-spoke-to-an-AFL-recruiting-manager-at-a-21st style predictions for the NAB AFL Draft, we at Draft Dodger HQ would like to add the following: there will be a sad Saad Saad on Saturday. There, we saad it … err, said it.

That’s Seymour’s Saad Saad, a country champ who at 24 may have missed his chance at AFL glory. But the alliterative delight of Seymour’s sad Saad Saad gives us great pleasure. Give Saad a Saab. Or better still a Toyota.

And then there’s Christopher Christopher from Hurstbridge. Didn’t someone buy his parents a Baby Names book when his mother was expecting? Thank goodness Ryan Tutt’s and Dean Putt’s parents had a little more imagination … although Tutt Tutt and Putt Putt have a certainPlay School charm.

There are names that are positively novel-esque. Jack Grimes comes straight from the pages of Charles Dickens, while Daniel Quee could join Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny (and we’ll throw in Christopher Cain from the Oakleigh Chargers as well).

There’s a swag of Smiths, a mess of Martins, a lot of Scotts and a pair of Hams, as well as a Platypus ... sorry, that’s a Plattfuss (Jake, Murray Bushrangers). Among the nominations is a Pope and a Blesing and a Dahl (I Lama). There’s a Bird and an Avery.

The 1300-plus hopefuls who have nominated for Saturday’s draft include a bunch of old stagers – including Andrew Kellaway and Clark Keating doing their bit for senior football citizens – as well as a barrel full of young hopefuls.

We can’t help thinking of the late, great Jack Dyer and how he would have delighted in having to call, “And Tipuamantamerri kicks it to Wonaeamirri, who handballs to Mugambwa, who kicks a beautiful goal for the Tigers.”


We suspect it would have ended up in a typically Dyer-like, “And the young fella kicks it to the other young fella, who handballs to the other young fella, who kicks a beautiful goal for the Tigers.” And we all would have known exactly who Jack was referring to.

Rex Hunt, on the other hand, will just start singing, It’s a Long Way to Tipuamantamerri.

Given names have thrown up some absolute crackers for this year’s Draft. There is Jai (2), Jye (2), Ty and Tye. There’s a Jethro, a Cruize, a Bronik, a Lech, a Muzi, a Teaukura, a Haelen, an Eljay, a Ruory, an Atila and a Shadi, who’s quite a character. There is also a Cathal Corr in the list of nominees, who we think used to play the spoons in that Irish band of a few years ago.

Let’s hear it for Andrew Johnstone, who struck a blow for traditional football by nominating from Ganmain Grong Grong Matong. None of this Stingrays, Jets, Scorpions and Chargers nonsense for young Johnstone.

And hoorah for Ryan Castles, who proudly stands before us representing – take a deep breath and salute the flag – the Wesley College 1st XVIII.

Finally, we say hats off to Nathan Selwood of Sunbury, a 30-year-old who may well be banking on AFL recruiters being awe-struck (or more plainly, totally confused) by his surname and calling his number along with, or instead of, Scott Selwood, Selwood brother number four.

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Pies launch bid for coast deal

Caroline Wilson
The Age
Thursday, November 22, 2007

Collingwood has launched a radical plan to become the AFL's team on the Gold Coast with a proposal to play up to six games at Carrara as early as next season.

Magpies' president Eddie McGuire and his chief executive Gary Pert yesterday met AFL chiefs Mike Fitzpatrick and Andrew Demetriou and put forward the rival bid, assuring the AFL it would step into a new-look Gold Coast agreement should the Kangaroos reject the $100 million offer to move there.

McGuire, as long as four years ago, indicated interest in a push into the southern Queensland market but has been repeatedly told that the AFL wanted a permanently based team in the fast-growing region.

However, the Kangaroos' reluctance to commit to a move, due to their divided board and unwilling shareholders has seen the Magpies put forward an alternative.

It is understood that Fitzpatrick and Demetriou did not reject the offer out of hand following McGuire's insistence that the club's strong following in the region could prove a viable alternative for the AFL even without a permanent relocation.

"We talked about a number of issues," Demetriou said last night. "Collingwood is a very innovative football club."

When asked the specifics of the Magpies' Gold Coast proposal, Demetriou replied: "You'll have to ask them."

McGuire told The Age: "We don't discuss private meetings with the AFL."

However, the Magpies' president conducted a series of interviews on Melbourne radio yesterday, promoting the importance of the AFL's strategy of expansion into southern Queensland.

McGuire is understood to have pushed the significant economic impact of a Collingwood presence up north along with the fact that the move could take place at a significantly reduced cost to the competition and without any further compromising of the draft.

The AFL did not totally reject revising next year's fixture given the reality that should the Kangaroos reject the league's proposal, their four games scheduled for 2008 would struggle to capture the hearts and minds of the Gold Coast public.

The $120 million first stage of the Carrara redevelopment is contingent on an AFL team committing to a permanent presence in the region but the Magpies reportedly argued that even a permanent part-time presence by a strong club could sway the Queensland government.

Should the, albeit left-field, offer by Collingwood be considered, the Magpies only interstate games would most likely take place at Carrara or the Gabba. Should the Kangaroos, on the other hand, convince their shareholders to relinquish their stake in the club or vote for relocation, the Magpies are understood to have put forward a second proposal to play an equally significant package of games in Sydney's west.

The Magpies' board has already discussed the proposal in the belief a foray into the undeveloped region would prove a viable alternative to the already-established rugby league club, the Gold Coast Titans, and could prove a profitable one for the club.

Collingwood has its own travel agency and has already invested significant resources researching viable business opportunities in southern Queensland.

Earlier this week, Collingwood announced a record operating profit of more than $2 million, which made 2007 the seventh successive year the Magpies had recorded figures in excess of $1 million.

Collingwood's proposal came on the same day that Kangaroos director James Brayshaw announced a plan for his club to stay at Arden Street.

The plan includes investments of $10 million, and sponsorship of nearly $2 million. The initiative also involves dissolving the club's complicated share structure and returning it to a traditional membership-based structure. New directors, including former coach Denis Pagan, would be recruited under the plan.

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AFL misses the Gold rush

Matt Marshall (Brisbane)
Herald Sun
Friday, November 16, 2007

Australian football has missed the boat in its quest to establish an AFL team on the Gold Coast, with any such venture bound to play second fiddle to the Titans.

That's the confident opinion of NRL chief executive David Gallop, who says the Titans and rugby league have already made an indelible impression on the Gold Coast community.

Speaking on the Gold Coast yesterday at the launch of a scholarship program for Titans-contracted players to study at Griffith University, Gallop said rugby league had trumped its rival code in the blossoming metropolis.

"We definitely made the right decision for our game (by establishing the Titans)," he said. "We did it at the right time. The commitment from the Gold Coast to build a stadium was critical in that.

"But as important as their on-field success has been, it's been their community work that has really set them up for the future."

Gallop said the arrival of a second professional football team would stretch the Coast's resources -- which is why the Titans were placed perfectly to muscle a rival code out of the market.

"There's a lot of pressure in those types of situations. The good news for us is that the Titans have a very strong foothold -- they're moving into a fantastic facility and their future is very bright," he said.

"We got in at the right time and the Titans are doing a great job of making sure they're here for many years."

Gallop earlier this year forecast a possible fourth Queensland team within 5-10 years. But he said his administration was wary of the pitfalls of expanding too soon.

"There are a lot of issues when you look to relocate a team. I'm sure the AFL are looking at all of those," Gallop said. "You've got to remember we grew out of Sydney many years ago and that's one of the game's strengths."

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Deacon Blue a work of art

Rohan Connolly
The Age
Thursday, November 15, 2007

Unveiling of portrait of Carlton Brownlow Medallist Bert Deacon by Artist Dudley Drew.
Jean Deacon, Berts wife, and Dudley Drew, left, at the unveiling.
Photo: Justin Mcmanus

When a budding artist asked to paint a portrait of a footballer, the following relationship grew more than canvas-deep.

Melbourne artist Dudley Drew has painted portraits of some pretty important figures in his time, Catholic Archbishop Daniel Mannix, King O'Malley and "Weary" Dunlop among them.

But few were as close to his heart as the life-sized portrait he painted of Carlton champion Bert Deacon in 1948, the year after the Blues' centre half-back won the Brownlow Medal.

Drew was an aspiring painter in his mid-20s then, still trying to forge a reputation in the art world. It was his mother who suggested he attempt to paint the star All-Australian and Victorian representative.

A nervous young man knocked on the door of the Deacons' Preston home to put forward his suggestion. He can recall the reception he received like it was yesterday.

"When I got there this particular night, around about seven o'clock, Bert was already in bed because he was injured - he'd injured his leg playing football, but he and Jean (Deacon's wife) just welcomed me so much. It was great and I felt so proud," he says.

"I then asked Bert if he would pose for the big portrait, and he said 'I'd be very happy to do that'. He sat for the portrait about eight times and I remember in one sitting he began to smile, exposing this toothless gap. He was painted sporting grey trousers and navy blue blazer with the white V on the pocket, and included in the painting is a trophy Bert also won for best afield for Victoria.

"Towards the end, he said: 'You know I really love this painting and I'm going to tell everybody about the greatest artist in the world', and he did. He sent many people to me to have their portraits painted. He was just great. No wonder I cried when he went to heaven."

It's no wonder that Drew was so devastated when the portrait was damaged beyond repair. The painting had been too big for the Deacons to keep in their own home, and for a time it resided on a wall in the sports store owned by Collingwood great Ron Todd. But after being returned to Drew's studio, it fell on to a steel table, which slashed through the priceless canvas.

That, sadly, was where the story may have ended, but for a recent meeting between Jean Deacon and Tony De Bolfo, Visy adviser to Carlton Football Club. Flicking through an old scrapbook, De Bolfo chanced upon a photograph of the original portrait.

Drew, now in his early 80s, was alive and well, Jean told him. De Bolfo rang and asked whether he would be interested in repainting the portrait from the still. Incredibly, after all these years, the artist had recently been thinking the very same thing.

"I'd woken up about two one morning, and something just said 'you must paint the portrait of Bert again'," he says.

"So for the next three weeks, I'm thinking about how I'm going to paint this. I'd even ordered the canvas. Then the phone rings one morning, and it's Tony asking me to paint it again. Isn't that amazing? How do these things happen?"

The new painting took Drew a month to complete. It is a replica bar for one small but important addition Deacon's Brownlow Medal, which dangles from the 1947 trophy he'd won for being Victoria's best player in the 1947 Australian National Football Council carnival in Hobart.

It's painted on a superior Belgian canvas, and with dangerous objects safely out of harm's way, this one wasn't going to suffer a similar fate when it was unveiled at Drew's Wonga Park studio last Monday, Jean and her son, Robert, in proud attendance.

After all these years, the big moment when the sheet is ripped away from the 7 x 4 canvas is still a nervous one. But Drew is quickly reassured by all present he's more than done justice to the original. His face beams appropriately.

There's the hope that a Blues benefactor or even the club itself might chip in to buy the tribute to one of its greatest sons, but more important to him is the satisfaction of reviving the image of a football star who became a great mate.

Drew has had several other famous football figures sit for him Bob Skilton, Robert Di Pierdomenico, and only a few years back, Collingwood coach Mick Malthouse.

He painted Mannix twice, and remembers the experiences vividly, the elderly archbishop remarking the first time: "You'll be the last artist to ever paint my portrait". He was right. Though several other contemporary painters did so subsequently, it was Drew who, with Mannix 99 years old, was commissioned again.

"He couldn't walk down the steps anymore, so we painted it in the bedroom," Drew recalls. "He died before it was finished. I went out to do the final sitting, and he was lying on the bed, gone to heaven." Drew has since painted another archbishop George Pell.

But it's the relationship forged with the good-natured Carlton star transcending his craft which is his fondest memory.

"Through that painting, Bert, Jean and I became great friends and I could tell you many stories about him," Drew says. "He was a wonderful man. The day he died (at only 51) I remember picking up a paper. It was all over the front page and I just cried.

"He used to pick me up to take me to the footy. He used to come out to my parents' place at Albert Park and have dinner with us, and we'd go swimming.

"One day we were on a tram, and I said: 'Bert, I should have grown as tall as you'. And I could take you to the exact spot in Clarendon Street where he said this as the tram went along he said: 'Dud, diamonds were never made as big as bricks'. I really treasure those memories, and I treasure the fact that he considered me a friend."

Deacon would also have treasured the lengths to which a once-aspiring young artist who knocked on his front door 60-odd years ago has gone to restore a work of art, and a lifetime of memories along with it.

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TAC Cup flicked from MCG in revamp

Emma Quayle
The Age
Sunday, November 11, 2007

The AFL will establish eight new junior academies, replace the TAC Cup grand final with two national under-16 finals on the MCG on grand final day and completely revamp the under-18 championships as part of a raft of changes to the elite underage pathway program.

Recruiters will be able to assess second-division draft prospects against first-division sides under the new under-18 program, which will become a six-week series played in several states. Mark Ricciuto and Luke Darcy have accepted coaching roles with both the national AIS-AFL Academy and the new state-based programs.

The TAC Cup grand final – played on the MCG on grand final day since the competition began in 1992 – will be moved to Docklands Stadium, possibly on the Friday of grand final week, and the ground will host the mid-week national under-18 finals during the AFL's split round.

The changes mean the championships will start with a qualifying tournament in May between the four division-two sides – Tasmania, the Northern Territory, Queensland and NSW-ACT – with the top two teams to play against Vic Metro, Vic Country, South Australia and Western Australia when they meet the following month. The games will be staggered over a six-week period, played in Melbourne, Perth and Adelaide, and feature as many AFL curtain-raisers as possible.

The national under-16 championships will be moved in full to the Gold Coast in late July, see each of the 200-odd players undergo fitness assessments, and conclude with the two MCG games – first and second-division finals.

From there, 30 players will be offered scholarships to the AIS-AFL Academy, pushing the start of that program back several weeks, while up to 40 players will join each of the new academies, aligned to the eight national underage teams.

The curriculum for each academy is still being fine-tuned with the various state bodies, but the AFL's plan is to offer more young footballers the sort of coaching and life training available now to the AIS-AFL players, through year-long programs providing ongoing access to the likes of Darcy and Ricciuto. Michael Voss and Jason McCartney will continue to assist head coach Alan McConnell in the AIS program.

The AFL's game development manager, David Matthews, said staging the under-16 games on grand final day would give youngsters across Australia the chance to play on football's biggest stage, at a time when some were choosing between sports. He said the league was determined for the TAC Cup decider to maintain a presence in grand final week, if not at the MCG.

"The TAC Cup has achieved some great things and we're working at the moment to place the TAC Cup grand final potentially with the VFL grand final," Matthews said. "There's the potential for them both to be played at Telstra Dome, but we certainly want to get the TAC Cup on Telstra Dome in front of a bigger crowd."

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AFL leaders tarnished by Cousins crisis

Caroline Wilson
The Age
Sunday, October 21, 2007

The flight home from France would have been a long one for AFL chief Andrew Demetriou as he contemplates the biggest crisis he has faced during his four years in football's top job. For the first time, Demetriou's authority has been truly tarnished.

The competition's new chairman, Mike Fitzpatrick, also faces a soul-searching flight home from commitments in London, during which time the former Carlton premiership captain will ask himself whether he, too, could have acted more swiftly and harshly upon West Coast and whether those actions could have prevented the current crisis. Fitzpatrick needs to show leadership.

The two league bosses must now decide how to deal with West Coast in this climate of tragedy and tawdry exposure and, it must be said, still some denial from the club itself. The AFL are caretakers of a game with a major dose of the dangerous drug problem that is hurting our society and a one-time hero who managed to scale football's greatest heights while apparently addicted to the methamphetine ice.

We pose the question that has been posed over and over again. How could the club have allowed this to happen without meaningful action until March this year? How guilty is the AFL of also burying its head in the sand, particularly given the fact it instigated an illegal drugs policy it didn't have to?

The drugs policy itself is not the problem, except that in the case of Ben Cousins, it is meaningless and irrelevant and in the case of the rest of the competition, clearly unreliable and far too random. The issues facing Demetriou and Fitzpatrick – who must now come to the forefront regarding the social crisis – have little to do with the drugs policy.

It has been a dreadful week for Trevor Nisbett, too, and a tragic month, but his public utterances on the Cousins situation have been far from convincing. Nisbett said on radio SEN on Thursday that as terrible as Cousins' lapse has proved for the player and his former club, the other problems at West Coast have been blown out of proportion.

Clearly, the Eagles' chief executive was exercising damage control but surely the crisis is too deep to worry about public relations. He commented on the fact that the club has been so intent upon fixing its culture and teaching its players how to improve their values that the off-field work at times had been to the detriment of the Eagles' on-field performance.

The embattled chief executive tried to make the leadership and behavioural exercise sound like a sacrifice. When you have the problems this club has, it is frankly insulting to even refer to the importance of a game of football. It was the club's determination to win a flag at all costs that led it to refuse to deal with Cousins and other endangered young men when it should have.

Cousins' tragedy continues to claim others. Dalton Gooding is gone from the Eagles and gone are his commission prospects. Meanwhile, those commissioners who wanted to punish West Coast in May to send a more powerful message than the lecture – "a nice old lecture", Nisbett glibly predicted – and the unofficial threats are angry now, but their anger should be tinged with regret. They, too, should be examining their leadership.

As should Demetriou. He was warned about the West Coast problem and his well-connected network must have kept him informed with the stories coming from the West.

What has hurt him in the eyes of other clubs is that Nisbett, Gooding and another long-time club powerbroker in Neale Hamilton are his friends. The accusation is that he should have been tougher, as he should have been with Collingwood's Alan Didak in June. This issue has tested him as it has everyone in the game who has touched it but he must act decisively.

To punish West Coast via the draft might not be the right answer, particularly given the AFL's compliance. There is also the troublesome matter of the Victorian club that we cannot name which may or may not have a drug problem. The players from that club may not have flaunted their dangerous social habits in the manner of the Eagles but West Coast would point to the fact that the problems at that club were legally covered up by the AFL.

This is Demetriou's biggest test and he appears well aware of the fact. It is why he has come home.

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A story of opportunities squandered

Greg Baum
The Age
Thursday, October 18, 2007

It is hard to think that there has been a greater git in the history of Australian sport than Ben Cousins – and that is in the face of plenty of stiff competition.

Classically, he is the boy who had it all – a gift, good looks, glowing health, caring family, wealth, spoils and adulation – and still it was not enough.

What he lacked, and lacks still, is a sense of responsibility; few have ever obliged him to develop one.

This was never more evident than when he appeared on television in August to apologise for his excesses. He was sorry, all right: sorry that he was being made to do it.

Cousins became a monster of many makings – game, club, city – but most of all, his own. Financially, the game lavished favours on him in a way that has ruined greater men. The city indulged him. West Coast players are royalty in Perth, down to the detail that they are impervious to scandal.

Cousins' high life has been an open secret in Perth for years. He rarely slept, kept the company of gangsters, escaped from a booze bus by stripping to the waist – evidently a habit – and swimming a river.

When this became known – in Perth, that was instantly – it was smiled upon as one might a naughty schoolboy prank. One radio station proposed an annual triathlon in honour of his feat.

The club protected him, covered for him, challenged indignantly anyone who dared to ask questions about his fitness to be captain. No one, not the law, not the commentators, not AFL drug testers, certainly not opposition players, could lay a hand on him. Cousins was untouchable, and he conducted his life thus. He broke every rule – flagrantly.

Some worked to redeem him from himself. Police warned him to desist from keeping the company he did. Managers tried to counsel him about his lifestyle. As his behaviour degenerated, the Eagles put him on a series of infinitely renewable last chances.

The night West Coast crashed out of this year's finals, coach John Worsfold – who is as straight as the Eyre Highway is long – read him the riot act, saying that he had by his recklessness cost the club the chance of successive premierships. Reportedly, Cousins scurried out the door, to all appearances a chastened man.

Two weeks ago, Cousins received what should have been the sharpest jolt of all. He was with Eagles legend Chris Mainwaring on the night he died, aged just 41, in circumstances that are at the very least suspicious.

Yet there Cousins was on Tuesday, shirtless, gormless, being taken into police custody. He was charged with drug offences. His guilt or otherwise will be decided at a magistrates court hearing today, but is immaterial now.

Cousins has brought shame enough already to his game, his club, his family, but most of all himself. He is guilty already of making a fool of himself and all who care for him. His football days are done.

It is possible to sympathise with Cousins to the extent that his problem is an illness. But that cannot be an excuse. Cousins has had access to more, and more sophisticated, treatment than most with drug issues.

Possibly, this blinded him, the Eagles and the AFL about the success of his rehabilitation. His return to the game after half a season looked hasty. Now, it looks more so.

By his massive selfishness, Cousins has hurt so many others. More than any other, he has created for West Coast an image of a club addled by drugs, and recalcitrant about it. It is an awful slur on an overwhelmingly clean majority.

Chris Judd did not leave because of Cousins, but doubtless his decision was made easier than it otherwise might have been by the incorrigible former captain. Now parents of putative stars are beginning to air misgivings about sending their sons to the Eagles.

Cousins has hurt the many who care for him. He has hurt the AFL, who colluded with the Eagles to give Cousins the chance to deal with his addiction on his own terms.

He has hurt the game.

He has hurt untold thousands of fans. It is nonsense to argue that he did not choose to be a role model. Sportsmen are put on a higher pedestal than others, giving them greater rewards and privileges, so it is only reasonable that they are held to higher standards. Cousins has failed.

Cousins' return to the football field from his exile in a Malibu sanatorium late this season was instructive. Oiled forearms shining in the Subiaco Oval floodlights, he looked what he has always supposed himself to be – invincible – and played that way. Disquietingly, West Coast fans – and some commentators – hailed him as they might a conquering hero.

Cousins again had the world at his feet that night. A mature man might have been humbled, thinking about what he had almost squandered. Cousins, evidently, looked upon it as yet more proof that he could do no wrong.

But for Cousins, there will be no third coming. Tragically, few will care.

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China's AFL link is kicking goals

Steve Harris
The Age
Saturday, October 13, 2007

When Qantas flight 191 lands in Beijing on Monday night it will mark the start of a new phase in the Australia-China business relationship. On board are 1000 footballs, hundreds of pieces of football gear, a dozen businessmen, nine AFL rising stars, two sporting icons and one game plan: to kick goals for Melbourne.

The 10-day mission is a small part of the "tipping point" needed for Melbourne and Victoria truly to reap sustainable long-term benefits from 25 years of building relationships with China.

China already is the biggest source of Melbourne's 100,000 international university students, our biggest trading partner, and on the verge of being the biggest source of tourists. But governments and business are increasingly seeing the need to further elevate and enrich relationships.

This is why this mission has the support of major corporations and agencies with a big stake in the world's fastest growing economy. Supporters include Qantas and Australia Post, which have big ambitions in tourism, freight and logistics; the Australia-China Business Council, Australian Trade Commission and AustChams of Commerce in China.

The use of sport and popular culture to brand a city or country is not unfamiliar to Melbourne, and the Chinese are embracing it aggressively via the 2008 Olympics, 2010 Expo and 2011 Asia Games. China has an enormous appetite for "foreign" sports and will compete in the 2008 International Aussie Rules Cup in Melbourne for the first time.

If economics is increasingly to follow culture rather than the reverse, and our core cultural identity is sport, and our biggest sport is Australian football, so then "football diplomacy" can help open doors, relationships and economic engagement.

Sister-city strategies may be sniffed at by some, but the Melbourne-Tianjin relationship is widely regarded as one of the best in the world.

About 150 future business and government leaders from Tianjin have come to Melbourne on three-month programs, been taken to games at the MCG, been made honorary members of Melbourne FC, and made to feel welcome.

Our club this year also welcomed 4000 Chinese university students at a game, and we have regular coverage in local Chinese newspapers.

The mayor of Tianjin, the influential Dai Xianglong, a former governor of the People's Bank of China, asked Melbourne Mayor John So to take Australian football to China and make Tianjin a home of AFL.

While a demonstration and competitive match is still for future years, much progress has been made. This mission is the biggest football step into China and will generate considerable media coverage; Australian football is an approved program in Chinese schools; an AFL youth ambassador is based in Tianjin; a range of students are regularly playing; physical education teachers receive training in Melbourne; the rules of the game have been translated; and Tianjin and Shanghai media firms are hungry for coverage.

Why is Melbourne FC so interested in China? Put simply, because we want to improve our business and brand, and the appeal of our game.

On the business/brand side, we support city and state strategies in China, we are embracing an important long-term constituency in the international students, we are helping Australian businesses reinforce their "Aussie positives" and profile through football, and we are looking for opportunities for Chinese companies to elevate their profile here.

On the game side, we see football, a game born in Melbourne, as the epitome of Australian values of competition, diversity, and physical well-being, all of appeal to China. And as the ICC develops cricket grounds in China, and cricket will be part of the 2011 Asia Games for the first time, so the infrastructure for football increases also.

Can any sporting code, business or city seeking to be serious about growth and relevance afford to ignore China? Consider just three facts:

n China has more speakers of English as a second language than there are in the whole of the US.

n Cities like Shanghai and Beijing have populations almost as large as our whole country.

n China must build infrastructure equivalent to Melbourne every two months to help accommodate the 300 million Chinese moving into its cities.

Exciting opportunities exist to elevate our club business, our game, our city, utilising our whole Melbourne cultural team: football, the arts, business, education. And we know the old Chinese proverb: when you drink from the well, remember who built the well.

Steve Harris is CEO of Melbourne Football Club, and former publisher and editor-in-chief of The Age.

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Analysis: Faster pussycats

Stephen Rielly
The Age
Friday, September 21, 2007

In 2007, football embraced the idea that audacity breeds life where order breeds habit.

The game got quicker and so Geelong, Port Adelaide and the Kangaroos rose as Sydney, Fremantle and Adelaide fell. If this was at times difficult to appreciate on Saturday, as the greatest grand final massacre of all unfolded, the disentangling of the broader season's intricacies told us this was so.

Play and players moved at increased speeds, raising the value of game-breaking risk while taking the game an evolutionary step beyond the spider's web of Sydney's stoppage success.

Teams, such as the Western Bulldogs, who were at the forefront of a daring push in 2006, lost their competitive advantage in 2007 as better equipped outfits such as Geelong and Port borrowed from them and went by.

This was a concern not only for those left behind. A 60-page AFL document, produced by the laws of the game review panel and released mid-season, concluded: "It would be predicted that the speed of the game would decrease as players become more tired, but this has not happened. In fact, it has increased significantly."

The Cats were never anything less than a sound defensive side under coach Mark Thompson. They always understood the importance of the contest. It was just that this year they stopped trying to hold on to the ball as you would a vial of nitroglycerine, and with it the tempo of the game, to run at the opposition and allow the panic this freneticism could cause to become an ally.

Where Sydney and Adelaide kept to their strategies of incremental advance and territory won like yards on the Somme, punishing teams into physical submission along the way, Geelong met that challenge but not to reproduce it for the opposition but to go on the attack.

It is true the Cats were fitter — none more so than Gary Ablett and Steve Johnson — and therefore better able to charge where once they dug in, but it also required an interest in doing so.

An interest, it seems fair to speculate, piqued by the need to find an edge on the Sydney-West Coast hegemony and the necessity of servicing a solid but far from imposing attack that too often in the past relied upon Ablett G and Paul Chapman conjuring something from the crumb of a half chance.

It was not by happenstance that seven Geelong players took better than goal-a-game averages into Saturday's denouement. Neither Port nor the Kangaroos allowed themselves to be shackled, either, and the results were inarguable. In the end, they were not quite good enough but they were certainly vastly improved. Possession, as the raison d'etre it often appeared to be in 2006, was not enough for any of them. The 10th, 12th and 14th placed sides of last year were first, second and third 12 months on.

Moreover, Port and the Kangaroos swept past so many without making the defensive adjustments that are held sacred by devotees of the "negate before create" stream of football thinking. Port moved 10 places on the ladder but conceded only 113 points fewer than it did in 2006. The Kangaroos conceded 169 less points.

By September, even Mick Malthouse had put aside his copy of The Art of War and was encouraging his players to go after Sydney instead of sandbagging themselves from defeat.

It could be said, of course, that the difference was at the other end of the ground but this would be to focus on the result instead of the method. And to ignore the other critical influences on the season; injury management and the unprecedented importance of the interchange gate.

The sophistication of the preparation of the modern AFL player coupled with the revolving door use of the interchange allowed bigger bodies to run faster, for longer, than ever before. And those teams, like Geelong and Port, who were of a mind to break from the stoppage arm-wrestle were able to do so like never before, provided they were able to keep their runners running.

Geelong had but one player, Matthew Egan, missing from its grand final side.

Only Michael Wilson missed for Port. Would either side, as good and as adventurous as they were, have got to the last Saturday in September with a run of misfortune as bleak as Melbourne's?

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The first footy game

The Age
Friday, September 21, 2007
 

An etching of Aborigines playing "kick-to-kick" near Mildura could be the first record of Australian football, experts say.

The black-and-white image, created from Victorian scientist William Blandowski's 1857 observations, precedes Australia's first known game of football – a match between Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar in 1858.

Dr Patrick Greene, Museum Victoria's chief executive, was thrilled with the historic find, which could ignite debate on Australian Football's origins.

"We're suggesting this could be the first image of football in Australia," Dr Greene said.

"We're encouraging debate on this and if anyone can come up with earlier images."

The etching, created by German artist Gustav Mutzel in 1862, was unearthed recently during research for a Blandowski exhibition in Mildura.

It is believed Blandowski took his observations back home to Germany where he instructed Mutzel to etch the Aborigines playing football.

Blandowski returned to Europe after falling out with his Victorian colleagues, the museum confirmed.

"This is a remarkable image and we at the museum are delighted to be able to publicise its discovery," Dr Greene said.

"If what we are seeing is indeed an Australian 'football' game, involving both marking and kicking, then this image may be the earliest yet known."

Blandowski's 1857 notes describe a game played by the Yerre Yerre people near Merbein in Victoria's north-west.

"The ball is made out of typha roots – it is not thrown or hit with a bat but it is kicked up in the air with the foot," Blandowski wrote.

"Aim of the game: never let the ball touch the ground."

AFL spokesman Patrick Keane said Tom Wills, who was influential in establishing the rules of Australian football, spent time with an Aboriginal community who played Marn Gook, a game similar to football.

"The Aborigines played a sport that had elements we use in AFL," Mr Keane said.

"We have acknowledged their game (Marn Gook) in our history."

The picture is on exhibition at the Mildura Arts Centre until November 21.

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Butterss canny in retaliation on Saints dispute

Caroline Wilson
The Australian
Friday, September 14, 2007

Rod Butterss and his three key supporters remaining on the St Kilda board publicly retaliated for the first time yesterday against the challenge launched three days ago by the St Kilda Footy First team.

Butterss, Glen Casey, Ray King and Mark Kellett were up against it, and remain so, but launched a credible — if not entirely convincing — counterattack, demanding that Greg Westaway and his team put forward a plan for St Kilda's future to the AFL.

They issued a statement saying, in part: "Members of the current board are deeply offended and outraged by the comments of Mr Westaway, carrying the implication of alcohol and drug abuse by existing directors at club functions."

Describing what he regarded as Westaway's not-so-subtle attempt to link the board with drug and alcohol abuse as a "smear campaign", Butterss said he would gladly step aside if AFL chief Andrew Demetriou's executive judged the challengers worthy of their takeover bid, which threatens to become as grubby as it has been organised.

Westaway, an experienced businessman, boasts a formidable weapon in the recently retired and respected Andrew Thompson. Having Thompson on board so soon after a long career with the Saints has hurt the board and its claim that the football department does not need a big overhaul.

But he was wrong to play the illegal drugs card. If Westaway truly has St Kilda's interests at heart, then it is difficult to think of a more disgraceful, albeit subtle, allegation directed at the club chiefs, particularly when the club has just lost two major sponsors.

Interestingly, he tried to back away from his allegations yesterday and claimed his words had been misconstrued. At least one St Kilda director already has launched legal action against him and even senior AFL executives are believed to be horrified at what appeared below-the-belt electioneering.

