Sick of uncertainty, reigning Warrnambool and District Football Netball League premier Kolora-Noorat just wants to know if it can belatedly defend its title.
The last grand final was 2019.
“The past two years there’s been no reward, no closure,” new club president Martin Wynd told ABC Sport.
“Whether you win or lose, you want to know whether you’re good enough.”
There is excitement and trepidation within Victorian clubs like Kolora-Noorat preparing for season 2022.
No-one can accurately read the pulse of the game after two years of interrupted, incomplete competitions at country, suburban, amateur and under-age level.
Umpire shortages and volunteer stress are widespread.
Participation rates, the best indicators of sporting success, will be studied for trends.
Junior registration opened this week and Wynd is among many concerned about tired volunteer committee members.
“It’s taken its toll,” he said.
Australian football’s birthplace was cruelled by multiple lockdowns in 2020 and 2021.
The uncertainty of training for games that did not eventuate and having finals cancelled at the last minute was exhausting for everyone involved.
This led to fears that some players would be fed up and give the game away.
Mr Wynd said numbers throughout preseason had been “pretty good”, even though some of the amateur athletes from the region have “found other interests”.
Finding netball coaches was difficult, but now all roles have been filled and players are keen.
“I think they’ve found that coming to training makes them realise that they’ve missed it,” he said.
Buchan Football Netball Club is ‘optimistic’
Small town Buchan was hours away from hosting a second semi-final in the Omeo District Football Netball League last August when the Victorian government dropped the hammer on community sport.
Host president Matthew Whelan called the announcement of yet another lockdown “a bit ridiculous” because they did not “have a case within 300 kilometres of us”.
Six months later, his club and the entire Omeo league is looking forward to the prospect of a full season.
“We’d like to think COVID is behind us,” he said.
“After [vaccination] boosters and a few of the players have already had it, it feels like ‘let’s get on with life’.”
All football and netball coaches have been appointed at Buchan, and training numbers have been impressive; the club feels like it has some chances to win flags.
Club champion Whelan has retired due to injury.
“We’ve lost a few older [players] but we’ve rustled up some younger ones,” he said.
Whelan also said the club had not had a decent function for two years, so they are “bringing the ball forward to mid-year”.
He said most rival clubs were also itching for games to start.
“There’s the odd one here or there that’s battling [to attract players], but it goes around,” he said.
“You usually have one club that struggles every year.”
The future of Aussie rules in Victoria at a crossroad
The AFL sent an extraordinary letter to all Victorian club presidents this week.
“On behalf of the AFL Commission, I again want to thank you, and all of your volunteers and staff at your club, and at every club across this state, who do so much week-to-week to ensure the strength of our grassroots game,” AFL boss Gillon McLachlan wrote.
“This has been a long and difficult two years for all across Victoria, and we have endured much in every part of our lives … and it is now the time for the AFL to say thank you for all you have done.”
The peak body is spending at least $8 million on volunteer support, despite posting a $43 million loss in 2021.
“As a way to thank you and your club volunteers, we would like to offer four complimentary tickets to your club across AFL round one and AFLW round 10 matches,” McLachlan said.
More significant announcements included:
- Covering the cost of club liability cover under the AFL National Risk Protection Program
- Covering the cost of level one sports trainers accreditation fees for 2022
- Appointing paid volunteer support officer roles to assist club volunteers across the state
- No country affiliation fees to be charged by AFL Victoria
“Football continues to provide us all with a sense of normality and joy and I can’t wait to be at a community game again,” McLachlan wrote.
Seven of the top 10 AFL and AFLW draft picks for 2021 were Victorian.
New AFL Victoria boss to help ‘bring the game back’
The AFL staged its 2021 grand final in Perth, aware of the frustrations elsewhere.
McLachlan told ABC Sport last September: “We will make sure our clubs, junior and senior, have got the financials, the resources and the programs to come out of this strongly and re-engage all the boys and girls, men and women who have found that their connection with their club, their local community club, their leagues have disconnected.”
The league has since appointed a new head of AFL Victoria, Ben Kavenagh, who is approaching the season with hope.
“We’re actually feeling pretty positive,” he said.
“Our focus this year is to bring the game back at all levels.”
To stimulate participation, AFL Victoria is aiming to have a “significantly bolstered schools’ program”.
“We’ve got a workforce that get out into schools to run clinics,” Kavenagh said.
“We’ve been out to around 60 per cent of schools traditionally. We’re looking to bolster that to 100 per cent of schools this coming season.”
Kavenagh said AFL cost-reduction offerings would help clubs recover financially, while “volunteer support officers” would be available as advisers to overwhelmed administrators.
“There’s certainly a bit of burn-out and fatigue across some clubs more than others,” he said.
“[The support officers will] be employed on a casual basis around the state. These people have been involved in the game before, with genuine practical experience at club level. They’ll go into clubs themselves and help out directly.”
AFL Victoria is planning for the possibility of further COVID interruptions. A “COVID functional framework” has been sent to all leagues.
“We want to get premiership cups in the air,” Kavenagh said.
The document, the theme of which is ‘Don’t let perfect get in the way of good’, explains by-laws that would enable competitions to continue despite the pandemic.
“The highest priority is to Return to Play in a safe and welcoming environment,” the documents declares.
“Quality and equitability come a distant second to the goal of creating a season that gets underway, can be flexible with fixturing and can accommodate a finals series.”
AFL Victoria’s vaccination policy has been adopted from Victorian government rules.
“Vaccination requirements don’t apply to people involved in community sport (eg. a local footy match) or people using swimming pools for essential medical care like hydrotherapy,” the rules state
“If the space is being operated only for the purpose of community sport, participants, spectators and workers (including volunteers), are excluded from the vaccination requirement.”
COVID-positive tests have made preseason training difficult for football and netball clubs.
AFL Victoria, anticipating this might be an ongoing problem, has suggested that home-and-away games may proceed with a minimum of 16 players a side.
“We want balanced competitions, but we want people to have the opportunity to participate wherever possible. We want to allow football to be vehicles for communities to feel connected again,” Mr Kavenagh said.
“In an extreme situation [the clubs] might drop a reserves game from time to time to ensure they can still fill their teams. But wherever it’s still safe and numbers allow we want seasons to continue.”
Source: AFL NEWS ABC