Australian News

AFL’s roots are partly Chinese, but Chinese Australians are now fighting underrepresentation

When Arthur Liu first set his foot in Melbourne 20 years ago, the very first person he met gave him advice on how to become a “true Australian”.

Fast forward to today, the father of two boys has not only become a die-hard fan of the Essendon Football Club himself, but also passed his love of footy to the next generation.

“My eldest son, Lionel, now has more footy knowledge than me,” Mr Liu told the ABC.

He said the seven-year-old knew many players’ names and how many goals they kicked last season.

Two boys playing AFL in a park
As Melbourne gradually re-opens, Lionel (left) will soon begin his Auskick training.(Supplied: Arthur Liu)

Mr Liu said his younger son, Lennon, was “not as knowledgeable as his brother”, but he could at least “recognise each AFL team’s logo”.

Mr Liu has set up mini goal posts in his backyard, and this year he signed up Lionel for Auskick, the AFL kids program.

Auskick could be the beginning of a career in footy, which AFLW player Darcy Vescio knows all about.

The Carlton Football Club player’s interest in footy also had paternal roots.

“My first footy experience was through playing Auskick, mainly because my dad was a big football fan, and my old brother started playing Auskick,” Vescio said.

‘Something just needs to be done’

Darcy Vescio playing AFL in a sport ground.
Vescio is working toward creating a more inclusive game.(Carlton FC: Julian Wallace)

Vescio, who is one of the sport’s multicultural ambassadors, was born to an Italian father and a Chinese mother, and raised in the regional Victorian town of Wangaratta.

She is one of only a handful of AFL players of Chinese ancestry.

“[The AFL leadership] definitely have identified the need to reflect Australian society in Australian football.

“The AFL wants to be the most inclusive sport in Australia … something just needs to be done.”

Lin Jong jumps to catch the ball during a game, his leg outstretched towards the camera
Lin Jong (centre) is the only male player of Chinese ancestry in the professional league.(AAP: Julian Smith)

In 2020, about 15 per cent of AFL players were born overseas or had one parent born overseas. This was up from 13 per cent in 2019, according to AFL data.

Last year, the AFL said 87,000 players in community football and 21 per cent of Auskick participants had a multicultural background.

“There are some 700 players in AFL, and around 400 in the AFLW, and considering there are more than 1 million Chinese Australians, the Chinese players in the leagues are very few.”

The AFL’s long Chinese history

A black and white photo shows the team members of a Chinese-Australian VFL team.
A team representing the Young Chinese League in 1933.(State Library of Victoria)

The AFL’s Chinese roots run deep — players of Chinese ancestry played their first game in the gold rush town of Ballarat on August 27, 1892.

A Ballarat Evening Post report at the time said it was a fundraising match, and about 5,000 locals watched on.

“I think one of the most incredible yet least known stories in Australian sport is how the Chinese community embraced AFL in the mid-19th century,” Rob Hess, a sports historian at Victoria University, told the ABC.

But Dr Hess said the sport’s uptake by Australia’s Chinese diaspora was “not surprising”.

In the 1890s, people who stayed behind in regional Victoria after the gold rush took up occupations in market gardening, mining and commercial laundries.

Dr Hess said these people formed footy teams by their occupation and participated in the game with enthusiasm.

An empty football field with a grandstand at one end
The very first game between Chinese footy teams happened at Ballarat’s Eastern Oval.(ABC News: Kai Feng)

But in 1901, the newly created federation of Australia unveiled the White Australia Policy, which barred non-European migration to the country.

Dr Hess said around this time, players with Chinese heritage including Wally KooChew and Les Kew Ming also started to play at a higher level, such as the Victorian Football League.

Leader, 23 May 1908, p. 26, Koochew, second from left in middle row, courtesy of State Library of Victoria
KooChew, pictured in 1908, second from the left in the middle row.(State Library of Victoria)

Ming was one of more than 200 Chinese soldiers to serve in the Australian Army, and according to Dr Hess “a famous war hero”.

Upon his return home, he was considered to be one of North Melbourne’s best players, according to AFL history website Australian Football.

Despite this long history, Chinese Australians are among the most underrepresented ethnic groups on AFL fields, in its boardrooms, and in club membership, which Mr Pi said was due to a couple of factors.

“From my experience, everything is about academic success among the Chinese diaspora,” Mr Pi said.

“Another factor is, for a long time [the AFL] didn’t really engage our new migrants, not just of Asian backgrounds. That has really changed over the last few decades.”

Mr Pi said the AFL needed to do more to make multicultural communities feel welcomed, but migrants should also stop seeing sport as irrelevant to their children’s development.

‘People need to know they belong’

A man holds a football in an office.
Jamie Pi became a AFLPA accredited player agent this year.(Supplied)

This year, Mr Pi attained a master’s degree in sports management and became an AFL Player Association (AFLPA) accredited player agent.

He hopes to attract more Chinese and other Asian players to the oval to change the monocultural stereotypes of the game.

“There are now more and more migrant faces all around on our ovals, not just of Asian backgrounds,” Mr Pi said.

“I want to bring a fresh face, a different look to this profession.

He said the AFL was also working on institutional change to bring more minority ethnic groups into the sport, which he said would “definitely pay dividends”.

“There will be more and more players at the elite level from multicultural backgrounds … I’m sure we will see that in the next decade,” Mr Pi said.

A man dressed in a red Sherrin football suit waves to hundreds of fans lining the street during the grand final parade.
AFL fans of Chinese ancestry make up a small portion of the game’s supporter base.(ABC News: Dylan Anderson)

Melbourne’s Mr Liu said the uptake of footy among his children would also pay dividends, by giving them skills other hobbies may not give, as well as getting them outside.

“Compared to individual sports like tennis, footy is a team sport, it requires good cooperation and communication ability, that’s something really hard for adults to teach,” he said.

“Sport is a good way to train those skills.”

As Melbourne gradually reopens after its long lockdown, Lionel will soon begin his training in Auskick.

Meanwhile, Vescio is also hoping to resume the advocacy associated with her role as an AFL Multicultural Ambassador.

She believes young people from ethnic minorities who might be thinking about a career in football should “absolutely go for it”.

Darcy Vescio extends her leg out straight in front, just after a kick
Carlton’s Darcy Vescio kicks a goal during the round 1 AFLW match against Collingwood in 2017.(AAP: Joe Castro)

“Even if you don’t see yourself reflected in the club and you want to try out, just get involved at a community level that might involve anything around the club,” she said.

“I think people need to know they also belong in the game and they make the game better.

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Footy in Queensland reaping the benefits of a season as the AFL’s home

The sight of hundreds of schoolchildren in the Brisbane City Botanic Gardens would not normally be cause for celebration.

After all, it is a beautifully landscaped garden setting with plenty of open space ideal for children to run around in.

