Yesterday was supposed to be the best day of Mitch O’Neill’s life.
A two time all-Australian, the 18-year-old North Hobart midfielder was a “monty” to be selected by a team in the AFL national draft.
Whether it had been West Coast or Gold Coast which called his name, the happy-go-lucky teenager would have been grateful.
But, watching on with friends and family last night, the moment never came.
Richmond, with selections in the 40s (O’Neill’s expected draft range) were expected to take a chance on the Tasmanian product, and pair him with close mate Fraser Turner.
The Western Bulldogs, the club O’Neill barracks for, also had selections in that range. They too, passed.
It’s the second year in the past four in which Tasmania has failed to have a player picked through the national draft.
The first time was in 2016.
Back then, the blame was laid on the rivers of gold that were flowing through the academy programs in Queensland and New South Wales.
Tasmania’s limited involvement in the TAC Cup competition was also raised as an issue. Recruiters simply had minimal opportunities to spy Tasmanian talent.
In 2019 though, the goalposts have shifted.
Tasmania now has a fulltime NAB League program which this season was headed by Tasmanian football hall of famer Adrian Fletcher.
An extra $1.4 million in funding was tipped in by the AFL towards “development pathways”, hubs in each region were created, prohibitive levies for players and families were waived and a provisional licence for a VFL team was granted.
Yet, 12 months on, again there were no draftees.
The Devils went four and 11 in their first year, and already Fletcher has moved on amidst discontent from some players and their parents around his “old school” style.
While it’s easy, and partially correct, to point the finger at league headquarters for Tasmania’s shortcomings, put simply, the game just doesn’t have the same appeal to young men that it once did in Tasmania.
The most recent figures show a loss of 298 youth, senior and masters-age men from last year and there are 10 fewer youth and senior teams in Tasmania than there were last year.
How to keep young men invested
Boys are walking away from footy.
Brighton football club president Peter Spotswood has seen it with his own eyes, and cites a shifting society.
“There’s a lot of reasons why guys don’t play football anymore,” he said.
“Travelling, working, shift work, seven-day trading, 50/50 duties in the household. Guys work for themselves and are self-employed, they don’t want to be injured, so they opt not to play.”
The challenge remains for the AFL in Tasmania to keep young men invested.
A Tasmanian AFL team in the boys’ backyard would be the ultimate circuit-breaker.
There is some light at the end of the tunnel, though. By all reports, a bumper crop of 18-year-olds is expected to be picked up next year.
Callow, Collins, Chugg, Davis and Walker are some of the names already being touted.
And this year’s draft did end on a happy note, with O’Neill eventually finding a home at the West Coast Eagles via pick 25 in the rookie draft.
Lauderdale’s Matt McGuinness is also off to North Melbourne via an academy selection.
Hopefully for Tasmanian footy, these two late selections don’t paper over the cracks.