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The journey

Date
Illustration: Mick Connolly

Illustration: Mick Connolly

THIS time last year, Mitch Clark quit Brisbane and intended to head home to Perth when he was waylaid and found that he wasn't so homesick after all. Melbourne's massive offer cured poor Mitch of homesickness and he lost interest in becoming a Docker and reuniting with his family.

Kurt Tippett also has detoured in his journey from Adelaide to his Gold Coast ''home'' and found his way to Sydney, where, we now learn, he was born and has various extended family members. Tippett has been lured to the SCG by some combination of money, ''lifestyle'' or the promise of success - that he might have achieved in Adelaide. Sydney, clearly, isn't a difficult sell at this moment.

Should the Swans get the deal done - and under Andrew Ireland's watch they seldom fail on that score - Kurt will not be popular in the city of churches, which is tiring of losing players and prospective coaches to clubs in developing states.

Leon Cameron preferred to join Greater Western Sydney, and take a Kirribilli deal out west, rather than starting at Port Adelaide immediately. This made sense, given the greater talent available at the new team and the certainty that the newborn AFL franchise will be cosseted like a baby by headquarters.

In Adelaide, the Swans will be viewed more like Vampires than the heroic ''Bloods'' of the grand final.

Adelaide, the city, is not faring well in terms of retaining or attracting people, despite the excellence of the Crows. Port Adelaide has lost Troy Chaplin, Danyle Pearce and has been forced to pay a premium for Travis Boak. Ken Hinkley is deserving of his appointment and, judged by Geelong's testimony, may prove an excellent coach, but he has won the job Steven Bradbury-style, as various candidates either pulled out or were purloined.

Port may land some players, such as Angus Monfries, but, as with other stragglers, it will be forced to pay above award rates. Monfries commands a four-year deal at Port and only two at Essendon, which really needs him discarded in order to pay for Brendon Goddard. West Coast is offering Sharrod Wellingham far less than Melbourne, which offers him the opportunity to stay living with Buddy Franklin, yet he still nominated the Eagles.

Teams near the bottom pay a ''loading'' for out-of-contract players that is greater than the 10 per cent the Swans are permitted for the cost of living allowance. For the Dees, Dogs, Port and possibly Brisbane and the Suns, you can only land players by paying ''overs''.

One of the critical questions in free agency is whether players are more reluctant to join smaller teams, with fewer resources, or if they simply want to play for teams that win games. At present, the smaller clubs are over-represented at the ladder's foot, but the cycle will turn at some stage. Then and only then will we know whether this freer market works for the little guys, or just enriches those with money.

That North Melbourne has been in the race for Josh Caddy and Melbourne wasn't even considered suggests that the small teams can hold their own in attracting players. They just need to show they're on the up.

The more surprising exodus than Port's has been from Adelaide, which stands as the club most victimised by expansion. They have lost, in order, Nathan Bock, Phil Davis, Jack Gunston and now Tippett since the competition introduced the new clubs. Bock and Davis were given ridiculous Godfather offers, double their worth. Gunston went home to Melbourne, while the Suns have been a means to jemmy Tippett out of Adelaide, only for him to decide Coogee is more enticing than the sand at Surfers.

The Crows have lost three quarters of what might be a premiership spine, plus the promising 193-centimetre Gunston. Their recruiting of teenagers has been outstanding - signing Taylor Walker is perhaps the game's greatest player coup, considering that he was a NSW scholarship player, from footy-friendly Broken Hill, who cost them nothing in the draft. At 22, he is already a superior player to Tippett.

Daniel Talia won the rising star as a tall defender this year, while the local yokels no longer question the club for picking Patrick Dangerfield, a kid from Moggs Creek near Anglesea, ahead of South Australians.

In years past, drafting a collective that included Tippett, Walker, Dangerfield, Talia, Gunston, Davis and Rory Sloane would set a club up for several years and assure it several tilts at the premiership. But, unfortunately for the Crows, expansion and free agency have changed the way clubs assemble contending teams.

Geelong's extraordinary success was a miracle of drafting. The Cats believed in growing their own players. The three premiership teams contained only one player ''traded in'' - Brad Ottens (James Podsiadly, who made the 2011 team, never played senior footy at his previous clubs and came via the VFL). The bulk of the guns were picked in two drafts, 1999 and 2001. Once I asked Cats boss Brian Cook when a club could afford to top up. ''I'm not sure it ever works,'' he replied.

Essendon, too, has long favoured growing its own over ''topping up'', despite Kevin Sheedy's occasional attempts at exhuming the careers of miscreants. The Bombers never gave up decent draft picks and James Hird and Mark Thompson made plain that bringing in young talent, via the draft, would remain the Essendon way. Critics from rival clubs said the Dons had to stick to drafting because of their failure to offer anything decent for a player they wanted.

The Goddard recruitment, thus, marks a watershed for Essendon, which has recognised that in this new paradigm of free agency and a somewhat liberalised market, premiership teams cannot just be organic.

The Swans are masters of bringing in canned imports, often no-name branded, to play specific roles. Hawthorn had four important acquisitions from other clubs in its grand final team - Josh Gibson, Shaun Burgoyne, David Hale and Gunston; as with Sydney's Josh Kennedy, Rhyce Shaw et al, that quartet were all bought to redress a particular need. Collingwood needed Darren Jolly and Luke Ball to lift the cup in 2010.

The Cats, likewise, have shifted from organic production - they were consummate market gardeners - to show a far greater willingness to bring in mature players, at some cost, in order to keep their finals team thereabouts, as those talented kids gradually replace the classes of '99 and 2001. Hamish McIntosh is a good chance to join them, Jared Rivers is being entertained and they're favourites in the auction for Caddy.

Geelong's way won it three premierships. Sydney has hoisted the flag twice, six years apart, with a different recruitment philosophy (albeit it has drafted exceptionally, too). While both might work if well executed, the new rules are tilting the post-season game towards the Sydney way.

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