A year ago, Tom Couch did what very few former AFL players do in the modern era.
A Victorian at heart, the 29-year-old packed up and moved to a state he had no connection to whatsoever in a bid to further his football journey.
It’s not uncommon for ex-Tasmanian AFL players to return home and rejoin their local club, but Couch became the first non-Tasmanian native to take on a playing-coaching role in the North since the State League reformed in 2009.
And it worked wonders.
He led North Launceston to its third premiership in four seasons – polishing and extending what his predecessor Zane Littlejohn started. Towards the end of this season, the Northern Bombers were almost unbeatable. They won their final six games of 2017 by an average 85 points.
Couch’s new game-style was fresh, innovative for the Tasmanian game and far too potent for a Lauderdale outfit more focused on the man than the match in the decider, which North won by a TSL record 87-point margin.
Admittedly he would love to stay and stamp his authority at the club, however, the impending closure of Launceston’s Simon Black Academy in April has forced him to accept a playing-assistant position with Melbourne-linked VFL club Casey Demons.
It will be somewhat of a homecoming for the former Melbourne midfielder, who after you spend five minutes with, comes across as honest, humble and always looking to improve either himself or others around him.
“I’m more excited about the education point of view and what I can learn under Jade Rawilings,” he said after North confirmed his departure last week and Taylor Whitford as his successor.
“We implemented a couple of things through the middle of the season that I was able to learn from friends in the industry, and to see them work and the impact they had – I really got a thirst for what else is out there.
“Melbourne are innovators for how they play, they are not afraid to try things and they also educate their coaches.
“Although I may be turning my back on more success at North, continuing to learn as a coach is more important at this stage.”
Simon Black, Clinton Young and Leigh Harding are just some names that will fill-in for Couch and see out next year’s 12-week academy trimester to allow about 20 Launceston students to complete their course.
Couch will also continue to mix work and education with 12 months to go until he completes his masters in high-performance sport.
He said his study helped him through this season and that Whitford’s teaching background would keep him and the State League’s most successful club in good stead.
“Thane [Brady], the assistant coaches, Taylor and the entire leadership group are what makes that club great – their winning behaviour and attitude is outstanding,” Couch said.
NEWS | The club is excited to announce that Tom Couch will join us as a playing Assistant Coach for the 2018 Season. Tom brings great experience to our club as a former @melbournefc player and playing coach of @TasStateLeague club North Launceston. pic.twitter.com/2es2K5Aabk— Casey Demons (@CaseyDemonsFC) November 9, 2017
“To be able to witness it first hand and to work alongside these guys has been an incredible experience for myself.
“I didn’t realise it was so uncommon for someone from the mainland with no attachments to move down here and I’m glad I did it and would encourage anyone else out there that wants to better themselves to do it.
“You hear a lot of cliches in footy clubs but one I remember and stuck with me from my time as an AFL player at Melbourne was ‘be comfortable with being uncomfortable’ in throwing yourself into the deep end; and I feel like in this past 12 months I’ve learnt stuff you can never learn by doing a uni course.”
Whitford, 25, will be following in the footsteps of his father and incumbent assistant coach Chris when he takes his first pre-season training session as the new sheriff in town on Monday.
I feel like in this past 12 months I’ve learnt stuff you can never learn by doing a uni course.Outgoing Northern Bombers coach Tom Couch
And Couch believes the club can continue to raise the bar in Tasmanian football.
“With the ankle injury he had and missing up to 10 weeks, for him to spend a bit more time in the coaches box, in planning and behind the scenes was a really good apprenticeship for him,” Couch said.
“I don’t think anything changes with me going.
“We implemented a game-style this year that maybe hasn’t been seen in Tassie before and Taylor is already working on how to take it to the next level, which is what you have to do – you have to evolve.
“The support from the assistant coaches is everything – that is the secret ingredient to the success of the footy club.
“They don’t get the credit they deserve externally, although that may not matter because they have got that from everyone at the club.
“The leadership group sets the standards better than any club that I’ve been at… so kids that are 16-17 years come in and they know how to train, how to behave and the expectations are on them from the start.”