But for the AFL, the yelling, screaming and laughing mass was evidence of just how far Australian football has come in its northern outpost.

As part of AFL grand final week, the Botanic Gardens has hosted a Footy Festival site featuring multiple Auskick clinics.

The Festival runs for three days and registration numbers have been so strong, three more clinics have been added to meet demand on Saturday.

It only gets better for Australian football.

AFL Queensland (AFLQ) has reported participants at Auskick centres across the state are up 10-15 per cent, and that is with a significant number of the more than 900 centres unable to operate in the early part of the season because of COVID restrictions.

The growth in junior numbers has defied the bleak outlook when the coronavirus pandemic first hit in early autumn.

Children playing Aussie rules in the rain.
AFLQ kids from Alexandra Hills Bombers and Morningside Panthers chase the ball.(Highflyer Images: Deion Menzies)

“We now have 13,000 juniors, and that’s the biggest competition in the country,” AFLQ state manager of game development Mark Ensor said.

“And across the state we’re up 3 per cent on female numbers.”

He cited two contributing factors to the overall rise in playing stocks.

Firstly, the success of the Brisbane Lions in 2020 — the Lions only dropped out of the premiership race with a preliminary final loss to Geelong.

Secondly, of course, was the COVID-enforced relocation of Victorian clubs to the Sunshine State.

A back view of a modern flood light at a sports stadium on a dark night.
The Gabba will host the 2020 AFL grand final.(ABC News: Christopher Gillette)

“Playing 140-odd AFL matches in Queensland has made us incredibly happy with the year,” Ensor said.

“We’re expecting a 7-10 per cent increase in participation next year if we don’t have any COVID problems.”

Female participation on the up

Former SANFL player David Sanders has witnessed the game’s growth in Queensland from close quarters.

Sanders, who played 305 SANFL games for North Adelaide, has lived in Brisbane for 25 years and his son Van,13, plays for Wilston-Grange.

“As a parent, it’s hard to quantify the increase given it’s been such a different year with COVID,” Sanders said.

The Gorillas are a small club in an inner suburb but have about 400 junior players, around 25 per cent of whom are female.

“There’s no doubt the AFL being largely resident in Queensland has increased the interest for kids,” Sanders observed.

“One thing the AFL has done is show a lot of parents what the game is about and get them thinking it’s not bad for kids.”

A junior Aussie rules player gets a kick off as another player gives chase in the rain.
A Morningside Panthers junior Aussie rules player kicks a ball while being chased by an Alexandra Hills Bombers kid.(Highflyer Images: Deion Menzies)

Television ratings firmly indicate the attraction of the game with free-to-air numbers up 25 per cent this year.

Despite finishing outside the top eight, the Gold Coast Suns television audience grew 84 per cent and club membership jumped 16 per cent.

Matthew Argus, the football operations coordinator for the Aspley Hornets, a club on the northside of Brisbane, said his AFL 9s program was a good indicator of how the sport has grown.

AFL 9s is a non-contact hybrid version of the sport, similar to the relationship between touch football and rugby league.

“We’ve gone from 12 teams to 18 signed up to play across the summer and the openings filled up within a week of registrations being opened,” Argus said.

Women’s football is also on the move, aided by the establishment of the AFLW competition as well as the presence of so many AFL clubs in the south-east corner of the state across the past few months.

“The growth in girls playing juniors has been excellent in the last three or four years and now girls make up 25 per cent of our players,” Argus said.

A young Brisbane Lions fan waves a flag as he smiles in the stands at the Gabba next to two adults.
Brisbane has been treated to more AFL footy this year than ever.(AAP: Darren England)

He said he was confident the club’s presence in schools would grow once the coronavirus crisis ended.

“It would’ve been great if you could have the AFL here and you could go helter-skelter with schoolkids,” he said.

AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan, who championed the establishment of the AFL and has been an important part of driving the competition’s expansion north of the Murray River, was clearly happy to talk about the progression of the code in Queensland when he launched grand final week.

“I’m not saying we’re the number one sport now in Queensland but it’s certainly nice to be in the conversation,” McLachlan commented with a smile.

When the AFL caravan closes down after the grand final and moves back to Melbourne, it will leave a legacy and it is increasingly likely it will be a large and growing one.

No wonder it is celebrating.

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Lachie Neale’s Brownlow Medal win completes Kybybolite kid’s evolution into the AFL’s best player

Australians love to travel, to explore this wide brown land of ours. It’s fair to say that the 2020 lockdown has changed our travelling habits.

Instead of soaking in the rays on the beach and the plains inland, most Australians have had to explore the outside world in their screens and in books.

Instead of visiting Lake Grace (population 507), you can look at the small streets and three footy ovals, or read up on its history. Instead of rolling through Moggs Creek (population 89) on the way to the Twelve Apostles, you can look at the satellite view of the town.

Almost everywhere in the world, from Aachen to Zuwarah is at your fingertips, but not under your feet. For now, the closest that most people can get to visiting a place is through an illuminated screen.

To that extent, welcome to Kybybolite, South Australia (just).

Just a two-by-two block, footy oval and some netball courts. If you don’t zoom in on it enough, it sort of disappears. If it took three hours to do all 97 kilometres of streets in Brighton, Karen, it’ll take you about 10 minutes to finish Kyby.

Just 102 people lived in Kybybolite in 2016, with an average age of 42. Mostly farming and agricultural, and best known for a research farm in town.

And the products of the mid-2000s crop of the Kyby Tigers under-14s side.

The productive crop

Most small towns, even footy-mad small towns, rarely boast elite footy players. It’s a product of Australia’s disparate landscape. Lake Grace may lay claim to Nat Fyfe, and Lance Franklin is a proud product of Dowerin, but they usually are one-offs.

That junior side, from little Kyby in the borderlands, can lay claim to three AFL players. It places the town as one of the most productive per capita places for elite footballers in recent history.

Only Osborne in NSW (the “club without a town”) and Kalkee in the Wimmera can claim per capita bragging rights over Kybybolite, but Kyby is unique in producing three AFL players from the same generation, even the same junior sides.

The first was a sure pick to be a star — Jack Trengove. Trengove got nabbed by Melbourne at pick number two in the 2009 draft, and became the youngest captain in VFL/AFL history by age 20.

When he played, he was good. But it took time to get back out there. Trengove finished up his career at Port, with 89 games under his belt. A good career for any player, despite the hype.

After Trengove came Alex Forster, a mid-sized defender who had gained attention through his draft year. Forster made the Under-18 All Australian Team, and played league football for Glenelg as well. Forster profiled as a good ball user out of defence who could also stick with opponents, but like Trengove, injuries changed his trajectory.

The former number 29 draft pick managed only one game in his two years on an AFL list, but he has gone on to be a solid player at SANFL and country levels since.

