Heaping great expectations on young shoulders
WARNING: this column contains material that may be deemed offensive by my colleague and draft guru, Emma Quayle. OK, will be deemed offensive. Don't take it personally, Emma. It's just my annual cry for help.
The draft is a means of distributing the best young talent in the country among the clubs in a passably democratic way. It is a beginning, not a happy ending.
Not one of the 100-odd kids who became AFL footballers on Thursday night comes with a guarantee. Not even Lachie Whitfield is the winning ticket in a $30 million Oz Lotto draw. He just equates to more tickets than the kids plucked at the fag end of the night, shortening the odds of reward.
Whitfield can apparently do it all. He is billed as a player who runs hard all day, has skills on both sides of his body and a football brain to match. He can impose himself on games when his team needs a spark, even win them off his own boot.
As it stands, he has never done any of the above at AFL level. By consensus he is the best underage footballer in the land. The winters to come will judge whether he really was the best of his crop, not his name being called out first in a Gold Coast convention centre.
Witness Tom Scully. To Melbourne fans three years ago, he was manna from heaven. He would play 250 games, lead their midfield, spirit their club to a drought-breaking premiership. They don't speak so fondly of him now.
Even GWS fans, if you can find any, would have to concede there remains no iron-clad certainty in Scully - who was battling a dodgy knee before he'd turned 21 - other than that he is getting paid more money than he's done anything to deserve. Ditto his dad.
The folly of this orgy of gun-jumping is evident in the tale of another recent No. 1 pick. More than six years after Carlton and Essendon contested the ''Bryce Gibbs Cup'', full delivery is yet to be received.
Gibbs has been a good player, and a rarity in that he has actually lived up to the scatter-gun pre-draft billing of ''ready-made'' - he has played 134 of a possible 136 games, the first of them just 17 days after his 18th birthday. Yet he is derided for not doing more, is seen as Mick Malthouse's biggest challenge.
The expectation created by ''draft frenzy'' now runs far deeper down the list than the names at the very top. Second-round picks who get traded out after four seasons are ''busts''; in pub conversations, the gap between their supposed sin and that of poor Richard Lounder is closing. At a time when the talent pool is supposedly thinning, pick 29 is expected to be a star.
The draft gets so much attention because there is a market for it, of fans whose appetite for the game is insatiable. It's the big plank in a football landscape that has changed forever. ''Build it and they will come'' is exaggerating the AFL's off-season strategy - there is a massive audience out there who will feed on any and all things footy, whether the league's calendar-hogging carpenters have gone to work or not.
Presumably among their number are the fans who have been bombarding Emma Quayle with abusive and even threatening correspondence in recent weeks, and not because she had Mason Wood going to Sydney at pick 22 rather than Geelong at 16 in her phantom draft.
Her sin was to do an excellent job in uncovering much of the dirt in the Kurt Tippett affair. The reaction from some of the same fans who have devoured every word about Thursday night's crop of kids is evidence that not everyone is seeing the game with the clear-headedness of Lachie Whitfield.