Balance of trade

THE movement of players from club to club has been going on for as long as football has been played. And so have the accompanying cries of impending disaster, not only for the individuals and clubs involved, but the game as a whole.

There was plenty of hand-wringing when champion Collingwood spearhead Ron Todd left the Magpies for VFA club Williamstown at the end of 1939, the Magpies refusing to match a far more generous offer funded by a bookmaker.

That angst was more than matched by the shock departure of Melbourne captain Ron Barassi for the job of Carlton captain-coach for the 1965 season. The Demons haven't won a premiership since, the Blues eight.

The VFL's introduction of the 10-year-rule at the end of 1972 saw North Melbourne acquire champions Doug Wade, Barry Davis and John Rantall, the Roos going from wooden spooners to premiers within three seasons.The fear created by the club's acquisition of the stars led to the rule being scrapped midway through 1973.

Carlton's ruthless pursuit of success by the mid-1980s saw the Blues land a troika of high-priced and highly rated recruits from South Australia - Stephen Kernahan, Craig Bradley and Peter Motley. The Blues made a grand final in their first season and won a flag in their second.

Collingwood and Richmond, meanwhile, were indulging in a chest-thumping game of tit-for-tat on the player front, one that did little for either club's on-field fortunes and helped send both close to the brink.


Then Fitzroy's long-term financial woes made stars such as Alastair Lynch and Paul Roos ripe for the picking come the mid-1990s, the Lions' flickering flame of competitiveness finally extinguished by their departures, the death of the entire club soon after.

All those examples make the AFL's first dabble in free agency these past few weeks, in contrast, barely a blip on the radar, despite the many warnings of doom and gloom, one of the most vociferous, perhaps ironically, coming from Roos, now a media commentator.

The twin safety nets of the draft and salary cap were always going to make it difficult for the current AFL heavyweights to pull a reverse Robin Hood, and so it's proved, the biggest fish to date largely staying in their familiar ponds.

Have a look at the final wash-up and with the exception of former Saint now Bomber Brendon Goddard, you're hardly reading a ''who's who'' of the AFL scene.

The likes of Quinten Lynch, Clinton Young, Danyle Pearce, Brent Moloney, Troy Chaplin, Chris Knights and Shannon Byrnes, while more than handy, were hardly considered indispensable by their former clubs. Byrnes and Knights couldn't even get a game with Geelong and Adelaide in the finish.

And the reaction from a small but vocal portion of Hawthorn's large fan base about Young's departure for Collingwood has been a little rich. In the aftermath of the grand final loss to Sydney he was a leading scapegoat for a poor game and a costly goal-square stumble in the final term.

Some of those doing the most unloading on Young were doubtless among those on Friday giving him another serve for daring to leave the Hawk nest. But wasn't eight seasons, more than 100 games and an important part in the 2008 premiership a fair hand from him on their behalf?

On a broader level, the first spell of free agency has hardly seen the rich getting much richer and the poor getting the bum's rush.

Indeed, in conjunction with a trade market now also rendered more fluid by consequence, Melbourne has picked up some sorely needed premiership-winning experience in Byrnes and Chris Dawes, something the departed pair Jared Rivers and Moloney weren't capable of sharing with junior teammates.

Richmond, meanwhile, seems to have picked up a very likely pair in Chaplin and Knights for either end of the ground.

The Tigers have had a great strike rate with recent pick-ups from AFL rivals in Ivan Maric, Shaun Grigg and Bachar Houli, and mature-age recruits from lower levels such as Steven Morris and Robin Nahas, their examples now more a norm than a novelty.

Building and maintaining a competitive list now has many more aspects to it than simply loading up on teenagers come national draft day, free agency just another of several recruiting platforms.

One that so far hasn't resulted in the plundering of the cream of the crop, but instead offered those who'd given good service at their old homes a chance to regenerate at new ones.

And surely that's a feel-good story rather than cause for more panic about loyalty, rewards and the fabric of the game again, isn't it?