And then at pick 58 there was Lachie.

Why did Neale fall?

Despite playing local senior footy from the age of 16, being selected in the midfield of the SA under-18 side and getting senior SANFL games while still being under-18 eligible, Neale was a fringe prospect as a junior.

He literally slipped under the radar.

A Brisbane Lions AFL players runs for the ball as two Western Bulldogs opponents look on.
Neale has certainly proved height doesn’t matter.(AAP: Dave Hunt)

As the AFL evolved into a more professional sport, emphasis was increasingly placed on finding the right body types to fill roles, and moulding players to fill them.

As legendary NBA coach Red Auerbach (allegedly) said, “you can’t teach height”. You can teach tall players to do different things, but you can’t grow shorter players to be taller.

Coming into his draft year, Neale was small. At 174 centimetres, only a handful of players had been taken fresh in the national draft at that height or below between 1999 and 2010, and just four in the top 50.

In more recent years, the trend away from shorter players has changed. Perhaps the realisation hit that for as much of the game known in the northern states as aerial ping-pong is played above the head, a lot of the important bits are played at ground level.

Neale himself put it best, when interviewed before the draft:

As Neale entered his draft year, two things broke his way. First, he grew about an inch, which may have been enough in the eyes of some recruiters. It is hard to believe that such a minor factor can change opinions, but footy is often a game of small margins.

Second, and far more importantly, Neale played so well that he couldn’t be refused. He racked up touches at the Under-18 Championships, in schoolboy footy and at local level.

He also proved that he could compete against bigger bodies in senior footy. Neale enhanced his reputation the same way former Kyby teammate Trengove did — he stood out in a senior SANFL final.

While none of the ardent draft watchers placed Neale in their Phantom Drafts and there was no sizzle reel online for him, Neale was picked up by Fremantle in the third round of the draft at pick 58 — one round later than his other former Kyby teammate, Forster.

It was late, but Neale had the same opportunity as the number one pick.

The evolution of Neale

Lachie Neale handballs a football while being tackled by a Western Bulldogs player.
Fremantle’s peak years unfortunately didn’t coincide with Neale’s.(AAP: Tony McDonough)

Neale started at Freo as a small forward, like many draftees. Playing senior footy almost immediately post draft, it didn’t take long for him to find a place in a strong Dockers outfit. His first year was almost unrecognisable from the player we know today.

For a player who averaged more than seven clearances per game last year, he only earnt seven in his entire first season.

Over time, Neale was added to an already potent Dockers midfield mix, floating between Fyfe, Mundy, Barlow and Co. Once he proved height didn’t matter when the ball was on the deck, he was able to truly show what he could do.

It took until 2016 until Neale locked his spot up in the Fremantle inner core — after the peak years of the Dockers had ebbed away.

How Neale stood out this year

Before 2020, everyone knew Neale could win the hard ball and ensure his team would keep it. This year, he introduced the most dangerous element of all for a modern player — risk.

With a better set defensive structure behind him, Neale was willing to try to do more with the ball and live with the consequences that it occasionally wouldn’t come off.

A turnover in the forward line for the Lions is usually just another chance for its stellar intercept markers to create another attacking opportunity, and lock the ball in their forward half.

Neale’s disposal efficiency sank this year, and his turnovers rose, but so did his score involvements and metres gained (when adjusted for shorter games). Instead of being a ball accumulator, he became a super aggressive weapon.

Neale also has the most shots on goal per game of any season in his career to date — better than even when he was playing as a forward. While Brisbane seems to encourage more risky shots on goal, Neale is also finding space to get those shots off.

In modern footy, that extra split second is what separates a good player from a great one.

The arrival of Jarryd Lyons and development of young players like Jarrod Berry and Hugh McCluggage, has allowed Neale to further evolve his role. Even in the accumulation of individual awards, the team is paramount in footy.

Playing in a good team helps of course (just four of 23 Brownlow winners since 2000 played for sides that missed finals) but one player can only do so much.

On Saturday night, Neale dominated in the clinches and was arguably the best on ground for the Lions. Sometimes the other team is just better on the day.

Neale led the Lions for clearances, score involvements, effective disposals and was second for metres gained, marks and inside 50s in the Lions’ comprehensive loss to Geelong.

Sometimes even the best efforts of one player can’t lift a team of 22, especially when facing a dominant side.

While he doesn’t leave the 2020 season with a premiership medallion around his neck, Neale does have a Brownlow Medal and a place in the conversation for the best player in the game.

There might have to be a new sign in Kyby too:

Welcome to Kybybolite — Home of 2020 Brownlow Medallist Lachie Neale.

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Patrick Dangerfield named AFL’s All-Australian captain, Lachie Neale wins AFLPA Most Valuable Player award

Geelong star Patrick Dangerfield has made a record-equalling eighth appearance in the All-Australian team and been selected as captain for the first time.

He was joined in the All-Australian line-up by Brisbane’s Lachie Neale, who claimed the AFL Players’ Association’s (AFLPA) Most Valuable Player and AFL Coaches Association’s (AFLCA) Champion Player of the Year awards.

In the other awards announced on Thursday night, Fremantle midfielder Caleb Serong won the Rising Star and Geelong’s Tom Hawkins collected the Coleman Medal following his 42-goal season.

Dangerfield continued his perfect streak of being named in the AFL’s best 22 every year since his high-profile move to the Cats from Adelaide in 2016.

He joins elite company with Robert Harvey (St Kilda), Mark Ricciuto (Adelaide), Gary Ablett Snr, Gary Ablett Jnr (Geelong) and Lance Franklin (Sydney) as the only other players to have earned eight All-Australian blazers.

Port Adelaide midfielder Travis Boak was handed the vice-captaincy, with the 32-year-old named in the team for the third time in his career.

Boak is joined in the midfield by Neale, Melbourne ace Christian Petracca and West Coast ruckman Nic Naitanui, whose second All-Australian appearance comes eight years after his first.

Explosive Demon Petracca is one of 12 debutants in the team, with the entire half-back line all first-timers.

Collingwood’s Darcy Moore was slotted into centre half-back, while GWS’ Nick Haynes and the Power’s Darcy Byrne-Jones are on either side of the Magpies tall.

Eleven clubs are represented with Geelong, Port Adelaide, West Coast and the Western Bulldogs leading the selections with three players each.

Despite Richmond having three players included in the 40-man squad on Tuesday, selectors decided to only pick superstar Dustin Martin from the reigning premiers after the dual Norm Smith medallist’s shock omission last year.

If it was not for the 2019 snub, this would have been Martin’s fifth-straight selection after being one of the first players picked from 2016 to 2018.

Neale firms as Brownlow Medal favourite

Neale, who is the red-hot favourite to take home the Brownlow Medal, was a clear MVP winner with 1,120 votes from his peers.

