Coach stands by footy heartland: Tasmania

The AFL’s most decorated and experienced contemporary coach has accused league leaders of neglecting football heartlands to the unarguable detriment of the game.

Highlighting Tasmania as a prime case study, an impassioned Alastair Clarkson has urged the keepers of the code to “reunite with the people who made the game great in the first place”.

In a half-hour oration at the MCGbefore an audience including current and recently departed AFL Commissioners, the Melbourne Cricket Club’s president and two AFL club chairmen, Clarkson applauded the league’s concerted focus to propagate Australian rules with new clubs in Queensland and New South Wales.

Hawthorn’s four-time premiership coach said he also agreed – philosophically, if not entirely in current practice – with organised academies that nurture playing talent.

But Clarkson aired a raft of misgivings about a national development structure he sees as seriously out of whack and pined for “a nurturing system like we used to have” that he was adamant the AFL has let slip.

Highlighting this year’s under-18 national championships, contested in division one by Victoria, South Australia, West Australia and an ‘Allies’ team made up of players from the Northern Territory, Queensland, New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory and Tasmania, Clarkson said stridently:

“There are zero players from Tasmania in that [Allies] side. That’s an indictment.

“That’s an indictment on the growth and development of our game. That is football heartland: Tasmania.

“When you think of some of the players that have come out of that state and we’re saying to ourselves we’ve got a new team in Queensland, a new team in New South Wales…somehow we can sustain a team in provincial Victoria…but we can’t work out how we can’t put a team in Tassie?

“It has been the heartland of our game for over 100 years…and we’ve got to take my team, and now another team in the Kangaroos, into that area to sustain footy just for this period because that’s a good alternative? We’ve got to find ways to preserve what is so important.”

Confessing that “clubs like Hawthorn are shitty as all buggery that other teams have got academies and we haven’t…”, Clarkson said the model was sound if it were equal across the competition which – despite the AFL’s recent distinguished zoning plans for clubs – he clearly believes it isn’t.

Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson delivered this year’s Norm Smith Oration. Photo: Getty Images

In his ideal, tiered nursery for grooming talent, Clarkson would revert to a model resembling the era where league clubs had under-17, under-19, reserves and senior sides.

Richmond, in 1973, famously won four premierships with its four teams.

The audience at the sixth Norm Smith oration, where Clarkson was keynote speaker with Governor of Victoria and ex-AFL Commissioner Linda Dessau, included recently appointed AFL Commissioner Gabrielle Trainor, Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs’ presidents and Melbourne Cricket Club chiefs.

Clarkson opened his speech by listing defining features of Australian Rules football he argued must be zealously preserved.

Among them, he included the bounce, the oval ball and the ability of players to tackle each other from any angle. A well-travelled international-sport junkie, Clarkson pointed out that AFL is played on the biggest surface of any ballistic ball sport in world, over the longest period of time and with the most number of participants on field at any time.

Ex-AFL Commissioner now Governor of Victoria Dessau was first speaker and expressed an equally adamant view to Clarkson’s that the iconic Australian rules bounce should be preserved.

Her quick-witted address opened with a series of light-hearted references to key football figures.

Tongue firmly in cheek, Dessau commenced by joking that AFL Commission chairman Mike Fitzpatrick might have been an alternate keynote speaker but that organisers “were worried he’d be just too emotional and sentimental”. Dessau jested that league CEO Gillon McLachlan was also considered but that they “thought he’d be too daunted until he conquers the shyness”.

Continuing the joke, which inspired spontaneous audience applause in part, Dessau said: “I understand in fact that you asked James Hird, but he refused. He said it wasn’t fair the way he was asked.

“He did add that he hopes that at some time in the future he will be free to tell his story and everyone will finally know the truth about that invitation.”

Dessau, who MCC president Steven Smith predicted would have been the AFL’s next Commission chair as he closed the night, even poked fun at Clarkson and his history of temper flares.

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