The magnitude of what the AFL lost when it turned its back on Tasmania some two decades ago was not lost on anyone among the 500 who attended Wednesday night’s celebration of Tasmanian Football.
In fact anyone lucky enough to move from Lou Richards’ state funeral earlier in the day to the unique Tasmanian football function at the other end of town ended their day emotionally drenched not so much with sadness but melancholy – nostalgia for a football time that somehow disappeared from within our grasp when we weren’t concentrating.
Chris Fagan, the Queenstown boy who became a hall of famer in his home state and now Brisbane Lions coach, captured the so-called “elephant in the room” when he declared there was a “higher purpose” facing head office. That higher purpose said Fagan was not about marketing or economics.
“I’m talking about heritage and culture and legacy,” said Fagan, a panellist at the function alongside fellow Tasmanians Rodney Eade and Brendon Bolton. “The AFL won’t be truly complete until there is a Tasmanian team. They [the AFL] would do a magnificent thing if they were to have a Tasmanian team.” Peter Hudson presented the narrative, Alastair Lynch the interviews which featured Nick Riewoldt and his equally passionate Tasmanian cousin Jack, a keynote speech by Matthew Richardson, who lovingly described a football pathway journeying along north-west Tasmania that he fears is no longer available to children from his home state.
Geelong’s Jackson Thurlow represented the increasingly rare example of a young Tasmanian footballer in the AFL, while the Robert Shaw-coached state team including Scott Clayton, Graham Wright, Simon Atkins and the Gale brothers that defeated Victoria took the stage.
Triple Brownlow medallist Ian Stewart, a rare public performer moved to speech by what he witnessed, declared his ongoing embarrassment whenever he is compared to the “greatest footballer I’ve seen” Darrel Baldock – whose grandchildren attended the function. Of the three living Tasmanian Australian Football Hall of Fame legends only Royce Hart failed to show.
But none of the above compared with the montage of ovals across the state from Penguin to Sandy Bay, football ovals by rivers and along the coast and nestling into historic building and featuring empty club rooms – ovals where, according to the Tasmanian Football Foundation’s James Henderson, football is no longer played.
If ever the message was to resonate it was on Wednesday night. AFL chief Gillon McLachlan, two other league commissioners, Tasmanian Premier Will Hodgman and four other AFL executives along with the presidents of Hawthorn and North Melbourne all attended.
McLachlan restated his support for a single Tasmanian team, a view he has to date failed to act upon. The sight of all those historic grounds lying empty when the Sydney and GWS reserves struggle to find grounds to play on could not have been lost on the game’s decision-makers. Still this was not a night of recriminations or finger-pointing; more celebration and hope.
“My view has been a single united Tasmanian team and I’ve been very public about that,” said McLachlan, urging Tasmanians not to give up on their dream of a stand-alone team before entering the Crown function.
“…The biggest challenge to a single model is the two incumbents with long-term deals and we respect those. There is no easy solution other than just working towards a prosperous football state and working with all the stakeholders.” The problem being that those AFL club stakeholders being Hawthorn and North Melbourne – particularly Hawthorn who first went to Tasmania 16 years ago -have proved significantly more interested in taking money out of the state than putting football in.
How else do you explain the fact that no Tasmanian player was drafted last year? The beautiful but stark and empty ovals – some no longer in existence? The fact that the Hawks did not even bother to apply for a women’s licence the first time around or engage with the state in a united push?
McLachlan’s task in part involves negotiating the Hawks out of Tasmania – which will come at a price – unless that club is prepared to play football across the state. Or convince the Kangaroos with their new multicultural Tasmanian academy to do the same.
Again, where North is concerned, it’s all largely about the money.
Should the new deal at Etihad Stadium prove as generous as the Docklands home clubs had hoped, there is no chance the Kangaroos will play more than three home games in Tasmania. Should they prove successful in enlisting the help of that state in gaining a women’s licence, the state government should insist upon naming the club the Tasmanian Kangaroos.
More preferable altogether would be a stand-alone Tasmanian women’s team. And, as impossible as it seems now, an AFL men’s team. The irony was that two of the three Tasmanian-bred coaches who appeared on stage in Eade and Fagan coach the AFL’s two biggest problem children.
And as Andrew Demetriou said recently, if the Gold Coast will only ever be a modest football club why not consider Tasmania and the potential membership of tens of thousands of expats as a fall-back position should the AFL’s clout and that of the Suns’ new CEO Mark Evans fail to ignite the competition’s 17th club?
Still, as one elder statesman of the Tasmanian cause pointed out last night, the baton has been handed over. Perhaps the passion shared by a group including the Riewoldts, Richo and the significant clout of the Tasmanian Football Foundation, combined with McLachlan’s stated philosophy, will finally shift the game’s thinking.
And the view that the game cannot grow without a game each week in southern Queensland might not prove the deal breaker it was a decade ago. That perhaps ploughing millions of dollars into a small and financially struggling state bursting with football heritage and passion and creating its own AFL side could actually succeed.
Certainly the prospect of a Tasmanian team in the AFL does not seem as unthinkable as a national women’s league televised in prime time and actually winning its time slot did even five years ago.