Ray King, the club's oldest director, took the reins yesterday on Butterss' behalf. He would not allow any director to answer a direct question on whether they had used illegal drugs during their time on the board, and he agreed that the president's ill-timed public attack on sacked coach Grant Thomas in June had not helped the current situation.

The Butterss team was smart to employ the subtle support of Demetriou, although it must be said that Westaway, too, spoke with the AFL boss yesterday and was assured by Demetriou he would not interfere in what looms as a decision for the club's members come November.

Ultimately, the Butterss team will not go quietly. The Westaway team has no intention of providing the AFL with a long-term plan, although it should be mindful of how much worse Carlton became after John Elliott was thrown out. St Kilda does not have the problems Carlton did in 2002, but Butterss' ploy of subtly threatening the possibility of AFL assistance or relocation should the new team and its unknown financial expertise botch the situation was a clever one.

Many Saints are not happy with the current situation and are trying not to take sides. Stewart Loewe told The Age yesterday he was not getting involved. Ross Lyon has determined from The Age this week.

Former president Andrew Plympton appears to be cautiously supporting Butterss, with whom he is now involved in business. Danny Frawley seems bewildered and dismayed. Archie Fraser and his executive team have engaged lawyer Richard Loveridge to advise them as to the correct legal process over the coming weeks.

Saying nothing is the man who helped cause all this — Thomas. He is the shadow Butterss cannot shake. It is now more than a year since he was removed and, inevitably, now it seems that the board must too fall upon its sword. It was always going to be that way unless Lyon could take the team at least into the first week of the finals.

The four men who fronted the media yesterday all have been linked or remain so in a number of companies and investments. The impression that the football club at times has been their plaything cannot be shaken. Looking back, this regime threatened for some time to transform into a house of cards.

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Fox wins $780m AFL ratings war

Simon Canning
The Australian
Thursday, September 6, 2007

Pay-Television channel Fox Sports has emerged as the big winner at the end of the first regular season of the $780 million AFL broadcast rights deal, with a huge spike in audiences after scoring more and better-quality AFL games this year.

Viewing of live AFL games on Fox Sports leapt 60 per cent this year, while the Seven Network's return to the game was also a success, with its Friday night and Sunday ratings up 8 per cent and 5 per cent respectively on those broadcasts by other networks under last year's arrangements.

Channel 10's ratings were disappointing, however, with the average number of viewers for its Saturday afternoon and night games falling 5.7 per cent and 4.5per cent respectively.

Fox Sports channel director Tony Sinclair said the placement of AFL on a general sports channel – rather than on the AFL-focused Fox Footy, as last year – also helped viewing numbers as the AFL picked up more casual viewers.

"On Fox Footy it was a single genre broadcaster and so you are either in or you are out, and you don't catch the casual eyeballs," he said. "We get surprised by the numbers because people do actually want to watch (quality sport)." Mr Sinclair also said much of the channel's audience growth came from the growing number of Foxtel subscriptions.

Fox Sports - which is 50 per cent owned by The Australian's publisher News Limited - agreed to pay $315.5 million over five years to secure four AFL games a week, most of which are now live.

This year Fox Sports also extended its NRL coverage to Monday nights for the first time, and ran concurrent live games on its interactive channel.

With the three commercial networks and pay-TV investing almost $1.3 billion in the rights to the two football codes over the next several years, 2007 emerged as a big test for Seven. It was also the first time it has split coverage with another network.

The NRL, now in the third year of its broadcast deal, also extended Nine's coverage to two games on Friday nights.

But even as both codes are heralding home and away season viewing figures as being robust, an analysis of the season obtained by The Australian has revealed worrying dips in a number of important timeslots for both the codes.

A ratings analysis by Mediacom, one of Australia's largest media buying agencies, has revealed significant trends away from the traditional viewing patterns of both codes on free to air.

The AFL's flagship Saturday afternoon games - once the mainstay of the code - lost almost 40,000 viewers on last year's figures - with an average audience of 644,000 tuning in.

Saturdays proved to be a Bermuda Triangle for AFL audiences on Ten, with the evening games also leaching audience numbers at a worrying rate. The evening game audience lost 41,000 viewers on average compared with last year.

Seven and Fox appear to have been the beneficiaries of a loosening grip on the code by Ten.

But the battle between Seven and Ten was lies, damned lies and statistics during the 2007 season, with both networks claiming victory over the other at various times. "We are extremely pleased with the outcome for this year," Ten spokesman Gus Seebeck said.

Mr Seebeck claimed Ten's games averaged 674,000 compared with Seven's 699,000, based on Oztam data, and that the network's coverage reached a cumulative audience of 11.8 million over the season.

Seven, on the other hand, stated that it had an average audience of 772,000 for its matches on Friday nights.

The Mediacom figures also showed Friday night AFL broadcast rose to an average of 771,405, up 57,000 on last year.

On Sundays, when Seven was forced into a delicate juggling act with its commitments to the V8 Supercars, there was a lift of 41,000 viewers.

The NRL was not immune to variable free-to-air figures, with Nine finding success on Friday nights with its regular series of double headers, lifting audiences from 666,000 last year to 709,000 in 2007.

However, Sundays proved to be Nine's challenge, with audiences moving away from the late afternoon telecasts.

Audiences dropped from 545,000 to 512,000.

NRL chief executive David Gallop admitted that Sundays had become an issue for broadcasters but was enthused by the numbers overall.

"We have been very encouraged given the new format with an extra game on Friday night. It's certainly allowed us to get increased numbers in Queensland and maintain our position in Sydney. I think the numbers are very pleasing," he said.

Mr Gallop admitted that in terms of pure audience reach, it was difficult to look past the national appeal of the AFL.

"Their numbers are always a reminder of the power of a truly national profile," he said. "But in our traditional markets we continue to perform very well."

While Seven may be pleased with its return to AFL, Nine is happy with its Friday Night Football and Ten is pleased with the ability to lure viewers to what would otherwise be a ratings dead zone for the network, it is the Fox Sports story that has attracted attention as the finals loom.

The AFL's chief executive Andrew Demetriou declined to comment on the figures for the home and away season.

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From Mayblooms to Hawks (Roy Cazaly)

Rob Shaw
The Age
Thursday, September 6, 2007

Hawthorn supporters have a lot to thank Patricia Whitecross for. Were it not for the softly spoken octogenarian, brown-and-gold clad fans at Saturday's elimination final against Adelaide would be voicing their support of a mighty army of men called … the Mayblooms.

Whitecross is the only surviving child of another Australian footy phenomenon that made a home in Tasmania — Roy Cazaly.

And it was while her father was coaching the club during World War II that she made a contribution which continues to have an impact on supporters and headline-writers alike.

One night, while the Cazaly family was living in Burwood, he came home and asked for help with an issue he had at work. Cazaly's four daughters were sitting around the dinner table.

"The Mayblooms is such a sissy name for men," he said.

"What would you girls suggest?"

Sixty years on, the Hobart great-grandmother fondly recalls the subsequent exchange.

"We went round the table with my three sisters and me saying what we thought," she said. "It was really funny some of the names that were coming out, but I'm afraid it's too long ago to remember them now. When it came to my turn I said, 'Why don't you call them the Hawks?'

"Nobody else had thought of it but it just seemed the nearest thing to Hawthorn. Dad said, 'That's not a bad idea. That sounds really good.' The other girls agreed and the next week at work he put it to the committee."

The suggestion was accepted, the Mayblooms became the Hawks, and Patricia Whitecross's place in the club's history was sealed.

"I still follow them and do take a bit of pride whenever I see the word," she said. "Lord only knows how they would be going if they still had the nickname of a flower."

The 83-year-old said she was still regularly asked about a father who died nearly half a century ago. To say Roy Cazaly was ahead of his time does not do him justice.

Born one of 10 children to a champion rower in Melbourne in 1893, he played 99 games at each of St Kilda and South Melbourne and represented Victoria on 13 occasions before moving to Tasmania to transform the fortunes of City in Launceston, North Hobart and New Town.

In all, Cazaly played more than 400 senior games over five decades and coached seven premiership-winning sides.

But it was his approach to the game that made him revolutionary. Cazaly neither smoked nor drank alcohol, refused to eat fried food and took extraordinary care of his body, especially his feet.

He also targeted one-percenters in an era when nobody would have had the faintest idea what one was.

"I'm not surprised at the interest in him because he was such a wonderful person," Whitecross said from her home in Hobart. "We are very proud of him.

"I get asked about him a lot and I just say what our life was like living in a football family. He was wonderful. He was a very quietly spoken man who never raised his voice or anything like that. He used to talk football and there were always footballers who used to come into the house.

"We did not really realise how important it all was because we were only children at the time and just accepted it. It was normal to us. But if you went anywhere and said what your surname was, you'd always get asked if you were related to Roy."

Roy and Agnes Cazaly had five daughters: Elizabeth (who died in infancy), Dorothy, Lena, Patricia and Joan. Whitecross, a widow, used to clean her father's boots and happily remembers watching his coaching sessions at Glenferrie Oval. She has retained an allegiance to her father's former employer and is optimistic about the Hawks' finals chances, having a thinly disguised soft spot for the team's glamour player, former captain and Brownlow Medal winner Shane Crawford.

"I think he's fabulous," she said. "He made me laugh on The Footy Show the other day when he came out dressed as Elvis."

And speaking of music, what of Mike Brady's 1979 hit Up There Cazaly, which no Australian can go through September without hearing?

"I love the song," she said. "When he was recently made an icon (of the Tasmanian Football Hall of Fame), they played it and the family all stood up and sang along. They were thrilled to pieces. I never get sick of hearing it … I do get a bit teary though."

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It's a wonderful game

John Harms
The Age
Wednesday, September 5, 2007

I CHANGED my mind about this story. Originally, I was going to tell you about last Friday night's match between Collingwood and Adelaide. About how it started with lunch at a restaurant in Kew. With a bloke called Happy and a whole stack of his footy mates who catch up with each other a couple of times a year.

Good blokes. Good on the sip. Good on the chew. Good on the banter. Blokes who've played footy together, done a lot together. Blokes whose respect for each other is completely unspoken, yet absolutely obvious. Built on and off the field. Built on years of telling stories at each other's expense.

I was going to tell you about Bakes, who played in the ammos; about Butch, who played in the Fitzroy under 19s; about Dips, who ran third in a Stawell Gift (his Dad won one); about laconic Ces, and goalsneak Greg, and Smithy the straight-ahead back pocket. About Woody, who could take a big, strong grab. Sometimes, on the way down, he'd give the Sherrin a few shakes. ("We knew Woody was in for a huge day when he gave it the pepper-shaker.")

I was going to tell you that the game was in good hands because these aren't blokes who trade on their list of achievements. They just love the game. Footy is in them, and they're in footy. And they stay in footy because they still love it. They know how much pleasure it has given them. And they are passing their affection on to their kids who play.

I was going to tell you about how they're all just over 40 and trying to make sense of that. How they have aches and pains (after Super Rules) and a few grey hairs (except for Happy, who has a few that aren't). And how it makes them forever young.

I was going to write about parting company with them to head to the Dome, watching the Crows dispose of the Magpies, who were a bit off (which would have upset Bakes, and delighted the rest of the boys). About McLeod. And Pendlebury.

But I'm not. Because something happened in Perth on Saturday afternoon that I feel compelled to mention.

My in-laws were visiting from Queensland. The Handicapper's dad and mum are wonderful people, but they don't get sport. They don't know the language. Footy especially baffles them — they don't understand the fuss.

They don't understand our depth of feeling for the game. How much there is for a season of footy, a round of footy, a game of footy, a quarter of footy, a passage of play, a single act. How many people. How many stories.

Late on Saturday afternoon, I found myself sitting with my father-in-law, a highly intelligent man, watching the Eagles and Essendon. He had no idea of the match's significance. He had little idea of the Bombers' three-quarter-time plight.

But James Hird kept winning the centre clearances, and throwing the footy onto his boot. Just getting it going forward. Just refusing to concede. Imposing his will on the game as he has done for years. And Scott Lucas started kicking goals. The most outrageous comeback was on.

"What happens when the ball goes over that line?" my father-in-law asked, with the Bombers only five goals down.

"The boundary umpire throws it back in," I said as Lucas snared another one.

"What did you say happens if you catch it," he asked.

"You can go back and have a kick," I explained.

"That bloke just kept running," he observed. That bloke was Scott Lucas booting another one.

"You have a choice."

Essendon got to within three points. I was in a heightened state, while concurrently explaining the difference between holding the ball and having the ball held to you. Prior opportunity was a concept too abstract for me to introduce, particularly as Lucas had a chance to kick his eighth. He shanked the kick.

The Eagles steadied and won.

If the game is hard enough to explain to the uninitiated, try explaining the next 10 minutes.

The whole of Subiaco is waving its jackets. Sheeds is smiling the smile of a man who has loved his life, while at the same time sighing the sigh of a man leaving a funeral. The camera moves to Hird, who is fighting off tears.

I am not fighting off tears. At the sight of Mark McVeigh and Gary O'Donnell, the tears are too strong for me. They roll down my cheeks. My father-in-law is at least puzzled, if not concerned.

Hird's struggle is over. He can no longer fight off tears. They flow on the embrace of his teammates. Hard, tough men, who are also deeply moved. They flow on the sight of his wife Tania and their three children.

These are not just tears of sadness. These are the tears of the human condition. That one day, it comes to an end. That despite this grim reality, we can be inspired to live passionately. That we are at our finest when we acknowledge this shared reality.

Sheeds adds a few words. He is a larrikin to the end. But his sense of gratitude is complete, and his love for the game, profound. He has always said that he loves people. He says that footy is the people's game. And that he gets a kick when he thinks about who the 44 players are and where they have come from to be here. Who the thousands in the crowd are and where they have come from.

Like 10 blokes around a table at lunch.

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Walking wounded

Warwick Green
The Age, Sporting Life
Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Some of you may have noticed that Clinton Grybas didn't call the footy on Saturday. In fact, the 3AW and Fox Footy man plonked himself at home on the couch with his feet up, and missed commentating duties for only the second time in 12 years. The reason was unusual and has created a great deal of jocularity among his colleagues. "I did the Friday night game as normal, went to bed, got up on Saturday morning and thought, 'Gee, I've got a side-splitting headache'," Grybas said yesterday. "So I got up and looked in the mirror and I had a nasty bang on the head." No, alcohol wasn't to blame. "First thing I thought was that the place had been broken into. But then I thought, 'No, nothing's missing.' " After consulting a doctor, who ordered him to take a day off work, the only conclusion they could come up with was that Grybas had been sleepwalking. "We couldn't put it down to anything else." From now on, Grybas intends to be more diligent about locking his doors at night. He lives in a 15th-floor apartment.

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Cats are the apple of Col's eye

Ben Broad
AFL webpage
Tuesday, August 28, 2007

A
FL Statistics and History Consultant Col Hutchinson believes this year’s Geelong outfit has the all-round capabilities to go all the way to Grand Final glory.

And Hutchinson would know.

He hasn’t missed a Geelong premiership match since the Cats last won a flag.

On Sunday, when Port Adelaide ended Geelong’s 15-game winning streak at Skilled Stadium, Hutchinson brought up a landmark achievement of his own.

The round 21 clash was the 1000th consecutive Geelong game Hutchinson has seen, a feat spanning 44 years back to round 11, 1963.

During that time the 63-year-old, a life-long Cats fan, has ridden the ups and downs like all Geelong fans.

But he thinks the 2007 Cats model – although not packed with the superstars of the teams like the late 1980s and early 1990s – is best equipped to break the club’s premiership drought.

“I’ve been watching them since ’58 … in nearly 50 years, this is the best I’ve seen them playing, as in playing as a team,” Hutchinson said.

“The way they’re prepared to sort of sacrifice their own glory for their teammates. They have just as much delight in giving away a goal to a teammate as in kicking it themselves.

“That’s something that’s really stood out for me this year … that and the overall evenness of the team.”

Hutchinson began working as a match-day statistician for the Geelong Football Club in 1975 – a role he has been conducting ever since – and is also the club’s official historian.

But he is perhaps best known in AFL circles as the “stats man” – the man with arguably the best footy memory going around.

He started full-time with the AFL in May 1992 under the title of AFL Statistician and Historian.

“Appropriately, I started at the AFL the day after Geelong created the all-club highest score record (against the Brisbane Bears at Carrara),” Hutchinson said.

“My title now is AFL Statistics and History Consultant … I spend most of my time on the historical side of things these days.”

While Geelong’s narrow loss to Port Adelaide might have been a sour way to celebrate Hutchinson’s 1000-match milestone, he was grateful just to reach the mark.

He admits a couple of close shaves along the way nearly put an end to the streak, with the closest coming last season when his beloved Cats were set to take on Fremantle.

“I’d booked a flight to arrive in Perth approximately three hours before starting time and I arrived at Melbourne airport to be informed that my flight had been cancelled due to mechanical problems,” Hutchinson said.

“I was assured I’d still get to Perth but it wasn’t going to be until about three-quarter time, and that was no good to me!”

Hutchinson sought out an alternative airline, managing to secure the final seat on a flight which got him to Perth in time for the opening bounce and kept his remarkable record intact.

But it’s not just about numbers for the humble statistician.

“I’m not attending every match to create a record, I’m attending every match because I love watching Geelong play,” he said.

In more than four decades of watching footy Hutchinson has seen some memorable matches, incidents and players.

He says no player rivals Gary Ablett Sr for ability, while Geelong’s finals win against Carlton at Waverley in 1994 – in which the side’s midfield brigade was decimated by injury – was among the highlights of his time watching the blue and white hoops.

But for more peculiar moments, Hutchinson refers back to a match in which he was standing in the outer at Kardinia Park in 1970.

Geelong was hosting South Melbourne, with the winner virtually assured of a finals berth, and when scores were tight in the final minutes, the tension was at fever pitch.

Doug Wade took a mark about 25m out on a 45-degree angle,” Hutchinson said.

“He ran in to kick, and we just thought ‘This is a formality, it’ll go straight through and we’ll win the match’.

“To our dismay, the ball just dribbled off his boot and went about two metres and rolled away from him.”

Hutchinson recalled South Melbourne pouncing on Wade’s errant “kick”, racing down the other end of Kardinia Park and kicking the winning goal.

The lifelong Cats fan said he later learned a South Melbourne supporter, frustrated that Wade had taken the mark, had thrown an apple at the Geelong full-forward as he was about to kick for goal.

His accurate throw did enough to move the football from its intended path – the middle of Wade’s boot – to merely brush the instep of the Geelong champ’s foot.

“Wade complained to the umpire and said ‘Hey, give me another kick!’,” Hutchinson said.

“The umpire apparently said, ‘There’s nothing in the rule book about apples’.”

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Claims two players test positive

Chip Le Grand
The Australian
Saturday, August 25, 2007

A season that began with drugs appears certain to end the same way after the league's illicit drugs policy has had another embarrassing breach of confidentiality.

According to a report on Channel Seven last night, three players at a Victorian-based club have tested positive to drugs in the past nine months. The report named the team involved but a Victorian Supreme Court injunction sought by the club's doctor prohibited further publication or naming of either the club or doctor's name.

While the evidence of drug use is embarrassing to the club, doctor and players involved, the manner in which the story came to light has infuriated the AFL.

At the start of the year, the league took Supreme Court action to protect the identities of three players.

Seven interviewed an unidentified source who claimed she found highly sensitive records about the two players in a gutter outside a Melbourne medical centre. The source demanded and was given money by Seven in exchange for the documents.

The AFL suspects the medical records were stolen – a suspicion which may lead to further legal action against the Seven network, which is already facing a law suit from the West Coast Eagles over its decision to identify Michael Braun as the player Jason Akermanis suspected of using EPO in a match three years ago, a claim Braun vigorously denies.

When contacted last night, AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou said: "I am not going to comment on other people's medical records."

The chief executive of the club in question said he did not know the names of the players who had failed drug tests. Under the confidentiality provisions of the three-strikes policy, only the club doctor is informed after a first and second strike. After a third strike, the player is referred to the tribunal and his identity is made public.

The AFL has spent much of this season fending off claims of a drugs culture within football and defending its three-strikes policy, which has been labelled "soft" by Treasurer Peter Costello and regularly attacked by Minister for Sport, George Brandis, and Christopher Pyne, the federal minister responsible for illicit drugs.

In response to constant criticism of its policy, the AFL has trebled the number of tests it commissions for illicit drugs.

Before a game was played this year, the AFL was rocked by the revelation that West Coast midfielder Ben Cousins had become addicted to ice and the subsequent spectacle of the former Eagles captain boarding a flight to California to seek drug rehabilitation treatment in a Malibu clinic.

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Magpie set to accept six-game ban

Karen Lyon
The Age
Tuesday, August 21, 2007

THE threat of the longest suspension in a decade appears to have been too much for Ben Johnson, with the Collingwood midfielder likely to accept a six-match ban for a head-high bump on Melbourne's Daniel Bell last Friday night.

An AFL investigation by Graeme McDonald has sent St Kilda's Steven Baker straight to the tribunal on a rough conduct charge, to explain how Fremantle's Jeff Farmer came to be severely concussed and left with a broken nose in an off-the-ball incident in Saturday's match at Telstra Dome. There is no video footage of the incident, and Baker cannot enter an early plea.

It is believed the two players were interviewed, and a Fremantle official who was on the bench came forward and gave a witness statement.

Should Johnson choose to fight the six-game suspension handed down to him by the AFL match review panel last night, he could face the longest suspension since former West Coast star Chris Lewis was suspended for seven matches and Carlton champion Greg Williams was suspended for nine matches in 1997.

Last night, the Magpies had yet to make a decision on challenging the penalty, with the club's football director, Geoff Walsh, saying it would wait until this morning's 11am deadline to make a final decision.

"We will weigh it up overnight and decide what course of action to take," Walsh said last night.

But after the match review panel showed no mercy — assessing the incident as reckless with severe impact and high contact — the threat of an eight-match ban is likely to be too great, even for Collingwood, which has a record of fighting cases at the tribunal.

Collingwood's best hope might have been to limit the suspension to four games had the impact been labelled high rather than severe. Still, the ban is set to stretch into next season. A six-game ban would rule Johnson out of the rest of the season, even if Collingwood were to make the grand final.

Should Johnson accept the ban, it will match the harshest suspension handed out by the tribunal since it was revamped in 2005: six-game suspensions handed out to Farmer for eye-gouging Kangaroos defender Daniel Pratt during this year's pre-season competition and Collingwood's Brodie Holland, who gained a lengthy suspension for his hit on former Bulldog Brett Montgomery during last year's final series.

Johnson's good record was lost in round 19, when he received a reprimand and 70.31 points for striking Richmond's Daniel Jackson. The additional points removed any chance of a reduction in penalty.

Johnson is believed to be distressed over the incident, in which Bell was taken from the MCG on a stretcher after the bump in the opening seconds of the third quarter. The Magpie is likely to contact Bell later this week to show his remorse further. Bell, for his part, has back soreness and is an outside chance to play this weekend.

Collingwood skipper Nathan Buckley said Johnson had been shaken by the incident.

"He felt sick in the guts, he reckons he was the closest he's ever been to throwing up on the footy field because he was concerned about the player and he was concerned about the repercussions also," Buckley said on radio SEN.

He also acknowledged a significant penalty was warranted. "Johnno deserves a whack, he deserves a whack for it, he understands it, we all understand it as football lovers, that players need to be protected with their head over the ball."

The AFL has been determined to stamp out head-high contact, with penalties for it increased at the start of the year.

Brisbane Lion Jason Roe also faces a suspension after his bump (during Q1) on Sydney's Luke Brennan. Should Roe plead guilty, he will receive a one-match ban and carry over 87.5 points towards any future charge.

Roe's penalty was lesser than Johnson's because he was charged with negligent conduct and medium impact.

Should he fight the case, Roe faces a two-match ban. But Buckley was indignant that Johnson's hit was rated worse than Roe's.

"I'm amazed they would say that Johnno's is severe (impact), while Jason Roe's is only medium. I would say the impact from Jason Roe's is more severe," Buckley said. "… I would have thought Jason Roe and (Luke) Brennan's impact was more severe than Johnno's and Bell's."

In other cases, Port Adelaide's Daniel Motlop and Hawk Luke Hodge were both fined $900 for wrestling each other. Geelong defender Darren Milburn was fined $600 for misconduct after throwing his mouth guard at Shannon Grant while the Roo lined up for goal.

Match-day reports against Lion Luke Power for his bump on Sydney's Craig Bolton and West Coast's Brent Staker for striking Tiger Adam Pattison both were dropped.

THE OPTIONS

IF Ben Johnson fights the penalty, running the risk of being suspended for eight games, it will be the longest suspension in 10 years, since...

1997: West Coast's Chris Lewis was suspended for seven matches for striking Essendon's Danny Morgan in round nine, and Carlton's Greg Williams was handed a nine-match ban for pushing umpire Andrew Coates in round one. (Williams' suspension was successfully shortened after taking the matter to the Supreme Court.)

If Johnson accepts the six-game ban, it will match the most lengthy suspension handed out by the revamped tribunal in...

2007: Fremantle's Jeff Farmer was suspended for six games for eye-gouging Kangaroo Daniel Pratt in the pre-season cup.

2006: Magpie Brodie Holland was suspended for six games for rough conduct against Bulldog Brett Montgomery in an elimination final.

With AAP

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Dons act to halt Sheedy strife

Caroline Wilson
The Age
Thursday, August 16, 2007

Essendon chairman Ray Horsburgh moved on to the front foot yesterday to reveal that an internal players' survey had shown a communication problem between coach Kevin Sheedy and his footballers.

Conceding that Sheedy had become "a bit bitter" in the days and weeks that had followed his sacking, Horsburgh told The Age that he had warned the outgoing coach of 27 years not to destroy his brand.

Horsburgh said he had decided to reveal more details of the decision behind Sheedy's departure because of a "ridiculous and false" campaign that had been launched by a small minority of Essendon members against club chief executive Peter Jackson. While the renegade members are threatening to force a spill of the board and oust Jackson, no legitimate coterie group has come forward to lead an extraordinary general meeting protesting against the termination of Sheedy's contract.

Horsburgh's revelations also came as disenchantment within the club continued to grow at Sheedy's ongoing veiled protests at his treatment. "I think he's starting to get a little bit bitter and a little bit hurt behind the scenes and he had a bit of an anti-Peter Jackson feeling there for a while," Horsburgh said.

The Age also understands that no current assistant coach at Essendon is a serious contender for the senior position after extensive analysis from the Stride management group consulting to the club.

The Bombers this year commissioned their human resources consultant to conduct a player survey in a bid to pinpoint whether Sheedy and his coaching department were adequately communicating with the footballers. The results came up negative, according to Horsburgh.

"The communication from the coaching side to the playing side wasn't strong. The players weren't getting the message. Not all of it was negative but questions like, 'Do you understand the game plan?' did not get the response we would have hoped," Horsburgh said.

"Kevin didn't really rate the survey because he always felt the players who were getting a game would vote for you and the other 21 would vote against you. That wasn't the case.

"In retrospect there were several issues that have worried our members although we have had plenty of support in recent days. One was the decision itself, which I think on balance was the right decision. His time was up.

"Secondly was the decision and how it was handled. It had got messy and that's why it was done when it was done."

Horsburgh and Sheedy met earlier this week to discuss the coach's state of mind and the ongoing angst regarding his sacking. "I told him: 'Don't destroy your own brand out of personal bitterness. In the end it will bite you and not the club. The club always survives. The institution survives and the individuals suffer.' "

Horsburgh admitted that the Carlton sacking of Denis Pagan and the Bombers' belief that they should be in the hunt for retired Lions champion Michael Voss hastened but did not prompt the decision to end Sheedy's tenure.

"We didn't panic but, yeah, pretty much it influenced us," conceded Horsburgh. "Everyone we had talked to spoke so highly of him (Voss) and we believed Carlton had spoken to him. It wasn't the only reason. Suddenly three other coaches were gone and we didn't want to be at the back of the queue."

Horsburgh said Sheedy's presentation at the Monday night board meeting in question helped seal the board's decision.

"He spoke about players who weren't progressing the way he had hoped and who he might have to trade and we realised we needed to decide finally who we were going to move forward with and then, if it wasn't Kevin, we had to get on to looking for a replacement.

"I'm a fair target because I misled the media after that board meeting but I don't think a 'no comment' would have been the right way to handle it, either. They shouldn't attack Peter. He shouldn't be getting the blame for something 10 other people decided.

"His record at Essendon is outstanding. When he came to the club it was broke; now we make million-dollar profits thanks to him and have $13 million worth of net assets. He's assessed and rebuilt our recruiting — worked hard to build our status in the community. In all the time I've been here I've never once heard him bag Kevin Sheedy."

Horsburgh said that he had advised Sheedy to establish a consultancy firm, hiring his services to the AFL for next year's ambassadorial role, and hopefully continuing to work as a consultant to the Bombers.

"I've told him we want to have a proper send-off for him, a testimonial of some form and now he says he wants to think about that. I hope he lets us. I'm sure he will. Right now we should be basking in the glory of Kevin Sheedy."

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Drugs, tanking claims a threat to game's integrity

Tim Lane
The Age
Monday, August 6, 2007

If the rest of the football world is wrestling with Kevin Sheedy for a fair share of media coverage, "the rest" have just rolled out their big guns.

Those two human headlines, Jason Akermanis and Brendan Fevola, have been front and centre in recent days doing it as only they can. Aka is concerned at players stretching the rules to win, while Fev has been linked with a plot designed to ensure defeat.

One says he thinks he knows of a player who took drugs in his zeal to be successful. The other came off the ground on Saturday when his team still had a chance to win and his team has been accused of throwing a game.

It might be tempting to dismiss the claims as nonsense, but if there are existing loopholes in the AFL's rules and processes that might encourage such talk, the game's administration has to accept that the talk will occur.

The assertions, one by a player and the other by talkback callers and general innuendo, strike at the heart of the game's integrity. That's a commodity that must be protected with everything football can offer.

Not only must the game be of unimpeachable honesty, it must be seen to be so. On both of these matters the AFL can do more.

The problem of performance-enhancing drugs is the scourge of world sport and is not easily overcome. It never will be without recognition by administrators of its dangers, and without genuine resolve to confront them.

The fact that the AFL is testing only 500 players a year for performance-enhancing drugs suggests it might be light on for both recognition and resolve.

It claims the tests are expensive, yet it tests twice that number of players for illicit drugs. Its priorities are seriously distorted.

The AFL puts twice the effort into monitoring its players' private lives than it does to preserving its sport's integrity. It appears to see itself more as police force and social welfare office than as sports administration.

Football has long behaved like a babe in the woods on the matter of performance-enhancing drugs. In the late-1980s, then AFL boss Ross Oakley was a reluctant participant in the Senate inquiry into drugs in Australian sport. He claimed football simply didn't have a problem.

At the end of last week, Andrew Demetriou was using a lack of positive tests to boast certainty about the game's integrity. Administrators of various rotten sports, not to mention Ben Johnson and many other cheats, have applied the same logic over the years.

In recent days, Paul Roos admitted to not knowing "enough about the procedures and enough about the drugs". He should. He is an elite level Australian sports coach of a team representing the nation's largest city. He has a responsibility to know. I'll wager he's not alone among AFL coaches.

While all well-intentioned administrators deserve some sympathy over their battle with the cheats, the same cannot be said for the AFL on the issue of "tanking".

It oversees an institutionalised system that rewards teams for lack of performance. This inevitably causes discussion over the possibility that some teams might not want to win games late in any season.

The unavoidable reality is that it is not in the Carlton Football Club's long-term interests to win another game this year. That is a statement of fact.

I don't believe the Blues tanked on Saturday. I can, though, understand why people might believe they did.

That there are people who would even countenance that possibility should be enough to compel a change to the current draft rules.

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Hall of Fame
Norm Smith officially an AFL legend

Mario Xuereb
The Age
Friday, July 20, 2007

Melbourne great Norm Smith has long been a legend of the club – last night he was officially made a legend of the AFL Hall of Fame.

