While doing a vague internet search today about the AFL's newest member club, the Greater Western Sydney Giants, I found something which surprised me - there's a new league in Australia this year. Surprised, I decided to look closer at the format for the nascent North East Australian Football League.
The local competitions in the northern states have been a shemozzle for some (all?) time and it's about time that the AFL had interceded and decided to put them right. In the early days of the national competition, the Swans and Bears would send their reservists to Melbourne for the VFL/AFL reserves competition - Brisbane even won the Premiership in 1991. Since the AFL correctly deduced an official Reserves' League was financially unviable for non-Victorian teams, Brisbane and Sydney have been forced to play their second-stringers in local, substandard leagues.
The new NEAFL will have Eastern and the Northern Divisions, with the Eastern comprised of the largest five teams from AFL Canberra - Ainslie, Belconnen, Eastlake, Queanbeyan, Tuggeranong, as well as Sydney Swans Reserves and Greater Western Sydney developmental squads. The Northern conference will start with eight QAFL teams (Aspley, Broadbeach, Labrador, Morningside, Mt. Gravatt, Northern Territory, Redland and Southport) plus the Lions and Suns Reserves.
Although hampered by the fact it isn't the dominant sport in these states, Australian Rules hasn't developed in the North to the AFL's liking and as such they have apparently decided to take control of these leagues to engender stability, player pathways and adequate competition for developing, out-of-form and second-string Suns, Lions, Swans and Giants players. The clubs involved are impressive enough - most, if not all the big names north of the Murray will take part - meaning the competition should also have some local appeal and repute. A downside is the lack of top tier Sydney clubs, with Pennant Hills the most conspicuously absent team, but there are strong arguments that even the strongest local Sydney teams would struggle to compete against full-time professionals. However, with only seven teams in the Eastern Conference, there is room for growth as the AFL attempts to capture the imagination of those in that great unknown, Western Sydney.
With no crossover between states until finals time the fiscal cost for these old clubs will remain at near enough 2010 levels. This also means that for all the novelty, there won't be too much difference between the competitions now and past, but the AFL can monitor and guide the sport's progress in the undiscovered country. With the new AFL franchises now blooded, the League is more invested than ever before in a local competition which allows youngsters inspired by the AFL to develop and start "giving back" to Australian Rules. The NEAFL isn't just about making sure that Western Sydney and the Gold Coast are successful - and on that the AFL has staked a lot - but on backing up their big money expeditions into new territories with grass-roots development.
With a litany of failed and bankrupt clubs in both the ACT, New South Wales and Queensland, the AFL is readying itself for the two-fronted fight to develop the sport in the north. There have been plenty of "knockers" of the Great West Sydney Experiment with valid queries about Sydney's readiness to accept a second AFL team. With the NEAFL's genesis, however, the AFL is suggesting that it's more prepared for a drive into Rugby heartland than we had previously suspected.