Couch said he hopes he has left the club in a better place and is chuffed at the fact North won the flag as the TSL’s second-youngest side and with 37 players – including 18 debutants throughout the year.
He said “giving kids a go” is a motto he shared with his late father and Geelong Brownlow Medallist Paul.
“You continually hear about Devonport, Launceston, Tigers and so on saying how young they are but we are the second-youngest side in the competition,” he said.
“If you don’t give them a go then you don’t know and when Ben Simpson came in against the Tigers, I felt like that was the last piece of the puzzle for us.
“Moments like Tom Donnelly stamping his authority on the wing, Tyran Mansell pretty much single-handedly winning us the game against Burnie, Tarryn Thomas’ class, Rhyan Mansell’s hardness – when you see these guys play it gives you goosebumps.
“It doesn’t matter how old you are, you’ll always get a chance at North.”
Couch said he thought North Launceston would win its third flag in four seasons after toppling reigning premier Glenorchy midway through the year.
He said he focused on having his team physically and mentally fit heading into the season’s second half.
“The start of our powerful finish began on July 29, we couldn’t have timed it any better,” Couch recalls.
“When we defeated Glenorchy up here, I felt from there that we had to win the flag because to that stage I thought Glenorchy was the best side.
“When you’ve got that feeling where everyone knows exactly where they have to be on the field, it becomes quite powerful.
“Jay [Lockhart] and Taylor getting injured in a funny way was the best thing that could ever have happened.
“Josh Ponting went on ball, Jake Pearce came back into the side as a pressure forward, Tom Donnelly went on the wing and stood up.”
And the rest is history.
Couch generally keeps his opinions on football issues out of the public forum but said there were several things in the Tasmanian landscape that needed addressing in order to make it better, despite believing the TSL was in strong shape:
“The standard is very good, it’s better than the Geelong Football League… and they pride themselves on being the best competition outside the state competitions in Australia.
“If you matched up every team on ladder position, the TSL would win and that’s a competition with a lot of ex-AFL and VFL players.
“The talent down here gets unrecognised or goes unappreciated and another reason the standard is better than the GFL is the coaching.
“Going on this year you’ve got a lot of coaches straight out of the AFL system that are playing the modern game, which other competitions are still a bit behind in.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for Burnie and Devonport in particular this year in the way Clinton Proctor and Mitch Thorp coached them.
“They constantly took the game on through the middle and were happy to cop a 100-point hiding when they could have maybe saved face by flooding or whatever else.
“All the coaches have the same vision to play attractive, good football that people want to go watch.
“However, it needs to be reduced to an eight team competition to streamline the best talent.
“It’s then harder to get a game with four teams in the North and four in the South, plus, you get rid of the bye.
“It’s a bit messy as it is.
“The standard would definitely improve also if you ditch one club.”
DEVELOPMENT LEAGUE SET-UP
“I don't believe in moving to under-21s competition in 2019 because you risk losing that club atmosphere.
“It’s going to be hard to recruit 21, 22, 23-year-olds that are potentially on the cusp because they won’t like the embarrassment of getting dropped to the local club.
“Perfect case-in-point was Jake Pearce this year. He would not have been eligible to play in an under-21 competition after he got dropped at the beginning of June.
“Yet he went back and played DLs for two weeks, came back as a forward and was in our top-two players in the grand final at half-time.
“If you have a development league with only under-21s, he goes back to Hillwood and chances are we don’t see him again.
“From our point of view, if a 17 or 18-year-old isn’t getting a development league game because a 25-year-old is keeping him out, then he is not going to play AFL anyway – so what’s the point?
“Is it to get the stats to tell everyone that you’ve got an emphasis on kids?
“That’s great, but all you’re doing is replacing a 24-25-year-old with a 17-year-old and as such the standard drops.
“It will be an under-21 senior side basically with maybe five or six senior players.
“I can understand the thought behind it, but it’s not going to affect the number of kids drafted and it’s at the detriment of the quality of games.”
“The junior coaching pathways need work and I know the AFL is onto that.
“Recruiters I speak to all say that the Tassie boys are behind in their development when they arrive at an AFL club compared to those from the mainland.