In a playing career spanning 16 years from 1935, Smith played 210 games as a class full-forward before becoming one of the greatest coaches the game has known – taking the Demons to six flags from eight grand finals.

In all, as player and coach, he figured in 10 premierships.

At the 12th annual Hall of Fame dinner, a further six players and one administrator were added to the list of 203 inductees.

The Hall of Fame inductees were West Coast's Dean Kemp, Port and South Melbourne's Frank Johnson, Essendon's Michael Long, Hawthorn's Robert DiPierdomenico, Sydney's Paul Kelly, Hawthorn and Adelaide's Darren Jarman and Collingwood's Murray Weideman.

The administrator inducted into the hall of fame was Bob McLean – a stalwart of Port Adelaide in the SANFL.

The night included a posthumous awarding of life membership to former AFL chairman Ron Evans, who passed away earlier this year.

Evans' widow Andrea, who accepted the life membership last night, thanked the AFL for its support since her husband's death.

"I would have loved Ron to be standing here to tell you what that meant to him (life membership)," Mrs Evans. "I know he was not out to seek rewards but I know that when Andrew (Demetriou) told him, he was delighted and proud, and humbled to be given life membership of the AFL – an organisation he was committed to, in a sport that he so much loved.

"The AFL is a wonderful family and I know that Ron would be thankful for your care," she said. "This night was a great favourite of his and it represented so much of his life and his philosophy in business and administration: Think carefully of the present, work hard and use today as a base and always look forward to the future."

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The alienation of fans

Waleed Aly
The Age
Wednesday, July 18, 2007

September arrived early at the MCG last weekend when Geelong defeated Collingwood. This seems to me the most notable consensus of the media commentary that has followed.

All the necessary elements were present: the sun, the crowd, two form teams, a tight finish and — most tellingly — all on a Saturday afternoon at the MCG.

There was a time when, weather aside, these elements were largely unremarkable. They happened most weeks. What I detected in commentators' eager invocation of September was an element of nostalgia. Increasingly, we thirst for what was once common, but is now classical.

From precisely this, football fans have been relentlessly alienated in recent decades. If Saturday afternoon is football's traditional home, the modern game is mostly homeless.

Less than a quarter of AFL games are played at this time. Rarely are they the biggest fixtures. So far this season, matches between Collingwood, Carlton, Essendon and Richmond have been staged on Friday night, Saturday night — even Sunday night — but only rarely on Saturday afternoon.

Traditional timeslots, it seems, are no longer for traditional rivals. If the MCG is occupied at all on a Saturday afternoon lately, it is far likelier to be hosting Melbourne and Adelaide.

Today's game is more varied than ever. Matches are played at all hours in all corners of the country. But it is also more random — and therefore less authentic. Teams play home games at away venues. They wear new, unrecognisable jumpers, sometimes to avoid imaginary clashes, sometimes for no discernible reason at all.

In pretence, we celebrate Heritage Round, but now, even this increasingly hollow gesture is mocked; this year, Collingwood wore its 21st century strip, while its opponent, St Kilda, wore a bland, pointless 2007 concoction bearing no relationship to anything historic. Neither had anything to do with the purported theme, the 1970s, despite the fact that they had ample heritage on which to draw. Eddie McGuire's sermonising about tradition rings hollow here.

Here is our current paradox. The more our game has a veneer of variety, the less distinctive it becomes. At the risk of being impractically nostalgic, Saturday afternoon once had a distinctive rhythm. Each ground had a distinctive atmosphere, each fixture a distinctive meaning. Sunday afternoon was an aberration that could only have meant a Sydney home match. Friday nights and yellow footballs were novelties and enjoyable for that reason. Commonness was always going to undermine them.

Today, with few exceptions, each game in Melbourne can be more or less substituted for another. The AFL machine now stages slick, major events, but they are mass-produced. The moulds are pre-set; only the colours change.

Nothing epitomises this modern meaninglessness as thoroughly as the Telstra Dome — perfect, corporate, symmetrical, sterile. In the meantime, nowhere is home, nowhere is away, and nothing is sacred. Soon, even the grand final will be an evening, television event. Therein lies the problem: football was once organic; now it is manufactured.

Much of this we have imported. All-hour fixtures have long featured in American and European sport. European soccer clubs have a new away strip every season. In soccer's massive international markets, it makes for good merchandising business. And make no mistake — this is business.

Even traditional soccer kits are now so dominated by advertising that a sponsor change is as good as a uniform change. Globalisation is upon us and Australian sport is not immune. But I am compelled to ask: should this process not be more selective?

Surely, my romantic nostalgia is naive. The past is a foreign country and it does not issue visas. To look backwards, we are told, is death. Our scheduling, made for television, helps deliver millions of dollars for television rights. Our large, soulless stadiums accommodate record crowds who pay more than ever for seats they used to take for granted. Alternative jumpers create a new revenue stream. Awash with funds, our game's health is unprecedented. Without change, the game probably would have become bankrupt. I accept my nostalgic lament cannot withstand economic rationalism.

But Saturday's celebration of football tells me economics is not comprehensive. Economic rationalism killed Fitzroy and, despite the game's unabated growth since, the grief and regret remains.

When the Brisbane Lions wore Fitzroy jumpers last week, I sought out every opportunity for a glimpse. Saturday's match stood out because it captured what so much of today's football does not: authenticity.

Only belatedly does our season approach this: Collingwood, Essendon and Carlton play each other in Saturday afternoon MCG fixtures in the coming weeks and, unsurprisingly, they will capture a unique and rare resonance.

To be sure, there is much in the modern game that is enjoyable and Saturday's Geelong v Collingwood blockbuster was a wonderful game in its own right. But its September-like appeal was accentuated by the fact that so many other matches, in all their manufactured perfection, strike many of us as comparatively ordinary.

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Support in the north causing concern

Jim Morton
The Age
Saturday, July 14, 2007

LEIGH Matthews believes the Lions' worrying drop in support should make AFL expansionists think again about basing a second club in Queensland.

Matthews delivered the warning on the eve of the Brisbane Lions' "away" clash against Melbourne at the Gabba after being hit with figures showing a dramatic 16.9 percentage points slump in membership.

Three years on from the end of the club's golden era, Brisbane now has the smallest membership base (21,976) in the league and crowd numbers have plummeted to an average of 27,000.

The massive turnaround is highlighted by the fact the Lions boasted a peak membership of 30,941 in 2004 when they made a fourth consecutive grand final and drew an average 33,500 to home games.

Matthews said the membership drop – easily the worst in the league when overall memberships were up by 2.6 percentage points – was partly expected due to their recent lack of success.

"That 2001 to 2004 period was our golden era," he said. "You can't expect that you are going to be playing in grand finals every year.

"When you are doing that, it doesn't matter what club it is in the competition, you are getting bigger support when your team is winning more often.

"We haven't been giving our supporters and members the enjoyment at the footy that we were in the golden era and there's been a percentage of those people that have stopped coming."

He didn't believe the blame could be laid at the fickle nature of fans in a non-traditional Australian football state but felt it sent a message to expansionists.

The Kangaroos, playing 10 home games over three seasons at Carrara, are under heavy pressure to relocate from Melbourne to the Gold Coast full-time.

With the Kangaroos' on-field success not translating to membership sales, with the club second-worst (22,366) behind the Lions, Matthews felt any move would present both clubs with a huge struggle. "The AFL have said clearly for a year or two they want a game of football in south-east Queensland, at the top level, every weekend. Therefore, (the question is) can a club be based on the Gold Coast?" he said.

"That's admirable but the practical possibilities of it being financed is what we're talking about."

Matthews denied the loss of crowd-pullers such as triple-premiership skipper Michael Voss and Bulldogs recruit Jason Akermanis had a big effect.

"I don't know how many people go to the footy to watch individual players," he said. "If a side is winning week after week, I reckon that's the main thing they want, to be honest.

"(Former VFL president) Allen Aylett said 20 years ago a club's financial strength must be judged on how they're going when it's going poorly and not winning too many games.

"We've certainly had a year or two when our win-loss ratio has been very much in the negative. We know what the membership is this year and it was down 20 per cent. What's it going to be next year … none of us know."

The Lions are hoping to reproduce the form that took West Coast by surprise when they meet the understrength Demons tonight.

Matthews is set to keep Jared Brennan and Robbie Copeland helping Jonathan Brown in attack and Joel Patfull teaming with Daniel Merrett and Jason Roe in defence.

The freakish Brennan kicked four goals in an eye-catching display against the Eagles but Matthews said it was his challenge to show consistency.

"What you are trying to do is have a minimal distance between your best and worst," he said. "That's the challenge for a lot of our players and that's clearly Jared's challenge."

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Radio out, pay-TV in?

Sarah-Jane Collins
The Age
Saturday, June 23, 2007

AFL ratings are down significantly across radio, not just at 3AW, leading to speculation that the new broadcast rights agreement has changed the habits of fans, with more people tuning out and reaching for the remote instead.

The latest Nielsen survey shows average audience figures across 3AW, ABC 774, Triple M and SEN over the four weekend AFL periods at almost 10 per cent less than two years ago.

The drop comes as subscriptions to Foxtel, which under the new broadcast agreement now shows four games a week, are climbing steadily, and AFL football consistently is rating in the top-10 programs on Foxtel.

The Nielsen survey, based on the period from March 25 to June 9, recorded a huge drop in ratings for 3AW, which led to the sacking of Craig Hutchison and a review of the way 3AW structures its football coverage.

But a closer analysis of the figures reveals that although ABC and Triple M performed well in the past survey, the lost 3AW audience — believed to be about 100,000 — has not moved to other stations. Instead, it appears to have simply disappeared altogether.

Fusion Strategy's media analyst Steve Allen said the drop in radio ratings for the AFL is most likely caused by an increase in the number of live games being broadcast on television.

"The biggest difference this year is Seven, Ten and Foxtel and the number of matches they're covering and the number of matches they're covering live," he said.

In previous years, Foxtel was not allowed to broadcast games in Melbourne that were being played in Melbourne, so while the rest of the country could watch those games not being broadcast on free-to-air, Melbourne fans had to tune in to the radio if they wanted live commentary and reports. This year, the blackout for Melbourne has been lifted, meaning that if people want to watch live, they are able to.

"There's absolutely no question that with the (broadcast rights) deal that was done, there is additional audience," Allen said.

"My perception is a lot more live hours to air, which obviously has the distinct potential to lower (radio) ratings. Why it's only turned up in this survey and it didn't turn up in the radio survey before, (I do not know)."

The four stations broadcast match coverage and reports on Friday nights, Saturday afternoons and nights, and Sunday afternoons.

In the previous survey, the average share of the total radio audience that listened to the four stations during these times was 30.525 per cent, almost a full 10 per cent drop in audience share from the same time two years ago.

Over the same period in 2005, footy coverage enjoyed an average audience share of 40.125 per cent over the same time slots on weekends.

Foxtel's corporate affairs manager, Rebecca Melkman, said the pay-TV provider was thrilled with the way AFL was performing.

"'Foxtel has more live football than any other television network, with four live games of AFL every round. The AFL is regularly in the top-10 rating programs on Foxtel each week."

In March, just before the ratings period of the survey began, Foxtel's chief executive Kim Williams said the AFL deal struck for the 2007 season had "contributed to continuing growth for Foxtel". That growth now appears to be at the expense of radio.

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3AW takes axe to vaudeville football

Michael Horan
and Jon Anderson
Herald Sun
Friday, June 22, 2007
 
Southern Cross Broadcasting general manager Graham Mott said yesterday that while it was difficult to take such action, it had to be done.

"The fact is I've had some concerns for some time," Mott said.

"The fans let us know they don't like what we've be giving them and it's about the business of 3AW," he said.

Hunt will remain the frontline game caller, Clinton Grybas will step up as host on Saturday as well as Friday night, Tony Leonard will chair Sunday footy and Shane Healy will come back for the Saturday night call.

3AW's director of football Graeme Bond said a lot of the theatre of the past two seasons would be dropped.

"Ralph the barking dog was put down this morning and there will be no more `Listen to the fans'," Bond said.

Hunt vowed it wouldn't be long before AW was back at the top of the ratings and said he was hurt by the sackings.

"I've lost two young men who are not only friends but people who have so much to offer football broadcasting," he said.

But he said: "What we dished up – and I include myself obviously along with Hutchy and Ralph – the listeners didn't like.

"We have upset our core listeners of 40-plus and they have clearly left us.

"This isn't the worst thing to happen to me in my life and I remain very positive. To those who think it's all over just wait and see how hard we work. I'm up for the challenge."

Hutchison said: "I am really hurt and disappointed and would have liked the chance to correct what they perceived.

"It's a knee-jerk reaction after we delivered them what they wanted last year. I heard nothing prior to this decision and that also disappoints me."

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Swans celebrate silver anniversary in Sydney

Jenny McAsey
The Australian
Thursday, June 14, 2007
 
IT was late March, 1982, the eve of the Swans' first game in Sydney, and debutant coach Rick Quade had enough to worry about without the telegram from football headquarters in Melbourne.
 
Planning match tactics in the club's office – a poky room above a shop at the sleazy end of Oxford Street – Quade took delivery of the message from then VFL manager, Alan Schwab.

"We wish you well. But anything less than a victory is unacceptable."

Quade, who played for South Melbourne between 1970 and 1980 and was a strong supporter of the controversial move to Sydney, was not surprised at the tone.

"The pressure to win that first game was great and that was more from outside the club than within," Quade recalled.

"The VFL, in particular, were pretty blunt. By that stage I was pretty used to it."

Before the players, captained by Barry Round, ran on to the SCG, Quade's address centred on the struggle the players had gone through to get there.

After moving from Melbourne, it was a battle to find jobs and housing and they were gypsies when it came to training venues.

During the pre-season they were treated as imposters by curating staff when they went to practise on the SCG. If it rained, they were kicked off and headed to inner-city Erskineville Oval.

"If it looked like rain I always had a couple of boxes of beer in the car to give to the curator to let us on there," Quade said.

The players had no gym and pitched in their own money to buy a set of weights they kept in a shed out the back of the SCG.

"There were a lot of distractions at the time but when it came to the first game, I had a fair bit of faith in the players," Quade said.

"In some respects they were not dissimilar to the group of guys we have at Sydney today. We had tremendous leaders ... we had Roundy, and Mark Browning, and Stevie Wright and Tony Morwood, they kept the group together."

Before a crowd of 15,764 at the SCG, and watched on television live around Australia, the Swans won that historic game against Melbourne, 20.17-137 to 16.12-108.

Football was never the same again. The indigenous game had taken its first painful steps towards a fully fledged national competition, with the Swans as the guinea pigs.

That game, and the 25 seasons that have followed, will be celebrated tonight at the biggest Swans event ever staged in the harbour city.

The ring at the old showgrounds in Moore Park – next to the SCG where the Swans now boast world-class facilities – has been turned into a grand marquee where about 1900 people will gather to mark 25 years in Sydney and the club's 20-year partnership with major sponsor QBE Insurance Group.

Quade, coach until 1984, chairman of selectors from 1989 to 1993 and now a board member of 12 years' standing, will be re-united with many of the players he guided to that first win.

Several others from that era have also maintained constant links with the club over 25 years of highs and lows, including Morwood, who runs the club's Melbourne office, and Steve Taubert, who is the present ruck coach.

Every player who played even one game between 1982 and now has been invited, and 146 of 265 will be there, including Brownlow medallists Gerard Healy and Paul Kelly, showman Warwick Capper and Dermott Brereton, who played seven games for the club in 1994. The recently retired Darren Gaspar, who went to Sydney as the No.1 pick in the 1994 draft but decamped for Richmond in bitter circumstances after two seasons, will make a return to his first home.

AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou will be at the gala event, and no doubt be gently reminded of his 2005 remark that Sydney would lose more games than it wins because of its unattractive style of football.

That dig might come just before footage of coach Paul Roos and Barry Hall hoisting the 2005 premiership cup, the club's first for 72 years.

As Schwab had told the Swans so many years before, anything less than a victory was unacceptable.

"I really thought if we stuck together, we would do well both on the field and off the field when we first came to Sydney," Quade said yesterday.

"What I didn't realise was it would take us nearly 25 years."

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Thomas told to butt out of Saints' affairs

Chip Le Grand
The Australian
Thursday, June 7, 2007

Sacked St Kilda coach Grant Thomas stands accused of undermining his old club by Saints president Rod Butterss and chief executive Archie Fraser.

But behind the scenes, it is the St Kilda players who have grown weary of the not-so-subtle digs from Thomas in his new role as media commentator.

In recent weeks, Thomas has used his growing radio profile and Melbourne newspaper column to discuss why he would have sacked Stephen Milne, why Milne and Fraser Gehrig don't perform well at interstate venues and why Nick Dal Santo struggles with close taggers.

While the comments are hardly slanderous in the rough and tumble of football analysis – and in Milne's case were made privately by Thomas before they were aired publicly – the players are increasingly frustrated they keep coming from their former mentor at a time when the club is burdened by a lengthy injury list and struggling to remain in finals contention.

The ongoing feud between Thomas and the club he represented as a player, board member and coach was brought into full relief yesterday morning when Butterss accused his former friend and business partner – and the respondent in Butterss' $1million law suit filed in the Victorian Supreme Court – of "activities" designed to damage the club.

While Butterss declined to say what those activities were, the club suspects Thomas of making improper contact with players, starting rumours about players with journalists and player agents and seeking to influence contract negotiations involving Nick Riewoldt, the club's co-captain

"Thommo does his best work out of the public spotlight," Butterss told Melbourne Radio SEN. "The St Kilda footy club is being undermined at the moment, no question about that."

Thomas issued a brief statement in reply, describing the dispute as a "personal issue" between himself and Butterss.

"I am deeply offended and hurt by the comments and I refute the implications, whatever they are," Thomas said. "I have committed the last seven years of my life to St Kilda and I have always ensured their best interests were protected.

"Any personal issue between myself and Rod Butterss needs to remain private and I can assure they won't be conducted in the media by me."

Within minutes of Thomas' reply, also broadcast on SEN, Fraser weighed into the dispute, saying Butterss' comments were not a continuation of their well-documented falling-out but a matter of club policy.

"There is a tendency between Rod and Grant that everything is linked to the commercial differences," Fraser said.

"This is about the future of the St Kilda Football Club and really, it is about our previous coach moving on and allowing us to do the job that we want to do. I don't think that is personal. That is between the St Kilda Football Club and Grant."

Like Butterss, Fraser did not elaborate on what Thomas had done to undermine the club and what contact, if any, he had had with players in recent weeks on the grounds that such details would embarrass players.

The timing of Butterss' comments was not planned by the club, which was already confronting stalled negotiations with the local council over the planned redevelopment of the Moorabbin headquarters.

A difficult day got worse when the Victoria Police announced Saints forward Fraser Gehrig was one of four players charged with assault over a fight in a Melbourne bar last September. The other three players are retired Brisbane captain Michael Voss, fellow Brownlow medallist Simon Black and Steven Lawrence, a former player at Brisbane and St Kilda.

But Fraser insisted Butterss' comments "needed to be said".

"There have been some obvious things that have taken place in the media that we think are inappropriate," Fraser said. "There are obviously other things behind the scenes that we think are inappropriate.

"He says he has given the club seven great years of service. All we are doing is asking him to move on with his life, move on and allow us to run and administer the St Kilda Football Club so we can be as competitive, and the best possible club we can be.

"That is all we are asking. If that is unreasonable, that is his call."

Ross Lyon, the man appointed by Butterss and Fraser to take Thomas' job, reiterated his view that players were entitled to talk to their own coach – and indeed anyone they wanted – so long as they maintained the confidentiality of the club and playing group.

"If that trust is broken it is a long way back," Lyon said.

"But there is no-one here, to my knowledge, that has broken my trust. I don't lie in bed at night worrying about who my players are talking to."

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Cynical politicians deserved to be benched

Martin Flanagan
The Age
Saturday, June 2, 2007

Last week, on radio 3AW, the Prime Minister said the AFL wasn't "tough" enough on drugs. The PM prides himself on being a tough man. This, you may recall, distinguished him from Kim Beazley, who was said by the PM to lack ticker.

Unfortunately, as was quickly revealed by Neil Mitchell's cross-examination, when it came to the detail of the AFL's drug policy, particularly as it compares to other sports, the PM didn't really know what he was getting tough about. Big mistake. People in this country follow politics from afar. They follow footy close-up.

Labor PM and swish Sydneysider Paul Keating was never forgiven for espousing Collingwood as his club and then flying a planeload of journalists down for a game. He might have got away with it at Carlton, but not at Collingwood. Not back then, anyway. In football, there are always significant issues of culture – in that case, club culture – to consider. What Keating had done wasn't a Collingwood thing to do. That then threw a doubt on his motivation in joining the Pies.

The AFL and the Howard Government have a natural opposition. The Government says it is committed to community but the AFL has to be. Its game is delicately poised on the edge of a new century, with soccer, the global opponent, having arrived in town. The AFL has to look very closely at where its roots lie and what opportunities for expansion exist.

They are most obviously different in their relationship to indigenous culture. The essence of John Howard's policy of "practical reconciliation" was to remove the issue of Aboriginal culture from the reconciliation agenda, where it had been placed by Patrick Dodson. Since then, some of the decade's most high-profile spokespeople on Aboriginal issues — for example, Keith Windschuttle – have shown no real understanding of Aboriginal culture and been handsomely rewarded by the Government for their views.

Australian football could not be so complacent. Collingwood is a case in point. In 1993, when Nicky Winmar lifted his jumper and pointed to his skin, it was to Collingwood fans. There was a racist element in the club. They then got a president, Eddie McGuire, whose parents had left Glasgow in part because of the Catholic v Protestant bigotry. One of his cousins had been sliced up at a Rangers v Celtic soccer match. Eddie was also smart. A good proportion of new AFL players are now Aboriginal. When Eddie became president, none of them wanted to play for Collingwood. He wasn't having that.

He got a coach, Mick Malthouse, who'd experienced race politics in the raw in Western Australia. Malthouse also had experiences that set him apart from your average Australian. When the Eagles went bush in WA and visited Aboriginal communities, Malthouse, as the Eagles' successful coach, was invited to sit with the elders. As those who know him will tell you, Mick's got an inquiring mind. He actually learned about Aboriginal culture.

The third person who came to prominence in the club at this time was the captain, Nathan Buckley. Buckley played a lot of footy with blackfellas – I use that word because Aboriginal people do; I'm a whitefella – growing up in the Northern Territory, where his mother worked in Aboriginal health and is still remembered with affection.

When I most recently interviewed Buckley a year or so ago, he said the trick with indigenous players is to make them feel they belong. And, when you think about it, it is. Aboriginality is about belonging to a place and the people of a place. For the purposes of football, one of those places is the Collingwood Football Club.

Black and white work together in football, in part because the desire to do so exists on both sides. That's why the Clontarf program in WA, which combines football with school studies, is so successful. Its founder, former Fremantle coach Gerard Neesham, says he would have used dance or music if it had got Aboriginal kids to stay at school. But it was football that did it. And that, in turn, brings football in touch with larger social issues.

Last week, Age columnist Greg Baum referred to the hostility that AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou evoked within the ranks of the Howard Government a couple of years ago with a speech he gave on multiculturalism. The son of Greek migrants, Demetriou knows a bit about how Australians view outsiders. At Hawthorn, he was known to his teammates as Gomez, the idea being that he looked Mexican, while his coach called him the Sheikh (that is, he was, as we say, of Middle Eastern appearance). At North Melbourne, he was viewed differently. There he was called Kapil after Indian cricketer Kapil Dev.

Nonetheless, in his speech, Demetriou said Australia was a much less open and accepting country now than when his parents arrived. At the time he spoke, people expressing such views were routinely rubbished by radio talkback hosts and tabloid columnists as elitist and politically correct. That tactic doesn't work when the person giving the opinion has played more than 100 AFL games and is well known to the public. In footy culture, Demetriou had earned the right to have his say.

At last Saturday's Dreamtime game at the 'G, two topics of conversation dominated. One was Richo's disallowed mark, the other was "the politicians" who had met that day with the AFL about its drugs policy. An Aboriginal footballer said to me: "Footballers are role models, but so are politicians."

Everyone was asking a similar question: are politicians going to get "tough" on drug and alcohol abuse in their own ranks, their own parties, among their big financial backers? Is the Liberal Party going to meet the requirement of PM-in-waiting Peter Costello and hand over the names of transgressors to the police? No one thought this likely. The Government was widely seen as having engaged in a hollow gesture for its own political benefit. Big mistake.

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Time to give rule the push

Paul Gough
Sportal
Sunday, May 27, 2007

What a shame it has come to this. A great game being destroyed by ridiculous and unnecessary rule changes.

The AFL's ludicrous 'hands in the back' rule – which has not been part of the game for more than 100 years until this season – has now decided the outcome of a match and not just any match but one of the AFL's showpiece events - the 'Dreamtime at the G' clash between Richmond and Essendon on Saturday night.

With scores level between the great arch-rivals and a crowd of more than 61,000 roaring both teams on – a fantastic game was ruined by one decision as Richmond spearhead Matthew Richardson was penalised under the new rule with about two minutes remaining.

Richardson had just edged Essendon's Mal Michael under the ball – as key forwards have been doing for 100 years – marked, played on and kicked the goal which would have put the Tigers back in front and almost certainly sealed their first win of the season.

Instead, he was penalised under the new rule for having a hand in Michael's back, even though he did not push him in any way, and even worse was then penalised 50 metres for playing on after a free-kick was paid against him – even though Richardson quite rightly believed he had been paid a legitimate mark and would not have heard the whistle over the roar of the crowd in any case.

Essendon went on to win the game and continue the Tigers' worst ever start to a season with two late behinds and a goal after the final siren from Matthew Lloyd.

Make no mistake the free-kick against Richardson was there under the current interpretation of the rule but it is that very interpretation that is now set to come under constant and deserved scrutiny between now and the end of the season.

It was left to Richardson to explain best just how ridiculous this rule is after the game.

"I've been playing footy for 15 years and in any other year it's a mark," he said of his contest with Michael.

"I think it's a pathetic rule."

Richardson then pointed out correctly that in this era where they are hardly any contested marks to begin with – given the uncontested, chipping style of football now favoured by most sides – the new rule was preventing the few marking contests that are taking place nowadays.

"I think it's spoiling the contest," he told Melbourne radio station 3AW on Saturday night.

"It's not in the spirit of how the game's played and I think the crowd likes seeing two bigger guys going for a mark."

Respected Channel Nine commentator and 1986 Coleman Medal winner Brian Taylor summed up the feelings of most footy fans over the new rule on Sunday when he said the league, by its introduction, had created controversy in an area where none previously existed.

For over 100 years until this season, a push in the back in a marking contest was only paid when it was just that - a push in the back.

Instead, incidental contact in marking contests is now a free-kick – turning a game that already has less and less marking contests into an even poorer and confusing spectacle.

The rule was designed to make the job of umpires easier in deciding what constituted interference in a marking contest but instead has made the job of players – who after all is what the game is all about - almost impossible.

And it is debatable whether it has made the already difficult job of umpiring any easier given Saturday night's controversial free-kick was paid by Brett Allen – one of the league's most experienced whistleblowers who was only carrying out the instructions of the mysterious and faceless people that decided to introduce this rule at the start of the season.

The AFL simply must admit it got it wrong and get rid of this rule as soon as possible.

Otherwise it risks alienating not only its clubs and players but the most important people of all – the fans – who are already struggling to recognise a game reeling from the controversy surrounding the AFL's lax drug policies to last week's Hawthorn-St Kilda 'snorefest' at the MCG, which summed up everything that is wrong with the modern-day game.

Yet again controversy has overshadowed a weekend in which Geelong's impressive demolition of Port Adelaide on Sunday should be the talking point.

So the league should act now on its 'hands in the back' rule before it's too late because it doesn't bear thinking about the fallout had Saturday night's free kick decided the result of a grand final rather than a round nine clash between two arch-rivals.

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Analysis backs long kicking

Stephen Rielly
The Age
Wednesday, May 23, 2007



The legendary DAVE McNAMARA.

Last Wednesday evening, AFL recruiters and football department heads from around the country gathered in a small, nondescript room on the 28th floor of Commerce House, at the top end of Collins Street.

They did so to hear Dr Mark Stewart, of the RMIT School of Economics, Finance and Marketing, reveal a secret. To be initiated.

Stewart and two colleagues, Heather Mitchell and Constantino Stavros, are the researchers who, a little over 12 months ago, sought to apply the principles unearthed in Michael Lewis' groundbreaking and best-selling book, Moneyball, to the Australian game at the highest level.

Lewis, once a Wall Street analyst, dumbfounded many inside the American professional baseball community on the publication of his book in 2003, by producing an answer to a simple question: how is it that the Oakland Athletics, with a relatively low payroll of $40 million in 2002, could win as many games in that season as the New York Yankees, a team with a payroll more than three times greater at $126 million?

The answer was a discovery, made by Oakland and its general manager, Billy Beane, of a new statistical method of analysing the game that not only found folly in a number of the traditions in which baseball is steeped but allowed Beane and the A's to recruit players in whom others could not see value. Moneyball was an inspiration to the little guys of professional sport the world over and no less an encouragement to statisticians, economists and sports-minded thinkers everywhere.

Which is why every AFL club was listening to Stewart last week, as he delivered the earliest conclusions to identify and measure what is truly important to winning games of football.

Stewart and his team analysed 738 of the 740 AFL games played between 2002 and 2006. In doing so, they found 21 statistics critical to success or not and then measured how important or costly each was.

So what did all of those AFL ears hear? According to the research, each accurate long kick is worth almost one point (.99) to a team's winning margin. A kick to the opposition subtracts .62 of a point.

They heard that players who bounce the ball or, in other words, take the game to the opposition are almost as valuable. Each bounce adds .54 of a point to a team's score.

"This form of advancement is particularly valuable in that it is a relatively safe way to move closer to a scoring opportunity as the ball is not required to be transferred to a teammate, eliminating the possibility of an interception," the Stewart, Mitchell and Stavros findings reported.hey heard that decisions made by the men in white, green or orange have next to no bearing one way or another upon results. Ditto hitouts, which are devalued by the analysis and, therefore, question the worth of the game's biggest men.

"Coaches, media and fans often blame umpires for losses and similarly lament that their ruckman was unable to win enough contests in hitting the ball out following stoppages in play. What this study indicates is that who hits the ball out in a ruck contest is not as important as who is able to effectively clear the ball from such a stoppage," the report said.

A single centre bounce clearance is worth .51 of a point which, of course, makes a player who can win the football, sprint away bouncing it and then kick it accurately the most valuable footballer of all.

Which is precisely what Chris Judd is.

Surprises? The knock-on is accorded a relatively high value. Each is worth .35 of a point, according to the analysis, considerably more than many statistics that have conventional importance attached to them, such as tackles.

What matters most:
Accurate long-kicking, bounces, centre clearances, knock-ons.

What is not important:
Umpiring decisions, ruck contests, tackling.

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Seven, Ten start war over football

Michael Bodey
The Australian
Thursday, May 17, 2007

AFL broadcast partners the Seven and Ten networks have begun a sledging war only four months into the first season of their new $780 million five-year broadcast agreement.

Ten's head of sport David White told Media that Ten's former AFL broadcast partner, the Nine network, did a superior job of covering Friday night AFL matches.

"Nine did a very good job on their Friday night coverage last year; I would dispute it was better than ours, but it was different, newsy and had a great commentary team," he said.

"Certainly, Seven's nowhere near them yet. They certainly didn't learn anything from their first 45 years broadcasting footy and anything they did learn they've forgotten."

Ten's head of sport David White told Media that Ten's former AFL broadcast partner, the Nine network, did a superior job of covering Friday night AFL matches.

"Nine did a very good job on their Friday night coverage last year; I would dispute it was better than ours, but it was different, newsy and had a great commentary team," he said.

"Certainly, Seven's nowhere near them yet. They certainly didn't learn anything from their first 45 years broadcasting footy and anything they did learn they've forgotten."

