Sport

NEAFL has left AFL in Canberra divided

There's a war brewing behind the scenes of Australian football in Canberra with the four years  of the NEAFL driving a wedge through the community as an era comes to an end in the final round of the home-and-away season on Saturday.

Opinion is divided over whether the NEAFL has helped Canberra footy - it has lifted the standard, reduced crowds and stretched volunteers thin, while providing a clear pathway for ACT juniors to the AFL.

Last hurrah: Queanbeyan's Ryan Quade, Eastlake's Ash Pocock, Belconnen's Lexie Bennett and Ainslie's Rob Tuohey.
Last hurrah: Queanbeyan's Ryan Quade, Eastlake's Ash Pocock, Belconnen's Lexie Bennett and Ainslie's Rob Tuohey. Photo: Graham Tidy

Five Canberra teams have been whittled down to two, with Queanbeyan and Belconnen deciding not to continue in the league, and Eastlake coach Anthony Bourke admitting the next two years were an audition to remain in the competition beyond 2016 when their and Ainslie's licences expire.

This weekend will see Ainslie and Belco Seniors vie to be Cock of the North for the last time, while Eastlake and Queanbeyan will end a rivalry that dates back to 1926.

"[The NEAFL] is good, it's a better standard of footy, you get to play on good grounds against great opposition and there's exposure to AFL teams and AFL coaches," Bourke said.

"The more we can try to retain an NEAFL presence and the bigger the presence in Canberra the better."

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The AFL's preference is for one team from Canberra, potentially a representative side funded by all the ACT clubs with the local competition feeding into it.

That's the set-up in Queensland, where the NEAFL sides aren't allowed to have reserves and have squads of 35 with rookies - those not playing are billeted out to the clubs below.

There are concerns if this isn't followed in the ACT then non-NEAFL clubs will face a mass exodus, especially at junior level, as happened to Tuggeranong when they were kicked out of the league last year.

The Hawks under-18 side was picked clean and forced to withdraw from this year's competition.

But both Ainslie and Eastlake are desperate to retain their presence at the community level, making battle lines clearly drawn.

Belconnen football manager Peter Young said the NEAFL had provided a pathway and, if managed properly, would continue to do so.

"I honestly believe that the AFL has to put guidelines in where [Ainslie and Eastlake] cannot have reserves and under-18s so the pathway then for all the kids in Canberra is coming through the community clubs and that will make it a really good competition under-pinning the NEAFL," Young said.

There's a feeling that it's only the wealthy clubs that survive in the NEAFL, with the others chewed up and spat out.

Tigers co-coach Josh Bryce said a few weeks ago Canberra had been "screwed over" and if the AFL wanted just one club from the region it should have been set up from the start.

The NEAFL was set up to improve the standard of footy for the four northern AFL clubs' reserves - Sydney, Greater Western Sydney, Brisbane and Gold Coast.

Magpies coach Jeremy Rowe felt the NEAFL had been good for Canberra, but needed to look at what its goals were.

"Is the NEAFL just there to provide the AFL reserve-grade clubs with a competitive level or are we trying to turn it into a SANFL, VFL or WAFL, which is an incredibly strong standard of footy, with incredibly strong clubs and incredibly passionate supporters and as a byproduct it gives the AFL clubs a competitive competition to play within?" Rowe said.

NEAFL ROUND 21

Saturday: Ainslie v Belconnen at Alan Ray Oval, 2pm

Queanbeyan v Eastlake at Dairy Farmers Park, 2pm