The game is evolving, but the gulf between haves and have-nots in the AFL is widening.
IT DOESN'T matter what role you have in the AFL system, if you stand still for too long, you'll be left behind. This game doesn't evolve from year to year; it evolves from week to week, as every club is trying to get that 1 per cent or more advantage on its opposition.
AFL football is now a year-long business as there is always something to be planning for. All clubs, including the finals teams, are always looking at how they can improve for the next season and the biggest area of growth in the last five years has come in the strength and conditioning departments.
The scrutiny on teams' injury rates has never been bigger and in the past month, Gold Coast, the Western Bulldogs, St Kilda, Richmond and Port Adelaide have all parted ways with their head of fitness, and have either made or are looking for a new appointment. It just shows what the fall-out can be for teams which don't go on to play finals. The pressure on everyone within a football club has never been greater.
Aside from the players, the three most important people in a football club are the senior coach, the head of fitness and the recruiting manager. The recruiting managers live and die by their selections and we have seen over previous years what that can mean for a club.
Take the 2004 draft, for example, when Hawthorn and Richmond needed to go to the draft after finishing 15th and 16th respectively. Hawthorn selected Jarryd Roughead, Lance Franklin and Jordan Lewis with three of the first seven selections and all three will go on to play 250 games for the Hawks. Richmond took Brett Deledio, Richard Tambling, Danny Meyer, Adam Pattison and Dean Polo with its five selections in the first 20.
I know Richmond gets sick of having this comparison made but those selections should have set the club up for the following decade, not set the Tigers back 10 years. Deledio is the only player from that draft still remaining with the club. At that time, Richmond only had a part-time recruiter and the gap is still huge in the resources wealthy clubs can put into recruiting compared with those of the poorer clubs. Clubs such as Fremantle and West Coast would have as many as five full-time recruiters, whereas the Western Bulldogs only have two. This is a huge advantage, or disadvantage, depending on how you want to look at it, when selecting the future for your club.
A recruiter's job is becoming far more challenging; trying to predict the type of player that will be best suited to the continual changes to the game. Ruckmen must now be able to go forward, midfielders need to be able to rest forward and kick goals, and defenders must all be able to dispose of the ball at a high standard and make good decisions under extreme pressure.
In recent years, some clubs on the back of Geelong's success have made the decision to recruit based on winning the contested ball. But Hawthorn has not recruited any players in the last five years who are not elite kicks, even if they weren't as hard as they should have been when initially drafted.
The Hawks' philosophy has been that it is far easier to teach a player to win a hard ball than it is to improve a player's disposal. The decisions to recruit Cyril Rioli, Matt Suckling, Grant Birchall, Clinton Young and Ryan Schoenmakers, plus Brent Guerra, Josh Gibson and Shaun Burgoyne from other clubs, all falls into line with good decision-makers and elite kicks of the ball. It should prove a masterstroke that wins them their second premiership in five years.
If the whispers are true, it will be more than likely that the bench will go from three interchange and one substitute to two interchange and two substitutes. This is to limit the growing rotations and to keep the ball flowing throughout a match. Monitoring the fatigue levels in players is critical to reducing injuries. As a result, the GPS data is so important when tracking the distance players are covering. I've often wondered what big off-field spending clubs gain over the battling clubs and I was staggered with the limitations the Bulldogs and Melbourne players have when chatting to some of them during the week.
Spending all of my time at Essendon, I thought it was standard practice that every player was monitored throughout every session with GPS data to get 100 per cent accuracy on workload and fatigue. This, obviously, costs money but I was shocked to hear that in 2012 only some players at the Dogs and Demons can be monitored each session as they don't have the funds to monitor all players.
Some will look at Essendon's injury list to say that those things are overrated, but if you look at who's at the top of the ladder and who's at the bottom, you'll see a common theme between the rich and the poor.
This is a huge problem for the AFL, as the gap will only get wider as clubs continue to push the limits and the supporters of clubs like the Brisbane Lions, Port Adelaide, Melbourne and the Bulldogs must fear for what lies ahead for their battling clubs.