Ten's head of sport David White told Media that Ten's former AFL broadcast partner, the Nine network, did a superior job of covering Friday night AFL matches.

"Nine did a very good job on their Friday night coverage last year; I would dispute it was better than ours, but it was different, newsy and had a great commentary team," he said.

"Certainly, Seven's nowhere near them yet. They certainly didn't learn anything from their first 45 years broadcasting footy and anything they did learn they've forgotten."

"AFL's certainly assisting Seven and when you look at the detailed audience figures, they're certainly doing arguably a bit better than the Ten network," said media analyst Fusion Strategy's Steve Allen. The AFL last year accepted an offer from Seven and Ten worth $780 million to broadcasts AFL from 2007 to 2011, a deal Foxtel shared from February. Before that, Nine and Ten shared the broadcast rights along with Foxtel's now-defunct Fox Footy Channel.

Network Ten can this year claim the highest-rating AFL broadcast each week as its Saturday night matches are averaging more than 800,000 viewers, after drawing 919,000 last week.

It also topped Nine's previous Anzac Day ratings with an average 1.294 million viewers for the Essendon-Collingwood clash.

And the transfer of AFL from Foxtel's stand-alone Fox Footy Channel to Premier Media Group's Fox Sports 1 has also resulted in increased audiences, even if its broadcast direction has been sloppy, missing goals due to slow replays.

Only two AFL matches were among the top 100 highest rating shows on pay-TV last year (two Geelong matches with 210,000 and 189,000 viewers each).

But already this year Fox Sports has had five matches draw more than 200,000 viewers and the average audience for live matches is 160,000.

"We think they're all going really well," said the AFL's chief broadcasting and commercial officer Gillon McLachlan.

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Number of drug tests set to triple

Greg Denham
The Australian
Thursday, May 3, 2007

THE AFL's crackdown on drugs has begun, with testing of players set to almost triple.

Clubs have not yet been informed of the number of drug tests players can expect, but an AFL source yesterday estimated the number to be between 1400 and 1500 a year.

It is believed the AFL executive signed off on the increase in testing about a fortnight ago.

At the latest meeting between the league's executive and club chief executives, AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou hinted that testing could at least double and that target-testing would triple.

In previous years, about 490 tests were carried out annually by the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority.

They were full-screen tests with about one-third conducted on match days. ASADA tested for illicit substances as well as for performance-enhancing drugs, such as steroids.

Under the AFL's latest crackdown - fast-tracked because of the revelation of Ben Cousins' addiction to ice and subsequent overseas treatment - the league will significantly boost its illicit drug testing to a ratio of about 10 non-match tests to one on match days. It is understood ASADA will perform about 460 tests a year, with 160 of those on match days, under World Anti-Doping Agency compliance, which carries much stricter penalties than the AFL's illicit drug code.

Figures released last month by the AFL revealed that over the past two seasons, up to February this year, 25 players tested positive to illicit drugs on 28 occasions.

In 2005, 19 positive tests to illicit drugs reduced last year to nine, from about 990 tests over the two-year period.

The trend, however, is that players tested positive more often to hard drugs such as amphetamines, cocaine and ecstasy, rather than cannabis, which was by far the most popular drug used by players in the previous two years.

Of the 19 positives in 2005, which included three players twice testing positive, six of those results were for marijuana.

Of the nine positive results last year, only one was for cannabis.

In the first 18 months since the introduction of the three-strike policy of the illicit drug code from February 2005, AFL players registered 24 positive tests.

Over the next six months, only four tests were confirmed as positive.

Between the start of October 2002 and the end of September 2004, when testing was used by the AFL and its medical commissioners for statistical data, 915 tests produced 26 positive results to cannabis, and five other positive tests for illicit drugs out of competition.

The AFL said that of the 490 tests carried out last year, a total of 83 players were tested more than once.

AFL general manager of football operations Adrian Anderson said that no player last year tested positive twice.

"We're encouraged by the figures, but no more," Anderson said last month.Despite the decrease in positive tests, Anderson said the AFL would increase the number of tests as well as the number of players to be specifically targeted.

"We're looking at ways in which we can increase and develop our testing to make sure that our chances of catching anyone who uses them, are greater," he said. "Ben Cousins' situation provided a graphic picture for all players of the dangers of illicit drugs.

"I'd like to think that, if there was a young Ben Cousins entering the competition, now that we've got an illicit drugs policy that's been going for two years, that it might have made a difference."

From this year, out-of-competition testing is performed in Victoria by Dorevitch Pathology and all state testers are directed by the AFL medical commissioners, doctors Peter Harcourt and Harry Unglik.

AFL players' association general manager of operations Matt Finnis said last month the medical commissioners often acted on information received to direct certain tests.

"They're entitled to use information that comes across their desk," Finnis said. "We expect that's what they do."

Under the collective bargaining agreement, there is no limit on the number of out-of-competition tests directed by the AFL, other than an amnesty during the annual seven-week holiday.

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Big spending Pies top interstate rivals

Jake Niall
The Age
Wednesday, May 2, 2007

COLLINGWOOD'S drive to keep pace with interstate giants has led it to plough extraordinary resources into recruiting, coaching and player development, areas in which the club is now clearly the biggest spender in the AFL.

Comprehensive financial figures for the 16 clubs obtained by The Age show that the Magpies spent an astonishing $1.85 million on coaching which includes its burgeoning player development budget in 2006 and that it now out-spends premier and interstate goliath West Coast in this category.

Collingwood also spent $787,000 on recruiting, more than $250,000 more than the next biggest spender on recruiting, Fremantle, and a staggering $643,000 more than Richmond (which did not count football director Greg Miller in its recruiting budget) and $573,000 more than St Kilda.

The Magpies were the only Victorian club among the top six in football spending, with Fremantle and Adelaide rounding out the top six. Essendon was seventh.

If player payments are subtracted, the Magpies had the most expensive football department — a title held by Sydney in 2005. The Brisbane Lions were first in football department costs ($14.25 million), largely due to their enormous player payments' bill, caused by huge backloaded payments to retiring stars Michael Voss and Justin Leppitsch, half of whose salaries did not count under the salary cap.

Collingwood was second ($13.92 million) in football costs, Sydney third ($13.79 million) and the Eagles fourth ($13.55 million). The Kangaroos again had the leanest football department ($10.537 million).

Collingwood's 2007 coaching budget is likely to push the $2 million barrier, given that it has hired another full-time coach in Brad Scott, while its recruiting budget bolstered by a full-timer in Perth and incursions into South Africa and Ireland will exceed $900,000 this year.

Hawthorn had the cheapest coaching panel, at $765,000 more than $1.1 million less than Collingwood but the Hawks, too, have invested heavily in recruiting, ranking fifth last year ($458,000).

Collingwood's acting chief executive Eugene Arocca said yesterday the club would continue to spend heavily in recruiting and development/coaching to keep pace with interstate clubs.

"To maintain a competitive edge on the field, particularly with the resources that are being devoted interstate, the key areas of recruiting, development which includes coaching are paramount.

"This club made a decision a number of years ago to channel as much as could be possibly channelled into those areas to achieve results …"

While Richmond and St Kilda have argued for a cap on football spending to keep the competition even, Arocca said restrictions on football departments would hurt the game. He said there wouldn't be as many indigenous or Irish players in the AFL if clubs had not opened up areas such as the Northern Territory and Ireland.

In other big revelations from the survey of 2006 financial figures for all clubs:

Once mighty Carlton's plight was demonstrated by the fact that it generated the least football-derived revenue of any club ($13.738 million), below the Kangaroos.

Brisbane easily had the highest player payments, $9.62 million, some $845,000 more than second-ranked Sydney, even though the Swans had a higher allowance than Brisbane's $360,000 extra. The Lions lost their allowance this year.

The awesome financial might of West Coast was underscored by the $11.04 million it earned from membership — a roughly $8 million dollar head-start compared with the bottom three Victorian clubs, and even $3 million-plus ahead of the Crows.

The Eagles, assisted by their favourable stadium deal, also made $5 million from corporate boxes and $4.7 million from merchandising. Their football income was $34.528 million, well ahead of the next club, the Magpies ($27.319 million). Collingwood posted higher overall revenue once investments outside football were included. They turned over $12.119 million in non-football activities — mainly hotels and gaming — while the cashed-up Bombers generated $6.787 million outside football, and perhaps surprisingly, the Bulldogs were fourth in external revenue, with slightly under $6 million.

Hawthorn did extremely well from its Tasmanian venture, figures showing that it received just under $1.5 million for its three games in Launceston.

The Western Bulldogs had the third-highest coaching outlay, a misleading figure given that they spent only $23,000 on other team-related staff and nothing on "player welfare."

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Cousins flies home to calls for 12-week ban

Don Koch and Chip Le Grand
The Australian
Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Leigh Matthews, the elder statesman of AFL coaches and a legend of the AFL Hall of Fame, has criticised the league commission over its handling of Sunday's meeting with the West Coast Eagles and called for recovering ice addict Ben Cousins to serve a 12-week suspension the prescribed penalty for a "third strike" offence under the illicit drugs policy before he plays again.

In unusually blunt criticism of the game's governing body by a serving coach, Matthews dismissed the commission's confrontation with the Eagles hierarchy over Cousins and other player behaviour problems as a public relations exercise.

He cited his own deregistration in 1985 for conduct unbecoming as a precedent to impose a meaningful penalty against Cousins for his regular use of methamphetamine, an illegal drug blamed for more than 70,000 addictions in Australia.

As Cousins returned to Perth from his stay at an exclusive, US-based rehab clinic looking tanned and relaxed and sounding open to the idea of continuing his AFL career, Matthews was contemptuous of the league's response to the litany of behavioural issues that has sullied the reputation of the Eagles and AFL football in general.

"I'm not quite sure what it was all about except a PR gesture," Matthews said of Sunday's extraordinary commission meeting called by the AFL.

"I think that it was really window dressing.

"What they have said to the public is we aren't really happy about this so we'll call them in and tell them we aren't happy. We could send them an email or a letter, but we will actually call them in because that will get good coverage and hopefully say to the world out there we aren't happy with you and now everyone else knows we aren't happy with you."

AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou, a member of the commission, described Matthews' criticisms as "naive".

"I was at the meeting the commission conducted with the Eagles yesterday," Demetriou said. "With respect to Leigh, he wasn't here and wasn't aware of what was discussed.

"I would suggest it is a naive comment. The commission is certainly not in the habit of organising its matters around PR events."

Cousins' return has increased pressure on the AFL and Eagles to ensure that he serves some penalty for flouting the league's stance against illicit drugs.

Methamphetamine, a potent form of amphetamine bought in crystal form, is an increasingly popular social drug and a banned stimulant under the World Anti-Doping Authority code.

Despite the league's reluctance to impose penalties on Cousins in the absence of a positive drugs test, Matthews' call for a three-month ban gained support yesterday.

Justin Charles, the only AFL player to be suspended for using performance-enhancing drugs, called in to a Melbourne radio station to declare that not only was Cousins deserving of a penalty, he would be expecting one.

Charles, a regular public speaker and retired footballer occasionally used by the AFL to lecture its younger players on the risks of taking drugs, said there was "no argument" Cousins should be suspended for a substance banned both as an illicit and performance-enhancing drug.

"Ben would be expecting some sort of penalty, make no mistake," Charles told Radio SEN. "I am sure he would happily do some kind of suspension or penalty. I just hope that the general public get behind Ben rather than make him an outcast and condemn him."

Charles was suspended for 16 weeks in 1997 for using boldenone, an anabolic steroid commonly used by vets, to aid his recovery from serious injury. Matthews said a 12-week suspension for Cousins, or deregistration for the same period, would be "fair and reasonable" given the extent of the 2005 Brownlow medallist's drug use and the broad powers available to the commission under the conduct-unbecoming rule.

Matthews was deregistered for four weeks in 1985 by the then Victorian Football League after admitting to king-hitting Geelong's Neville Bruns in an off-the-ball incident at Princes Park. Bruns was left with a shattered jaw. Matthews later pleaded guilty to assault in criminal proceedings.

"When you have got that conduct-unbecoming rule, you can do what you like when you like," Matthews said. "Seemingly, the AFL has chosen not to invoke that or do anything in terms of sanctions, but they have the right to do it if they choose.

"I would have thought not playing for the 12 weeks would be fair and reasonable by my standards. The third-strike drug penalty is 12 weeks and I guess a lot of people are saying, 'well, I know he didn't do it through the AFL system, but if you are going into rehab there is a fair chance you've actually tried it a few times'.

"Maybe not playing for 12 weeks would be a reasonable kind of punishment or consequence."

Irrespective of whether the AFL imposes a sanction on Cousins, it is unclear when he will play football again.

The AFL and Eagles management have agreed on a series of conditions to Cousins' return. These include a public apology and admission of his problem and regular drug tests, with the commission reserving the final say on any return date.

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AFL draws plan for Roos' move

Caroline Wilson
The Age
Friday, April 27, 2007

THE AFL Commission has issued a six-month deadline to put together a definite plan to establish a second team in southern Queensland in the hope that the Kangaroos take up the relocation offer.

As AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou and his key strategists were today to meet the Kangaroos board in a bid to clarify the future of the club's complicated share structure, The Age understands that the game's governing body is rapidly losing patience with the club.

It is believed AFL executives Andrew Caterall and Gillon McLachlan have been charged with putting together a relocation plan which in turn will be transferred into a package.

While the commission has not ruled out a 17th licence nor has it firmly settled upon Carrara as the definite home ground for a Gold Coast-based team the preference is to relocate an existing team.

The decisions resting with the AFL include whether to place a relocation offer on the open market and include all clubs in Victoria.

A relocation package could include significant draft advantages in a bid to beef up a list such as the Kangaroos', along with a sustainable stadium deal, signage and other marketing advantages.

As the Kangaroos emerged from yesterday's board peace talks, maverick director Ron Joseph was subtly censured for his public attacks upon club chairman Graham Duff.

Duff yesterday insisted the club would remain Melbourne-based, adding that he doubted any proposed share buy-out from the AFL would become a reality.

But he later told The Age: "We are prepared to listen to what the AFL has to say. We would like the AFL to put its position on the table. At no stage has anyone said to us that they want a second team permanently located on the Gold Coast."

The ongoing mixed messages from both the AFL and the Kangaroos date back to November 2005, when a strategic meeting of the AFL commissioners first put the Gold Coast plan on the table.

While the league's governing body and the AFL executive have continued to debate the issue and push their plan forward, they have become increasingly concerned at the lack of unity at the North Melbourne Football Club, which has not only a board at odds with each other, but also shareholders.

Last Friday's commission talks in Queensland, which included a tour of all major football stadiums on the Gold Coast and also Brisbane, put forward a process to speed up the push into the region that introduced the National Rugby League's Gold Coast Titans this year. Ongoing obstacles for the AFL include the Queensland Government, which has an agreement in place to play all AFL games between permanent Queensland teams at the Gabba, along with the Kangaroos' refusal to accept what many at the AFL believe is a foregone conclusion.

Duff said yesterday: "I'm categorically saying that we currently get paid $400,000 to go up there and play. It was a commercial decision, not an emotional decision. I don't think it's sustainable without help from the AFL. At present we have no chance of netting $400,000 a game without help."

Demetriou, refusing to comment last night on what he planned to say at today's talks, was the subject of some criticism from the Kangaroos board for meeting a section of the club's shareholders last week before officially doing so with the club's board.

The AFL will also look at scheduling advantages for a club that chose to relocate from Melbourne in a bid to retain its Victorian identity, unlike the Brisbane Lions, who usually play less than one third of their games in Melbourne to appease old Fitzroy supporters.

The commission's view is that the third year of the Kangaroos' current deal — 2009 — would bring a far greater presence on the Gold Coast than the four games as set down in the present $3.6 million agreement.

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North needs to go north

Jake Niall
The Age
Thursday, April 26, 2007

MY MATERNAL grandparents were bona fide Shinboners. Two of my grandfather's brothers played for North, while Nan grew up in North Melbourne and walked to Arden Street with her mother whenever they played. The following day, at St Mary's church, Nan and her tribe would talk about North's latest defeat during Mass.

Whenever the unpleasant topic of the Gold Coast Kangaroos is raised, I think of Nan and Pa and wonder what they would make of it if they were still alive. I suspect Nan would be horrified, because the community identity of the club, based in the mostly Catholic suburb she lived in, was more important than whether it was successful. She once told me she didn't see them win for two or three years, but you had to go, just as church was compulsory.

Pa was more pragmatic and rational, and my guess is that, as one who knew the club better from the coalface — a nephew of his also played a few games around the time of Les Foote, in the 1950s — he would be more accepting of the prospective relocation to Carrara. He was a man of reason, not faith, and while he wouldn't like the Gold Coast move, I can imagine him bowing to the economic reality.

When Graham Duff addressed North members at Telstra Dome before the round-three game against Hawthorn, the club chairman was concerned only with those of Nan's ilk rather than the rational-realist faction. If you survey North fans, you'll find a split between bleeding hearts and hard-heads, with some wavering between those positions. The club board also contains those sometimes conflicting outlooks.

Duff was mistaken in telling the faithful that he was against relocation and in attempting to portray the three-year, 10-game deal as something akin to the club's past flirtation with Canberra. Whether he actually believes North (I've never accepted the geographically disembodied "Kangaroos") can make it in Melbourne as a stand-alone club, or he was just being a politician, he was misguided.

North can't make a U-turn from the Gold Coast now. The AFL didn't give the club a heap of money, underwriting the Carrara venture to the tune of $400,000 per game, as a frontier experiment. Andrew Demetriou has bluntly stated that the commission wishes to see football played in south-east Queensland every week. It bribed North away from Canberra with that in mind.

The long-term plan is for a club to relocate, following the South Melbourne-to-Sydney model, wherein the club retains its history, as much identity as possible and a good portion of its Melbourne supporter base. In this instance, the shift would be more gradual than South's brutal uprooting, and the league doubtless would give the emigres special visitation rights — seven or eight games in Melbourne — to ease the trauma.

That club doesn't have to be North. It could be another financial straggler from Melbourne. But the Roos are the logical transplant and, by agreeing to the Carrara games, they have more than dipped their toe in warmer Queensland waters.

Duff mightn't see it that way now, but the truth is the Kangaroos don't have control of their own destiny. The club is on AFL life support, a recipient of $9 million from the league (about $3 million a year more than most clubs). If the AFL didn't provide the financial prop, the Roos would be insolvent, and those shares that have caused so much chaos and confusion would be worth zilch. To be fair, they're far from the only club in that (technically insolvent) position.

North has the smallest supporter base in the competition, and in modern times, with more weekend options available than footy and church, the proportion who follow any club like Nan — blindly, with unconditional love — is greatly diminished. These days, fans will stick so long as there's hope.

How can a club with a minnow following, third-world facilities and little prospect of growing its Victorian support base to a competitive level compete with local and interstate behemoths? I am tired of hearing people on the airways bagging North fans for "failing to support the club" when anyone with half a clue knows that there aren't enough true believers to make North economically sustainable in Melbourne.

If the club didn't enjoy exponential growth in the successful 1970s, when it had Malcolm Blight and Ron Barassi, or in the 1990s with Denis (Pagan) and the Duck, it's not going to happen now or ever. Carey, remember, was the best and most charismatic player in the game.

Hawthorn, while substantially stronger than North, carries some of the same historical baggage as a fellow 1925 entrant into the VFL (as were the Bulldogs). These clubs have had to work harder for support.

The Hawks, however, are taking the initiative. They are prepared to compromise their identity slightly by playing a few games in Tasmania — a sacrifice that will ensure their long-term place as an independent Melbourne-based club. They've also developed a nice little home-ground advantage at Launceston.

While one can understand why Duff made the statement he did, it's going to take more than Shinboner spirit to keep the club in Melbourne. To those key off-field players opposed to the Gold Coast, consider this question: How do you propose to make up the gulf between North and the competition's middle class, much less the interstate ruling class? Faith alone won't cut it.

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Len Fitzgerald: Standing tall in game he loved

Michelangelo Rucci
The Advertiser
Wednesday, April 18, 2007

 
Len Fitzgerald knew he would not see the finish of the 2007 football calendar. But no matter how weak his body became through illness, the triple Magarey Medallist, Collingwood great and Sturt legend challenged himself.

Every Crows game at AAMI Stadium. Every Sturt match in the SANFL. His love for Australian football would not fade in his final days.

Fitzgerald left AAMI Stadium on Saturday night having watched Adelaide beat his old foe Port Adelaide by 24 points in Showdown XXII spiritually beaming ... but physically tired.

He woke the next morning eager to get to Unley Oval to see Sturt play Glenelg, his two SANFL clubs the former as a captain, coach and great, the latter as a coach. His beloved Double Blues won by 26 points.

Fitzgerald returned to his Fullarton nursing home on Sunday evening physically exhausted ... and spiritually fulfilled by football. It was his perfect weekend. His perfect send-off.

Those who saw Fitzgerald leave AAMI Stadium on Saturday evening remember the infectious smile. He died in his sleep - aged 77 yesterday morning certainly with a smile across his big heart.

Fitzgerald's story in Australian football has him remembered as one of the game's greatest players from the 20th Century. A triple Magarey Medallist. An All-Australian. A state player for Victoria and SA. An inaugural inductee to both the Australian and SA football halls of fame.

"Len was before his time," says SANFL chief executive Leigh Whicker, who first came to know Fitzgerald when he was an under-19 player at Sturt in the early 1960s.

"So he would still be brilliant if he was playing today."

Magarey Medallist John Halbert who in 1955, at 17, had Fitzgerald introduced to him as his first league coach suggests the modern-day debate of who was SA's greatest player too often ignores Fitzgerald.

Triple Magarey Medallist Barrie Robran the only SANFL player to rise to legend status in the Australian Football Hall of Fame always gets the nod ahead of four-time Magarey Medallist Russell Ebert and Magarey-Brownlow winner Malcolm Blight.

"But I regard Len Fitzgerald as more than worthy to be put in that field for the best player we've ever seen in SA," Halbert said. "Len Fitzgerald could play anywhere. He could do anything. Robran was the same. Len Fitzgerald can be regarded as one of the greatest Australian football players of all time."

The story begins in 1929 in Melbourne inner suburbia, at a private hospital in Carlton. At age four, Fitzgerald is handed the jumper of Carlton's fiercest football rival Collingwood.

At age 14, Fitzgerald wore the famed Collingwood black-and-white stripes in the VFL reserves.

At 15 years 349 days, Fitzgerald made his VFL league debut in round one, 1945 and became at the time the fourth youngest player in VFL-AFL football.

In 1962, the journey that repeatedly crosses the Victoria-SA border ends for Fitzgerald as a player at Sturt. Every accolade was earned except the very honour Fitzgerald craved - that of a premiership player. And testimony from the game's finest judges and greatest players suggest Fitzgerald was "a natural", or as Sturt legend "Bo" Morton put it "a born footballer".

Fitzgerald recalled only one coach the famed Jock McHale at Collingwood gave him advice that served him throughout his football career.

"Apart from tactics and instructions on combating particular players, the only advice I was ever given by a league coach came from my first at Collingwood, Jock McHale," said Fitzgerald in 1966. "He told me to watch the good players, pick out what made them good and practise these attributes."

Ultimately, Fitzgerald became the model footballer every other player tried and inevitably failed to emulate. Fitzgerald also spun the turnstiles, particularly at Sturt where he arrived in 1951 to lift the Double Blues out of their post-war doldrums. His influence as a captain and coach prompted Victorian country club Benalla to in 1956 chase Fitzgerald as coach. He took the job there for three years, costing him a slice of his league career when he considered he was in his prime.

What other league honours would he have won during this time?

Fitzgerald returned to Sturt for the 1959 season, a stellar year in which he won his third Magarey Medal by polling votes in just six games, all as best-afield. His three medals in 1952, 1954 and 1959 were won in different positions.

On retiring as a player, Fitzgerald turned to coaching. He led the SA under-19 team to victory on Adelaide Oval against Victoria in 1963 while Fos Williams broke a four-decade hoodoo against the Big V on the MCG. Fitzgerald's senior coaching resumed at Glenelg where he spent three seasons to 1966.


Until 1996, when he was inducted in the Australian Football Hall of Fame, Fitzgerald kept a low profile in league football while younger men benefited from the game he made more popular. Forever modest, Fitzgerald was reluctant to attend the Hall of Fame ceremony in Melbourne, saying he did not have a dinner suit. "Leigh Whicker and (SANFL president) Max Basheer brought Len back to the fold - and the game was better for it," Halbert said. "Len became patron at Sturt, watched all their games and bought an apartment at Underdale where he'd spend the weekends before returning to Mannum." Whicker adds: "Len loved telling people particularly young people about the game. He left you so enthused about the game. His passion for football left a mark on everyone. It won't be the same with his seat at AAMI Stadium now empty."

Fitzgerald is survived by his widow Beryl, their four sons Colin, Wayne, Michael and Trevor and their families.

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Ben on thin ice as WADA threat looms

Chip Le Grand
The Australian
Thursday, March 29, 2007

Australia's anti-doping authorities are circling Ben Cousins, with West Coast officials under pressure to reveal exactly what they knew about his use of banned substances in July last year, and whether he may have breached the World Anti-Doping Agency code by playing an AFL match under the effects of cocaine or methamphetamine ice.

Richard Ings, chief executive of the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority, declined to comment on the specifics of the Cousins case, which has resulted in the 2005 Brownlow medal winner being suspended indefinitely by his club.

But he affirmed ASADA's powers and preparedness to investigate suspected anti-doping offences in the absence of a positive test, and said his agency was closely monitoring public comments from coaches and officials in the wake of the Cousins affair.

"People need to remember that these illicit drugs are also prohibited doping substances under the WADA code if athletes use them on match day or traffic them to other athletes," Ings said.

"Should there be any evidence that comes to light that an anti-doping violation might have occurred in any Australian sport, then ASADA is in a position to investigate it."

Cousins has not failed a match-day test for either cocaine or amphetamines, and it is not known whether he has tested positive to either drug under the AFL illicit drugs code.

But a week after his battle with drugs became public, WADA is being drawn to Cousins's case.

According to West Coast coach John Worsfold, chief executive Trevor Nisbett and chairman Dalton Gooding, the Eagles first became aware that Cousins had a serious problem last July.

Gooding said last Friday he then had "an inkling" the problem was drugs. This is now thought to have involved regular use of cocaine and ice.

From July 29 last year to the end of the home-and-away season, Champion Data statisticians recorded a dramatic spike in Cousins's on-field performance.

From having averaged 23 possessions per game, Cousins began winning more of the ball than any player in the competition. From compiling just three Brownlow votes up to round 16, Cousins polled 10 votes in the final six rounds.

The common refrain from footballers and former players – most recently Adelaide's stand-in captain Brett Burton – is that no player would try to take the field high on drugs. The assumption is that whatever Cousins took, he took strictly after matches for recreational purposes.

While the illicit nature of cocaine and ice prevents systematic research on their effect on elite sport performance, the pharmacological picture is revealing.

Andrew McLachlan, a professor of pharmacy at the University in Sydney who specialises in drug testing, said that cocaine had the potential to deliver improved oxygen supply, enhanced mental awareness and a feeling of invincibility.

The potential effects of amphetamines are similar, with ice having the additional benefit of improving anaerobic performance. The effects of amphetamines last longer, providing benefits – and associated risks – for up to three hours.

"When you are tired and exhausted, these medicines give you the potential to refocus, remain stimulated and keep fighting on in a match," McLachlan said.

While the performance-enhancement qualities of cocaine were challenged in the New South Wales rugby wing Wendell Sailor doping case, and are reportedly being reviewed by WADA, there is no such debate about amphetamines.

Methamphetamine is a particularly potent form of amphetamine.

John Mendoza, the former chief executive of the Australian Sports Drug Agency , said there was no reason, in theory at least, why a footballer could not gain enhanced performance in the middle of a four-day ice binge.

"They go on a bender, don't sleep, crash and then three or four days later, start the cycle again," Mendoza said.

"During that period, their performance as an individual is much higher than it would normally be.

"Amphetamine is well known to be a performance-enhancing drug both in the sprint context and in road cycling.

"Why would that not translate into enhanced performance for an AFL midfielder who is all over the paddock?"

As Ings put it: "They build your aggression, they build your stamina, they make you fearless. They are the reasons they are banned in competition."

Worsfold is under intense scrutiny for his public admission last week that the club knew about Cousins's problem midway through last season yet allowed his star midfielder to play an instrumental part in the Eagles' premiership campaign.

"The thing that is a concern to me in all of this is the coach admitting he knew there was a problem," Mendoza said.

"If they knew what the substance was, they have failed their primary duty of care by allowing him to continue to play. He is very much at risk of cardiac failure."

Worsfold said yesterday that he did not know the details of what drugs Cousins was taking when he began to miss training sessions last year.

The fact Cousins was able to produce his best football despite an interrupted training schedule has also aroused suspicion.

Western Bulldogs recruit Jason Akermanis yesterday became the first player to publicly question whether Cousins had taken performance-enhancing drugs.

Other sports figures have also raised questions.

"You have got someone who has been out of sorts and by the admission of his club, hasn't been training properly yet he is playing out of his skin," one prominent athletics figure said.

"How do you get that sort of range if you haven't been training? Unless he is the most talented footballer who has ever walked the earth there has got to be something else in the mix."

Mendoza said: "If I was in ASADA's position right at this moment, I think that is worthy of investigation."

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Putting out spot fires as drugs hysteria spreads

Patrick Smith
The Australian
Monday, March 26, 2007

AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou has described the media coverage of Ben Cousins' suspension for drug abuse and other West Coast revelations as an inferno.

Given that Cousins and co have had a more prominent place in newspapers and broadcasts than the murder of Bob Woolmer at the cricket World Cup, it is apparent Demetriou has a point.

The reporting did not let up over the weekend. One paper called for a war on drugs, another for the AFL to abandon its confidential three-strike policy on illicit drugs. The Fairfax press reported a police investigation into one of football's biggest stars as well as other sportsmen and members of the media.

The AFL commission's response has been to agree to increase the number of drug tests significantly and review, but not necessarily change, its drug policy drawn up two years ago with the players' association. Richmond's Joel Bowden, the new president of the players' association, sought to retard the blaze. He said the players stood by the drug policy. "It's a world first. Ninety-seven per cent of the tests for illegal drugs are negative. That's the statistic that doesn't get told."

Former Brisbane champion Michael Voss sought to lend support.

"If we really thought the AFL was immune to a problem that is rampant throughout the world then we were kidding ourselves," Voss said in his weekly newspaper column.

West Coast coach John Worsfold said that eight of his players had admitted to taking an illegal drug. There are 44 footballers on the Eagles' books. Look about your own workplace and consider whether you would be surprised to find out that eight of 44 of your colleagues might not have taken an illicit drug at some stage in their life. Hardly.

Utterly disturbing, though, was the language in the police tapes that were produced on ABC television last Friday night. Footballers Daniel Kerr, Aaron Edwards and basketballer James Harvey did not sound like men merely dabbling on the very edges of drug use. It was reported that Cousins' addiction to ice (crystal methamphetamine) ran at $3000 a week.

The AFL knew its players were taking illicit drugs four years ago. For seasons 2003 and 2004 the AFL tested players for illegal drugs to get a picture of drug use in the game. Over those two years it received 31 positive tests. That was enough evidence for the league and the players association to draw up its three-strikes drug policy.

In the past 18 months, there have been 24 positives and at least three players have tested positive twice. The most recent figures covering the six months to February are expected to be released shortly. They will be well read.

Demetriou said yesterday that the league had a zero-tolerance policy to drug abuse. But that did not mean players should be named and suspended on their first positive test. The policy seeks to educate and rehabilitate those caught out in the testing program. The fundamental weakness of the AFL policy is its lack of a deterrent.

If a young player is confronted with taking an illegal drug for the first time he must consider what would be the ramifications. He might get tested and then he might not. Richmond captain Kane Johnson was reported on the weekend as having to front the testers just once in five years. And the young player would know that even if he was tested and found positive it would take three positive samples before his name would be made public and punished by the tribunal.

