How genetics have changed the AFL draft

A Carlton AFLW player runs with the ball.

In a world of sport where professionals can be sent from city to city or coast to coast, the AFL’s 70-year-old father-son rule pays homage to tribalism and all that sentimentality you did not know you still had as a barracker.

But maybe allowing genetically gifted families to keep working for one employer isn’t lovely and fair for everyone.

Have some clubs benefited more than others from the way their players were propagated?

“Oh yes, there’s no doubt,” AFL talent ambassador Kevin Sheehan said.

Sheehan’s mind winds back 37 years to the day he first heard praise for the name Ablett.

It was a Monday in July 1983. After a decade at Geelong as player, coach and development manager, Sheehan was working his last season with recruiter Bill McMaster.

“Where’d you go, what’d you see?” Sheehan asked McMaster.

The scout had spent the weekend in the rain-shivering mountain town of Myrtleford in north-east Victoria.

“I’ve seen the best player I’ve ever seen outside the VFL,” McMaster said.

The youngster probably does not know the father-son rule was conceived to benefit his beloved Melbourne Football Club.

It was first implemented in the early 1950s to ensure that future Australian Football legend Ron Barassi Jr went to the same club as his father, who was killed in World War II.

After Barassi Sr’s death, young Ron moved with his family into the exclusive recruiting zone of VFL rivals Collingwood and Carlton.

To get Barassi to Melbourne, the VFL said a club could seek a clearance for the son of a player with a record of 50 or more games.

The first boy to be cleared was Harvey Dunn Jr — son of 71-game goal sneak Harvey Dunn Sr — on May 11, 1951.

Dunn Jr only managed nine games for the Blues, but the next player cleared under the rule was Barassi.

As a pioneering ruck-rover and coach, Barassi won 10 premierships.

Other famous father-son names to change the shape of the league were Fletcher, Silvagni, Watson, Cousins, and Richardson.

Recent successful families

Twenty-four of the 44 grand finalists since 2000 — including 12 of 22 premiers — did so with one of their father-son products in their team.

The most recent addition to this club was Jack Viney (son of Todd), who lifted the premiership cup with Melbourne in 2021.

A Carlton AFLW player runs with the ball.
Carlton AFL premiership player Andrew McKay’s daughter Abbie McKay (right) is forging a career in the AFLW.(Getty: Steve Bell)

In 2018, Abbie McKay became the first AFLW player to be drafted under the father-daughter rule. Since then, five other women have been selected by their fathers’ old AFL club.

The rule has evolved over time, eventually catching up to the game’s professionalism.

In the last decade, clubs have increasingly focused on bloodlines, with initiatives such as Essendon’s James Hird Academy keeping tabs on future Bombers as young as eight and nine years old.

Club members follow every step of the children of greats through prolific media coverage and surprisingly well-attended junior games.

When Nick Daicos represented under-18 side Oakleigh Chargers against Sandringham Dragons at Moorabbin earlier this year, thousands of people turned up and his every sidestep was studied.

The modern father-son rule

When the father-son rule was first implemented, the application was limited to those 50 games. Since then, qualifications have varied.

In 1978, the father’s games requirement was lowered to 20, but rose back to 50 in 1993. Before the 2003 season, the AFL doubled the threshold to 100.

Special rules have also existed at times, such as the one that allowed the recruitment of Simon Fletcher to Geelong in 1995.

Fletcher’s dad Gary did not play a single game for the Cats, but was instead involved with the club’s administration for more than five years.

Another rule existed for the playing of a higher number of games at state league level for non-Victorian clubs, with West Coast benefiting from this condition of the agreement.

From their VFL/AFL debut in 1987 through to 2007, the Eagles could recruit players from four WAFL clubs, whose fathers managed at least 150 appearances.

Ben Cousins was one such player who qualified through his father Bryan.

The cost of recruiting father-sons to clubs has also differed over time.

Before 1997, father-son selections were made prior to the national draft and they allowed the club to pre-list any eligible players without going through the draft process.

Players such as Dustin Fletcher, Matthew Richardson, Ben Cousins, Luke Darcy, Ashley McIntosh and Lance Whitnall were recruited to their clubs in this manner for free.

