State League general manager Carl Saunder believes the TSL's best days are still to come.
Reflecting on a year that saw the Tassie Devils' NAB League debut and North Launceston's fifth flag in six years, the 40-year-old also discussed the North-West, curtain-raisers and AFL.
How did you see 2019?
I think it was a fantastic year for the TSL competition - it felt like you went to the footy most Saturdays and you didn't know who was going to win.
From an overall competition perspective that's a really good place to be and even if you look at the ladder Lauderdale were on top for the majority of the year. Although North Launceston ended up winning the flag, it wasn't until the pointy end of the season did they rise to the top like they have over a number of years now.
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Has North Launceston become too dominant?
It's something as a competition we've got to continue to monitor. What you try to achieve is an even competition that every club enters a season feeling like they've got an opportunity to qualify for finals and hopefully win some silverware. But I also think you need to step back and look at why North Launceston have been so successful and that's not only what they produce on a Saturday afternoon on-field but also off-field.
I think it's really important to acknowledge the terrific work they've done as a club around how they work their zone. They have a really strong development program, they have a really strong understanding of what a high performance environment looks like and I think the challenge is for other clubs how they can replicate what North Launceston have set up.
Does the 2:5 split favour Northern teams?
The two Northern teams have clearly defined zones just as the Southern teams do. I think it's obviously challenging for the Southern teams - they share a geographical area across five clubs but we've also got to understand that the population is larger in the South.
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Glenorchy had a wretched run with injuries in 2019 and who knows how far they could have got in 2019 had they had their full playing list for the whole year.
Lauderdale were the best team for the majority of the year and continue to be a terrific club on-field and even Clarence, North Hobart and the Tigers all showed real promise and won some games many wouldn't have predicted over the back end of the season. I think every club would go into this year's preseason (thinking) that the future is bright.
Is North-West representation still on the cards?
We certainly remain open to an eighth team in our competition and I think that would be the ideal position.
I think we also need to be really respectful in understanding the fact that from a North-West Coast perspective, for Burnie and Devonport it feels like they've found their right place in the NWFL. Both teams have had some success in that competition and I think both would say they've found where they need to be.
From a Northern perspective as a competition we've tried a couple of times around Western Storm and Prospect and I think what we know is establishing a new entity is a really challenging thing to do. Without a strong appetite and desire from an NTFA club wanting the enter the TSL I think that remains a work in progress. But we certainly remain open if and when a team believes they're ready to explore that opportunity.
Any sign of extending the TSL past 2023?
Every club has a licence agreement until the end of 2023 which is still four footy seasons away and what we know is that our game moves really quickly and four seasons is a long way away. I think the competition is in a really healthy spot, I think on-field it's producing what we desire and off-field clubs are working really hard. We've got terrific people running our clubs and I've got real confidence that the State League is here to stay and our best days are ahead of us.
How would the arrival of Tasmanian AFL and VFL teams impact the TSL?
At this stage we're talking about hypotheticals until such time there's a decision around what the talent pathway looks like in the state. What I do know is that currently the State League is clearly the best competition of senior footy in the state and I believe strongly that a healthy strong State League to underpin our high performance program and teams is critical to the success of the Tassie footy landscape.
Will the North's Tassie Devils players have increased access to the boys' head coach this season?
For year one of the Devils program we made a lot of inroads and we also learned a lot about not only the program but also the integration and collaboration that needs to happen with our State League clubs. Cameron Joyce as our new program leader is a terrific appointment.
Cam's been going for [two months] now and I know he's already spent a considerable amount of time across the three regions. What we're trying to achieve is replication across our three centres so the program that's being delivered in one part of the state is mirrored in the other two parts of the state.
We're really confident that Cameron and Craig Notman are leading that and no player will be disadvantaged dependent on their geographical location.
What will the TSLW look like next season? Will North Hobart field a team?
Our women's competition expanded to six of our seven clubs in 2019 and I'm really pleased with how that competition is progressing.
With the introduction of NAB League women we need to have real agility around responding to what that looks like. With the men's program we know have 12 months of experience and knowledge of it so I think we'll learn a lot in 2020 about the talent pathway for the women's program.
We have tried to compress the season - it'll remain at 15 games and we'll kick off a couple of weeks later in mid-May but clubs will still have the full 15 games culminating with a finals series that aligns with our men's, and the grand final being played as the curtain-raiser to the senior men's game on grand final day.
We've said to North Hobart 'we're ready when they're ready'. They're playing in the SFLW and they still feel like that's the right competition for where they're at as a club. I know they've just appointed a new coach and I understand they've got some talented young juniors coming through which is really pleasing. When they're ready we'll be happy to have them as the seventh team in the TSLW competition.
Will there be any AFL curtain-raisers in 2020?
Getting AFL curtain-raisers is at times challenging with the schedule of broadcasting and ground availability. We've prioritised that space around our NAB League boys trying to get curtain raisers so from a State League perspective we try and fit our fixture around the AFL games so people in Launceston can get to the Hawthorn games and people in Hobart can get to the Kangaroos games.
We've managed to get two NAB League boys games as curtain-raisers to TSL games so I think that's something new and exciting that we've been able to build in the fixture.
Two fresh Tasmanians were drafted to AFL clubs in the pre-season draft, is the TSL still a fertile breeding ground for talent?
I think our finals series shows the State League provides terrific opportunities for the Devils players when they come back and play.
A young player like Jackson Callow came back and was probably in the best three or four players on TSL grand final day. Once you're a premiership player you're a premiership player for life - what a great thing to be able to achieve at 17 years of age.
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