Boak (419) and Petracca (398) filled out the podium.

“It’s an award that I’m super proud to have won, to be voted by those who I play with and against makes it a really special award,” Neale said.

“I really respect the opinion of the other players and to be voted by them this year is something that I will look back on and be really proud of.

Neale, who earned his second All-Australian selection, led the AFL for disposals in 2020 and ranked in the top five for clearances and contested possessions.

A Brisbane Lions AFL player holds the ball in both hands during a match against Fremantle at the Gabba.
Lachie Neale is considered the outright favourite to win the Brownlow Medal.(AAP: Darren England)

He will be crucial to Brisbane’s premiership chances, starting with next week’s qualifying final against Richmond.

“There’s no guarantees that we get to that last game but we’ve set up the season really well and hopefully we can get there,” Neale said.

“There’s a lot of hard work to do before then and some great teams in our way.

“But I’m really confident in our playing group and our coaching group that we can get there.”

Neale won the AFLCA award with 93 votes, ahead of Petracca (78) and Boak (77).

Serong named Rising Star

Serong became the Dockers’ third Rising Star winner after edging out Gold Coast’s Noah Anderson.

The number eight pick in last year’s draft polled 48 votes to finish nine clear of Anderson, who was selected second by the Suns.

The 19-year-old is the Dockers’ first Rising Star winner since Rhys Palmer in 2008, with Paul Hasleby taking it out in 2000.

A Fremantle Dockers AFL player handballs to his right against Gold Coast Suns.
Caleb Serong enjoyed an outstanding debut season with the Dockers.(AAP: Dave Hunt)

He received the maximum five votes from eight of the 10 judges, with Kevin Bartlett and Chris Johnson giving their top honours to Anderson.

Serong shot to prominence in round eight after capturing 22 possessions and kicking a goal in a head-to-head duel with Geelong superstar Patrick Dangerfield.

Most of the Rising Star hype until that point had been around Gold Coast midfielder Matthew Rowell, but last year’s number one draft pick played just five matches after requiring shoulder surgery.

Serong averaged 16.8 disposals and 3.4 clearances across his 14 matches, combining with fellow young on-ballers Adam Cerra and Andrew Brayshaw to give support to dual Brownlow medallist Nat Fyfe.


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AFL’s Brisbane grand final may fuel Code Wars with NRL but both should focus on growing their sports

As an ecumenical sports fan in a country blessed by the possibility of watching any of four football codes during a slovenly iso night on the couch, you are not supposed to say this.

But I don’t mind a good Code Wars battle.

Kevin Sheedy gormlessly pretending not to know – or worse, actually not knowing — the name of NRL stars after stumbling across the Barassi Line into western Sydney.

The late Johnny Warren and his natural successor Craig Foster returning fire to those who ridiculed “wogball” and “boring goalless draws” with their dauntless belief the “world game” would prevail.

Roy Masters and Caroline Wilson sparring like Statler and Waldorf on Offsiders, the “great and glorious game of rugby league” pitted against the smug self-satisfaction of the southern religion.

I know, you’re meant to say, “Why can’t we all just enjoy the games without comparing them?” and “There is plenty of room for all?” — even if, as media rights money and sponsorship dwindles, this sentiment is somewhat naive.

But within reasonable bounds of good taste, the Code Wars theatre is a highly amusing alternative to the po-faced earnestness of on-message administrators.

Enter Australian Rugby League chairman Peter V’landys in tights and cape, leaping from the turnbuckle like a Labrador pouncing on a tennis ball.

The Australian Rugby League chairman speaks at an NRL media conference.
Peter V’landys is not concerned by the AFL grand final being staged in Brisbane.(AAP: Joel Carrett)

Pugnacious Pete jumped into the Code Wars fray this week after the AFL made the not particularly surprising decision to transfer this season’s grand final from the sadly abandoned MCG to the Gabba.

“It’s like feeding meat to a vegetarian,” V’landys told The Courier Mail of the AFL’s decision to throw a bone to the Brisbane public.

“The vegetarian might try it for a few minutes but then goes back to being a vegetarian.”

Casting Queenslanders as the vegetarians betrays an unexpected misunderstanding of the local market by the NRL chief.

Otherwise, his image of slightly nauseated Brisbane fans picking fragments of Dustin Martin and Nic Natanui from their teeth while they wait for Cam Smith to come and rescue their beloved Broncos is Code Wars gold.

It is also a colourful distraction from the boring truth — Code Wars are not being fought in packed stadiums or with punchy sound bites, but in school playgrounds and local parks on Saturday mornings.

The AFL premiership cup glistens in the sunlight while sitting on the turf at the Gabba
The AFL is hoping the Gabba grand final will strengthen its footing in Queensland.(AAP: Darren England)

According to The Courier Mail: “AFL powerbrokers have devised a long-term strategy to take over the NRL in Queensland and believe the Gabba grand final is a springboard towards cross-codes domination.”

In truth, the AFL is no more bent on market domination in Queensland than the world tiddlywinks association is dedicated to replacing football in Brazil.

Despite the Brisbane Lions 2001-2003 premiership three-peat, the flagship club had struggled to maintain profile in recent years.

Meanwhile, the estimated $200 million that will be invested in the Gold Coast Suns is a twenty-year project that — when COVID-19 struck — was considered instantly expendable by those heartland AFL clubs who view the Suns as an expensive indulgence.

Thus rather than dominance driven by powerful clubs, the AFL’s plan is merely to gain a sustainable niche in Queensland by developing the game from the grassroots up.

This is based on a rationale that has underpinned much of the AFL’s growth across Australia — those who play the game are many times more likely to watch, attend, buy merchandise and otherwise support the game.

Which, for those who view sport through the prism of elite competitions, brings us to the boring bit.

Development officers spending years finding grassroots volunteers to run programs that ensure so-called “participants” do more than pick up a free pack of goodies at an entry-level clinic.

They provide educational programs and resources for clubs to ensure they have the capacity to absorb increases in participation and improve retention rates at a time when kids are spoiled for choice — and notoriously difficult to budge from screens.

Grassroots investment is vital

The need to work from the grassroots up is informed by those sports that have failed, or have lacked the resources, to capitalise on their rare moment in the sun as much as those who are succeeding.

Remember how after Sydney Olympics thousands of people were so inspired we now have a generation of dedicated dressage riders, hammer throwers and Greco-Roman wrestlers?

Me neither.

The truth was that, as after most Olympics, more kids turned up at athletics clubs or archery ranges that were ill-equipped or not sufficiently funded to cope with their interest and, within months, the normal sporting order was restored.

The difficult spadework required to exploit precious exposure is particularly pressing in female sports given the current crush of major events and the emergence of high-profile stars across the spectrum.

If Cricket Australia was not working hard at the lowest levels supporting club volunteers, March’s T20 World Cup victory would have just been a well-attended Katy Perry concert.