It is here that Melbourne coach Neale Daniher has entered the debate. He wants the number of tests tripled and all players likely to be drafted into AFL football tested for illegal drugs.

Demetriou said yesterday that the planned increased number of procedures – and a far more aggressive target testing strategy – would make players more cautious about drug abuse. If that was the case then it might be possible to salvage the policy. The West Coast experience underlines how difficult it is for clubs to manage problems that compromise their chances of success on the field.

Worsfold said he knew last July that Cousins was in deep trouble with drugs. But Cousins was also playing some of the best football of his career and West Coast, beaten in the 2005 grand final, believed it could go one better last year. It did, winning the premiership by one point and very much through Cousins.

It is one thing for West Coast not to have the will to suspend Cousins last year because of the club's ambition to win the premiership, but it is likely the club was not properly resourced to deal with the issue anyway.

Not many football clubs would be. Voss has written that education programs run at clubs by the AFL are effective for no more than two days. And the AFL spends as much as $150,000 a year on drug information programs. That's money going up in smoke.

Demetriou said the AFL had discussed with presidents whether the welfare programs at some clubs are suitably resourced and run by appropriately qualified staff.

The AFL has been asked to consider whether it might help fund vastly more sophisticated programs. It simply must do it.

The league continues to believe the drug issues within football are no bigger or different than in the rest of the community. If Demetriou's administration is right then the inferno will burn itself out quickly enough. The season proper starts next week and kicks, marks, hamstrings and ACLs will drive the news. If the AFL is wrong, not even Red Adair will save it.

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Claims without names tarnish the innocent

Mark Robinson
Herald Sun
Monday, March 26, 2007

Andrew Fraser spent almost five years in jail for trying to traffic cocaine from Africa.

He was also a cocaine addict.

He is also either a liar – he has lied before – or he has implicated some of the biggest names in football in a drugs scandal that has widened so much that the parameters between what is fact, what is public interest and what is bar-room grandstanding is now a blur.

Fraser said in a newspaper article yesterday that he saw three premiership players, one of whom was a Brownlow medallist, snort coke in an upstairs room of a Melbourne hotel.

Believe him or not, the list is narrow. Since 1979, there have been 12 Brownlow medallists who have won premierships.

The names are silk.

James Hird, Michael Voss, Adam Goodes, Chris Judd. Mark Ricciuto, Simon Black, Jason Akermanis, Greg Williams, Gavin Wanganeen, John Platten and Robert Dipierdomenico.

Of course, there is also Ben Cousins. If Fraser is to be believed, we can only assume he wasn't with Cousins. Cousins has had so much thrown at him this past fortnight, revelations of a night on the tiles with a disgraced former lawyer are neither here or there.

The others shouldn't be so blase.

What he's saying is that one of these 12 superstars of the AFL has shared a line of cocaine. Hogged it, he says.

Unfortunately, Fraser didn't name the player and that's the hole in his story.

People will argue that journalists often use sources to relay the truth and, in some cases, names. That's true. In this case, Fraser is the source, but still he won't name names.

The legal implications are obvious, but all he's done is add to the hysteria. Most journalists, at one time, could be accused of the same, but the dynamicism of such comments are always weakened by the lack of substance.

It is cheap-shot journalism. Much like the tantalising, yet cowardly comments regularly made by gossip columnists.

You know the ones: "Who was the high-flying forward seen having a dinner with a gorgeous young blonde who wasn't his wife?"

Still can't work out what that offers the reader.

And, so, why would Fraser do it? To grab a headline? To titillate his own, sad story of drug addiction?

If nothing else, all he's done is offer more questions and create more finger pointing.

You have to feel sorry for Hird, Williams, Dipper and Akermanis, who live in this town, and the others in their cities, who will be asked – and probably have been already – what their reaction is to the article.

They'll certainly not give credence with an answer.

What it has done is give an understanding of what the West Coast has dealt with for five years: fact, rumour and rubbish.

The difficulty is who and what to believe.

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The night I snorted coke with a Brownlow medallist

Andrew Fraser
The Age
Sunday, March 25, 2007

One night before my spectacular fall from grace I was at a Melbourne hotel favoured by AFL footballers and during the evening I was invited upstairs for a line of cocaine. I stepped into the room to find three star footballers with something in common: they were all premiership players ... and they were all snorting the white powder.

I was not shocked at footballers consuming coke but I was surprised that these high-profile players were having such a red hot go. Especially a Brownlow medallist.

I am writing this – and risking more public criticism – because I have been down the track that Ben Cousins is travelling and I would not wish it on my worst enemy.

Several issues arise from the uproar surrounding the Cousins revelations. The first is that drugs have been around since cocky was an egg and are here to stay. History has shown that prohibition does not work and until everybody accepts that, nothing will change.

Secondly, the AFL must have known for a long time that drugs are rampant in sport generally and football in particular. The present AFL policy is a dog's breakfast. A former Swans player, Dale Lewis, came out some years ago and alleged drugs were rife in the game - but instead of taking him seriously and investigating his claims, the football world hung him out to dry and let the issue die.

The present furore raises some tough questions. Why are players not named when they first return a positive sample? Why are AFL players a protected species?

Other codes have a zero-tolerance policy, which has cut down players such as rugby star Wendell Sailor for relatively minor infringements. Sailor was named, fined and suspended for two years. Compare that hard line with the AFL's half-hearted stance, and its tendency to hush things up, which allowed the Ben Cousins situation to deteriorate to the degree where the poor bloke urgently needs rehabilitation.

Additionally, the AFL makes no distinction between the so-called "recreational drugs" and performance-enhancing drugs such as steroids. Surely, the consumption of a recreational drug that gets out of hand constitutes a health issue for the player concerned and he needs all the help he can get. The only way to stop doing drugs is exactly that - stop doing them. A simple proposition in theory but a difficult one in reality. I took years to be able to safely say I was over cocaine. Ben Cousins has taken the first step, but the road is long and full of traps.

It is not illegal to use drugs such as tobacco and alcohol but if a player gets on the grog and plays badly he is dropped. The same should apply to recreational drug taking - in other words, full and transparent disclosure of the problem followed by a rehabilitation regime. And this means total abstinence.

There is massive hypocrisy about drug use. I know only too well that a lot people in journalism, the law and the police use the same substances Cousins is accused of taking. Some of those people will read this article this morning with a thick head after a big night out on their drug of choice. But that will not stop them pontificating about Cousins and others. Footballers are not the only ones to mouth platitudes while hiding behind the code of silence that operates in so many professions.

Another question rarely asked is this: what is the position of the police in all this? Consider the situation of the footballer compared with that of a street kid who is stopped by the police and searched. If even a small amount of drugs is found on him or her, the poor unfortunate is charged and faces court because use and possession of drugs is against the law. Has the AFL, knowing about the breaking of the law by somebody under its auspices, referred such information to police for investigation? After all, footballers buy their drugs from somewhere.

But instead of court, the footballer is protected and for reasons that are not clear to me no charges are laid. So much for "justice for all".

Ben Cousins and his family are not the only ones with a long battle ahead. The AFL has to make a stand, too, to show whether it is fair dinkum or content to stick its head in the sand.

Andrew Fraser was a criminal lawyer before a cocaine habit led him to conspire with a former client to smuggle the drug from Africa in 1999. He was sentenced to a minimum five years' jail in 2001 after pleading guilty to trafficking, possession and importation. He was released last September after providing new evidence that led to Peter Norris Dupas being charged with the murder of Mersina Halvagis nine years ago. His book Court in the Middle will be published by Hardie Grant in October.

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Eagles winged, but drug tapes draw a blank

David Cohen
The Age
Sunday, March 25, 2007

The WA Government is disappointed. The police won't look into the matter. Fans are agog. The Eagles are saying nothing.

After four days that have shaken the West Coast Eagles to their foundations, football in Western Australia is reeling.

The latest development – police-recorded conversations between WA sportsmen and a drug dealer played on radio – has stunned West Australians.

"To many of us, football players are to be admired as outstanding athletes whose on-field performances elevate them to hero status," WA Sports Minister John Kobelke said.

"This makes them role models for many in the community, particularly children. The standing brings with it a responsibility to ensure their every action sets an example both on and off the field.

"Clearly, some players simply don't understand they have that obligation to their team, the community and themselves.

"It is deeply disappointing when players fail to meet these expectations."

WA police said the conversations didn't contain evidence that warranted an investigation.

"Nationally, police share intelligence and jointly investigate drug distribution that crosses borders," deputy commissioner Chris Dawson said.

"If WA police are in receipt of, or uncover, contemporary information of any supply, trafficking, manufacture or possession of prohibited drugs we will investigate."

He said police were focused on apprehending manufacturers and dealers, rather than diverting resources solely to investigate people with a history of substance abuse.

WA Liberal Opposition spokesman Trevor Sprigg said the police response wasn't good enough. "I'm a bit dismayed that the police don't want to follow these things up so they can track down the 'Mr Bigs'.

"The welfare of Ben Cousins is the most important thing, but when he's well enough the police can talk to him and find out where his sources were and nail some other people. That's what I'd love to see happen."

Mr Sprigg played 152 games for East Fremantle, Ben Cousins' WAFL club, and was chairman of selectors for West Coast when the club won its first AFL premiership in 1992.

He described himself as an Eagles fan, and said he had been "bitterly disappointed" by the past few days. "But I'm also somewhat relieved that now all the rumours have been brought out, it's being attacked, the problem's being addressed."

He said if any Eagle even looked at any sort of drug again they'd be "absolutely stupid".

"Surely this would've taught them the lessons," Mr Sprigg said.

He said West Coast was a well-run club, but it had been tardy in intervening over drugs.

"The coach himself said ... he'd heard about drugs in the club," Mr Sprigg said. "And in town here, we all hear the rumours. We've heard them for a long time. I would've thought they would've acted a bit sooner to scotch those rumours.

"But I understand the difficulty of doing that and why someone might just have wanted it to go away."

He said the AFL's drugs policy didn't appear strong enough. "It needs tightening up, there's not much doubt about that."

Asked if the Eagles would be staging a media conference or releasing a statement, club spokesman Gary Stocks said, "No".

The Eagles tape
Secretly recorded by Victorian police, the series of conversations involving Eagles midfielder Daniel Kerr, then-Perth Wildcats basketballer James Harvey and jailed drug dealer Shane Waters are cheerful, expletive-laden and remarkably frank.

p In one exchange, Kerr and Waters seem to commiserate the morning after a big night.
Kerr: I’m just recovered, I’m just feeling good today.
Waters: You f...ing crazy c...
Kerr: I was f...ing struggling the other day, how are you feeling?
Waters: (unclear).
Kerr: Are you going out again tonight?
Waters: Arrr probably.
Kerr: F... that’s a big effort.
Waters: Nah, it’s easy when you don’t do nothing during the day, you don’t even have to train.
Kerr: Yeah, we had to train, you should’ve seen Sunday night, f...!
Waters: You nearly gone through the whole f...ing lot you crazy c...!
Kerr: Yeah, it was f...ed, it turned all f...ing pear-shaped — I swear to God I couldn’t even sleep it was that bad — yeah!

p In another recording, Kerr sounds desperately eager to help drug dealer Waters add to his collection of sporting memorabilia. Waters says he needs a "little favour": a pair of gloves worn by then-Eagles full-forward Troy Wilson.
Waters: Do you reckon you could send me a pair?
Kerr: Yeah, just yer normal footy gloves?
Waters: Yeah yeah, just for me hands.
Kerr: Yep, no worries, I’ll get youse a pair.
Waters: Yeah orright.
Kerr: I’ll send them Express Post, today or tomorrow.

p Basketballer Harvey tells Waters he took "flippers" [ecstasy tablets] with astonishing frequency.
Harvey: One flipper every hour on the hour for 10 hours.
Waters tells the basketballer he’s wasting his money, but adds: "Sorry, I forgot you’re on f...ing 500 grand a year, you c..." Harvey laughs.
Harvey refers to "Cuzzy" – presumably Eagles player Ben Cousins – and tells Waters he should "come over".
Waters: "Yeah, because he’s had a f...ing big bag of f...ing horse chaff." (Horse chaff is slang for ketamine.)
Harvey sounds delighted: "Ooh! Well! Suddenly the stakes have been raised."

p The police recordings, made in 2003, were obtained by the ABC in Melbourne and broadcast on ABC radio around the country on Friday afternoon.
p Waters was jailed last year in Victoria for selling drugs to undercover police.
p Victorian police say they didn’t question Kerr or Harvey at the time because the operation was aimed at convicting major drug traffickers.

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Police target footy 'rat-pack'

Andrew Rule
The Age
Sunday, March 25, 2007

One of Australian football's biggest stars is being investigated by drug squad police as part of a wide-ranging inquiry into a so-called "rat-pack" of sport, media and entertainment cocaine users.

And he is not an Eagle.

The former star of a Melbourne-based club has maintained a high profile in the media since his retirement from the game he played with distinction.

Persistent rumours of his links with a drug dealer have prompted detectives to monitor his activities in recent months.

The result, according to a well-placed source, is that the colourful football identity has unwittingly led investigators to the dealer, allowing them to gather evidence that will soon be used to lay charges.

It is understood police plan to recruit a third person known to the football identity to help an undercover detective to infiltrate a "rat-pack" of sporting and media people who use cocaine regularly.

"People in his (the football identity's) position should be careful what they tell the hairdresser," the source said. "Hairdressers do not tend to keep secrets under questioning."

The group reputedly buys thousands of dollars worth of the illicit drug from a favoured dealer each week. Police did not set out to target the members of the group but have used them to set a trap for the "dealer to the stars", the source said.

"The coppers haven't spoken to him just yet but he is high on the list," the source said. "It's called arrest by appointment: he will soon be invited in to the major drug investigation unit for a cup of tea and a teddy bear biscuit."

"He will then either be charged or will help the police with their inquiries into the dealer. The way to put pressure on the dealer is to put pressure on his customers and get them to lag him in. The drug squad will get statements from the customers to nail the big guy."

The high-profile cocaine user will be faced with either giving evidence against the dealer or risking charges himself.

The investigation uncovered the existence of the luxury "love boat" revealed by this newspaper's Spy column last week.

The multimillion-dollar pleasure craft is used for weekend cruises on the bay to which selected "guests" pay up to $5000 for unlimited cocaine and sex with escorts. Current and former AFL players and media "players" are believed to be among those who have used the boat.

The police investigation is the latest episode in a turbulent fortnight for football following revelations about the extent of drug abuse among AFL players, a scandal kept under wraps until this newspaper broke the story over the past two weeks.

The uproar over the admission that Eagles star and Brownlow medallist Ben Cousins is dangerously addicted to "ice" (crystal meth amphetamine) has affected football followers from the cheer squad to AFL headquarters and the Prime Minister's office.

Prime Minister John Howard said on Melbourne radio last week he favoured "zero tolerance" towards all illicit drugs inside or outside sport. And AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou used the AFL's season launch on Thursday to promise support for Cousins and his family for the player's rehabilitation.

The media frenzy over the story prompted speculation that several other West Coast players were in a similar situation to Cousins. The manager of one West Coast player was so concerned at rumours that he took the unusual step of contacting the The Sunday Age to say that if any story were published about his client without "stat decs, video evidence and an affidavit from his mother" then he would sue for damages.

West Coast coach John Worsfold revealed yesterday that Daniel Kerr was one of up to eight Eagles players who had admitted taking recreational drugs.

"I would suggest that it would be half a dozen, maybe eight players, that have admitted they have used an illicit drug – but we are certainly not talking about drug problems," Worsfold said yesterday.

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Flying too high

Peter Lalor
The Australian
Friday, March 23, 2007

INVESTING in Perth's booming real estate and resources industry has created a new breed of millionaires in the west. They're cash-rich, asset-heavy and highly visible in the small and oppressively concentrated community. The most visible of all in this new money club of miners, traders, stock and property agents and sportsmen are Ben Cousins and his football mates. Especially Cousins.

Young, good-looking and loaded with money and talent, Cousins is a magnet for fellow millionaires as well as fans, flatterers, troublemakers and the media who are drawn to the same restaurants, nightclubs and bars.

Such is his pulling power West Australian commentator Denis Cometti once said you could sell 500 tickets to watch Cousins eat a sandwich. The West Coast Eagles have 44,000 paid-up members, 5500 on the waiting list and eyes on a new stadium that will blow that number out to 60,000.

To escape the glare, Cousins and his millionaire mates have even been known to catch private planes to far-flung parties before winging it back in time for training the next morning. The Eagles, as the club song says, "are flying high".

Cousins is a polite, intelligent young man who is, at least by day, engaging company. But even the most grounded human being cannot help but be affected by the daily overdose of adulation and attention. Being constantly feted as gods breeds a Caesar mentality, a sense of immortality and absolute power. And when things go wrong, someone else cleans up - or covers up - the mess. Someone else did this for Cousins up until his girlfriend and his club slammed the door in his face.

Cousins' natural reaction to living in this suffocating Big Brother house environment is to run. In February last year he bolted from a police breath test van, abandoning his $140,000 car at 12.15am on the Canning Highway in the riverside suburb of Applecross.

Showing the speed and stamina that landed him the Brownlow Medal the year before, Cousins shook eight policeman from his tail, running through a forest and across a river before arriving at the Bluewater Restaurant on top of a wooded hill. Breathless, shirtless and thirsty, he banged on the door and asked staff for a glass of water and to use the phone. A waiter opened the door and a murmur of excitement passed through the female staff as they took in his extraordinarily muscular physique before moving to the fresh, somewhat flushed face.

Of course he couldn't get away with it. He was, as he always is, recognised. "Are you Ben Cousins?" a staff member asked. "No," he replied. The interrogator would not give up and kept asking. "I'm his twin brother," Cousins offered without conviction. Within minutes the story began to filter out on the Perth grapevine, eventually making its way into the media.

Cousins could have and should have kept running. The player who can run with him in a game of football has not yet been discovered. Cousins is a man who cannot be caught by mortals. He runs until the lactic acid build-up in his blood is so great his system can't take any more. He can. He vomits, keeps running.

His opponents will be relieved that this week Cousins was suspended from the Eagles after months of rumours and innuendo. According to the rumour mill he has broken up with his girlfriend, Sam Druce, and gone off the rails. While it looked like a broken leg couldn't stop him on the field, it appears a broken heart has stopped him off it. But there's more to this than emotional turmoil.

West Coast chairman Dalton Gooding won't say exactly what is going on but told radio yesterday: "Ben has many private and personal issues that need to be addressed," he said, adding the 2006 grand final champion player needed "serious counselling". Coach John Worsfold says the problem is more than skipping training, Cousins has "other issues".

West Australian sports psychologist and academic Sandy Gordon says there are more factors at play than geography and the economy but concedes there is a pattern at theEagles.

"It's a boom town right now, the economy of the state is very healthy because of the mineral boom, and we are geographically isolated and to an extent that does create a goldfish bowl, which could explain some of the things that are happening," he says. "Young men have been doing this forever, they think they are immortal, but their lives can be snuffed out very quickly. A lot of the aggressiveness, the promiscuity, what I call narcissistic grandiosity in young male professional athletes has always been an achilles complex. Terminal adolescent syndrome has always been there.

"There are tremendous pressures from the entertainment industry that is professional sport and they are such that players can become slaves to it and lose themselves, and that's what I think could be happening to some players."

Cousins is not alone in being a turmoil and trouble magnet. WA police have long monitored his and his friends' associations with leaders of bikie gangs and known criminals. The club had been concerned but quiet as Cousins went on to win awards and the 2006 premiership. They wrote him a warning letter midway through last year and dropped him from the captaincy during the fall-out over the booze bus cross-country event. But things reached critical mass this week.

The Eagles have a core group of star players including Cousins, Chad Fletcher and Daniel Kerr, and until last year Michael Gardiner, who are as good on the field as they are bad off it. Last week it was revealed Fletcher was hospitalised for three days after apparently flat-lining in Las Vegas during an end of year trip with team-mates. At first his collapse and near-death were blamed on a reaction to a vaccination and later to alcohol, then a combination of both. There was talk of drugs, but his management claimed hospital toxicology reports would clear that up. The reports have never been released.

A few weeks earlier Kerr had two appointments in the local magistrates court. While awaiting an appearance over a drunken assault charge at a party, he allegedly became involved in a drunken assault on a taxi driver. Kerr was arrested at training. He apparently had become violent during a drunken visit to his girlfriend, who had collapsed at Perth airport. Everybody knows everybody in Perth and Kerr's girlfriend is the former girlfriend of former team-mate Gardiner. Kerr had earlier dated Cousins's sister and had broken Cousins's arm in a fight in 2002 at a club during that relationship. Gardiner transferred to St Kilda this year. His career at the Eagles came to an end after he wrote off his $60,000 car in the middle of the night. He had hit a light pole and caused $30,000 damage to two other cars.

Gardiner had been drinking with Cousins the night he was photographed and later arrested in Melbourne. Their underworld connections date back to 2001 and have resulted in them both being questioned by police and picked up on phone taps.

And every detail gets documented. "We have our one newspaper - I call it the 'West Australian Pravda' (The West Australian)," Gordon says. "They've got an army of journalists and they're eager for something to write about. Bad news sells and they are very hot on the button when things go wrong, but I don't think it's an overreaction. People are genuinely interested about Ben Cousins. The players are heroes over here and it could be that because they are so high-profile and they are the No.1 brand in WA that anything that goes on is front-page and back-page news. We have over 40,000 members for both AFL clubs who seriously identify with their clubs. Their websites are very active and the fans get to know their business and their personnel."

Cousins's problems have prompted comment from the WA Premier Alan Carpenter and, more tellingly, from AFL head Andrew Demetriou, who is determined to protect the integrity of his brand in a competitive market.

Francis Farrelly, an associate professor of marketing at Monash University who specialises in sport, says it can affect the bottom line.

"If bad behaviour is protracted, as it is at the West Coast, then it can have an effect on sponsors both at the team level and at the league level because it starts to become something beyond human frailty and it becomes something associated with that brand at the team level and the league level," Farrelly says. "It depends on how well it's handled because people realise sports stars are subject to human foibles like the rest of us but the AFL would be absolutely cognisant that this is a critical time on the sporting landscape of this country. Today you have genuine other options at the national level, like soccer."

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Scandal brings Eagle star to earth

Greg Denham & Elizabeth Gosch
The Australian
Wednesday, March 21, 2007

AFL bad boy Ben Cousins has been suspended indefinitely by the West Coast Eagles and may not play football at any level this season as the premiership club battles a raft of rumours about drug-fuelled parties and bad behaviour.

The wayward star was drug-tested on Monday after missing a morning training run and an afternoon weights session with his teammates.

Cousins, a Brownlow medallist and former captain, will not be permitted to attend West Coast's Subiaco Oval headquarters or his West Australian Football League club East Fremantle for the duration of the suspension.

West Coast chief executive Trevor Nisbett said yesterday he could not put a time on Cousins's earliest return to the elite level.

"It might be next season," Nisbett said.

Cousins has been in a highly emotional and sometimes hysterical state over the break-up of his relationship with long-time partner Sam Druce. Sources close to Cousins and the club are fearful his domestic problems could have contributed to his taking illicit and/or prescription drugs.

But insiders at West Coast insist Cousins has never recorded a positive test to an illicit substance.

Under the AFL's illicit drug code, neither the club, a family member nor the public becomes aware of any positive test until a third offence.

It is understood West Coast defender Daniel Chick and vice-captain Andrew Embley came to blows a couple of times yesterday over the club's decision to suspend Cousins.

Cousins has been staying at Chick's North Perth home for at least the past week. Chick and Embley were also reportedly involved in an altercation with Ms Druce last week.

Cousins was the standout player in the Eagles match against the Western Bulldogs on Saturday night, and he attended the match recovery session and jumper presentation on Sunday. However, he did not attend teammate Michael Braun's engagement party on Saturday night.

Cousins is the latest in a string of dramas and scandals involving Eagles players. Chad Fletcher almost died while partying in Las Vegas last year, and fellow Eagle Daniel Kerr has been arrested for drunk and disorderly behaviour. Former Eagle Michael Gardiner was sacked last year after run-ins with police and crashing his car after a drinking session.

Cousins's failure to turn up for training proved to be too much for his previously understanding club. Having failed to suspend the Brownlow medallist for his past sins – which include being arrested and running away from a booze bus – West Coast chairman Dalton Gooding announced that the star midfielder had been banished from the club until further notice.

"As a result of Ben Cousins breaching team rules by failing to attend training yesterday ... he has been suspended indefinitely from the West Coast Eagles football club," Mr Gooding said.

"We don't know why he didn't attend training, he just didn't turn up for training. That is a breach of the team rules and as a result of (him) breaching team rules on other occasions, we've decided to take this action."

Mr Gooding said Cousins had a number of "private and personal issues" to resolve before he could return to the club.

"Over the past few weeks, these issues have come to the surface and it's time for Ben to take some time to go away to try to tackle his personal and private issues head-on," Mr Gooding said. He refused to comment on whether the issues were drug, alcohol or relationship-related or whether Cousins was involved in a police investigation.

West Australian police said they had not been involved in any complaint regarding Cousins from the past weekend. But the spokesman said he could not rule out any continuing investigations into Cousins's off-field actions.

Cousins signed a multi-million-dollar deal with the Eagles late last year, contracting him to the club until 2009.

The recommendation to suspend Cousins initially came from coach John Worsfold.

It is understood the four-time club best-and-fairest winner has been unable to be contacted several times recently by West Coast, but that he has spent some time back at the family home with his parents.

"Ben was forewarned, and it was probably the third or fourth time he's been a no-show at training in the past few months," Mr Nisbett said.

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One big night too many

Caroline Wilson
The Age
Wednesday, March 21, 2007

THE AFL's most invincible party boy yesterday finally fell to earth.

West Coast's Ben Cousins, whose career has been decorated and now damaged by his on and off-field highs, learnt his life at the top had come to an end in a searching conversation with coach John Worsfold.

Cousins, 28, whose substance-abuse problem had become an open secret in the football community, has been suspended by the premiers in an atmosphere of acrimony and finger-pointing that has spread from the players to the club's board and administration.

The official reason for Cousins' ejection was that he twice failed to attend Monday training.

The truth is that the 2005 Brownlow medallist and four-time club champion finally ran out of lives.

In recent weeks, he has broken up with his long-time partner Samantha Druce, a break-up that was not necessarily the catalyst for his latest meltdown, but came as a result of it. So desperate are Cousins' personal problems that his emotional state is dangerously fragile.

Eagles chairman Dalton Gooding at a press conference yesterday stopped short of saying Cousins had had a mental breakdown.

Cousins was drug tested at the club on Monday and told of his punishment by a devastated Worsfold and the club's football lieutenant Steve Woodhouse.

The news did not come as a surprise to Cousins, who seemed to expect it.

Although he was suspended and not sacked, there was a genuine fear among shattered club officials last night that Cousins might never play again. West Coast is reported to have urged him to seek rehabilitation, potentially over an extended period at a facility, a suggestion Cousins' family has been subtly pushing for several months.

There was a suggestion his father Bryan Cousins, once a star player with Geelong, has been disappointed in the club's failure to address the Eagles' cultural problems and issues with illegal drugs.

The issue seems to have precipitated angry altercations between two of Cousins' teammates, Andrew Embley and Daniel Chick, in recent days, acrimony that resulted in Chick storming from the club yesterday after an argument with assistant coach Peter Sumich.

Cousins had briefly moved home with his family, which had become increasingly concerned with his dangerous lifestyle. But he returned to the home he shared with Chick — whose fast lifestyle has also become an issue for the team.

What should have been a happy weekend for the club — most players attended a party thrown by teammate Michael Braun on Saturday and the jumper presentation took place on Sunday — instead turned to scandal when Embley and his wife Rayne accompanied Ms Druce to Cousins' house.

Embley, best-on-ground during last year's premiership victory and who has admitted to being a reformed heavy drinker, clashed with Chick. The fight continued at the club on Monday and spilt over again yesterday.

Tensions have spread through the club following comments made by Mr Gooding on last week's Footy Show in which he admitted a minority of players at the club had a drug problem.

Significantly, AFL boss Andrew Demetriou, a close friend and former business associate of Mr Gooding's, yesterday referred to West Coast's "cultural problem" — the closest the AFL has come to discussing drug use and abuse among the team which has included the highly addictive amphetamine known as 'ice'.

Although West Coast has always angrily denied that Cousins had serious problems — his underworld connections drew the ire of former coach Ken Judge and 13 months ago he lost the captaincy after running away from a breath test and turning up disoriented at a restaurant — there have been indications for some months that his fast life and desperate times were finally spinning out of control.

At Christmas, several weeks after Cousins' monumental bender in Melbourne had seen him pass out near Crown Casino and later arrested, the footballer's family reportedly delivered an ultimatum that he clean up his act.

Demetriou said the radical move by West Coast — which says it will not pay because he has breached team rules — was not precipitated by any AFL pressure or the club think tank next month designed to deal with the issue of illegal drugs.

"He's missed training repeatedly and he's had a number of personal issues. I think he's genuinely got serious issues. He and others have been given ample time to get their act together and now their club has taken a stand."

The problem for the AFL — apart from the obvious issue of the drug culture which appears to have disproportionately infected some of its clubs — is the chilling fact that the most successful team in the competition has so openly flaunted its ongoing alcohol and substance abuse.

West Coast may have been woefully inept at dealing with the club's off-field issues and yet it has clearly succeeded in overseeing its champion team's on-field form and discipline — a paradox that has sent the message that you can, in some cases, take drugs, party hard, break the law and still win premierships.

While Demetriou did not say as much there will be one school of thought at the top of the AFL hierarchy that will see Cousins' downfall as a cautionary tale, a message to all elite footballers that even premiership-winning Brownlow medallists cannot get away with a lifestyle as fast and loose and dangerous as the one Cousins has been leading.

It is a lifestyle that was not his alone and one that Cousins' football club had failed to influence in any meaningful manner. In recent years the West Coast has seen another star midfielder in Daniel Kerr repeatedly in trouble for drug, alcohol and violent offences along with former ruckman Michael Gardiner, with whom the club finally lost patience last season.

Gardiner, whose form and injury problems deemed him expendable, is now at St Kilda.

And yet even after the addled Kerr's assault on a taxi driver last month, the club failed to suspend him after Worsfold declared a $5000 fine was the correct punishment for the repeat offender, who several years ago had even fought with Cousins during a violent late-night dispute.

The club has offered several explanations why Chad Fletcher almost died after collapsing in Las Vegas at an end-of-season players' trip and yet it has failed to address the substance abuse that punctuated the Vegas holiday.

Mr Gooding, who finally admitted he did not know why Fletcher collapsed, said yesterday he was equally in the dark regarding Cousins' failure to attend training. If Cousins, Kerr and the recently departed Gardiner are repeat offenders, there is an equally disturbing pattern in the club's failure to address its social problems.

Tomorrow night, the AFL will hold its annual official launch in the knowledge that its drug problem is no longer an open secret but a public scandal that has brought down one of the game's greatest champions.

It will also suspect there is more to come.

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Fletcher holds off over key report

Craig O'Donoghue and Jake Niall
The Age
March 19, 2007

THE toxicology report that can clear Chad Fletcher's name is no closer to being produced after the West Coast midfielder yesterday refused to say whether he would authorise its release.

Last week, Fletcher's manager, Colin Young, told The Age that toxicology reports proved that his client did not have illicit drugs in his system when he was taken to hospital during an end-of-season trip to Las Vegas in October.

But, despite the Desert Springs Hospital saying the report could be released within minutes once Fletcher authorised it, the information is yet to be disclosed.

Yesterday, Fletcher would only answer "we'll see" when asked whether he would be prepared to release the information, while Young failed to return calls.

In November, Fletcher said he was taken to hospital after an allergic reaction to a yellow fever injection, but club chairman Dalton Gooding said last week the incident was alcohol-related.

In a further development, West Coast yesterday denied it had banned news media from the change rooms after Saturday night's loss to the Western Bulldogs because drug testers arrived at the club.

Several journalists received a text message at half-time, stating that no players would be available for interview after the match and, unlike every other week, no media would be allowed access to the rooms. Photographers were also banned.

