King Island a place where a team can win two prizes in one season: the flag and the wooden spoon. Photo: Michele Mossop
DESPITE suggestions to the contrary, it's a demonstrable fact that the addition of Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney to the AFL has raised the bar. The expansion clubs have ensured that a higher standard be required of the rest. They've roused the AFL from its culture of rewarding mediocrity.
But surely they are whipping boys? How can they be given credit for raising the bar?
Well, it's the numbers. The newbies have ensured that something better than a bare pass is now required for graduation to the game's final exams. No longer does 50 per cent get you to September. With eight finalists in an 18-team competition, football's version of an ATAR score of 55.6 per cent is now the minimum standard for advancement. It's not quite the demanding 66.7 per cent of the days when there were 12 teams and a final four, but it's a step forward.
But let's not propel the new kids too far down Media Street just yet; they've got a way to go before this accomplishment is more than a statistical accident. The purpose of the above is to heighten your appreciation for the AFL's system by comparing it with a competition where the benchmark for finals participation is lower still. Way, way lower. It's a place where a team can win two prizes in one season: the flag and the wooden spoon. The place is King Island.
Situated in Bass Strait, off the north-western tip of Tasmania, King Island has a population of about 1500. It is 64 kilometres long and 26 kilometres wide. It is best known for its crayfish, abalone, beef and dairy produce, particularly cheese, and was a supplier of scheelite (tungsten ore) until its Grassy mine was closed in 1990.
Then there's that staple product of any south-east Australian community: footballers. King Island has exported a couple since the formation of the AFL. Barry Brooks was taken by Port Adelaide as a first-round draft selection in 2001 and subsequently traded to St Kilda in exchange for pick six. Alas, he didn't quite live up to the billing and played only 10 games. The other King Islander to make it to the big time is Richmond's Angus Graham, who arrived at Punt Road five years ago. The Bass Strait bruiser's chances have been limited this year due to the Tigers' acquisition of Ivan Maric.
The King Island Football Association is the nation's smallest football competition and one of three - along with those on the Tiwi Islands and Kangaroo Island - to exist ''off-shore''. The KIFA has three teams. They play 10 games each in a 15-round competition.
Year in, year out, they fight for an elevated position on the ladder so as to boost their flag prospects. It's not so much about the double-chance as the single-chance: top spot carries the minor premier straight to the big one, while the other two teams must contest the preliminary final for the right to also be there on the last day.
It wasn't always this competitive. In 1906 when the King Island Football Association began, there were only two teams, Currie and North. This pair of hardy institutions has survived 106 years to the present, neither having missed a single season. The third of the modern-day teams, Grassy, joined in 1938. Briefly, in the Depression era, five clubs vied to be king of King Island football. The current three-cornered contest has been in place since 1972.
Regardless of the absence of equalisation mechanisms familiar to followers of the AFL, the spoils of the KIFA are well shared. North has won 43 flags and Currie 40. Grassy, with its shorter history, is the competition Cinderella with 12 titles.
In 2006, the Grassy Hawks went back-to-back for the first time in nearly 50 years. That was the year the Currie Robins had not won a game before they upset North in the preliminary final. Obviously a club with an appetite for September, the Robins collected the spoon and the flag in one season in the mid-1980s. It's a feat that has not been achieved since.
The North Bulldogs have traditionally been the powerhouse. Their roll-call of titles includes six-in-a-row from 1999 to 2004. Remarkably, that's the only time in 106 years any team has done better than a hat-trick of flags.
So, within a small community that elsewhere might battle to field one team, King Island continues to maintain a league of its own.
Such is the magnitude of the achievement that AFL Tasmania will this year, within a special category reserved for community achievement, induct the KIFA to its Tasmanian Football Hall of Fame.
It's an honour well deserved. Making the finals might appear to be a little too easy, but the task of putting teams on the park each week of every season through more than 100 years is a feat worthy of recognition.