A footballer with her back to camera celebrates a goal with teammates in Olympic football qualifier.
The Matildas’ 2023 World Cup campaign could do wonders for football in Australia.(AAP: Darren Pateman)

The same could be said of the AFLW’s current profile and — in prospect — the FIFA Women’s World Cup, which will be an opportunity wasted if Football Federation Australia does not use it to drive improved retention rates among the already large pool of early-age participants.

Accordingly, the rhetoric of the deluded AFL advocates pushing the idea a Queensland grand final will be crushing blow for Aussie rules in Queensland and the disdainful responses of NRL loyalists is just more Code Wars white noise.

In the COVID-19 era, the Code Wars winners will be those sports which hold their nerve when cutting budgets and continue to invest in development and growth.

Not those who put on the best laser light show at a displaced game.

Offsiders will cover all the latest sports issues, including a special look at international events, on Sunday at 10:00am on ABC TV.

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AFL’s unprecedented season has torn up the rulebook. A night grand final is the latest break from tradition

One by one in this most bizarre of AFL seasons, the barriers have come down.

If staging the grand final outside of Melbourne for the first time wasn’t enough of a break from tradition, the AFL doubled down by announcing another first: this year’s decider at the Gabba would be played at night.

A possible afternoon clash with the Cox Plate on October 24 — one of the biggest events in Melbourne’s Spring Racing Carnival — gave the AFL the opportunity to make the move.

“Certainly, I don’t think any earlier than 5:30pm up here [6:30pm in Melbourne] and more likely later in the day,” the AFL’s chief executive Gillon McLachlan said when asked exactly what time it could be staged.

The announcement has been coming for weeks if not months, but even then, the final decision was only made this week.

“We were sort of landing this in the last 24 hours,” McLachlan said.

A jockey rides a horse out front to victory in the Cox Plate.
The timing of the Cox Plate has been a key factor in the move to hold the AFL grand final at night.(AAP: Michael Dodge)

The key word in that last sentence is “broadcasters”.

The NRL, which has always been less slavish to tradition, has staged night grand finals for almost two decades. Yes, it was brought in to appease the broadcasters, but arguably the spectacle is also greater.


Night-time is prime time and there’s no question the AFL’s broadcast partners have wanted to move the grand final for years.

Seven West’s Managing Director, James Warburton, took a break from bashing Cricket Australia last month to heap praise on the AFL and spruik the possibility of a night grand final, saying it would be ideal from an advertising perspective.

“Obviously, having a crowd would be absolutely fantastic and possibly being a prime-time grand final, if that’s the direction they would go, it would be a fantastic revenue outcome for us as well,” Warburton said.

The possibility has been discussed ad nauseum.

The sticking point has been tradition, but it’s been an odd logic.

The AFL’s marquee timeslot each round (up till this season, at least) has been Friday night.

Six of the AFL’s eight finals last season (excluding the grand final) were played at night — and one of the remaining two was a twilight fixture starting in the late afternoon.

GWS run out onto the MCG for the AFL grand final
Pre COVID-19, tradition had decreed that the AFL’s biggest game of the year was held in mid-afternoon.(ABC News: Chloe Hart)

Yet tradition has dictated the grand final has remained a day game.


Whether you’re a fan of the afternoon slot or not, the argument in favour of tradition that goes: “that’s how we’ve always done it” is about the weakest available.

Tradition dictates that the umpires bounce the ball at the start of every quarter and after every goal even though they regularly stuff it up and revert to throwing it straight up which works every time.

This year has proven that anything is possible. It turns out you don’t have to have a full fixture scheduled months in advance of the season, you can do it week to week.

If there is a possible fly in the ointment, it’s the possibility that the dewy conditions which can prevail in the humid Brisbane nights could ruin the spectacle of the game, as the ball becomes as slippery as if it were raining.

But Gillon McLachlan was relaxed about the prospect.

“Very confident about the dew and if it is [dewy], then it’ll be a game where it has dew.”

He has a point — Aussie Rules is a sport that has to roll with the conditions. After all, it can rain in Melbourne in late September.

Ground staff bring the covers on at the Gabba as rain falls in a Sheffield Shield match in October.
Followers of Queensland’s Sheffield Shield team know that the Gabba can get pretty damp in October.(AAP: Jono Searle)

The question that will hang around next year, is that now that the mould has been broken, will night grand finals become a regular fixture — even if AFL life returns to some kind of normal?

McLachlan is leaving the possibility open.

“Clearly people will have a look at it, and it won’t be so foreign I’m sure and you’ll debate it on its merits afterwards,” he said.

Asked straight out if this year would be a circuit-breaker to help push through future night grand finals, he said:

“So I think everyone can see what the game looks like at night and with the other stuff wrapped around it, and then you can make a more balanced decision next year.

In a season where everything has gone out the window, tradition has also been given the flick.

A day grand final was sacrosanct until, all of a sudden, it wasn’t.

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AFL’s Gabba grand final is only weeks away. Here are the key things you need to know

The AFL’s decision has been confirmed and the grand final is heading to Brisbane, but there is a bit to work through before the big day.

While the date and destination may be locked in, how the grand final and all its surrounding pageantry will look is still up in the air, as is the make-up of the finals in the lead-up.

Here are some of the more interesting points to come out of the big announcement that the Gabba will be hosting the AFL grand final on October 24.

Will this be the first-ever night grand final?

It sure will.

Exactly what time the game will start is yet to be determined, with a few factors — like the running of the Cox Plate and the fact Queensland does not have daylight savings while the rest of the east coast does — still to be worked through.

Chief executive Gillon McLachlan said on Wednesday the game would not start any earlier than 5:30pm in Brisbane — that’s 6:30pm in Melbourne — but would more likely be later.

Making a move to a night grand final has been a hot topic in AFL circles for years, but it has taken such unprecedented circumstances for the switch to finally be made.

McLachlan also called the switch to a night grand final a “historic first”, one which gives the league “an opportunity to make it a truly unique event”.

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.

AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan announces this year’s grand final will be played at the Gabba.

What sort of crowd will be allowed in?

McLachlan said the grand final will be played before a crowd of at least 30,000 people.

AFL fixtures boss Travis Auld echoed that later in the day, saying the AFL was “extremely confident we’ll get that 30,000 on October 24”.

So far this season, the Gabba has not been able to get close to that mark, with crowds capped at less than 15,000. The AFL says it has the ability to reduce crowd numbers should the COVID-19 situation make 30,000 unreachable.

What if Queensland is no longer a suitable option?

Should there be a significant coronavirus outbreak or some other reason that prevents the Gabba from playing host, Adelaide Oval is lined up as the AFL’s backup plan.