The Eagles are bracing for a barrage of drug tests as a result of Gooding's admission on Thursday night that the club had an illicit drug problem.

An Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority spokesman would not say whether any Eagles were tested on Saturday night.

Eagles media manager Gary Stocks said the authority did not test anyone after the match, and the decision to ban the news media was made before the game.

West Coast coach John Worsfold again refused to talk about his team's off-field problems, and walked out of his post-match news conference as soon as a question about the issue was asked.

The Bulldogs revealed yesterday they would hold a round-table conference late this week or early next week to formulate a new club policy for illicit drugs. It would include players, officials and coaches.

Club president David Smorgon said he believed clubs had a right to know if a player had tested positive. Under the present policy, only the club doctor can be told until the third strike.

"Yes, I think we would like to know," he said. "We're very fortunate. We think we've got a very good group of players … but we're also aware that we've got 40-odd players on the list and what goes on in society we'd be foolish to close our eyes to it, think that some of our guys might not be vulnerable to it.

"We as a club – and again, this is just my own personal view – we would like to know if any of our players have been caught doing this, have tested positive. We as a club would like to know because we think that should be part of the remedial process, if you like.

"We're not doing this because we've got concerns about our players. We're not aware of any of our players having any issues, but (we are being) proactive, given in particular the West Coast situation and the fact there were 24 players now that have been announced as being drug positive. We think as a club we need to do perhaps more than we've been doing.

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Love, tears and fond memories farewell Ron Evans

Rohan Connolly
The Age
Saturday, March 17, 2007

As one-time secretary of the ACTU, Bill Kelty could rub shoulders and butt heads with prime ministers and captains of industry alike without so much as raising a sweat.

But the prospect of enjoying a simple bite to eat with a couple of his boyhood football heroes one day in the late 1970s left the union heavyweight and now AFL part-time commissioner a nervous wreck.

One was Essendon centre half-forward Ken Fraser. The other was Bomber full-forward Ron Evans, whom more than 1000 people crammed into St Paul's Cathedral yesterday to honour in a moving, often uplifting and at times plain funny funeral service.

And it was Kelty and Fraser, a friend of the AFL Commission chairman for the past 51 years, who were there to deliver two heartfelt tributes, along with AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou and Evans' son David, to a consummate football administrator, business executive and family man, who died from cancer last week, aged 67.

The crowd, as you might have expected, was a veritable Who's Who, and not just of the football world. There was Premier Steve Bracks, and his predecessor, Jeff Kennett. Former Victorian governor John Landy. Eddie McGuire. John Elliott. Lord Mayor John So. And so on.

There was a full list of AFL commissioners past and present. Coaches including Kevin Sheedy, Neale Daniher, Mark Thompson and Alastair Clarkson. And up to six rows of former and current football greats. They heard James Morrison play Amazing Grace on his trumpet. Soloist Danielle Calder offer a beautiful rendition of Wind Beneath My Wings.

Kelty produced one of the biggest laughs when he recalled the "twitch in the stomach" at meeting the Bomber stars, even as an adult, and long after his idols had hung up their boots.

"I remember Ron kicking 10 goals once against Hawthorn. I could hardly wait to get to school the next day to talk about Ron Evans kicking 10 goals. But it was school holidays, I had to wait for a week or two," he said. "But I still talked about Ron Evans. But at Brunswick State School there weren't very many Hawthorn supporters so we had to track 'em down. And we found them.

"You didn't think I loved Ron Evans and Ken Fraser. I read all about them. When Ron kicked five goals against Carlton, that really counted in Brunswick."

Fraser recalled having first met Evans when they played suburban football together for St John's Baptists, and immediately noticing the same traits his friend carried with him through a lifetime: integrity, honesty and decency.

It was he who in 1957 introduced Evans to another schoolmate, Andrea, with whom he was "immediately smitten" and with whom he would spend the rest of his life.

"Each Saturday night, after a hard day's effort on the football or cricket field, Ron would get on his trusty Malvern Star, and pedal the eight kilometres, mostly uphill, to Strathmore, to take Andrea to the pictures, or a social function, with strict instructions to be home by midnight," Fraser recalled.

"Come midnight, Andrea's dad would repeatedly flick on and off the porch light, to let her know to come inside, and to let Ron begin his lengthy bicycle trek home."

An emotional Demetriou, for whom his chairman became a mentor, said Evans had "redefined leadership for all of us touched by him".

And had been a calming influence particularly for the occasionally fiery AFL boss. "I sat with him many times at meetings," he said. "Things would be getting tense, and he would pass a note to me with two words scribbled across it: 'Don't speak'.

"Other times, he'd just kick me under the table."

But for all the testament to his sporting and negotiating prowess, the most poignant moments centred around Evans the loving husband, father of three and grandfather of eight.

Through Andrea's recitation of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poem, How do I love thee? . Through a video tribute which left nary a dry eye. And through the words of his son David.

"I said to Dad last week that at 42 years of age, I still find the safest place in the world to be snuggled into his shoulder. When I was a kid, we used to lay awake waiting for the sound of his car on the driveway gravel, knowing that when he was home, everything was going to be all right.

"This week, I've found myself listening for that sound again. I think I always will."

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Lockout of world media
may be blow to AFL's image


Jacquelin Magnay
The Age
Friday, March 16, 2007

THE AFL has locked out the international media from covering all its games this season in a bizarre attempt to allow an agency closely connected to the league to make money from photo sales.

But the World Association of Newspapers, which represents 18,000 publications in more than 100 countries and includes major wire agencies such as Agence France-Presse, the Associated Press, Reuters and Getty Images, has threatened legal action.

It said the restrictive media accreditation system breached several international conventions and raised questions about editorial integrity.

Only domestic media representing major news organisations in Australia have been given media accreditation. Domestic news agency AAP is allowed to take photographs, but is not allowed to sell them to websites, books or magazines.

The AFL wants to control the release of images from its matches by having the new photo agency AFL Photos take and sell the images to overseas agencies and for any commercial sale. This gives the AFL control over the type of images released. It could mean a restriction of controversial shots but also result in more images featuring prominent advertising.

For instance, of 100 photos listed by AFL Photos, only two were available of a long spiteful brawl in last weekend's Hawthorn-Fremantle clash.

"No longer will there be unbiased pictorial reporting, merely a form of controlled marketing," World Association of Newspapers chief executive Timothy Balding said. "Instead of continuing with the worldwide customary practice of allowing fair and open editorial reporting of sports events, the AFL has granted exclusive photographic coverage and syndication rights to a single, closely related sub-contractor."

Geoff Slattery, an author and long-time publisher of the AFL's journal, the Record, won the AFL photo rights after expressions of interest were called for last year.

He is a close friend of AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou and regularly writes his speeches and news releases.

But Slattery denied the AFL had any editorial control over the photos. "No editorial control is implied, suggested or ordered in the contract I have with the AFL," he said. "There is no censorship."

Slattery said AFL Photos operated from within AFL House but on a separate lease with the AFL. He said the scarcity of brawling photos from Saturday was because the photographer was on the far side of the field. Slattery thought there was "sour grapes" from Getty Images, which had held the AFL photo contract.

Getty Images Australasia vice-president Stuart Hannagan said he had no issues with the AFL taking the commercial side of the photographic business in-house.

"What is disappointing is the editorial side and it is not in the public's interest and definitely not in the sport's interests to lock out the world's media," he said.

AFL communications manager Patrick Keane said Demetriou had not seen the World Association of Newspapers correspondence. In the letter, Balding said the association was concerned the AFL was taking an "unprecedented step of turning its back on news media".

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Club blames alcohol for Fletcher collapse

Michael Gleeson
The Age
March 15, 2007

WEST COAST premiership player Chad Fletcher had drunk himself into a stupor but had not taken drugs when he passed out and spent three days in hospital in Las Vegas over the summer, according to his manager.

Furious that his client had been identified as having collapsed from a drug overdose, player agent Colin Young said he was seeking legal advice to sue media outlets over the claim.

Fletcher has been accused of "flat-lining" in hospital after collapsing from a drug overdose.

Young said that medical documents and toxicology reports from when Fletcher was treated in the US hospital proved he had no traces of a drug in his system other than alcohol.

"There is absolutely no evidence to make that claim (he was on drugs). It is factually incorrect," Young said.

"He had been drinking and as far as other footballers being there, there was no one else there other than one other player.

"I am with lawyers now and we are looking at what avenues are open to us."

Adding to the intrigue over Fletcher's collapse was that when asked about it in December the 26-year-old said that he had had an allergic reaction to a yellow fever vaccination for a planned trip to Mexico.

Eagles chairman Dalton Gooding supported Young's version of events, claiming Fletcher had not taken drugs but had been drunk.

"Chad Fletcher did get sick in Las Vegas on a private players trip," Gooding said. "We understand the sickness was alcohol-induced. He spent three days in hospital and the club is completely denying that there were any drugs involved."

Gooding said he could neither confirm nor deny that Fletcher had "flat-lined" in hospital and needed to be revived. He added that neither Fletcher nor the club had been misleading by suggesting that the collapse was due to an allergic reaction.

"If that (illness) involved an alcohol-induced triggering of an allergy to a vaccination we don't see that is misleading," he said.

Under the illicit drugs testing regime the AFL has the power to target test individuals or clubs it suspects of taking drugs.

AFL football operations manager Adrian Anderson said yesterday the league's medical officers had target-tested in the past and would continue to do so. He would not say which clubs or individuals had been targeted or would be targeted.

AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou said the league would use any intelligence received about player drug abuse to instruct the doctors to target-test.

"If you're a player out there who thinks that they can beat the system you will be caught," he said. "We have available target-testing, if we've got any information, we will target-test.

"If anyone's got any information that relates to an incident in Las Vegas or wherever, they should come forward and they should name names and they should tell us what they know. If we think it's of a serious nature we'll act upon it."

Swan coach Paul Roos, whose team will play the Eagles in round one, said yesterday he was "99 per-cent" sure substance abuse was not a major problem among his players.

"It's an obligation of the club to pursue these things and find out if they are a problem," Roos said. "Can I be 100 per cent sure? No. Can I be 99 per cent? Yeah, I think so. We have 48 players here and I believe we are doing everything we can as a footy club."

Roos said his faith in the club's leadership group was one of the reasons for his confidence. "With the younger guys, you're not out on the town on a Saturday night with them," he said. "But if one of the players was going to get himself into trouble, you feel confident a Jude Bolton would be on hand to tell him not to do it."

However, Roos said he believed a senior coach should be informed of any positive tests, not just the third as is currently the case. "As a coach, you want to be seen as the leader of men," he said. "I think it would reflect very poorly on you as a coach if someone in your group got to three strikes."

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AFL clubs set new financial goals

Louis White
The Australian
Thursday, March 15, 2007

FOR 20 years Michael McCall has visited the Sydney Aussie Rules Social Club regularly, sitting at the bar drinking with his mates.

McCall, who adopted Sydney as his home after 23 years in the navy, has seen a lot of changes in Kings Cross, and some of them are not to his liking, such as control of his favourite watering hole shifting to the Sydney Swans.

"On a match day, the locals get upset because AFL is on every channel and we like to watch rugby league," McCall says. "We either leave or stay and barrack for the opposition.

"After all, we are the ones that come in everyday, not just when the AFL footy is on."

The AFL is a commercial beast – a fact highlighted by this week's push to control photo rights for the code – and AFL clubs are looking for new revenue streams.

The Swans are expected to announce a $1.5 million profit on a $30 million turnover for 2006 today, a substantial increase on the $282,000 profit made on the $28 million turnover for the 2005 season.

The extra revenue can be attributed to increased sponsorship deals, merchandise sales and a growing membership after the 2005 premiership, but premierships can't be won every year.

"The bane of every football club is that your revenue is linked to your on-field performances," Sydney Swans president Richard Colless says.

"It is important that you are in a position that if you have a lean year or two – as the AFL draft is set up to ensure – you have additional revenue from non-football sources."

The Swans are hoping that the registered club, soon to be a licensed club under new legislation, will finish its $7.5 million makeover (paid for by the landlord, ING Real Estate) in August.

It will comprise three levels offering a restaurant, bar, private function room and gaming and outdoor balconies and is expected to turn over about $9 million annually, of which the Swans are banking on a $2 million profit.

In Melbourne, the Collingwood Football Club is well into a financial diversification that will make it Australia's richest sporting club.

"There is not enough income from football-related activities to generate profits," Collingwood chief operating officer Eugene Arocca says.

"We currently have four hotels and are buying a fifth. They are strategically placed throughout Melbourne and we expect to obtain between $4 million and $5 million revenue a year on the three hotels we own outright with net profits of about $1 million a year from each."

Collingwood recorded a $2 million profit from $44 million turnover in 2006.

This is a far cry from 1999, when the club was turning over between $13 million and $14 million a year and languishing near the bottom of the ladder.

Collingwood, however, is not prepared to rest on its laurels. It already has the highest revenue in the AFL and is looking to boost that even more in 2007 with an estimated $51 million turnover, rising to $100 million in 2011.

"The aim is to turn approximately 10 per cent of that revenue into net profit," Arocca says. "The good thing is the revenue will continue to grow but the football department costs won't increase as much.

"At the moment we are in the top two or three in the AFL for spending in our football department."

Across Port Phillip Bay at Geelong, chief executive Brian Cook is taking a vastly different approach – renting out the club's executive suites to telemarketers from Monday to Friday.

"So far, the telemarketing has brought in an extra $500,000 in revenue," Cook says. "We gain an extra $3 million in revenue from non-football activities through gaming, food and beverage facilities, functions and special events, such as auctions."

The Cats, which made $300,000 profit from $28 million turnover in 2006, have established the Geelong Cats Foundation as a separate entity. This has generated revenue of $2 million revenue in the past three years, but the only money the club can receive is interest from the foundation.

The AFL's draft system means in theory that each club should spend a year in the top eight and a year outside the top eight, as the bottom clubs get to select the best players each year.

Most businesses don't have to contend with such even playing fields, but of course some will always buck the trend.

The West Coast Eagles have not only won three premierships in their 20-year history (and back-to-back flags this year will result in a bonus of $1 million from the AFL), they have also made the finals in all but three of their years in the competition.

The Eagles also have a very healthy balance sheet, recording a $4.6 million profit on a $38 million turnover in 2006. The club has, however, almost reached the limit of its ability to attract additional turnover as sponsorships and memberships are full, home grounds almost always sold out and functions are used to the maximum.

"We are now investing money (about $1 million) in Commonwealth bonds and top 50 ASX share companies," chairman Dalton Gooding says.

"We are waiting on the state government task force to decide whether Subiaco Oval will be demolished or increased in size.

"Even when that recommendation is made on March 31, it will take another three to four years or so to either build a new stadium or redevelop Subiaco Oval.

"So, we have to look at alternative ways of raising revenue."

West Coast and Fremantle are in the unusual position, like the Adelaide Crows and Port Adelaide, that the licence is held by the state's peak football body and therefore pays money to the licensee.

The West Coast Eagles' arrangement results in the club paying profits back to the Western Australia Football Commission every year.

"Initially, we were giving them 80 per cent of our profits but we renegotiated that so they get 70 per cent of the first $1 million, 60 per cent of the second million, and 50 per cent thereafter."

Other AFL clubs have tried playing more games away from home, and Hawthorn has signed a lucrative $15 million five-year deal, involving the AFL and the Tasmanian Government, to play four home matches each year in Launceston. The Kangaroos will play 10 home matches at the Gold Coast for the next three years, and the Western Bulldogs will play two home matches in Darwin.

The jury is still out on whether locals such as Michael McCall will be pushed aside by the new crowd or whether it will be just him and his mates sitting in the bar during the summer months.

"If the Swans operate it at the same level as it has been, it will be a haven in Kings Cross," McCall says. "But as long as I have my seat at the bar I'll be happy either way."

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Drug abuse, shady dealings rampant among football's finest

Andrew Rule
The Age
Sunday, March 11, 2007

ELITE footballers are young, rich and often act as if they are above the law, but they are not invincible. A high-flying AFL premiership player learned that the hard way last spring when he nearly died in an American hospital.

The strange circumstances surrounding a super-fit professional athlete being revived after "flatlining" is a story most football insiders know — but none talk about it publicly.

"Mate, it's right, but they'd hang me off the grandstand if I went on the record," a respected former player and official told The Sunday Age. "It's such a small world, football."

Like several other well-placed sources who confirmed the story, he made it clear that the game's unwritten code of silence was in this case reinforced with corporate spin and implied threats of reprisals against anyone who broke ranks.

The perceived risk of lawsuits has smothered all but the most oblique references to the mysterious medical emergency that could have ended with the player coming home in a coffin. Instead, he spent several days in hospital before being able to travel — and did not rejoin his teammates.

There are potent reasons for such an explosive scandal to stay "in club". The AFL and its 16 clubs have much at stake: multimillion-dollar sponsorships could evaporate if the lucrative AFL "brand" is damaged with one burst of bad publicity. And publicity could not get much worse than exposure of what really happened in that Las Vegas hospital five months ago.

On the record, players and club officials go along with the club's cryptic explanation dismissing the incident as a routine medical matter. Off it, insiders have told friends and relatives their man overdosed.

It fits a pattern of misbehaviour by AFL players and a tendency for clubs to cover up for those considered too valuable to lose — at the expense, sometimes, of lesser lights axed to protect sponsorships and the game's lucrative brand image.

The spectre of substance abuse hangs over the Las Vegas episode as it hangs over other strange incidents — the arrest, for instance, of Geelong's Steve Johnson in Wangaratta this year after worried householders called police when he staggered into their yard late at night and allegedly tried to drink from a bottle of suntan oil on their patio.

Then there is the weird behaviour of Carlton's Brendan Fevola in attacking an Irish barman, recently eclipsed by Eagles midfielder Daniel Kerr's bizarre late-night attack on a Perth taxi driver outside a hospital where he had taken a friend from a nightspot after a sudden bout of illness. Kerr is unlucky like that — his girlfriend was already in hospital after suffering a seizure.

Kerr's erratic lifestyle is notorious even in a city where footballers' excesses are mostly forgiven by adoring fans, some of whom run AFL clubs. The sort of fans who supported Brownlow medallist Ben Cousins when he left his car on a busy highway and bolted to avoid a booze bus — and when he was found unconscious near Melbourne's casino after another long night.

A young woman who went out with Kerr has told close friends she was shocked because he could not remember where he was — or who he was sleeping with — after he woke from "a big night".

Kerr asked her one summer night to pick him up from a party where he had been involved in a fight. When she arrived he looked at her blankly and said, "Who are you? Are you my lift?" She stopped seeing him after that.

Another regular at Perth's nightspots said Kerr "is constantly out of it and makes no secret of it. He sits around in bars and slurs his words. He doesn't recognise you from one day to the next."

One of Kerr's teammates narrowly escaped being caught in a police raid on the Red Sea bar on December 16 last year, where he had been drinking with members of the Coffin Cheaters bikie gang.

A well-known former Eagle was close to a champion dubbed "the Cocaine Kid" — and shared his taste in drugs.

"Girls I know used to go around to his house and he would be snorting coke off the coffee table," the woman said.

There was a sinister element to the big man's edgy lifestyle: neighbours saw people visiting him at all hours and were relieved when he moved out.

For all their on-field success, the Eagles have the worst reputation for drug and alcohol-fuelled misbehaviour. Other clubs have troubles — some of them inherited when they take on problem players "released" by original clubs — but the Eagles are notorious for flying too high.

"Drugs are rife at West Coast," a former club official declares. "At first the club didn't want to believe it. Now they say, 'Our blokes do it but they're no worse than any other club'. They are kidding themselves."

One cocaine-using player told him more than half the team were "into it". Worse, at least two club stars were "into the super, whizzbang stuff" so heavily that their supplier gives them other drugs to mask the effects of post-game binges. The supplier, he says, is a supporter keen to trade A-list "party" drugs to rub shoulders with A-list players. The person is not, as some might assume, well-known Perth identity John Kizon, though Kizon's socialising with players has long caused heartburn for the club.

West Coast was warned about the Kizon connection in 2001 when a police source told the club of taped conversations linking Brownlow medallist Ben Cousins and the since-disgraced Michael Gardiner with underworld figures. (Gardiner was sacked by the Eagles after causing a high-speed car crash while drunk.)

The charismatic and calculating Kizon, a convicted heroin trafficker and former boxer from Fitzroy, was a friend of the late Alphonse Gangitano — he flew to Melbourne to be a pallbearer at his funeral after Gangitano was shot in early 1998 — and is close to the powerful Coffin Cheaters gang.

In Perth he is admired by some, feared by many. It was inevitable he would make contact with local heroes the Eagles. Gangsters and stars often find each other.

In grand final week 2001, police saw Kizon meet Gardiner and Cousins at the Crown Casino complex; the three drank together at Fidel's Cigar Bar later that night.

Despite warnings, the two players did not distance themselves from Kizon; they were seen drinking with his Melbourne friends after an Eagles-Carlton game in early 2002.

The Carlton connection is interesting. The Moran family, which lost three members in Melbourne's underworld war, was closely connected to Carlton for three generations.

One of the Blues' great finals players reputedly played under the influence of drugs — "his eyes would be rolling around like mad", recalls a contemporary — and later became a dealer among younger players. He saw a Carlton player at a nightclub during the finals in the late 1990s and, while commiserating with him for being dropped from the side, slipped the embarrassed player some drugs. He is still reputed to deal to players and is not the only one.

Three years ago, Carlton recruits Laurence Angwin and Karl Norman were exiled from AFL football for turning up to a morning "recovery" session under the influence of ecstasy. Angwin now plays in Cairns, Norman in country Victoria.

Carlton is quick to discredit Angwin's claims that AFL players in Melbourne introduced him to ecstasy. "There would have been eight blokes (Carlton players) there that day who wouldn't have passed a test. Five out of the nine in the leadership group couldn't make eye contact with us when they called us in because they'd been out with us," he said.

Angwin's point is backed by a former AFL coach of impeccable character and high standing. He tells the story of a Crows star (with reputed shady connections) taking a fishing tackle box on a team trip. Inside were not hooks and sinkers, just dozens of brightly coloured pills. Drugs.

That might disappoint some club officials, but it won't shock them. They are now coping with a relentless rise in drug use and clubs are getting nervous.

There already is a quiet move to reverse the collateral damage done by the push against drinking. A former coach says some clubs are quietly reviving the practice of having a few drinks after a game, just like the old days.

But it's hard for some to go back after walking the wild side. One All-Australian player who made too much of his days in the sun boasted to a club official: "You haven't lived until you've had (a beauty queen) snort coke off your d---." The beauty is doing well, the player's career is in ruins.

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Tributes for servant of Australian football

Chip Le Grand
The Australian
Saturday, March 10, 2007

BUSINESS, football and political leaders are mourning the death of former AFL chairman Ron Evans, one of the country's most influential and respected sports administrators, who died yesterday morning at age 67.

Mr Evans joined the AFL commission in 1993 and served as its chairman from 1998 until last month, when he retired due to the effects of stomach cancer.

In his time as chairman, he oversaw the continued growth of the AFL from its provincial, Victorian-based roots into an aspiring national football code watched and attended by more people than any other sports competition in Australia.

Before that, Mr Evans was a leading goal-kicker for Essendon and the club chairman responsible for opening the Bombers' horizons beyond its suburban base at Windy Hill.

Prime Minister John Howard described Mr Evans as a "a friendly, engaging man who had an infectious love of Australian football".

Seven Network chairman Kerry Stokes, who first met Mr Evans when the latter moved to Perth to play football, expressed a "deep sense of personal loss".

Former Victorian premier and Hawthorn president Jeff Kennett paid tribute to Mr Evans's "outstanding commercial career", most notably as managing director of major catering company Spotless Services Limited and as a director of Country Road.

"He brought his extraordinarily high standards and values to his leadership of the AFL in such a way that all of us within the code have been the beneficiaries," Mr Kennett said.

The growth of Australian football under Mr Evans is reflected in record AFL attendances of 6.28 million people in 2005, an increase in club membership from 442,815 in 1998 to 519,126 last year, and nearly 600,000 registered players at all levels.

Over the same period, AFL matches have been played in Darwin, Canberra and Launceston; Sydney, Port Adelaide and Brisbane have won their first premierships; and subsequent broadcast agreements worth a combined $1.22billion have underpinned the sport's financial future.

Those who worked closely with Mr Evans yesterday spoke of his integrity, fairness and dignity.

AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou said Mr Evans would be remembered for his strong values, best reflected in the league's stance against racial vilification and, more recently, sexual harassment.

"Ron wanted the best for football but he also wanted to achieve the best for the community and for all stakeholders," Mr Demetriou said.

"Anything that involves social values, leadership in the community, raising public awareness about issues some others would deem not to tackle; they were terribly important to Ron."

Collingwood president and Nine Network chief executive Eddie McGuire said Mr Evans's social awareness had a "profound effect" on football.

"Instead of going to football and having drunks throwing cans and screaming obscenities, we have a racial vilification code and an improved social standing," said Mr McGuire, who described Mr Evans as a friend and mentor.

"There are so many more people exposed to the game and it is such a far better game."

Mr Evans is survived by his wife, Andrea, his sons, David and Richard, his daughter, Deanne, and their families. A funeral service will be held on Friday at Melbourne's St Paul's Cathedral.

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Farewell Ron Evans, a man of integrity

Caroline Wilson
The Age
Sunday, March 11, 2007

Mike Fitzpatrick later this month officially will become the fourth chairman in the AFL's 17-year history, a job and responsibility he will confront with relish and few preconceived ideas. Fitzpatrick is no shrinking violet.

He is neither an uneasy nor under-confident man and, like Ron Evans and John Kennedy before him, his physical presence and football pedigree will afford him a great head start.

It remains a sad reality that Fitzpatrick has won the job prematurely due to the death of Evans, a loss Fitzpatrick describes as "a tragedy" as well as – in a purely practical sense – untimely.

Frankly, said Fitzpatrick, it would have suited everyone on both a personal and practical level had Evans remained at the helm of football for the next five years – or at least the next three, as pretty much everyone had planned.

The incoming chairman became a commissioner less than four years ago knowing he was the heir apparent, but hoping that his time would not come so soon because of his own considerable business commitments.

Fitzpatrick admired the way Evans handled the commission, and significantly, the manner in which he handled the not-always-easy-to-harness chief executive Andrew Demetriou.

The new chairman's professional demands remain considerable. As you read this, he is en route to London for a board meeting via a stopover in Perth for the annual West Australian Football Hall of Fame dinner, and he will be back in time to pay his respects to Evans on Friday.

"Life," he commented two days ago, "doesn't always work out the way you plan it."

And while Evans' death at 67 has robbed him of his retirement years and perhaps another two decades to watch his grandchildren – eight at last count – grow up, in football terms, Evans was a meticulous planner as he was in business.

In 2000, after Ian Collins resigned as the AFL's football operations manager, Evans became uneasy that one section of AFL factionalism was on the verge of taking control.

The chairman and his close friend and commissioner Bill Kelty had no problem with Brian Cook, the man who had been earmarked to replace Collins, but felt strongly that Cook's appointment was part of a concerted push outside Victoria, the AFL's heartland.

Kelty believed Demetriou, then the chief executive of the newly powerful AFL Players Association, had acted with integrity in his dealings with the competition during the negotiation, which resulted in the historic collective bargaining agreement of 1999, and both he and Evans liked Demetriou's style. They saw him as an obvious successor to Wayne Jackson.

So the pair went outside the head-hunting process and took Demetriou to lunch and quite simply asked him to do the job.

It took a matter of days for Demetriou to officially accept but there is no doubt in his own mind he had won the job over lunch and the course of the AFL had changed.

Similarly, when Evans asked Fitzpatrick back in 2003 to join the AFL Commission, he made it clear that he saw Fitzpatrick as the next chairman.

Despite his humility, charm and kindly demeanour, Evans was a tough negotiator, a meticulous planner and a decisive leader. Having sat with him over the past five years on the Australian Football Hall of Fame selection committee and wrestled with dreadful decisions such as the Gary Ablett conundrum, I witnessed his quiet control and subtle decision-making skills first-hand.

We clashed over a number of issues and stories. The difficult early days of the previously named Colonial Stadium tested the relationship, when The Age constantly questioned the AFL chairman's conflict of interest – National Venue Management, which was a wholly owned subsidiary of his Spotless Group, won the original management and catering contract at the stadium now known as Telstra Dome, and to say there were teething problems with NVM would put it mildly.

At the end of 2000, a tumultuous year for the AFL, Evans communicated his thoughts as he did so often via a letter in which he concluded, as he had done so many times since by saying: "While I do not always agree with what you write, I always admire the way you write it."

Evans seems to have died with only one regret – that he had to leave so soon. He died knowing the game he loved was thriving and in our last conversation, which came in the midst of a particularly debilitating series of cancer treatments, he conducted an enthusiastic review of the 2006 grand final some months after the event.

And he died believing his greatest achievement, despite his considerable business success, was his family. You can't ask for any more than that. I didn't always agree with you, either, Ron, but I always admired the way you ran your work and your life.

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VFL has role to play, says local footy boss

Stephen Rielly
The Age
Friday, March 9, 2007

THE chairman of AFL Victoria, Bob Tregear, said yesterday the VFL must continue to play a role in the 10 Victorian-based AFL clubs even if substantial change were required to the existing system.

Tregear conceded that the gap between the VFL and AFL had widened to a point that it had begun to fail the interests of both.

But he said that the idea of effectively replacing the VFL as the second tier of the game with an AFL reserves competition was not necessary.

Setting up an AFL reserves competition is one of a range of options the AFL's game development department has begun to put to the wider football community as part of a review of second-tier football across the country.

The project is expected to be concluded by the end of this year.

To date, 14 of the 16 AFL clubs and the likes of AFL Victoria have been asked to consider, among other things, the merits of a national AFL reserves competition, a 12-team eastern seaboard reserves competition and a 10-team Victorian-based league. All would, for example, involve a return to larger list sizes and a diminution of the relevant state leagues.

It is understood that several Victorian clubs have expressed enthusiasm for a national reserves competition. But even more have supported a stand-alone Victorian competition that would give back to the AFL clubs total control of the welfare and development of their players but marginalise the VFL to the point of threatening its existence.

Western Bulldogs coach Rodney Eade was one yesterday who encouraged the creation of some form of AFL reserves competition.

But his counterpart at Adelaide, Neil Craig, said he would prefer that South Australia kept the arrangement in which his players, and those of Port Adelaide, were farmed out to the clubs of the SANFL.

"We are very lucky in this state to have the SANFL because of the quality of the competition it is," Craig said.

"Our players go back to an environment where clubs are serious about playing and winning football. I think we have the best situation in our own backyard in Australia. If we lost that, to me, it would be a disadvantage for us as an AFL club and I think it is an advantage that both we have and Port have."

The AFL disbanded its Victorian reserves competition 12 years ago in an attempt to establish through alignments with VFA-VFL teams a clear second tier of the game that it was hoped could straddle the gulf between elite AFL football and the game at a community level.

According to Tregear, boss of the body that controls Australian football at a state level, that expectation has been only partly met and changes were required but not so radical as to see the VFL disappear.

The interests of the AFL, he said, were not necessarily those of the game itself. "We've got a very strong commitment to our VFL clubs. They've come a long way with us over the last 12 years. We're in a much better situation than we were 12 years ago."

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AFL toys with plan to bring back reserves football

Stephen Rielly
The Age
Thursday, March 8, 2007

THE AFL is exploring the idea of creating a national reserves competition, a league that would replace the various state-based competitions as the second tier of the game and involve a return to the days of "firsts" and "seconds".

The option, one of several being examined as part of a review of the relationship between the AFL and the competitions closest to it, would be expected to increase list sizes to a minimum of 55 players.

It would sever the alignments that have existed, in Victoria for example, between nine of the state's 10 AFL clubs and the VFL since the demise of reserves football a decade ago.

Fourteen of the 16 AFL clubs have been briefed on the national reserves competition proposal and several other alternatives, including the idea of an eastern seaboard reserves competition and a stand-alone Victorian reserves competition that would effectively relegate the Victorian Football League to third-tier status.

