Two former Tasmanian AFL players have thrown their support behind the state’s 2021 VFL return.
Speculation is rife that AFL boss Gillon McLachlan will announce plans on Tuesday for a standalone Tasmanian VFL side to be readmitted as part of the steering committee’s full recommendations for the state’s football future.
The Tasmanian State League’s survival has been guaranteed until at least 2023, but Launceston coach Sam Lonergan said a VFL side would only be a positive addition to a state-based high-performance league.
The ex-Essendon and Richmond midfielder and Tasmanian great Matthew Richardson agree a VFL side, the TSL and a Mariners program expanded into the TAC Cup would be the ideal pathway for Tasmanian talent.
The Tassie Devils were part of the top Victorian league between 2001 and 2008 and made finals in 2003, ‘04 and ’05, however, a contentious deal to align with North Melbourne in 2006 signalled its downfall.
Lonergan said the Devils gave him something to aspire to and credited being drafted to his eight VFL games in 2005.
“If we could afford a three-tier system then yes, why not? There is no reason the AFL couldn’t support it,” he said.
“Then giving an opportunity for your top 50 players in the state to perform in the highest program you’re possibly going to get on a national scale, you’ve also got a junior top-end program and the TSL program to support nearly 300 players across Tasmania who get to be the best they possibly can.
“If you were coaching the VFL side you’d want the TSL to be in place because that lessens the gap for players to step up from. It would be too much of a jump for a player to go from the NTFA or a comp like that to the VFL.
“It’s all about how much genuine exposure young players get and I would say the academy series at the moment isn’t great enough exposure for these players.
“When I went through and Tasmania played NSW, NSW had just one state team.
“They have diluted going from Tassie’s 22 kids playing the best 22 from NSW kids to Tasmania’s best 22 playing NSW’s best 44 split across GWS and Sydney teams.”
Fairfax Media understands the Tasmanian under-18s team could become a standalone entity with its own managing director.
It is also believed the AFL is investigating the financial requirements to run standalone clubs in the VFL.
Lonergan did not surface through a full-time Mariners program, but played six under-18 state games, two TAC Cup matches and one with the Allies before his short VFL stint. He said any Tasmanian side would need to be purely Tasmanian for the public to fully buy in.
“When they brought in North Melbourne players into the Devils last time they filled the team with 12 or so players which left only eight spots for Tasmanians,” he said.
“When it was genuinely Tassie we filled it with 15 or so Tasmanians and five imports and then two or three Tassie draft prospects.
“We’re an interesting state. We love our own people and like to support our own things and as soon as you take that genuine Tassie feel away from it then the support drops away.”
Lonergan also said a VFL said would open up AFL doors for Tasmanian players well into their 20s. “There is a mindset in Tasmania that there is only one way of getting drafted, but there are so many ways,” he said.
“The Brody Mihocek to Collingwood story in Tassie is a fantastic one but nationally those kind of stories are happening all the time – we just don’t get access to it because players either stay in the state or don’t have any higher opportunities.
“It’s extremely common but as a state we only seem to see the under-18 pathway.”
There are fears the TSL will be done away with once a VFL side is established and the Tasmanian football public remains split over whether or not the Apple Isle should have its own AFL side.
The VFL team’s 2021 commencement date coincides with the end of Hawthorn and North Melbourne’s deals to play in Launceston and Hobart, respectively.
But when asked if a VFL team could be a precursor to a Tasmanian AFL team, Richardson, who played 282 games and booted 800 goals for Richmond, said it was “pie in the sky” and “still a long way off”.
“It [a VFL team] would give kids down there a pathway and something to aim towards and potentially that could lead to an AFL career,” Richardson told Melbourne radio station 3AW.
“It would be a step in the right direction. The biggest problem has been that there have only been two players drafted in the last few years, which is sad for a state that’s produced some of the best players of all time.”
McLachlan was expected to hand down the committee’s findings in Hobart on Friday but it was moved to next week following a late “scheduling conflict”. Questions around support for community football and women remain unanswered.