A BOLD plan to promote indigenous football talent will see an all-Aboriginal side play in the TAC Victorian under-18 competition this year.
The team – to be called the ‘Laguntas’, after the Aboriginal word for tiger – will be based at Richmond’s Punt Road Oval and will be introduced to reverse the worrying trend which now has just five Victorian-raised indigenous footballers playing in the AFL.
The AFL’s community engagement manager, Jason Mifsud, admitted there had been ‘‘a neglect in the relationship’’ between Victorian Aboriginal communities and both the VFL competition and the TAC. Denying suggestions the all-indigenous side would segregate Aboriginal footballers, Mifsud added: ‘‘It’s all about inclusion.
‘‘It’s a pilot program which aims to close the gap we’ve identified over the last few years between Aboriginal communities and the game at the elite level. This has been an issue for 18 months to two years and it becomes more exaggerated the higher you go in the game.’’
A joint venture between the AFL, AFL Victoria and Richmond, the program will include a team list of 40indigenous players and 10 indigenous staff. Mifsud stressed that while not all the team’s coaches would be indigenous, the long-term plan was also to provide a career pathway for aspiring Aboriginal coaches, given the dearth of numbers at AFL level. Yet to secure government or corporate funding, the AFL has agreed to foot the bill for the Laguntas’ first season, which will see the side compete on an invitational basis in three matches in 2013. It is expected to make its debut in June.
Despite the competition’s savage cost-cutting program which began last year at head office, the AFL’s indigenous push comes at a time of much concern around the game’s indigenous numbers, with draft numbers down, clubs struggling to retain their Aboriginal players and a telling lack of indigenous coaches across elite levels.
Brothers Adam and Brett Goodes, Nathan Lovett-Murray, Andrew Walker and Koby Stevens are the only Victorian indigenous footballers currently playing in the AFL. More concerning is that soccer has become the code of choice in key recruiting areas such as Mildura, once dominated by Australian football.
‘‘The rate of indigenous talent playing in other sports across Victoria is at an all-time high,’’ admitted Mifsud, the game’s most senior indigenous official.
The Tigers have been strongly supportive of the formation of an under-18 side, with club chief Brendon Gale determined that Punt Road’s Korin Gomadji Institute continue to develop indigenous talent across the AFL as well as providing career training. The
Laguntas are expected to sport predominantly black-and-yellow jumpers and Gale’s view is that the team would expand its presence in the TAC by 2014.
‘‘It’s positive discrimination,’’ said Gale. ‘‘We’ve raised that question and we’ve discussed it and debated it and the fact is we are under-represented in our indigenous representation and we are seeing too many talented players leaving the game.
‘‘This is about seeing good young Victorian Koori and indigenous talent coming together and training and being educated. This is not about our club but about creating a pathway for indigenous players and coaches.’’
The only all-Indigenous teams currently are the All Stars, who play exhibition game, and the under-16 Flying Boomerangs.
AFL Victoria boss Grant Williams stressed that indigenous players already participating in the TAC would remain with their current TAC Cup side.
‘‘However, if not selected, they will have the opportunity to play with the Laguntas team and continue to participate in the development program,’’ he said.
The Laguntas would also use Richmond’s training facilities, with the long-term view seeing the team play all home games at Punt Road.