The AFL Victoria board was briefed on Tuesday night, with other state bodies, principally the SANFL and WAFL, to whom Adelaide, Port Adelaide, Fremantle and West Coast farm out players not selected for a senior game, to be consulted next.

The impact an AFL reserves competition would have on the profile and quality of the WAFL, SANFL and VFL is expected to produce serious opposition to the idea from all three leagues.

While the consultative process is far from complete – the review is expected to continue through much of this year and is unlikely to have any changes introduced before the 2009 season – it is understood that several AFL clubs have indicated enthusiasm for the creation of a national reserves competition.

But more of the Victorian clubs have expressed interest in a 10-team Victorian league.

Either way, all have endorsed the idea of doing away with the farm system and of reclaiming or, in the cases of the South Australian and West Australian sides, gaining total control over the welfare and development of players from draft day onwards.

David Matthews, the AFL's general manager of national and international development, said the reintroduction of reserves football was being considered as the code looked to how it might satisfy its need to grow and develop.

"It's a second-tier review we're conducting because we're keen to review the structures of football below the AFL competition and how appropriate they are for the development of the game," Matthews said.

"It's a national project, not one concerned with state boundaries, that we hope will serve the game across the country for the next 10 or 20 years at least."

One of the appeals for the AFL of a reserves competition, either national or state based, is the access as many as 200 or more players could get to the elite AFL system, a figure far beyond any other elite sport in this country.

"We promote pretty heavily at the moment that the AFL offers 640 jobs for elite athletes at an average salary of $200,000. So in theory, that would allow us to offer even more opportunities than we do against other sports. That said, the AFL competition still has to be elite," Matthews said.

But the likelihood of change is being sold to the clubs on the grounds that the widening gap – financial and otherwise – between the state leagues and the AFL is starting to fail them both.

"There's a bottom-up perspective, which is how clear and how good is the pathway for a talented young player coming up through the system?" Matthews said. "There is also a top-down perspective, which is from the AFL competition's position, that asks how well are we meeting the needs of AFL clubs who want to develop their listed players and how and in what environment are we going to meet their needs?

"We then need to ask: can we make structural improvements across Australia or do we need to look at different structures to service our future needs?"

1 – Present model remains or does so with minor changes.

2 – A 10-team Victorian-based AFL reserves competition.

3 – A 12-team eastern seaboard AFL reserves competition including Brisbane and Sydney.

4 – A 16-team national AFL reserves competition.

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Football's changing landscape

Greg Baum
The Age
Wednesday, February 28, 2007

THE football landscape in Melbourne is unrecognisable from 25 years ago; only Kevin Sheedy is unchanged. Then, there were 12 Australian football clubs in a competition called the VFL, which was contained within Victoria. Soccer was a sectional interest, and its peak competition barely visible. The rugby codes had no presence to speak of.

Now the outlook is much more ecumenical. There are 10 Australian football clubs jostling to hold their own in a competition expanded to include all other mainland state capitals. Some are held together by television money and stubbornness, and one – the Kangaroos – is edging towards the door.

There is also a rugby league team that seems after eight years to have found its niche, and a suddenly and phenomenally successful soccer team.

But there is still no elite rugby union team. How the Australian Rugby Union must hang its head as it beholds Melbourne Victory's rise and reflects on its timid decision not to put a Super 14 team in Melbourne for fear of taking on the AFL in its stronghold. It was an underestimation of the size of Melbourne's sporting heart.

If the past two years especially have had a seismic effect on this landscape, what upheaval will the next 25 years bring? Immediately, the probability is little. The AFL's five-year, $780 million television deal guarantees the survival of even the most penurious Melbourne club.

If the Kangaroos move to the Gold Coast, the reason will be as much strategic as financial. The AFL is concentrating its efforts on south-east Queensland and the western suburbs of Sydney, population growth centres both. It wants to fortify its beachhead in Queensland and establish one in Sydney, where recruiting has dried up.

The AFL ought to beware the disgruntlement of the Melbourne clubs, who after six years without a premiership between them feel that the dynamics of the new competition conspire against them. The league says it is all too conscious: having equalised finances and players lists, it intends to make sure that all clubs have equally plush facilities.

Typically, an AFL club needs turnover of $25 million, compared with $15 million for Storm and $8 million this year for Victory. Twice, the television networks have bid each other up outrageously for the AFL rights, effectively subsidising struggling clubs. But a third war is improbable. In a more austere future, the viability of the cluster of Melbourne clubs again would become an issue.

No one in any code imagines that the AFL will lose its primacy in Melbourne any time soon. But it will have increasing company.

Melbourne Storm took a long time to dispel the idea that it was no more than an interloper. It won a premiership in only its second year, but somehow always seemed to survive only at the pleasure of News Ltd, its owner.

Last year, that might have changed as Storm won the minor premiership, and lost the grand final narrowly. More in Victoria watched that final on television even than in Queensland, home state of the victorious Broncos. Storm says it is more soundly placed than it might seem here, since it is so widely exposed in big markets in NSW and Queensland, guaranteeing sponsorship.

Rugby union eventually must set up elite shop in Melbourne, but it will not be in the near future. The strength of the Super 14 competition, contested by clubs from three countries, is also its weakness: change must be negotiated between three countries, and so is slow and delicate. Rugby union has missed the boat.

Soccer has the greatest potential for growth, but historically is also the likeliest to tear itself apart. The A-League has made a flying start. Its TV deal – $130 million over seven years – pales by comparison with the AFL, but so do its costs. Forty per cent of those through the gate in the A-League's first season had not previously been to a club game in Australia. Most are young; some inevitably will become rusted on.

Played in the summer, the A-League is more immediately a competitor for cricket than the other football codes. Cricket authorities acknowledge it.

Crucially, soccer, unlike other codes, does not lie fallow in its off-season. This year, there will be the Asian Cup and other plum Socceroos fixtures, the Asian Champions League for two Australian clubs, and for devotees, the European club competitions. Soccer never again will be out of sight and out of mind.

In Melbourne, Victory enjoys massive goodwill just now. It is bound to dilute, since another season as triumphant as this is improbable. That no longer matters as the claim of club and game has been staked as never before. A corner has been turned.

But expansion is a tricky issue. For three years, there can be none anyway. Beyond that, Victory strenuously opposes the idea of a second club in Melbourne, fearing it will re-open the sort of ethnic divides that blighted the sport previously and so sour the gains. It thinks the A-League should be looking to Canberra or north Queensland.

Others see Victory's stunning success and think there is plenty of it to go around. At least two consortiums are forming up in Melbourne. NSW is already replete, with three A-League teams, and it is improbable that Football Federation Australia would look to a provincial town in Victoria rather than the capital. A second Melbourne club seems inevitable, at some stage.

At the elite level, there is time and room for as much and many types of football in Melbourne as can survive financially. The AFL, A-League and Super 14 seasons are off-set. Ideas cross-pollinate between codes. Anecdotally, about half of Melbourne Victory members are also members of AFL clubs, and some of Storm, too.

Few see competition between codes as ideological any more. The competition from without – others sports, cinema, video games – is greater.

But in the longer term, a battle for hearts and minds is unavoidable in Melbourne. There are many more football matches, played by more footballers, in more codes, but not proportionately more people to sustain this growth.

Sensing this, the AFL has spent much time and money this decade researching what appeals to fans and making changes suitably, though acknowledging that what fans like most – contests and uncertainty – is what coaches detest most. Rugby league likes to think it also has become a more appealing game aesthetically. Soccer's image has grown with its popularity, anyway; it is the chic code.

All are investing heavily in junior development. The AFL spends about $90 million. Because of this, a season of Auskick costs $40 – backpack included – compared with several hundred to join a junior soccer club. The AFL's strength and weakness are one and the same: as the indigenous game, it offers rich and plentiful chances here, but lacks the broad, glittering horizons of soccer.

Soccer has well-established grassroots, much cachet just now and fast-growing appeal in private schools. The rugby codes have minimal junior club structures and are working to improve those, as well as promoting their games in schools. Union enjoys considerable favour at the top end of town, which aches for a club to call its own.

In 10 years, prospectively, there might be eight AFL clubs in Melbourne (including Geelong), two elite soccer clubs, Storm and, belatedly, a Melbourne Super 18 team. And, of course, Kevin Sheedy.

Back to the Diary

They can't handle the truth

Phil Gould
Sun-Herald
Sydney, Sunday, February 24, 2007

THE AFL document – Next Generation: Securing the Future of Australian Football – is one of the most impressive documents I've seen in my time in sport.

From a league man's perspective, it's also one of the scariest. Reading the AFL's plan for the future, I was jealous.

The detail and transparency shown in the intended allocation of funds by the AFL after its record broadcasting rights deals shows the code is very much on the move (see separate story).

The AFL has read the landscape well. It has seen the rise of football over the past two years and realises the world game is about to get stronger.

The AFL has also witnessed how rugby union and rugby league have handled their TV riches.

Rugby has failed, miserably, at the grassroots and the development pathway for kids to Super 14 is now alarmingly inadequate.

The game is like an inverted pyramid; everything at the top, precariously balancing on little down below. Rugby is desperately trying to play catch-up and is buying league backs at high prices to keep itself competitive at the representative level.

League has failed to make the necessary investments in the future.

Sadly, the game seems to be shrinking in so many ways. Ask people at the grassroots how the game is faring. It will survive but great opportunities have been missed.

The AFL is independent. The AFL Commission has spent eight months consulting clubs, players, state and territory bodies, supporters and those developing the game at introductory levels.

John O'Neill, the former highly successful rugby and football CEO, recently described the AFL as the sporting monster of Australia and likened it to the NFL in the US. Now that's a title I would've liked for league.

Parramatta CEO Denis Fitzgerald came out during the week to bag me after I, and others, dared to question the NRL over its bungled rights deals. Now he might win a few goody points with the bosses at News Ltd but it won't help the game.

You see, it's this head-in-the-sand, I'm-OK-Jack-attitude from people like Fitzgerald that have kept the true fans of the game in the dark and allowed other codes to make tremendous inroads.

Those of us who highlight the injustices and problems in rugby league don't do it for cheap thrills (well, certainly I don't).

My motivation has always been with the best long-term interests of the game at heart, and to highlight to those interested in the game that we need to keep the custodians of the code honest.

Over the years this column has campaigned for the return of South Sydney and the Gold Coast, changes to the salary cap, rule changes, judiciary changes, a national under-20s competition and plenty more.

And despite protests at the time, the NRL has managed to eventually move on most of these things.

But without raising these issues in publications like The Sun-Herald, what, if any of these changes do you think would've occurred?

The custodians of the game should expect to be scrutinised and, on occasions, they should accept constructive criticism.

The fact that any criticism seems to be met with hostility should alarm all with an interest in the game, particularly when the facts raised by the critics are not challenged, only the personalities raising them.

You see, not every man, woman and child the AFL touches will be able to play Australian rules at the highest level.

But every person the AFL touches can be influenced to become a fan.

Their kids become fans, too. They go to games, watch TV, buy merchandise, support sponsors and some even become sponsors.

If the AFL continues to earn greater money from broadcasting rights and sponsorship, if the AFL's development and exposure continues to grow, and if the AFL experience is more rewarding for fans, the AFL will take people away from other codes.

The same goes for football. Have you seen the crowds at games?

Have you realised how much press the game is now getting?

If you think the AFL looks well organised, let me tell you football is a time bomb.

League may well be trying hard, but is it doing all it can?

You see, I don't have to criticise the NRL. I just have to point out what other codes are doing and let you be the judge.

I love the game and do whatever I can to promote it.

But don't expect me to be intimidated by people who don't want the truth to be heard.

uuuu

The Phil Gould article was accompanied by the side-bar ...

Wow! it's scary
The AFL has outlined how it intends to "secure the future of Australian football". Any sport can come out with warm and fuzzy policy speeches but the AFL has backed it up cash – and plenty of it.

The AFL reports it will enjoy a total cash resource of more than $1.4 billion over the next five years. AFL clubs will get $650 million of this, each receiving $28.1 million over five years plus $1.2 million each year to finance increased player payments.

More than $6.1 million will be spent annually to support financially disadvantaged clubs. Another $69 million will be allocated from AFL Supporter Memberships based on the club he supports. More than $200 million will be spent on development; another $100 million will be used to accelerate the game's growth in NSW and Queensland. There's $334 million to administer and $65 million to improve facilities.

An AFL Futures Fund will receive $82 million to protect the game from unforseen circumstances and this money will be used to invest in long-term assets. The AFL hopes to own Telstra Dome in Melbourne by the year 2025.

Now that's a plan! The NRL has brought nothing and still pays rent for their head office premises at Fox Studios.

Friends, I'm only skimming the surface here. Grants to the AFL Players Association will increase to $59 million – during this period. Among other things, this will fund medical insurance costs, players' post-career needs and a hardship fund for former players.

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Carey bounced as callers line up

Michael Bodey
Herald Sun
Thursday, February 22, 2007

One of the AFL's strongest television performers, Wayne Carey, does not have a TV commentating role for the 2007 season.

The former North Melbourne captain has not been approached to re-sign with Fox Sports, which will confirm its roster of commentators for the pre-season NAB Cup competition today.

Former Fox Footy identities Clinton Grybas, Gerard Healy and Jason Dunstall will return to head the subscription TV channel's coverage with Dwayne Russell the only recruit from Nine.

And they will work hard, with Fox Sports opting for one play-by-play caller only, supported by two special comments callers. Insiders suggest Fox Sports will use the pre-season coverage to test a number of new callers, including recently retired players Alastair Lynch, Glenn Jakovich, Rohan Smith and Leigh Colbert and former Richmond coach, Danny Frawley.

Liam Pickering, David Parkin, and Tony Shaw return to the team while Matthew Campbell, Jason Bennett and Kevin Bartlett have been dumped in AFL's move from Foxtel's owned and operated Fox Footy to the separate entity, Premier Media Group's Fox Sports.

Carey's absence is the biggest surprise. He was widely seen as 2006's most-improved talent, his incisive comments and willingness to tread where many former players dare not venture, making him Fox Footy's hottest property. His manager, Anthony McConville, admitted the lack of interest from Fox Sports or new AFL broadcaster, Seven, was strange.

"Nothing's been arranged and at this stage Wayne's committed to 3AW and 5AA with radio," McConville said. "Wayne has other commercial interests he wants to pursue, so he doesn't need the work as much as those other guys, so he's not that concerned about it."

Carey's turbulent private life continues to haunt him although Fox Sports will not comment on reasons behind its decision to cut their ties with a player who joined Foxtel before Fox Footy was even established. One commercial rival was amazed Fox Sports chose not to re-sign Carey while another suggested Carey's personal life would only have hurt his career years ago, if at all.

Seven has also sprung something of a surprise, confirming it will use the same commentary team for both its Friday night and Sunday afternoon telecasts. The team, which debuts tomorrow night, will be led by the country's two best callers, Bruce McAvaney and Dennis Cometti with David Schwarz and Tim Watson providing special comments and former player and now physiotherapist, Ricky Olarenshaw, providing medical assessments from the boundary.

Seven's head of sport, Saul Shtein, said his use of one team across the weekend is logical. "They're the best team, why would I want to change it?" he said. "I'd rather five fantastic guys than 10 average ones."

Local personalities Basil Zempilas and Chris Mainwaring in Perth, Chris Dittmar and Chris McDermott in Adelaide and Jim Wilson in Brisbane are also likely to be used during the season proper.

Network Ten, which has secured this year's Grand Final after a coin toss, has added triple-premiership captain Michael Voss to its team, replacing Stephen Silvagni. It is expected to maintain its 2006 line-up: Anthony Hudson, Michael Christian, Tim Lane, Stephen Quartermain, Malcolm Blight and Robert Walls.

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Boundary, goal umps to give free kicks

Mark Stevens
Herald Sun
Thursday, February 22, 2007

Nine umpires will have the power to award free kicks in Sunday night's Melbourne-Hawthorn NAB Cup clash in the AFL's most adventurous trial.

Four field, three boundary and two goal umpires have been given the green light to blow the whistle in a one-off trial at Telstra Dome.

In the ground-breaking trial, a goal umpire could penalise a forward such as Melbourne's David Neitz for a push in the goalsquare.

A usually anonymous boundary umpire will also have the right to butt in and penalise an offending player within a range of about 20m.

The AFL tested the concept in a practice match in March last year, but at that stage said it had no plans to take the idea to the NAB Cup.

In a quantum leap into the national spotlight, the league has for the first time decided to trial nine whistle-blowers in the NAB Cup game, which will be televised live on Fox Sports.

AFL football operations manager Adrian Anderson confirmed the move last night, describing it as a "multi-skilling trial".

"The umpires performed well last year, but this ramps it up a level," Anderson said.

"It's just about seeing whether this might provide a way of improving umpire accuracy in the future."

The extra umpires can deliberate on a push in the back, high contact, holding the man and incorrect disposal such as throwing the ball.

There will be a particular focus on stoppages, with boundary and goal umpires handed the power to crack down on off-the-ball scragging.

"There will be an extra set of eyes at stoppages," Anderson said.

Off limits will be what the AFL terms "interpretational decisions" -- such as holding the ball and deliberate out-of-bounds.

The AFL has made it clear the extra umpires' traditional roles must take precedence over any other on-field events.

The same umpires who deliberated in last year's trial at the Western Bulldogs-St Kilda practice match at Princes Park will be on show again.

"They have been trained and skilled up by the umpires' coaches," Anderson said.

Anderson said there was "no magic" behind the decision to choose the Hawks and Demons as guinea pigs.

He said singling out a game in Melbourne at Telstra Dome suited logistically.

"The coaches have been informed and they have been very helpful and positive about getting the trial up and going," Anderson said.

Anderson said the feedback from last year's low-key trial was positive from both the competing teams and the umpires.

Although only one decision was made by an extra umpire, the AFL believes the added sets of eyes acted as a strong deterrent.

After the game last year, both coaches Rodney Eade (Western Bulldogs) and Grant Thomas (St Kilda) said they would be happy for further trials to continue.

Anderson said there were no plans at this stage to trial the system again in the coming practice match series, but did not rule it out.

The AFL trialled four field umpires in the NAB Cup for the first time last year.

This year, the league will trial the use of three boundary umpires.

Anderson last night said two boundary umpires would cover one side of the ground and one the other.

A rotation system will ensure the boundary umpires share the load.

Goal and boundary umpires have traditionally had the power to report, but have never had the chance to adjudicate on free kicks.

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Man of vision at heart of AFL's big picture steps down

Patrick Smith
The Australian
Tuesday, February 20, 2007

You could paint the AFL under the influence of Ron Evans easily enough. It would be a big picture, a bold picture. Soccer's growth in two years has been rightly celebrated, for it has been fast and stunning.

But it is a charcoal sketch to the AFL's Blue Poles.

Evans will step down as chairman of the AFL at next month's annual meeting. He has been battling cancer. It has not been a skirmish but a war.

Mike Fitzpatrick will become the new chairman. The former Carlton captain is a successful businessman and the most sensible choice as Evans' successor. He will find there is much to do, for Evans pushed the league vigorously in all sorts of directions.

In announcing Evans' decision to step down, the AFL tabled the competition's progress and successes under its chairman of nine years. It listed 13 points and every one of them is significant.

Evans was a commissioner who pushed the AFL into Telstra Dome. Before the league's intervention and support it was going to be a rectangular stadium. Now it is home both to AFL and soccer and the AFL will soon own the keys to the door.

Evans' commission had to wean AFL supporters from the league's sterile oval at Waverley. It was a traumatic separation.

Sydney's Olympic stadium was reconfigured too, so the AFL could play in the biggest facility in NSW. Half of the MCG was rebuilt and now there might be no better stadium in the world.

AFL teams have pushed into Tasmania and the Gold Coast. Brisbane, Port Adelaide, Sydney and West Coast have shared the last six premierships. The indigenous code might not be the national sport, but it is the national game.

Nearly 6.3 million went to an AFL game in 2005 and clubs never had as many members as they did last year. Nor did football clubs around the country have as many players as participation reached record levels.

The league has had confrontations over racial vilification, illicit drugs and gambling. But these are challenges the AFL actively sought, for it led sport when it regulated the code in these social issues. It has an awkward policy on respect and responsibility towards women but it has one nonetheless.

The future of all clubs is under-pinned and guaranteed. To televise AFL football for the next five years you had to fork out $780million.

To name just these achievements is to cherry pick the AFL list released yesterday. But as expansive and detailed as it is, the list does not detail the most important Evans legacies. Integrity is one, dignity is the other.

The AFL is so big and rich that it can shove this way and that and not care much about who is hurt. It is the nature of football administrations. The instinct is to tackle rather than talk. And the AFL has an administration that is so keen to succeed it appears perpetually frisky.

It has meant the AFL has often lurched but it has never fallen. Evans has always been there to pull it back, finding solutions by looking for what was right, fair and appropriate. And never what was expedient. Thus deep cuts have been sutured, running sores been healed.

There will be challenges ahead for the AFL at every turn for nothing is easy in the entertainment market.

That the AFL had to stand by for 12 months and watch its broadcast partners squabble before it could settle its TV schedules is proof enough.

Soccer's renaissance means every sport will have to fight harder now to woo the country's best talent. This is not the concern for Evans now and yesterday he asked that his family's privacy be respected. Having stepped aside last September he will step down in March.

The chairman always said the responsibility of any sporting administrator was to ensure he left the game in a better condition than he found it. Evans can rest easy there.

So it falls to Fitzpatrick to take the AFL into the future. He has been on the commission since 2003. He is very lucky. With Evans in the chair, no understudy has had a finer, fairer leader to follow.
__________

With Evans' departure, the AFL commission now consists of eight members in Fitzpatrick, Bob Hammond, chief executive Andrew Demetriou, Colin Carter, Bill Kelty, Chris Langford, Graeme John and Sam Mostyn.

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Tribunal review
Bans for high shirt-front


Len Johnson
The Age
Saturday, February 17, 2007

THE "big hit" has not quite been banned from AFL football, but its use has been severely restricted under changes introduced after the annual review of the AFL Tribunal.

The fact that the front-on bump to a player deemed to have his head over the ball will be a reportable offence already had been foreshadowed, but the AFL moved further in making players liable for contact to the head or neck even in delivering an otherwise legitimate bump.

So a "shirt-front" bump that involves any contact above the shoulder line is also liable to draw a suspension.

AFL football operations manager Adrian Anderson said yesterday that the strong hip-and-shoulder bump still had a place in football, but it was no longer an excuse for players to say they executed a bump in a legitimate manner if the contact still resulted in injury.

"It's still fine to execute a legitimate hip-and-shoulder bump – that is here to stay as part of the game," Anderson said.

"But if a player suffers an injury to the head or neck from a bump and you had other options, then you will be held responsible."

Anderson justified the changes for their potential in reducing the likelihood of injury. "If (the changes) result in one player being saved from head or neck injury at AFL of junior levels, it is justified."

Had the new guidelines been in place last year, Western Bulldog Daniel Giansiracusa would have faced a rough conduct charge for his bump on St Kilda's Justin Koschitzke, a collision that knocked out the big Saint and left him with a skull fracture. So, too, would Collingwood Alan Didak for his heavy bump on former teammate Heath Scotland in the match against Carlton.

The demerit points for the two offences have been jacked up, as well. The front-on bump attracts the same points as kicking. Points for rough conduct have been increased to be on a par with those for kneeing an opponent.

If a charge had been laid against Giansiracusa under the new guidelines, it probably would have attracted 425 demerit points, a four-game suspension at face value. That would have come down to two with an early plea given his five-year unblemished record.

Other changes will mean any contact with a player's groin receives more severe punishment. The minimum points for a level-one offence have been increased to 80 to ensure a player cannot avoid a suspension for two level-one offences in the one year unless he has a five-year clean record.

GETTING TOUGH ON THE BUMP

Front-on bump with head over the ball-demerit points

LEVEL 1 – 125 (previously 75) = 1 match (previously no suspension)
LEVEL 2 – 250 (125) = 2 matches (1)
LEVEL 3 – 400 (225) = 4 matches (2)
LEVEL 4 – 550 (325) = 5 matches (3)
LEVEL 5 – 750 (550) = 7 matches (5)

Other bumps to the head or neck
A definition has been added as follows: "A player shall engage in rough conduct which in the circumstances is unreasonable where in bumping an opponent he causes forceful contact to an opponent’s head or neck."

Increased points allocation for rough conduct and charging

LEVEL 1 – 125 (75)
LEVEL 2 – 225 (125)
LEVEL 3 – 325 (225)
LEVEL 4 – 425 (325)
LEVEL 5 – 550 (425)

Protection of groin region
A new category will be introduced for contact to the groin region, which will now carry the same weighting as contact to the head. Tougher sanctions for bumps that connect with the head, neck and groin.

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Head rule strikes at injuries

Chip Le Grand
The Australian
Saturday, February 17, 2007

The AFL has a simple message to footballers amid the complex changes to its reporting and tribunal rules: if you bump a player in the head, you will be responsible for the consequences.

This means that Daniel Giansiracusa would have been suspended for last year's skull-fracturing hit on Justin Koschitzke, Alan Didak for his head-high shepherd on Heath Scotland and Byron Pickett for his shoulder charge on an unsuspecting Ryan Crowley which left the young Docker with a broken cheekbone.

The laws governing body contact have been altered substantially. Under a new rule, it is a reportable offence to bump a player from front-on when he has his head down over the ball. In a revised definition of rough play, any other forceful bumps to the head or neck are reportable.

The exception to this is if a player did not have a "realistic alternative" to contest the ball, or to tackle or shepherd in a more reasonable manner.

Once players are reported for head-high bumps, the penalties will be stiffer, with an increase in the points allocations for rough conduct and charging offences. Put these changes together and it is clear the tribunal will have no more tolerance for head-high contact.

Of equal importance is the new onus this places on players. Whereas footballers previously believed that a hip-and-shoulder bump was legal so long as they kept their elbow tucked in and didn't deliberately target an opponent's head, they are now being told that whoever does the bumping is ultimately responsible for serious injuries that occur.

Collingwood chief executive Greg Swann said "justice was served" last year in the cases of Didak, Pickett and Giansiracusa because none of them intended to hit his opponent high. This year, bumps which cause fractured skulls and broken jaws are no longer accepted as part of the game, irrespective of intent.

A footballer's duty of care to other players, a concept well established in the AFL, has been written into the weekly deliberations of the match review panel. The amended definition of negligence, for the purpose of grading offences, is "if the relevant conduct constitutes a breach of the duty of care to all other players".

"There is nothing wrong with a good hip-and-shoulder but the onus is on the player who bumps to do so legitimately," AFL football operations manager Adrian Anderson said yesterday.

"Players have a duty to avoid significant contact to their opponent's head or neck wherever reasonably possible.

"I have no doubt these rules will cause players to be more cautious in circumstances where serious head or neck injury could result."

Anderson said the AFL had been influenced by a submission from its medical association that more had to be done to protect players from serious head and neck injuries.

So where does this leave the shirtfront, that rib-rattling feature of a more brutal football age? While the new rules have not announced it unequivocally dead, it is difficult to envisage many circumstances in which players can bump front-on, with sufficient force to flatten an opponent, without risking contact to the head or neck.

There will still be confusion and heated debates about what is lawful and what is not.

The AFL has provided a six-point guide for the match review panel when considering whether a player had a realistic alternative to shepherd rather than bump. This will be welcomed by the panel but history has shown that such detail can be a double-edged sword. For instance, one point the panel must consider is the distance run to effect a bump. This merely begs the question of what distance is reasonable.

Match review chairman Peter Schwab said the changes would not alter his view of last year's career-ending collision with Brisbane's Tim Notting that left Collingwood's Blake Caracella with a fractured neck and damaged spinal cord.

Notting slid dangerously into a prone Caracella but had the defence that he was going for the ball. Schwab cleared Notting at the time and still believes it was a "terrible accident", an assessment backed by Anderson.

"Football is a body-contact sport and unfortunately there will always be some serious injuries in football," Anderson said. "We can't eliminate injuries. (That) was a pure accident, with the player going for the ball, and that would not change in 2007."

In other changes to tribunal rules, the Barry Hall "in-play" defence has been formally stricken from the record and contact to a player's testicles will be treated with the same severity as contact to the head.

Where Hall, on the eve of the 2005 grand final, was able to expose an anomaly in the definition of incidents in play and behind play, this has been removed from considerations.

The AFL has also clarified its treatment of attempted strikes, kicks and trips. None will attract a suspension for a first offence.

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TV pays top rating NRL half as much as AFL

Roy Masters
Sydney Morning Herald
Wednesday, February 14, 2007

"THE devil is in the detail" is a comment made often recently by football administrators and broadcasting chiefs when referring to TV rights income.

Well, a devil with a long tail and a very sharp pitchfork seems to have it stuck up the rear end of the NRL as he grins wickedly at the detail tucked away in reports last week of Foxtel's commitment to the AFL.

Foxtel will pay a Seven/Ten consortium $315.5 million over five years for the four live games it will broadcast each week for 22 rounds. That computes to $717,045 per game. Compare that with the $42m per year Fox Sports pays the NRL direct for five live games a week over 25 rounds: $336,000 per game.

AFL doesn't rate on pay TV. Of the top 100 programs of all types on pay TV last year, 73 were rugby league. The NRL had eight in the top 10, with a South Africa v Australia one-day cricket match second and the Bledisloe Cup (on Seven and Fox Sports) ninth

The AFL had one game lower than the movie Star Wars 3: Revenge of the Sith, at 89th, with a couple of games in the 90 to 100 bracket. Yet, the AFL receives more than twice as much as rugby league, which supplies three-quarters of the top 100 programs.

Furthermore, Foxtel is paying much of the money to an organisation it loathes - Channel Seven, which, along with Ten, exercised a first and last option to secure the AFL rights for $780m. Meanwhile, Fox Sports is paying the money to an organisation with which it has a cosy relationship - the NRL. Paying someone you hate twice as much for the same amount of action is a strange way for bedfellows to act.

Perhaps there is a clue in the ownership of the organisations. Fox Sports is half-owned by News Ltd, which half-owns the NRL. Foxtel is a quarter-owned by News Ltd, which has no equity in the AFL. In other words, News' exposure to the extra costs of buying the AFL is less and it has little clout at the AFL Commission when deciding the rights.

Relations between the AFL broadcasters, already tense, are set to escalate over coverage of Swans matches. Under the terms of the AFL agreement, Swans matches must be shown live or near-live into Sydney, meaning more than half their games will be broadcast simultaneously on Foxtel and either Seven or Ten.

"If we do a deal, it's going to be a tortured five years," a senior Foxtel executive said before the deal with Seven/Ten was struck.

NRL chief executive David Gallop rejects the notion the NRL is underpaid by pay TV, pointing to the devil in the detail of the AFL deal.

Of the reported $315.5m Foxtel will pay Seven/Ten, Gallop argues a significant proportion is advertising and production costs, while all of the NRL money quoted is cash.

He points out the NRL receives an additional $12m from New Zealand, which should be factored in, making rugby league on pay TV worth $432,000 a game.

Broadcasting sources indicate that of the average $63m a year Foxtel pays Seven/Ten, $13m is contra, with Foxtel paying $45m and Austar, the satellite service which takes the Foxtel signal to the bush, chipping in $5m. In other words, pay TV's cash commitment to AFL per year is $568,000 per game.

OK, the monetary gap is less but what about the disparity in ratings? Gallop argues the AFL ratings refer to the period of the old contract, where Foxtel was given the worst three games of each round. Further, he argues that it had to pay more for it. However, in February 2004 poor take-up figures for AFL meant that those games were absorbed into the general Foxtel package.

"We also have to face up to the fact they are a national sport, while all our clubs are on the eastern seaboard or Auckland," Gallop said. "They are also bigger, with their biggest club crowd being 52,000 and ours 30,000. The Swans are bigger in Sydney than the Storm in Melbourne."

