AFL North-East Border has declared structural change is firmly on the agenda with a recently released state of the region report providing the proof clubs are feeling the pinch.
Regional manager John O’Donohue has defended the commission’s hands-off approach to date, but conceded the ongoing, two-pronged problem of too many clubs and not enough players had worsened in the last two years.
Intervention appears inevitable with greater co-operation between the governing bodies on both sides of the border to be the forerunner to changes one of the problem spots, the Corowa Cluster, where Corowa-Rutherglen, CDHBU, Billabong Crows, Wahgunyah and Rutherglen are competing for a diminishing player pool.
A recently formed advisory group which includes personnel independent of AFLNEB will meet next week for the first time to review data collected in the area over a two-year period.
But Mr O’Donohue said the “fresh set of eyes” was expected to reach the same conclusions.
“What it will do I think is re-confirm exactly what we projected in 2016 and wasn’t adequately addressed at the end of 2017,” he said.
“What we projected would happen in 2018 has come to fruition.
“We’ve been trying to make decisions for an area governed by both Victoria and NSW and found that hard to get past.
“Despite the best intentions of we couldn’t come up with an acceptable solution.”
Population drift away from smaller communities is hurting the game.
The Upper Murray league is also battling with no under-16s competition this season and an under-13s age group where clubs are struggling to field a full team every week.
The league’s pacesetter this season, Bullioh, has confirmed it is exploring the possibility of a move to the Tallangatta and District league.
But the Ovens and Murray and Ovens and King leagues are not without their issues with a shortage of players a common theme.
Myrtleford is not fielding an under-18s team this season and the O and K has some of the most lopsided weekly results of any league in the state.
“In terms of player numbers we have been living in a bit of a false economy for a long time,” Mr O’Donohue said.
“Permit use in this area only seven or eight years ago was so high it was off the scale.
“Fast forward to today and the numbers of players just aren’t there.
“We are not going to fall over tomorrow, but things have accelerated over the last couple of years and we need to start the discussion.
“If arms of your business weren’t working, you could shut them down and find efficiencies somewhere else.
“But with footy clubs you’ve got this emotional attachment and this whole community ownership.
“Shifting, changing are significant things so emotional reaction is understandable.”
The most significant recent structural change to take place in the North-East was the demise of the Benalla and District league which folded at the end of 2009 and four of its former clubs, Bonnie Doon, Goorambat, Tatong and Swanpool were moved into the Ovens and King.
Tatong and Swanpool folded in 2014 when they wouldn’t agree to a merger with Goorambat.
Bonnie Doon is anchored to the bottom of the O and K ladder with no wins and a percentage of only 7.81 and Goorambat has won just the two games.
Mr O’Donohue said all stakeholders had to be “aligned” for major change to work and be embraced.
“Our end game here is to start the discussion that change is inevitable,” he said.
“But for us to implement significant reform or change we need to align everyone because as soon you do something in one league it has consequences somewhere else.
“It only takes one executive member from one league not to be on board and we’ve suddenly got a massive s..t fight amongst ourselves.”
Mr O’Donohue cited the present example of a situation in Geelong where for three years AFL Barwon has been attempting to introduce a divisional structure, but is still not off the ground.
A push by the Goulburn Valley league to introduce an under-16s competition is facing similar difficulties getting off the ground with opposition coming from Benalla and Mansfield which both field teams in the Wangaratta and District league administered by AFLNEB.
“We strongly believe that it is unrealistic to introduce a new team in the (GV) under-16 age group without it impacting significantly on the two existing teams, the Benalla Bulldogs and Benalla Giants,” Benalla and District Junior Football League president Darren Skelton said.
“Simply, we do not have the number of players in this age group to field three teams.”
“Loss of players from the existing teams would threaten the viability of Benalla's affiliation with the Wangaratta juniors and have a significant impact on participation levels across other age groups.”
Benalla Saints have indicated they will not be fielding a team in the Goulburn Valley under-16s if the competition starts next season.
The Ovens and Murray league has flagged its own desire to have an under-16 competition, but has been thwarted by AFLNEB to date due to the impact it would have on the Albury-Wodonga and Wangaratta junior competitions.
The O and M has remained a 10-team competition since Benalla departed for the Goulburn Valley league in the late 1990s and won a flag three years ago.
An application by Wagga Tigers to join the O and M in the early 2000s was blocked due to concerns about travel distances, particularly by the southern-based clubs.
We are not going to fall over tomorrow, but things have accelerated over the last couple of years and we need to start the discussionAFLNEB regional manager John O'Donohue
“We’ve just got to make sure we don’t have wish-lists from clubs and leagues going off in a different direction that has a major impact on somewhere else,” Mr O’Donohue said.
“But at the same time we need to have the discussion about embracing change.”
Terry Burgess, who has coached in the O and M and Tallangatta and District leagues in recent seasons, said there also needed to be some left-field thinking to rejuvenate the game in addtion to structural change.
“We’ve got to change the product because it is not suited to modern society,” he said.
“The season is too long and the game itself is too long.”
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