A young Brisbane Lions fan waves a flag as he smiles in the stands at the Gabba next to two adults.
The plan is for a crowd of at least 30,000 people at the grand final.(AAP: Darren England)

McLachlan, though, was eager to stress that a move to Adelaide would only be as a last resort.

“It is not something we are contemplating, but I think it is prudent of us to have, incumbent upon us to have that backup plan,” he said.

How will finals work?

The AFL is still working through this too, but we know a few things for sure — one of which being that Western Australia will not be able to host a preliminary final, should the Eagles earn a home one.

McLachlan said the requirement for teams to spend seven days in quarantine upon arrival means only the first week of finals — which will come after a bye week — is a viable option. That same quarantine requirement is also what quashed WA’s grand final bid, he said.

Port Adelaide, on the other hand, will not face the same impediment, with McLachlan confirming South Australia will be able to host a potential preliminary final.

There is the possibility that teams who have earned a home final but can not play it in their home state may be able to take it to its choice of ground — say, should West Coast want to play a ‘home” prelim at Adelaide Oval rather than in Queensland — but that is yet to be confirmed.

The league says it will sort out details about finals in the coming days.

Will there be a Brownlow Medal ceremony?

That’s another one that’s on the AFL’s list to sort out soon, but Auld suggested it was a possibility to go ahead in some form.

Brisbane Lions players run on to the field as fireworks, flame and smoke surround their entrance
A “festival of football” is being planned for Queensland during grand final week.(AAP: Darren England)

“We’ve talked about the Brownlow, we just need to think about how we do that,” he said.

“Like everything else this year, we have to think about things differently, we have to work out whether we run it as an event.”

What about a grand final parade, or something like that?

According to McLachlan, Queensland can brace for a “festival of football” that will extend beyond Brisbane “from Far North Queensland to the Gold Coast”.

“Part of that festival will see the premiership cup come to regional Queensland centres and a series of activities for kids and fans of the football season, so across Queensland, as many as possible in the state can enjoy the game,” he said.

Again, the finer details remain to be determined but it seems like Queenslanders can expect some sort of grand final fun come late October.

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The AFL’s best defenders now come in many different shapes and sizes — so how do you pick an All Australian team?

The 2020 AFL home and away season has entered its home stretch, and though so much about the immediate future remains murky, that familiar pre-finals buzz is certainly growing.

Teams and fans will be forensically assessing the machinations of the races for top two, four and eight, plotting potential paths through the finals all the way to that One Day in Late October at the storied Insert Chosen Football Ground Here.

But along with that comes a rapid rise in retrospection, mostly for the sake of predicting and proclaiming worthy winners of the various end of season awards. Inevitably, the most spirited of those discussions will be centred around the makeup of the All Australian team.

This year will be no different, and the well-publicised weirdness of the season will make selecting its best team an especially weird task.

Difficult decisions loom across all lines — how many smalls can you cram into a forward line? Will selectors be excited by new midfield blood over the ever-present superstars? What to do in the ruck?

None of those are easy problems to solve, but none are anywhere near as difficult as the full-on battle royale that has broken out among the league’s defenders this season.

A Gold Coast Suns AFL player stretches out his left arm to punch the ball in front of an Essendon opponent.
In a low-scoring season, defenders have never been more important.(AAP: Dave Hunt)

Defence has been king in 2020, and, as a result, the defenders have become the most important, most valued and most impressive members of their respective teams. The list of All Australian back-line candidates is beyond extensive.

Let’s take a run through them then. All of these players have been named as either All Australian “locks”, “bolters”, “candidates”, “smokeys” or simply just “in the conversation” at some point over the last couple of months. Ready?

Harris Andrews, Jacob Weitering, Sam Docherty, Liam Jones, Darcy Moore, Brayden Maynard, Adam Saad, Jordan Ridley, Luke Ryan, Nick Haynes, Steven May, Robbie Tarrant, Tom Jonas, Darcy Byrne-Jones, Dylan Grimes, Jayden Short, Nick Vlastuin, Hunter Clark, Jake Lloyd, Callum Mills, Brad Sheppard and Caleb Daniel.

That list is probably missing a few, and doesn’t even include Jeremy Howe, James Sicily, Dane Rampe or Jeremy McGovern, all of whom have had All Australian buzz or have reached that standard of play but have missed too much footy through injury to be considered.

How in the wide world are you supposed to narrow that list down to six players and not spark a civil war?

Cases could be made for every single one of those players to, at the very least, be included in the All Australian squad of 40 players. All have had very good seasons. Most will miss out.

A Carlton AFL player handballs while a Gold Coast Suns opponent attempts to make a tackle.
Jacob Weitering is enjoying the best season of his career.(AAP: Dave Hunt)

Perhaps the best and most fair way to look at it is to treat the All Australian backline in the same way any AFL team would select its own side — by picking the best players for specific roles.

For the sake of the argument, those roles could be defined as key defenders, rebounding defenders and lockdown defenders. Granted all of those roles overlap in modern footy, but this is a hypothetical team being picked using hypothetical metrics so we’re going to ignore the hypothetical limits of this method and push ahead.

First, the key defenders — the big guys who will nominally line up on the opposition’s best key forward but are also required to be proficient intercept markers.

Of those, you can lock in Andrews. He leads his contemporaries in spoils and one-percenters, has engaged in more one-on-one battles than any defender in the league and wins them nearly 85 per cent of the time. He’s also seventh in the league for intercept marks — the big Lion can do it all.

The second spot is almost impossible to fill though, and will come down to what to selectors value most. If you are looking for another key defender in the Andrews mould, Carlton’s Jones and West Coast’s Tom Barrass (who is one of the few defenders in the league not to be suggested as an AA pick) are statistically the closest matches.

If you want a pure interceptor in that role, look no further than Haynes from the Giants, or maybe Collins from the Suns. If you want to really nullify the opposition’s star forward, you could make a good argument for Weitering. Looking for a big man who can also help carry you forward? Freo’s Ryan is a standout.

An AFL defender grasps the football above his head while an opponent tries to grab him from behind.
Nick Haynes has been the AFL’s preeminent intercept marker this year.(AAP: Julian Smith)

It’s a complicated decision. And that’s probably the easiest role to select from.

Picking two rebounders is even tougher. The easiest stat to look at for this one would be metres gained, but you may not immediately guess which defender is leading that field.

The answer is Gold Coast’s Jack Lukosius, who will spend the next 10 years in All Australian debates but hasn’t really entered this one yet. Behind him is Short from Richmond, who is also second for effective disposals, first for running bounces and sixth for inside 50s.

Sydney’s Lloyd is the most prolific and most effective user of the ball among the league’s defenders, but little Dog Daniel isn’t far behind. Saad is particularly strong at bringing the ball inside 50 and is in the top three for score launches, as is Byrne-Jones who has the advantage of being one of the league’s best at defensive half pressure acts too.