Still, some of the suits at NRL headquarters were hoping the AFL would be forced to broadcast all eight games on free-to-air to expose the myth the game now dominates the nation. They argued if Channel Seven had been forced to screen its Friday night AFL game live in opposition to two NRL games on Nine, ratings would be so low the AFL would be red-faced and Kerry Stokes's network in the red. Ditto if Seven had shown the AFL's Sunday twilight game in Sydney and Brisbane.

The losses from broadcasting in prime time into NSW and Queensland would have eroded the revenue made in the south. "A big part of me wanted AFL on prime time in Sydney and Brisbane so they would get horrendous ratings and have to admit their boast of dominating the nation is misplaced," one NRL hard-head said.

Now, with Channel Seven screening the match of the round live into AFL territory and Foxtel showing it in NSW and Queensland, Seven gets its ratings and pay TV gets its subscriptions.

Gallop takes a contrary view, saying: "It would not have been ideal for us to have AFL exclusively on free-to-air TV, despite the opportunity for us to dominate the ratings in NSW and Queensland. An eight-game level of exposure would have been a concern."

It certainly would have a massive impact on rugby league in the bush. Of relevance is the high cost of hotel subscriptions to Austar, which increased its fees by 130 per cent last year, pushing up the price by $350.

That's a big rise for publicans serving drought-ravaged farmers with less money in their pockets. Austar reports an increase in hotel subscriptions since the AFL deal with Foxtel was announced.

After all, if a hotelier in the Riverina was to pay $950 to Austar for rugby league fans to watch Fox Sport's NRL Super Saturday, the prospect of showing all eight AFL games free might have tempted him to cancel his subscription. Now, with four live AFL games on Austar, along with five NRL games, an Austar feed is mandatory for any hotelier seeking to satisfy his customers at the weekend.

"The possibility exists an Aussie Rules drinker may even be converted to rugby league," ARL chief executive Geoff Carr said. "Publicans now have multiple screens, meaning that even on a Saturday night, when the NRL on Fox Sport is up against the AFL on Foxtel, both games are likely to be available."

Pay TV executives are notoriously secretive when releasing ratings of football matches, meaning it will be difficult to determine whether pay TV viewership on AFL justifies the fee paid.

There has to be a message in Foxtel's decision to abandon its charge for a separate footy channel. Perhaps it is the historical expectation of AFL fans they will get their game on TV for free or the difficulty of broadcasting a game where the ball jitterbugs about.

It certainly doesn't rate on pay TV compared with a game played on a rectangular field, with the opportunity for the camera to focus on the play-the-ball every 20 seconds or so.

"Rugby league is an enormously important product for us and, while we wanted AFL, we weren't going to take it at any price," a senior Foxtel executive said.

It explains why Foxtel took a year to reach agreement with Seven/Ten but doesn't explain why the NRL receives far less for its pay TV product.

HOW MUCH PAY TV PAYS PER GAME

                                                           NRL/AFL
What Fox pays per game in cash         $336,000/$568,000
Total pay-TV cost per game                $432,000*/$717,045**
* Includes cash from Sky TV in New Zealand; ** Includes contra and production costs.

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Just grand, boys!

Geoff McClure
The Age, Sporting Life
Wednesday, February 14, 2007

BLOODLINES run deep in the AFL. Just ask Fremantle defender James Walker, whose great-grandfather is one of the most famous footballers of all — former Collingwood great Gordon Coventry. But it's not until you really delve into footy's vast archives that you realise just how far it extends. Updated research by the league's historian, Col Hutchinson, shows that this season there are enough players in the league whose grandfathers also played at league level to form a team of their own. Indeed, in some instances, they even share them.

Take, for example, St Kilda's Luke Ball and Hawthorn recruit (and fellow former Xavier College student) Josh Kennedy. Ball and his brother, former Hawthorn player Matthew Ball, are the sons of ex-Richmond and South Melbourne player Ray Ball. But their grandfather on their mother's side, Felix Russo (who played with St Kilda in the 1950s), is also the grandfather of Josh Kennedy (son of former Hawthorn player John Kennedy jnr and grandson of Hawk legend John Kennedy snr), the football connection made complete because Josh's uncle, Peter Russo, also played for Hawthorn.

THERE'S a similar family tree that links Collingwood's Shane O'Bree with Carlton youngster Jake Edwards. Jake is the son of former Richmond, Collingwood and Footscray player Allan Edwards but, with O'Bree, shares the same grandfather, former Footscray premiership player Arthur Edwards, and the same great-grandfather, Frank "Dolly" Aked, who played with the Bulldogs and Hawthorn between 1925 and 1932.

JAMES Hird is another with a famous family background but this year, it is extended even further. The Essendon champion is, of course, the son of Allan Hird jnr (who played with the Bombers in the 1960s) and the grandson of Allan Hird snr (who played with Hawthorn, Essendon and St Kilda, where he was also captain-coach). But another Hird offspring has now popped up — Max Little, who has just joined Hawthorn, is also a grandson of Allan Hird snr, meaning he is James Hird's second cousin.

OTHERS with some famous pedigree include:

Lenny Hayes (St Kilda). His great-grandfather, Vin Maguire, played 43 games with Geelong between 1915 and 1919.

Mal Michael (Essendon). His great-grandfather, Robert Michael, played one game with Collingwood, Mal's old team, in 1906.

Will Schofield (West Coast). His great-grandfather, Bert Schofield, played with Geelong from 1911 to 1913.

Dale Thomas (Collingwood). His great-grandfather, Norman Jordan, played one match with Melbourne in 1913.

Jobe Watson (Essendon). The son of former Bomber great Tim Watson has some footy pedigree on his mother's side, too, because his great-grandfather, Robert Lynch, played one game for Fitzroy in 1913.

Thomas Murphy (Hawthorn). His grandfather, Stan Smith, played 26 games for South Melbourne in the early 1950 and his great-great-grandfather, Jim McShane, played with Geelong from 1897 to 1901. Murphy is the only known current player who is related to someone who played in the Victorian Football League's inaugural year.

Luke Power (Brisbane Lions) and his brother, Sam Power (Western Bulldogs). Their grandfather, Jack Power, played with Melbourne and Collingwood in the 1930s.

Brent Harvey (Kangaroos). His grandfather, Bill Harvey, played with the Kangaroos in 1948.

Jason Johnson (Essendon). His grandfather, Mick Higgins, played with Footscray in 1933.

Ben Ross (Kangaroos). His grandfather, Max Papley, played 59 games with South Melbourne in the 1960s.

Joel Reynolds (Sydney). His grandfather, of course, was Essendon's legendary player and coach Dick Reynolds.

Travis Johnstone (Melbourne). His grandfather, Norm Johnstone, played 228 games with Fitzroy from 1944 to 1957.

Marc Murphy (Carlton). Not only was his father, John, a champion with Fitzroy, South Melbourne and North Melbourne, but his grandfather, Leo Murphy, played 132 games with Hawthorn from 1930 to 1940.

Leon Baker (Essendon, 1984-88). His grandfather Edward "Ted" Thomas was a dashing half-back for Melbourne in the 1920s. He played 104 League matches, 1921-28 and 1932 – spending three seasons with VFA side Oakleigh in their 1930 and 1931 premierships before returning to the Demons for his last three VFL games.

<||> But the most prolific football dynasty of them all are the McShane boys. Not only did Jim (nicknamed Kilby), Joe and Henry play in the league's early years, but before the VFL was formed in 1897, Joe (Jacko), Phil (Shilley) and Tom (Carter) each made their mark as fine VFA players. Talk about six of the best!

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Finding AFL champions out of Africa

Martin Flangan
The Age
Saturday, February 10, 2007

"You have ability. I know that, you know that, God knows that." Such language is not traditional to the Australian game. The speaker, Mtutu Hlomela, is the coach of the South African AFL team.

He was speaking at quarter-time in the South African's match against the Indigenous All-Star under-16 team, a game played this week at Jabiru, deep inside Kakadu National Park.

The South Africans seem to understand intuitively and immediately the spirit of our game. They lack the precise skills of the indigenous team and the artful ways of making space, but from the outset, they played with pride and purpose.

The indigenous team kicked four quick goals but that was about as far ahead as it would get for the whole of the game. The South Africans kept coming and the next day's back-page headline in the Northern Territory News read: "Tourists Have Come A Long Way In Football."

The player who took my eye was J.B. van Zyl, a slight, blond-haired 15-year-old Afrikaner who plays in the midfield.

J.B., as he is known, goes to an Afrikaans school. He and his mate, Ernie Strydom, are said to be the two best athletes at their school.

Ernie, who has a ton of personality and is a very intelligent young man, is a high jumper, a hurdler and the captain of the school under 16 rugby union team. J.B. is a middle distance runner, a five-eighth and the vice-captain of the school under-16 rugby team.

Rugby is enormously important to their school. Indeed, school fees can vary according to a student's ability at the game.

JB.'s and Ernie's rugby coach took much the same view of them coming to Australia to play AFL as Sydney took of Adam Goodes and Michael O'Loughlin playing in the All-Stars game in Darwin. Nonetheless, the pair, who are inseparable, came.

They prefer the Australian game. Ernie, who does most of the talking for them, says Australian football is "smoother" than rugby; less structured, more spontaneous. More fun.

J.B. looks as if he has been playing Australian football all his life. Most of the South Africans bear traces of soccer and rugby in their kicking actions. Not J.B. His is neat and free, his use of the ball copybook — always to space, always in front of the leading player.

At half-time, former Hawthorn coach Peter Schwab, acting as assistant coach to the South Africans, said he wanted them to work on one aspect of their game — the principle of front and square.

Every time a South African player was stationary over the ball, Schwab said, he wanted his teammates to try to get to a position one or two metres off him facing the South African goal. Then, with a quick handpass, momentum could be maintained. "Who understands?" he asks. J.B. did.

In the second half, Schwab gave J.B. the task of reading the opposition ruckman's taps and cutting off the supply to the midfielders. He did it. He can read the play. In the team bus, he is often holding an Australian football. He has been playing our game for less than a year.

Hlomela was anxious that I speak to black defender Steven Matshane. "He is a real footballer," he said. "He takes a footy wherever he goes — to the shop, to school."

As a result, for the first time, I conducted a football interview in which the answers were given in Setswana (there are six different language groups in the South African team).

Eighteen-year-old Steven, who copped two stitches above his right eye in the game at Jabiru, said the pathway to the top in South African soccer was too cluttered.

"In this game, no one is ahead of me because we are all learning."

Last year, playing an AFL indigenous youth team in Cape Town, he realised he could "really play this game".

Asked the best player he had seen, he replied immediately, in English: "Jonathan Brown, Brisbane Lions, No. 16."

No one was more intent watching Essendon train at Marrara Oval on Wednesday evening than Matshane. "I have now seen the standard I have to attain," he said through an interpreter.

His hope was that he would be noticed by an AFL scout in last night's curtain raiser to the Essendon versus All-Stars game. Matshane wants to play in the AFL. On Thursday, the team was addressed by Kevin Sheedy, whose message was later summarised by one of the Africans as follows: "If you love a game and have dreams, your dreams can come true. His did."

The problems with expanding Australian football in South Africa are — as they say of the problems associated with crocodiles in Kakadu — "clear and present". Nonetheless, I believe the AFL has to persist with its experiment. Soccer is conquering the globe as surely as McDonald's and Coca-Cola.

David James, the former English goalkeeper, wrote an interesting article in The Guardian the other week in which he said the search for the next Wayne Rooney and the enormous sums of money now involved in soccer were helping to throttle British athletics. Kids as young as eight are being targeted by recruiters and warned off other sports.

To go to South Africa is to appreciate what a truly dynamic society it is in all manner of ways. There is also an immense pool of sporting talent waiting to be tapped.

Former Swans vice-captain Mark Browning is now the AFL's Queensland talent manager. In December, he visited South Africa and reported he was clear-eyed about the difficulties but concluded that with a "consistent, well-managed and resourced program", South Africa could produce AFL players in the future.

Martin Flanagan was in Darwin courtesy of the AFL

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Blues bottom out, this time on stats sheet

Geoff McClure
The Age, Sporting Life
Thursday, February 8, 2007

Losing game after game can have a devastating effect on a footy club and, of course, it never sits too well with the players, either — not to mention what it does to those oh-so important player statistics.

For proof, look no further than poor old Carlton, a once-proud footy club so down on its luck of late that it has won three of the past five wooden spoons. And look what it's done to the Blues' players.

You see, during the footy off-season, the ever-productive staff of the AFL statistical department took it upon themselves to make their first in-depth analysis of the performances of all players who have been in 100 or more games.

The results threw up very interesting numbers, not least that three Blues — Ryan Houlihan, Heath Scotland and Brendan Fevola — top the list of worst win-loss records of any of the league's current players. Houlihan, who joined the Blues in 2000 and has now played 136 games, is the standout, having won just 43 of them — less than a third — for a winning percentage of a meagre 32 per cent. Scotland, the former Magpie who joined the Blues in 2004, is the next worst (40 wins, 75 losses and a draw from 116 games) on 35 per cent alongside Fevola (42 wins, 79 losses and two draws from 123 games) also on 35 per cent.

The next worst performed of the current-day players is Peter Everitt, formerly of St Kilda and Hawthorn, who joins Sydney this year with a winning percentage of 37 per cent (93 wins, 157 losses and two draws from 252 games) followed in fifth place by Essendon (and former Fremantle) player Adam McPhee, who has won just 39 of his 104 games for a winning percentage of 38.

Jimmy, Mr 15%
But the likes of Houlihan, Scotland and Fevola can at least take heart from the fact that their win-loss ratios are by no means the worst of the 100-game players of all time. That "honour" belongs to former St Kilda player (and captain) Jimmy Smith, who took to the field 130 times but in all those years savoured victory only 19 times for a 15 per cent winning percentage. Smith played with the Saints from 1899 to 1906 and then again from 1908 to 1909 and although he became the first Saint to pass 100 league games, he seemingly became so frustrated at losing so often (110 times in all, with one draw) that in 1907 he took a year off from playing and turned to umpiring.

Not many kick on
For the record, 1823 have so far played 100 games or more. With 11,535 players having now pulled on the boots at league level, it means that just 16 per cent of them have gone on to reach the 100-game milestone.

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Bowls aside, this is a real game

David Nason
New York correspondent
The Australian
Monday, February 5, 2007

The US may be in the grip of Super Bowl mania, but in New Orleans there's a music man who can't get his mind off the "real game" played in Australia.

Keith Spera, music writer of the Times-Picayune newspaper, was converted to Australian football while visiting his brother-in-law in Melbourne last year and in a long-weekend article explained to Louisianans why the game is superior to American football.

But before the boys at AFL House start whooping for joy, they'd better have a look at some of what Spera wrote.

First impressions
"The national pastime of a former penal colony is not for the faint of heart. At first glance, it looks like brutal anarchy."

Rules
"The ball resembles an American football, but fatter. It must be bounced every 10 yards. If you are tackled, you give it up. The ball is passed by punching it forward or drop-kicking it, often into triple coverage. There is no such thing as pass interference."

Violence
"Players pitch and catch while opponents bash them in the head. Forearms often collide with skulls. No worries, mate: play on!"

Scoring
"The centre goal is worth six points, the side goals one. To score, a player must drop-kick the ball into the goal, usually at a dead run from 50 or more yards."

The grand final
"Multiple storylines played out during game week, paralleling the Super Bowl's. Chicago Bears defensive tackle Tank Johnson was busted with a house full of unregistered weapons; the West Coast Eagles' Ben Cousins resigned as team captain after fleeing police in a pre-season 'drink-driving' incident."

Race relations
"The Swans' Adam Goodes, a member of Australia's indigenous Aboriginal minority, won his second Brownlow Medal, the equivalent of the NFL's MVP award, and is the most prominent Aborigine in a sport dominated by white people."

Grand final parade
"Most sported enormous designer sunglasses, a bit of AFL-style bling."

Sponsors
"The AFL is even more shameless about corporate sponsorship than the NFL."

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Blues' financial director quits

Greg Denham
The Australian
Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Carlton's woes continued yesterday when outspoken board member Marcus Rose resigned.

The Blues' financial director stood down just days before a board challenge after he went public with claims that Carlton was in a worse financial state than Fitzroy, which was liquidated in its own right in 1996 before merging with Brisbane.

In an article in yesterday's Herald Sun, Rose also claimed that Carlton risked being amalgamated or forced interstate by the AFL if it did not dramatically improve revenue streams.

Rose, who has been on the Blues' board since 2002, is the third director to resign in recent months following the retirements of vice-president John Valmorbida and Bruce Mathieson.

Director Lauraine Diggins, who has repeatedly resisted pressure from sections of the board to resign, recently described the present board as dysfunctional.

Carlton president Graham Smorgon said yesterday he had accepted the resignation of Rose, and that Rose would withdraw from next week's election.

"The comments and statements made by Marcus are not the views of the Carlton Football Club and Marcus has admitted that if he were to conduct the interview again he would do so very differently," Smorgon said. "He understands the position his comments have put him in and as a result he has retired.

"The club is bigger than any individual and all directors and indeed everyone associated with the Carlton Football Club must act appropriately and not make comments outside the views of the club."

Smorgon said relocation or merging with another club was never, or ever would be, on his club's agenda while he remained in charge.

"I assure all Carlton supporters and indeed the football public that the Carlton Football Club will not be relocating or merging with another club," Smorgon said.

Rose's inflammatory comments yesterday brought an angry reaction from AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou.

"The AFL has been working with the elected committee and administration at Carlton Football Club to provide financial support to assist the club in getting back on its feet off the field, so as it does not need to rely on any outside assistance in the future," Demetriou said.

"Last year, the AFL announced a $2 million assistance package as well as providing a consultant in former St Kilda CEO Jim Watts to review the financial operations of the club and also having AFL commissioner Mike Fitzpatrick attend Carlton board meetings.

"I want to make it clear through all our discussions with the Carlton board and administration to provide financial assistance, there has never been any discussion of merging or relocating the Carlton Football Club raised by any member of the AFL executive or AFL commission.

"The AFL was extremely surprised to see this prospect raised by a Carlton board member this morning and, on behalf of the AFL commission, I wish to clearly state that this issue has not been canvassed at any time in any forum."

The Blues, who have finished on the bottom of the ladder for three of the past five years, have a debt of close to $8 million.

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Blues: We're far worse than Fitzroy

Mark Stevens
Herald Sun
Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Carlton is in a more perilous financial state than a dying Fitzroy and at risk of being merged or shipped off interstate.

That is the blunt assessment of the Blues' own finance director, Marcus Rose.

Rose, the mastermind of plans to redevelop Princes Park, said yesterday the club had to make significant changes to improve its income streams.

"Carlton's financial position is far worse than that of Fitzroy that was swallowed by Brisbane and sent interstate in the 1990s," Rose said.

"If the club does not make dramatic changes to improve its income generation, but continues to rely on the same things it has been doing, it runs the risk of either being amalgamated with another team or forced interstate by the AFL."

Described as a fantasy by its deriders, Rose said the $67 million redevelopment of Princes Park would wipe away the club's debt and remove it from the endangered list.

Rose, up for re-election on February 6 as part of president Graham Smorgon's Carlton Unity ticket, said the Blues now had no choice but to think outside the square.

Carlton Unity claims that the redevelopment and linked financial strategy will be outranked in size and boldness by only the AFL's $780 million media deal.

Rose said the struggling Blues' balance sheet showed $7.5 million in negative net assets.

"The club started the 21st century with more debt and liabilities than any other club has ever carried. Notwithstanding that the position has improved, its underlying financial circumstance has in effect proven to be intractable," Rose said.

"Carlton's position has reached the point where it can no longer be certain that the usual revenue-generating methods that it and the other football clubs have been employing will extricate it from its current and prospective financial circumstance.

"Membership, corporate sponsors, raffles, poker machines, donations and the like, as vital as they are, are unlikely to produce sufficient revenue, at acceptable margins, to guarantee Carlton's independence in the foreseeable future.

"Regardless of who comes to office following the election, if the club continues to do the same old things that it has been doing, and which are essentially being advocated by the rival tickets and candidates, the club, in my opinion, will not exist in its present form."

Fitzroy merged with the Brisbane Lions at the end of the 1996 season.

The Blues were a powerhouse in the same mid-1990s era, winning a flag in 1995 and losing only two games. Back then it was unthinkable that the mighty club would fall to the depths of the Lions financially.

The Carlton Unity ticket recently announced a proposed Stage 2 redevelopment as a key plank in its re-election campaign.

Planned to expand on the approved Stage 1 elite training facility, it would create a new community hub at Princes Park, initially to be known as Carlton Community Park.

The Stage 2 redevelopment also calls for the establishment of an investment company, CFC Investments, to develop and operate the new buildings.

"Once fully implemented, Carlton will be debt-free, it will receive future dividends and cash flow and see a significant enhancement in its balance sheet, which currently has $7.5 million in negative net assets," Rose said.

"I believe this strategy will secure the future of the club and its independence. It will re-establish the Carlton Football Club as the pre-eminent sporting organisation in the country."

Plans for Stage 2 will only go ahead if Rose and other members of the Carlton Unity ticket are re-elected.

"It will enable Carlton to reinvest in its football team by providing it with the infrastructure and resources, particularly in the sports medicine field, it requires," Rose said.

Rose said a series of negative factors had had an impact on the Blues in recent years.

The included a $1 million fine for salary cap breaches, expensive long-term contracts to leading players and maintenance of a deteriorating stadium.

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AGM put on hold as Duff faces board challenge

Damian Barrett
Herald Sun
Friday, January 26, 2007

The Kangaroos are bracing for a boardroom showdown, resulting in a likely delay to their annual general meeting.

President Graham Duff will be challenged at the meeting, which will double as an election of directors.

Fellow director Peter de Rauch is expected to form a ticket opposing Duff, while several other Roos powerbrokers are also considering running for a place on the board.

Mark Dawson, a prominent director in the 1990s, is being urged to compete by his supporters.

Following his bold observations, including there being no alternative for the Roos but to relocate to the Gold Coast, made in yesterday's Herald Sun, Ron Joseph was also being sought to run for the board.

Joseph was initially reluctant to seek a position as director, but is being strongly courted.

He and Duff are at standoff after Joseph's observations of the president: "I can see both sides to what people say about Graham Duff, but he is not a bloke who impresses me as having a grasp of the culture of North Melbourne Football Club or having a passion for it."

Duff responded with: "I don't know where we dredge these people up from; he doesn't have anything to do with the club at all."

Bob Ansett, the man who orchestrated the public float of the club in the 1980s, has also emerged as an interesting player in the board machinations.

He is not seeking a position himself, but is being sounded out by potential candidates.

Ansett's ownership of several thousand of the club's significant B-class shares will be crucial to the outcome at the election.

B-class shares carry 75 votes at the election, as opposed to the one-vote-per-share allocation for A-class shares.

The Roos' annual general meeting was scheduled for late February but may now be held mid-March.

The postponement has been driven by a number of factors, with the club wanting to distance a potential fiery meeting from its first NAB Cup match, against Collingwood on February 23.

Lifelong member John Raleigh, who is running as an independent at the election, said rushing towards a re-location to Carrara was not in the club's best interests.

"The crux of the matter is I cannot see a solid and successful business plan in North going to the Gold Coast inside the next 10 years," Raleigh said.

"I have no problem in playing three games there a year to salt the market for the AFL, but no more.

"I have serious doubts that the Gold Coast is ready for any AFL club in the next 10 years, and talk that it could be North Melbourne a lot sooner than that is hurting the club."

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Poor Carlton budgets to break even

Damian Barrett
Herald Sun
Saturday, January 13, 2007

Carlton lost $2.2 million cash on the 2006 season, but has provisionally budgeted to break even this year.

The Blues recorded a $699,190 cash deficit last year, a figure that ballooned to $2,199,190 when a $1.5 million loan from the AFL was taken into account.

Debt sits at $8 million, down from $11 million in 2002, but up from $6 million in 2004.

Fifteen per cent downturns in both membership and merchandise, and a significant fall in gate receipts and corporate dining revenue contributed to the 2006 result.

Despite the grim-looking books, Blues chief executive Michael Malouf said the club was over the worst of its five-year financial nightmare.

"There is a lot of light at the end of the tunnel," Malouf said.

He said a three-year business plan was proving effective.

Outgoings have been slashed in many areas, particularly player payments.

Malouf said last season's wooden spoon had probably set back hopes of reaching a cash neutral position in 2007 by 12 months. "That will now be budgeted for by 2008," he said.

The Blues have budgeted for 27,500 members for 2007, which they believe will translate to a $500,000 cash loss on the year.

"But if we get 32,000 (members), we could still get to a cash operating neutral position," Malouf said.

Carlton is negotiating with National Australia Bank to reduce interest costs and related charges – more than $500,000 a year – attached to its debt.

An internal performance document reveals regular low ladder finishes – 16th (2002), 15th ('03), 10th ('04), 16th ('05) and 16th ('06) – have had an adverse impact on accounts by $2 million a year.

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Saints boss seeks to recover $1m from Thomas

Stephen Rielly
The Age
Thursday, January 11, 2007

St Kilda president Rod Butterss is seeking to recover a substantial sum, believed to be seven figures, from the man he sacked as coach three months ago, Grant Thomas.

The once close friends who set out together at the start of the decade to reinvent St Kilda lost that friendship more than two years ago and now have an outstanding debt – said to amount to more than $1 million – to settle that shortly predates Thomas' appointment as coach in 2001.

According to Butterss, the pair are scheduled to meet within a fortnight to discuss settlement, a process he said he hoped could be kept from the courts.

Thomas declined to discuss the matter with The Age yesterday, beyond asking for his privacy to be respected.

"I think that the media has had a pretty good go with Grant Thomas and his family and I think my privacy should be respected," he said.

"I think I've conducted myself with integrity and honour since my exit from St Kilda. I'm totally supportive of the board and the St Kilda footy club. I have no axes to grind. I'm trying to get on with my life and I would appreciate it if the media allowed me to do that."

One version of events has it that the St Kilda president personally loaned Thomas more than $1 million in 2001 when the then St Kilda director bought a $2.3 million Brighton home less than 100 metres from his own palatial residence.

Thomas sensationally replaced Malcolm Blight as coach less than two months later but according to several sources much, if not all, of the full loan amount remains outstanding and with interest attached, it could mean Butterss is entitled to a figure closer to $1.5 million.

Another version has it that in 2001, when Thomas briefly worked as chief executive of the IT recruitment firm Ambit — a company owned by Butterss' brother Peter — Thomas convinced him to buy equity and that this is the source of the financial contention.

Butterss refused to discuss the substance or specifics of what will be raised but confirmed that money was involved, although, he stressed, none of it is St Kilda's.

"Thommo does owe me some money but it is a long-standing private matter that predates his appointment as senior coach. We're not talking of St Kilda here. Any arrangement we have is between the two of us and nothing to do with the football club. It certainly didn't involve any St Kilda money whatsoever," he said.

"No one wins when it gets ugly and litigious so I think the possibility of it going that way is remote. I'd hope so, anyway … He suggested the date and hopefully we can make some progress. The issues are important to both of us. Beyond that I don't feel that it is appropriate to elaborate.

"It's very much a private matter and it should remain a private matter until such time that it isn't or needs to be dealt with in another way."

Thomas and Butterss were brought together as directors of St Kilda in 1999 before assuming control the following year. The disintegration of their relationship became public in March 2005 when both told The Age that the "realities of football life" had taken their toll.

At the end of last season, Thomas was sacked, and Ross Lyon appointed his successor.

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Camp begins with a lecture in keeping it nice

Samantha Lane
The Age
Sunday, January 7, 2007

"Morning boys and congratulations on your new job. You know the ABCs of the game so we won't be talking much about that. Kick a few goals on field and all going well things should only get better. We must say, though, that with all the money and that in the game nowadays it's not quite as straightforward as that.

"Take Ben Cousins and the trouble he's been in with the cops lately. And what about those players who were almost busted for taking drugs? We had to work really hard to stop the press naming them. And what about the time it came out that those Melbourne guys had massive gambling debts. But it could be you. Depressed? Don't worry, they all kept their jobs. It'd just be a whole lot better for all of us if those kinds of things stopped happening"

OVER TWO days, starting tomorrow, the AFL's new recruits will be taken through, in the greatest detail yet, what being an AFL footballer means in these modern times.

All 122 draftees will gather to begin absorbing "the required decision making, communication and resilience skills to make the most of their career in AFL football". At least that's the goal as stated in the AFL Players Association's news release.

Brendon Gale, the head of the association, might provide a friendly opening welcome. Adrian Anderson, the AFL's general operations manager, will follow. Things will get a little more serious pretty quickly.

Topic one: the AFL's anti-doping code. Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority representative and AFL medical commissioner to speak. A little later? Men's sexual health. Over to you Family Planning Victoria. Soon enough it'll be time to chat about cultural diversity in the AFL. Next? A look at the collective bargaining agreement. Then AFL players and the law and the league's gambling policy. Thanks David Schwarz.

Last is a workshop covering the respect and responsibility policy. Dr Melanie Heenan to the microphone, please.

"The focus is more around facilitating a discussion that they might have about the kind of behaviour they want to be known for in relation to their treatment of women," Heenan said.

"We're keen to focus on the bystander kind of model … we're speaking to them as people who could intervene in something that they might see."

Heenan and Patrick Tidmarsh, an expert in violence prevention, will run the hour-long sessions with groups of about 40.

"It's about encouraging them to take what's best about team spirit … but also not forsake the kinds of values that they should be taking in, and hopefully they are taking in, in relation to how they understand their contact with women."

Got that? Class dismissed. Good luck out there.

THE TOPICS

u Anti-doping code
u Men's sexual health
u Cultural diversity in the AFL
u Collective bargaining agreement
u Players and the law
u Gambling policy
u Respect and responsibility

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Soccer on the rise as AFL treads water

Tim Colebatch, Canberra
The Age
Monday, January 1, 2007

Australian children typically begin their sporting life in the swimming pool. But once they have learned to swim, soccer is now the main sport of Australia's young – although certainly not Victoria's.

A Bureau of Statistics survey of children's sports shows more Australian children are taking swimming lessons – numbers up almost 40 per cent in the past nine years to 463,000.

But while 25 per cent of children aged five to eight took swimming lessons this year, only 8 per cent of those aged 12 to 14 are still training in the pool. By then, soccer is king, especially for boys, and its lead is widening.

This year, 269,000 Australian boys aged five to 14 played in soccer competitions out of school, up from 209,000 nine years ago. By contrast, the number playing Australian rules football grew only slightly to 189,000, and the three rugby codes – league, union and touch – had 182,000 between them.

Soccer is making even faster inroads among girls. It is now the fourth-biggest girls' sport in Australia, after swimming, netball and tennis. This year, 83,000 girls played in soccer competitions, almost half of them in NSW.

For boys, soccer dominates the traditional rugby lands — NSW, Queensland and the ACT. They have more than half of Australia's population, but almost three-quarters of its junior soccer players.

Soccer is making serious inroads in traditional Australian rules football territory. It has now overtaken Australian rules football in Tasmania and the Northern Territory, and is moving up to challenge it in South Australia.

The exception is Victoria. This year, 83,000 boys played Australian rules football, almost three times as many as the 30,000 playing soccer. Nine years ago the numbers were 79,000 and 20,000 respectively.

Australian rules football has made up some ground in rugby land. The bureau found the number of children playing the code in NSW had risen from 11,000 to 17,500 since 1997, and there had been an almost identical rise in Queensland.The number of boys playing the game in WA and South Australia is falling.

But while all the football codes are growing overall, cricket is losing ground. The number of boys playing the sleepy game has decreased from 165,000 to 138,000 in the past nine years, with most of this fall in NSW and Queensland.

It might not be a coincidence that the fastest-growing sport, among boys and girls alike, is the fast-moving indoor soccer or futsal, a summer game here. In nine years, the number of boys playing futsal has almost doubled to 45,000, while the number of girls playing has almost trebled to 14,000.

Basketball and netball have seen their numbers reduced slightly in recent years, although netball is by far the most popular sport for girls after swimming.

Tennis has basically maintained its numbers, but the number of children taking part in organised athletics has dropped from 111,000 to 77,500.

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to be continued ...

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