Recruitment in any area of life is an inexact science. Recruitment of AFL players is more inexact still.
The recruitment of international rookies presents AFL recruiters with perhaps their biggest challenge. Trying to unearth a potential AFL star from another sporting code who has no experience of Australian life or culture has proven to be something of a lottery up to now, however there are a number of key pointers which may indicate a potentially successful international recruit.
1. Know the player you are recruiting
Obviously this should go without saying, but certain AFL clubs have been burned by Ricky Nixon’s “grab a quick buck” exercise in recent years when they signed up sub-standard Irish recruits on the advice of one, eh Ricky Nixon.
Watching Brian Donnelly and Conor Meredith struggle in the SANFL and VFL reserves was probably not what Adelaide and North Melbourne had in mind when they decided to take the plunge on ‘The Irish Experiment’.
Their experiences should act as a cautionary tale to any clubs looking to sign up a player without carrying out the necessary due diligence.
2. Carry out your own research
This follows on from the above but is a salient point in its own right. Tadhg Kennelly has recently been appointed as an AFL ambassador with responsibility for the scouting of international talent and creating a centralised pool of players from which AFL clubs can pick.
And while this may prove to unearth some potential stars of the AFL, the best international recruits, namely Jim Stynes, Sean Wight, Kennelly and Pearce Hanley have come from clubs carrying out their own talent scouting searches and approaching their targets directly.
3. Once they are recruited, keep them in Australia
In many cases it has proven almost as difficult for AFL clubs to keep their international players in Australia as it was to get them there in the first place.
In fact even amongst Australian AFL players, homesickness is an issue that many struggle to overcome as interstate moves are as significant for some as a move to the other side of the globe is for Irish players.
It is vital for the AFL clubs to make their international recruits as welcome and at home as possible and even then the lure of family and friends might still prove too much.
Perhaps the potential for longevity is linked to the point above; where a player is individually targeted and recruited is he more likely to last the distance and repay a perceived debt to his club? No doubt something which recruiters should consider.
4. Expand your horizons
So far the focus of this article has been on the success or otherwise of Irish recruitment. While Gaelic Football and Australian Rules do appear to be the most compatible sports in terms of inter-code transfers, it may be time for recruiters to look beyond the obvious in search of the next big international recruiting hotbed.
For instance the AFL is littered with players for whom basketball was a first love, most notably Collingwood superstar Scott Pendlebury. When one considers that only 3.1% of American high school basketball players go on to play NCAA basketball and only a further 1.2% of college players get drafted to the NBA, this could be a huge untapped reservoir of potential for AFL clubs.
Collingwood have dipped their toe in the water with big Shae McNamara and it would be surprising if more clubs did not follow in the coming years. Across the Tasman in New Zealand could provide another breeding ground for international recruiting with many skills of Rugby Union transferable to Aussie Rules.
In fact, considering this transferability of skills as well as the proximity to New Zealand, it is in some ways surprising that more efforts have not been made to lure some promising young rugby players to the AFL.
5. Look for the extraordinary
There is no denying that it is extremely difficult, irrespective of your nationality, age, height, weight or indeed natural god-given talent, to make it big in the AFL.
The odds therefore of a recruit coming from a non-AFL background and making a name for himself are pretty miniscule at best. So how do recruiters sort the best from the rest?
In order to predict future events, all they have to use as reference is past experience.
What this experience possibly points towards is the need for an international recruit to have something a little bit special to go along with all the basic tools in order to progress to the top of the game.
Stynes had incredible athleticism and fitness for such a big man, Wight had an irrepressible hunger and drive at the ball, Kennelly had freakish agility and pace, Marty Clarke has an innate ability to read the game along with natural ball skills, Hanley has powerful ball carrying , Zach Tuohy a huge boot and so on.
The point is that it is not necessary for a player to possess all of the above skills, but in assessing whether someone may or may not develop into an AFL star, the possession of a unique weapon might suggest a player worth taking on board.