Docherty rates well across the board, particularly at rebound 50s as the Blues have looked to get the ball in his hands coming out of defence as much as possible. There are six players, seven if you include Lukosius, who all deserve consideration.

But the absolute hardest category to assess is those pure lockdown defenders, the types of players who can play taller or smaller depending on the opponent, the jacks of all trades who don’t always show up on the stat sheet but can often decide matches.

Traditionally, Maynard was one of those for Collingwood but his game has come on so well that he is now successfully doing it both ways. He’s both second for tackles and third for metres gained, and is probably in line for his first selection.

Among a sea of players, Maynard looks up and gets a quick handball away
Brayden Maynard has made massive improvements in 2020.(AAP: Darren England)

Then you’ve got the likes of Jonas, Grimes, Sheppard and even Tarrant, the masters of the intangibles who regularly go unnoticed but are rarely beaten. Picking any one of them would be more of a “vibe”, and in the cases of Jonas and Sheppard, might be reward for many seasons of good work rather than one standout 2020.

So there you go, clear as mud. A million candidates for six spots, each with valid reasons for selection and justifiable cause for disappointment if they miss out.

If you were hoping to get to the bottom of this and find the answer hidden in the statistics, you are going to be disappointed. What this mess does do though is paint a picture of a game that is rapidly evolving and a position that is now more multi-faceted than ever.

Every single player listed is different to the one before it, and each adds something invaluable to their teams. Comparing and contrasting them is essentially a pointless task (and yet, here we are), and trying to rank them in any sort of meaningful way is impossible.

The fact is what it means to be a defender has changed, and is still changing. That’s not going to stop the fume from fans when their chosen candidate is viciously snubbed by the inherently biased All Australian selectors, but it probably should garner those same selectors some sympathy.

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Richmond beats Essendon in AFL’s Dreamtime in Darwin encounter as Fremantle, Port Adelaide and Bulldogs post wins

Reigning premier Richmond has surged into the AFL’s top-four with a spirited 12-point victory against Essendon in the AFL’s Dreamtime in Darwin fixture.

The Tigers jumped from sixth to third on the ladder with a hard-fought 10.13 (73) to 10.1 (61) triumph in the marquee encounter of the AFL’s Sir Doug Nicholls round.

But spearhead Tom Lynch, days after being fined $2,000 for separate incidents, will again come under match review scrutiny for a behind-play forearm to the throat of Bomber Michael Hurley.

Also on Saturday night, Fremantle defeated a lacklustre Sydney by 31 points in Perth, while earlier Port Adelaide and the Western Bulldogs posted respective victories.

The annual Dreamtime match continued Essendon’s recent run of outs, with the Bombers having just one win from their past seven matches, while they lost luckless backman Aaron Francis to a hamstring injury.


The Bombers unveiled a potential cult figure, with Indigenous debutant Irving Mosquito kicking two goals, including a stunner on the run.

But the Bombers were overpowered by Richmond’s big guns: Dustin Martin (29 disposals, one goal, nine inside 50s) and Shai Bolton (28 touches, one goal) ruled the midfield while Lynch and Jack Riewoldt slotted two majors each.

The Tigers’ defence, featuring Liam Baker (16 possessions) was stingy and Ivan Soldo had the better of the rucks.

Essendon’s Zach Merrett was superb with a match-high 34 disposals and a goal, Devon Smith (28 possessions) battled gamely while James Stewart matched Mosquito’s return of two goals.

The match turned amid controversy in the second term moments after Mosquito’s memorable highlight.

The 19-year-old from Halls Creek in northern Western Australia flashed through a pack, gathered the ball 65 metres from goal, took a bounce and threaded a left-footer from a challenging angle.


Just 90 seconds after the act of brilliance, Bomber Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti took a chest mark and ran into an open goal.

But his teammate Jake Stringer was penalised for a push on Richmond’s Dylan Grimes and the score — which would have given Essendon an 11-point lead — did not count.

Instead, Richmond rallied with two goals in the next three minutes to take a seven-point half-time lead, which did not duly reflect the control of the match that the Tigers enjoyed.

But it took just 10 more minutes for the Tigers to finally cash in.

They made three rapid strikes with goals to Riewoldt, Martin and Kane Lambert creating a 25-point advantage.

The closest Essendon got thereafter was nine points early in the final quarter.

But Richmond killed off the challenge with the next three goals, before the Bombers belatedly scored the last three of the match to reduce the final margin.

Dockers restrict Swans to two goals

The Sydney Swans managed just two goals in clear conditions in their loss to Fremantle.

Fremantle forward Matt Taberner pulled down nine marks — four of which were contested — and booted two goals in the 7.8 (50) to 2.7 (19) win.

The result improved Fremantle’s win-loss record to 5-7, while Sydney (4-8) is officially out of the finals race.

Sydney’s score of 19 was its lowest ever total since South Melbourne became the Sydney Swans in 1982.

The club’s previous lowest tally recorded as the Swans was the 23 they posted against Collingwood in round 13, 1988.

A group of Sydney Swans AFL players stand looking disappointed after losing to Fremantle.
The Swans were left to do some soul searching after the defeat to the Dockers in Perth.(AAP: Gary Day)

Sydney booted the first goal of the match through Tom McCartin after just four minutes.

Their second goal did not come until six minutes into the final term when Sam Wicks kicked truly.

By that stage, the Swans trailed by 33 points and the contest was all but over.

Taberner’s strong marking and sharp leading proved too hard to contain, with the 27-year-old improving his season tally to 23 goals.

Luke Ryan (26 disposals) edged closer to a maiden All-Australian berth with another outstanding display in defence, while Andrew Brayshaw (27 disposals), and Nat Fyfe (22 disposals, six clearances) were prolific in the middle.

Jake Lloyd (28 disposals) led the way for Sydney, but the fact of the matter was the Swans managed just two goals despite winning the inside 50s count 43-34.

Power grind out win over plucky Hawks

AFL ladder leader Port Adelaide put a horror week behind the club by grinding out a 10-point win over Hawthorn.

The under-strength Hawks shocked the Power by kicking the opening three goals at Adelaide Oval and scores were level at three-quarter time.

But the home side prevailed, 9.14 (68) to 9.4 (58), after young star Zak Butters sliced through a forward-50 stoppage to collect Scott Lycett’s expert ruck tap and kick the sealer with two minutes left.

Milestone man Tom Rockliff (28 disposals) starred in his 200th AFL match and fellow veteran Travis Boak (33) continued his outstanding season.

The Power’s positive result came after an embarrassing last-start defeat to Geelong and costly COVID-19 protocol breaches by Peter Ladhams and Dan Houston, who were suspended on Thursday.

Charlie Dixon rebounded from a goalless showing against the Cats with two majors and Indigenous star Sam Powell-Pepper (21 disposals) was a constant threat for Port Adelaide in the competition’s feature Sir Doug Nicholls Round.