Essendon's Dustin Fletcher is chaired off the ground after his 400th AFL game for the BombersEssendon's Dustin Fletcher is chaired off the ground after his 400th AFL game for the Bombers
Essendon great Dustin Fletcher (centre) entered the AFL via the father-son rule.(AAP Image: Julian Smith)

From 1997 to 2006, clubs were only required to use their second-round draft pick (later their third-round choice) for any father-son selections. Any subsequent choices in the same draft year occurred with later picks.

This provided some cost to clubs for this access, but especially after the move to third-round picks the cost often proved to be inadequate, such as when Ablett Jr slid to pick 40 as a result.

We can work out the best father-son bargains using the system known as Player Approximate Value (PAV) to determine the value of draft picks and players based on their historical output.

Analysing the father-son choices between 1997 and 2006, exactly half — 17 of 34 — lived up to the expected value of their draft position during their overall time in the league.

But the weight of success far exceeded the failures.

As a group, the father-son picks of this era produced about 1,289 extra PAVs, roughly double the expected value of the draft picks.

This is the value of nearly nine top picks in the draft across a single decade. Names such as Ablett Jr, Kennedy, Shaw, Hawkins, Brown, Watson, and Cloke all outperformed the average of pick 40 that was paid for them.

It was the father-sons of this era that helped drive the Cats dynasty to success between 2007 and 2011.

While failure of father-son picks under this method was as likely as success, clubs who got it right were richly rewarded.

‘A sliding scale’

Prompted by complaints, the AFL began to impose a greater charge on picking up a father-son prospect. But this change might have improved the value for picking up these players.

Since 2007, a bidding system has existed for father-son selections, with the club in question getting the option to match any bid with their next available pick — or multiple picks since 2015 — under the Draft Value Index system.

The AFL calls this adaptation “fair value”.

“I remember doing the exercise on it that potentially you could have — at any one time — up to about 40 guys that might have played a hundred games that could have a boy in a draft-eligible sort of period, [they] might be turning 17 or 18,” Sheehan said.

“The other 17 clubs will decide on where your father-son player sits in the draft and you match that bid using Draft Value Index points, which are allocated for every draft pick from one to 72 (from 3,000 points down to 10 points).

“It’s a sliding scale and you have to assemble enough points to be able to upgrade and take that player at that particular pick where there is a bid.

“So Collingwood knowing that Daicos might be bid on … at [picks] one, two or three — he looks to be an outstanding young player — they’ll be aware that if someone bids at (pick) one it’s [worth] 3,000 points.”

A prospective AFL player looks to catch the ball during a training session.A prospective AFL player looks to catch the ball during a training session.
Nick Daicos is set to follow his father Peter to Collingwood.(Getty/AFL Photos: Michael Willson)

While there have been fewer complete careers to analyse, under this new system the success rates for father-son selections appears to be improving.

Only one father-son selected inside the top 30 since the bidding system was introduced has so far failed to have a long AFL career: Ayce Cordy.

More speculative father-son selections of the past would still cost a round-three selection, whereas these days players such as Jackson Edwards can slide to the rookie draft, lowering the risk to clubs.

In short, the move to fair value has placed less risk on clubs overvaluing the sons of the club. The collective knowledge of other clubs has been helpful.

Also, there are other drafting schemes now, including Next Generation Academies, which allow clubs to recruit and maintain talented children with parents born in other countries, as well as Indigenous players growing up in regions allocated by the league.

Bucking the system

A few very good footballers have rejected the appeal of playing for their family club.

For example, Nick Blakey (son of John) and Josh Dunkley (son of Andrew) did not want to go father-son and successfully forged their own ways into the league.

Others had the chance to choose between two clubs, such as Joe Daniher, who picked Essendon over Sydney in his draft year.

Later in his career, Daniher tried to organise a trade to the Swans, before landing at his current club Brisbane.

But perhaps the most prominent example is the recently retired former number-one draft pick Marc Murphy, who eschewed the Brisbane Lions to enter the open draft.

Despite some intensive wooing by Brisbane greats, Murphy was swayed to stay in his home state and follow in the footsteps of his father John in spirit, at least.