“If they can get an injection of coaches straight out of the system, because the game is constantly changing and you do need to be up-to-date with that, then the kids will less-likely fall behind.
“I felt like our players were better off at North Launceston than with the Mariners at this stage of where the program’s at. The academy process definitely doesn’t work, Tasmania needs a TAC Cup side and a VFL side would be great too.
“I didn’t agree with a couple of the coach’s opinions about preventing State League players going interstate to play in the TAC Cup.
“They have to play TAC Cup and what Jy Bond’s doing is excellent. You may have two or three recruiters at a TSL game if you’re lucky, but you wouldn’t even classify them as casual.
“A lot of AFL clubs don’t have recruiters looking in the TSL, they just go on the Mariners and there are two things there.
“One, you do what Jy and AFL Tas are doing at the moment and play them in the TAC Cup as a lot of games are played as triple-headers and there is a good chance either the head recruiters from clubs or states are there to watch – and they’ve got a lot of influence.
“A good half from someone like Glenorchy’s Harrison Gunther in a TAC Cup game could be the difference between him getting drafted or not.
“The other option is that you’ve got someone constantly pushing you to AFL coaches or recruiters because if you don’t have anyone in your corner, you can get a bit lost if you’re purely playing in the TSL.
“I had three state coaches call me on the Monday of the grand final to warn me that Lauderdale were going to go the biff.
“I already knew that and the coaches’ message an hour before the game was for us to stand under them, take it and not to retaliate.
“I’m a bit disappointed that it’s taken a bit of attention from the match and Lauderdale has copped their far whack, but those at the TSL have to take some, if not more, responsibility for what took place.
“Lauderdale had four players reported in round 1, three got a reprimand and the other one got off.
“Nathan Jackson playing his first game suffered a broken nose through a stray elbow from Max Kleverkamp.
“I witnessed the end of that action and saw Jacko go to ground, we reported the incident and it went to the tribunal but is was thrown out on a lack of evidence.
“Darren Winter and Bryce Walsh testified and I’ve got no dramas with that, the TV footage didn’t capture the whole incident so they threw it out video evidence.
“If you actually watch the video you can see the player with ball in hand, then you’ve got Bryce Walsh on Brad Cox-Goodyer looking where the ball is.
“When you hear the outcry of the crowd you see Walsh along with Coxy turn to see what happened, therefore Bryce clearly didn’t see what happened but was allowed to testify to say he saw the whole thing.
“When I mentioned that they just laughed it off. The match review panel in the TSL is the competition’s biggest problem.
“That was actually the lowest moment in my career, I felt physically sick for three days. It’s a disgrace and from that moment on I lost all trust in the match review panel and respect for anyone involved.
“You’ve got to change the people involved – it’s just not working and it’s completely outdated. It needs to be consistent, the media coverage around the MRP and tribunal is appalling, I’ve never seen one competition so obsessed with it and it’s embarrassing.
“It should be about the talent that’s on show and the first thing you see on the news shouldn’t be about what’s happened at the tribunal.
“If you give them a punishment that equals the crime, it’s not so much about punishing them, but educating them and saying that ‘this kind of behaviour is unacceptable’.
“At the moment, the match review panel seems more than comfortable handing out reprimands for statistics that say ‘we found another player guilty’.
“Those actions need to be weeded out and if you do, what happened in the grand final is less likely to happen.
“The warning signs were there for the TSL to stamp it out and I don’t think they did that.”
TEAM OF THE YEAR
“I’ve got a bit of a problem with how they pick the side. You’ve got six people from Hobart picking the side going off stats and reputation.
“Zach Burt kicked 30 goals in the first half of the year and then went down back in the second half of the year, he did a fantastic job… and you could make an argument that Zach was the most valuable player in the TSL.
“Who else can kick 30 goals, be a state rep as a forward and then go down back as a key-position defender?
“They’ve just gone on his goal-kicking, how many knew he went down back? I have a real issue with that.
“With the AFL All-Australian process, you’ve got a representative from each state – not eight people from Victoria picking the team. You need reps from all three areas – it’s a no-brainier.”