WITH only a few days to go until the NAB cup opener between Richmond, Hawthorn and North Melbourne, the excitement surrounding season 2012 has hit an enormous level. Last week it was reported in the Herald Sun that the majority of clubs had already sold more memberships than they had at the same point in time last year. We can tell the football season draws imminently close, by the changing landscape of sports pages in newspapers, in which other sports – namely cricket – are pushed further down the pecking order and the AFL taking up the primary pages again. In addition, the early “toughest pre-season ever”, “fitter than ever”, “player X is flying” fluff pieces are diminishing and the real football news has begun circulating again.
Interestingly, amongst all of the usual pre-season discussion, an issue that is usually embedded in post-season football talk – the contentious priority pick – has returned to the surface of football discussion.
As reported in last Monday’s Herald Sun football operations manager Adrian Anderson announced that there would be a review of the priority pick system prior to this year’s national draft, and that the AFL had written to each of the clubs asking them to provide their thoughts on the priority pick system at present.
There are several implications of a review for the teams which may be eligible for the first round priority pick – Gold Coast, Brisbane and Port Adelaide – particularly since this is the first uncompromised draft after two years in which Gold Coast in 2010 and Greater Western Sydney last year, have been given draft concessions. Should the priority pick be scrapped, and Port Adelaide, Brisbane and Gold Coast have four or less wins, then they would be denied what other clubs have taken advantage of: a pre-first round pick.
The priority pick is offered to a team or teams in dire need of assistance, in addition to their normal draft picks. The system at present offers a priority pick to a team who finishes the season with four or less wins, taken in between the first and second rounds of the national draft. If the same club wins four or less games the following season, they are given a priority pick at the start of the first round, on top of their normal draft pick. There is quite a lot at stake for the three clubs.
The actual pick is not the issue here – it is the potential for clubs to employ tactics not in the spirit of the game to acquire them. Should Port Adelaide, for example, genuinely get smashed this year and end up with only a couple of wins, and then you would be hard-pressed to find someone who believes they should be denied a first round priority pick. However, in the circumstance where, as the season draws closer to its conclusion and Port Adelaide sit on four wins, eyebrows may be raised about their potential use of tactics to ensure that they do not win any more of their games to come. The more mainstream term for these tactics is ‘tanking’.
The review will investigate the current system, and explore new alternatives to the priority pick to ensure that struggling clubs are able to be assisted, whilst trying to eradicate the threat of tanking.
The reason the priority pick issue is so contentious is because no one can really put a finger on what is acceptable and what is not.
Deliberately trying to lose a game of football has huge ramifications. What the football world may call ‘tanking’, the inner sanctums may describe their tactics under various pseudonyms such as ‘player management’ or ‘planning for the future’. After his sacking last season, Dean Bailey admitted he played players in different positions, as he was asked to do what was best for the Melbourne Football Club, and to ensure that it was well positioned for draft picks.
But future planning is a pivotal part of the AFL – it makes sense (especially if finals are out of a particular team’s grasp) to experiment and plan for the following season. It would be remiss not to give young players an opportunity in favour of veterans who are not part of a club’s immediate future. Once the finals are out of the question, sending star players into surgery in preparation for the next season is common sense. To some, usually the club’s own supporters who are more interested in long-term success, these tactics are completely acceptable.
While the debate still lingers, several solutions have been offered to curb tanking for priority picks.
Perhaps the most measured solution involves removing the first round priority pick (the first pick in the draft), only retaining the second round priority pick, taken in between the first and second rounds. I particularly like this option. Clubs with no chance of making the finals will always swing into preparation mode. It would be remiss not too. Coaches will play young players, experiment with positions and game plans, send stars off for non-urgent surgery and give farewell games for their retiring players. A pick at the end of the first round is not worth tanking for but it still allows a team to select someone with a chance to improve their list, on top of their normal draft pick.
Others call to remove the priority pick system altogether. Those that argue for this claim suggest that if recent premiership success is anything to go by, the ultimate prize is not attained with one or two or even three stars, but rather having good depth. That there are mature age players like James Podsiadly and Michael Barlow out there waiting for their chance who can lift a team out of the darkness.
The findings of the review will be of particular concern to Port Adelaide and Brisbane. Of course, both clubs will be aiming for success to begin with, but realistically neither is expected to see finals football. For both clubs, this season may quickly begin to reflect last, and in that case, in the first uncompromised draft since the entry of Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney to the competition, a side like Port Adelaide will feel that they deserve the same treatment as clubs who have received the first round priority pick before them. They will be well versed in statistics like this one:
Since 2000, 9 of the 14 priority picks have played in preliminary finals or deeper into September with the sides that picked them up. Luke Hodge, Chris Judd, Jarryd Roughead, Dale Thomas and Xavier Ellis are all premiership players for the clubs that years earlier that took them as priority picks when they were struggling. Nick Riewoldt, Ryan Griffin, Adam Cooney, and Luke Ball have all gone extremely close to the ultimate success with the clubs that picked them up with priority picks.
While these players are obviously not the sole reason for their draft club’s success, it could be certainly argued that they are or were part of the reason. We will never know if West Coast could have won in 2005 without Chris Judd or Hawthorn without Luke Hodge, but the reality is that these players are superstars – a colossal benefit at a time when the club was down and nearly out.
Whatever the review’s findings, there is no doubt that this issue will remain near the surface for the entire AFL season, right up until the draft that it concerns.