Marc Murphy smiles and punches the air in celebration.Marc Murphy smiles and punches the air in celebration.
Marc Murphy played for the Blues his entire AFL career, instead of following his father John’s path.(AAP: Michael Dodge)

John Murphy was a champion of Fitzroy, winning five best-and-fairest awards in his 214 games. To get to Fitzroy in the first place, he had to fend off the advances of his dad Leo’s former club Hawthorn.

“Most would accept the offer and go father-son,” Sheehan said.

“They probably would’ve barracked for the club. I’m not sure of Marc’s circumstances, but maybe with Fitzroy becoming the Brisbane Lions he didn’t feel as attached.”

Sheehan said the father-son rule is not a handout, nor does it heap undue pressure on prospects.

“Most (players) recognise that it gets them looked at, which is a great thing,” Sheehan said.

“And that pressure can go away once you’re in the club. It’s the pressure outside the club, it’s the pressure of the media and some fans, but internally you’re just trying to make your way up from the 40th player on the list to in the 23 to play a game.

“You block out all the outside noise on it and you’re just trying to earn your respect in the playing group … [this] is the way most of the boys tend to treat it, having mixed with them and known them over the years.

“It’s like any draft position. You’re number one or you’re number 10, but it is forgotten once you go into the club.

“You become just another one trying to get a game.”

Family links in other sports

The selection of father-son options despite a draft means it is unique to the AFL.

But other sports have dynastic traditions. Son of a Major League Baseball (MLB) Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero Jr proved himself to be the most dangerous hitter in MLB, and is a finalist for the American League MVP award.

Barry Bonds — son of long-time MLB veteran Bobby — is the league’s all-time home-run record holder.

And fellow Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr was the first to play an MLB game with his father.

In ice hockey, arguably the second greatest player of all time, Gordie Howe, played several years with two of his sons in the same team.

For sports without a draft or zone recruitment rules, making your way to the club of your father is significantly easier.

In rugby league, Mat Rogers moved to Cronulla from the Gold Coast to follow in the footsteps of his famous father Steve.

This season’s NRL premiership was won by Penrith, with coach Ivan Cleary guiding his son Nathan, the Panthers’ star halfback.

Rugby league player and his coach who is also his dad, poses for a photo with the grand final winner trophyRugby league player and his coach who is also his dad, poses for a photo with the grand final winner trophy
Nathan (left) and Ivan Cleary have achieved success in the NRL as a father-son duo.(AAP: Dave Hunt)

In association football, dynasties such as the Lampards, Redknapps, Maldinis and Kluiverts have seen the same name represented at the same clubs over extended periods of time.

But the AFL is the only sport where a side gets a competitive advantage due to the families of their players.

Proposals have been put forward to increase the cost to access these sons of former greats, but to little success. It seems — at least for the time being — that the father-son system is here to stay.

Sheehan said he does not think having such a strong family presence does anything to diminish the talent pool of the national draft.

“It’s steeped in history,” he said.

“I think the fact that our father-son rule precedes our draft process by a long period of time — by 30 or more years — it’s just been part of the way we do things at AFL level.

“And no other sport that I’m aware of has any father-son benefits as well as a drafting system. The American sports all have drafts but don’t have these sorts of provisions in theirs.

“We really want the club members to be able to reminisce and to be able to follow their club with great loyalty for a long period of time and that comes from seeing Peter Burgoyne back in his day, and now Jase — his son — likely to join them (Port Adelaide).

Kevin Sheehan speaks to the media in 2020.Kevin Sheehan speaks to the media in 2020.
Kevin Sheehan has decades of experience in AFL recruitment.(Getty/AFL Photos: Dylan Burns)

“The images even of Shane Woewodin with his boy in his arms … the picture in the paper in the last couple of days. It connects the fans to the great players of the past and then their boys are able to come to the club. It creates great excitement.

“Every year there’s half a dozen or more that are contenders, so I don’t think it’s a large enough group that it takes a lot away.

“Something like five per cent of those taken (drafted) would be father-son (picks) and there’s plenty of others that have benefited.

“At the end of the day, there’s only a small number that are absolutely talented enough to be able to get onto an AFL list.

“It doesn’t command that they get picked.”



Author: Ivan Robinson