A Port Adelaide AFL player yells out as he pumps his right fist while celebrating a goal against Hawthorn.
Charlie Dixon celebrates one of his two goals against the Hawks.(AAP: David Mariuz)

Former Power players Chad Wingard, Shaun Burgoyne (two goals each) and Jarman Impey (one) were all prominent for Hawthorn, as were James Worpel (26 touches) and Tom Mitchell (25).

The Hawks’ early intensity and hot start saw the visitors kick the opening three goals, raising hopes of an upset.

Tempers flared during the second quarter as Stratton and Dixon clashed, with the Power forward eventually losing his jumper in the ensuing melee.

Dixon could also come under scrutiny from the match review officer for pushing his elbow into Stratton’s head as they wrestled on the ground.

Like Rockliff, Hawthorn captain Stratton was making his 200th senior appearance.

It looked like his side might help him celebrate by causing a major upset until Port Adelaide took control of general play in the final quarter, kicking 2.4 to 1.0 in the process to complete a hard-fought victory.

The Power will start favourites again when they meet Sydney on Saturday in the second of four straight matches against teams currently positioned outside the top eight.

Hawthorn has now lost seven of its last eight matches and tackle Essendon on Thursday night.

Bulldogs move inside top eight

A career-best day for Mitch Wallis helped Western Bulldogs into the AFL’s top eight, while Melbourne was left to rue a dismal third term in a 28-point loss.

Rocked by the 11th-hour withdrawal of Nathan Jones (quad injury), the Demons led by seven points at half-time in the round-13 encounter before the Bulldogs kicked six consecutive goals to set up the 12.8 (80) to 7.10 (52) win in Carrara.

The victory saw Luke Beveridge’s Bulldogs (7-6) take the Demons’ (6-6) spot inside the top eight with five rounds to play.

The Bulldogs have not been inside the eight since round nine.

Wallis dominated on goal for the Bulldogs with four majors, while Jack McRae, Bailey Smith, Lachie Hunter, Marcus Bontempelli and Tom Liberatore all had between 22 and 26 disposals.

Christian Petracca (26 disposals, eight clearances), Angus Brayshaw and Jack Viney were busy but helpless during the third-term onslaught from the Bulldogs that ultimately decided the contest.

A Western Bulldogs AFL player runs with the ball in two hands as he his chased by a Melbourne opponent.
Lachie Hunter has a busy day for the Bulldogs with 24 disposals.(AAP: Albert Perez)

The Bulldogs clicked into gear after the main break when they opted to handball through the midfield.

The ever-lurking Wallis benefited, kicking two of his majors in the third term, while Bailey Williams was gifted another when Jake Melksham gave away a 50-metre penalty.

Liberatore was efficient early in the match, with nine of his first 10 possessions contested. He also kicked a goal as the two sides traded majors in the first half.

Aside from losing Jones before the match, the Demons were struck down by an injury blow during the contest, with Tom Sparrow helped from the field with a suspected shoulder injury.


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Aboriginal flag’s absence from AFL’s Indigenous Round highlights ongoing issues

Strange as it may seem, the AFL will not be displaying the Aboriginal flag on its grounds during its Indigenous Round this weekend.

As an Aboriginal man, that stings. The flag means so much to me. It should be celebrated.

It’s a copyright dispute. A company not owned by Indigenous Australians, WAM Clothing, has exclusive rights to use the flag on clothing.

Last year it threatened legal action against the AFL and NRL for using the flag on their respective Indigenous Round jerseys.

Jake Waterman screams in delight and holds his arms out to the side
All AFL teams wear Indigenous-themed jerseys, but none will feature the Aboriginal flag this year.(AAP: Gary Day)

The use of the Aboriginal flag has been a source of much tension within the Aboriginal community in recent years.

The Melbourne-based, Indigenous-owned social enterprise, Clothing the Gap, was also issued with cease-and-desist letters last year for using the Aboriginal flag.

As a result, it has started a campaign called Free the Flag.

As the name suggests, the campaign is designed to wrest control of the flag’s rights back from WAM Clothing to the Aboriginal people.

Sydney Swans star Lance Franklin, a Wajak and Noongar man, was criticised by some Indigenous communities earlier this year because his clothing brand negotiated with WAM to use the Aboriginal flag.

As a result of the backlash, Franklin removed the merchandise from sale.

“It was never our intention to disrespect others in Aboriginal communities,” Franklin said.

“As a result of this issue, we will not be seeking to order or sell any further T-shirts or merchandise until the matter of our flag being made freely available is resolved for the good of our people, and our country.”

Lance Franklin in the Swans new Indigenous guernsey
Lance Franklin pulled merchandise from his fashion line after complaints from the Indigenous community.(Supplied: Sydney Swans)

At a time when the Black Lives Matter movement has reached a fever pitch and many Indigenous footballers have been targeted with online racial attacks, the Aboriginal flag’s absence from Sir Doug Nicholls Round will be a glaring omission.

The Indigenous playing cohort are all incredibly proud of their heritage and this round is one they all circle as soon as the fixture comes out.

For Aboriginal people, the flag means everything. It is more than a flag — it is a symbol of pride, love and identity.

Last weekend, ABC Grandstand spoke to St Kilda’s Noongar and Yamajti star, Paddy Ryder, about the fact the Saints would not be playing in their Indigenous jumper this week.

“All the boys are pretty disappointed,” Ryder said.

“We’re running out with red, black and yellow socks but it’s nowhere near the same thing. We’re spewing.”

Paddy Ryder leaps towards a yellow ball and looks to catch it with one hand above the ball
Paddy Ryder said he was “spewing” about the Indigenous flag not being on kits this year.(AAP: Dan Peled)

The AFL community now finds itself again in a position where its power and influence can be harnessed to make positive changes for Aboriginal people.

Earlier this year, AFLPA president and Geelong star Patrick Dangerfield said in relation to the Black Lives Matter protests: “I think it’s being there for them [the AFL’s Indigenous players], that they’re comfortable with everything that’s happening, but also how can we improve it?”

“How can it be something more than that, that’s ongoing and we facilitate and really drive real change within all Australians.”

Two players who are already living by that creed are Collingwood’s Narungga star Travis Varcoe and teammate Darcy Moore. They’ve joined Clothing the Gap’s Free the Flag campaign as formal ambassadors.

As we look forward to this year’s Indigenous Round — where “Dreamtime at the G” becomes “Dreamtime in the NT” — the absence of the Aboriginal flag highlights just how much work there is still to be done.

Despite my excitement to see the competition celebrate Indigenous culture, I cannot help but see the irony.

Those Aboriginal players whose culture we are celebrating, and whose stories we are telling, will not have their own flag on the grounds.

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