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Damien Hardwick hits out at critics amid uproar over AFL academies

Many AFL clubs were left frustrated about the situation during the national draft.

Pictured here, Gold Coast Suns coach Damien Hardwick.
Damien Hardwick has brushed off criticism around the national draft and claims it unfairly benefits the northern academies. Pic: Getty

Damien Hardwick has brushed off criticism from rival AFL clubs about the perceived unfairness of the national draft, after his side scored four of their own promising young academy players in the first round. The Suns’ record haul of four first-round picks included Jed Walter (pick 3), Ethan Read (9), Jake Rogers (15) and Will Graham (26).

Backlash has been growing around the talent academies run by the Queensland and NSW clubs, with the 14 other AFL clubs left increasingly frustrated with regard to the rules around their next generation academies. West Coast were among those clubs left frustrated about losing academy prospect Lance Collard to St Kilda with pick 28 on Monday night - and under AFL rules, not being able to do anything about it.

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Under the current rules, the 14 non-Queensland and NSW clubs are not able to access their Next Generation Academy (NGA) players unless they received a bid outside the top 40. The northern talent academies are designed to help those clubs nurture local talent in non-AFL markets, while the focus from the other 14 clubs comes from nurturing junior talent from Indigenous or multicultural backgrounds - essentially, a non-traditional pathway for players.

Seen here are four Gold Coast academy products that were picked up by the Suns in the AFL's 2023 national draft.
The Gold Coast Suns scored four of their own promising young academy players in the first round of the national draft. Pic: Getty

There is growing anger around the fact clubs are powerless to prevent their NGA players from going to other clubs and a sense that the situation for clubs like Gold Coast doesn't represent a level playing field. However former Richmond coach Hardwick - who is preparing to lead the Suns for the first time in 2024 - says the rules are necessary for non-traditional AFL states like QLD and NSW to keep promising talent away from the clutches of the NRL and to grow AFL in those areas.

Damien Hardwick brushes off national draft criticism

“These four kids might not be in the AFL system without the Academy,” Hardwick said of his four draft picks. “The investment is incredible, the amount of time and effort put into it. To be honest, it caught me by surprise how much work goes into it.”

Hardwick recruited several Gold Coast players during his time coaching Richmond, including premiership winners Tom Lynch and Dion Prestia. As such, he's well positioned to understand the incentives needed for clubs in non-traditional AFL areas to prevent players from wanting to leave, or enticing them to return.

“To have four kids that have primarily grown up here to play our great game is incredibly important to the success of the AFL in general,” Hardwick added. "I know there’ll always be people that try to bring it down, but for the greater good of the game it’s an incredibly important part of the game moving forward.

“If we want this sport, which it is in my opinion to be the greatest sport within Australia, we’ve got to continue to grow it in the northern markets, no question.” Hardwick's assertion comes after West Coast Eagles list boss Rohan O'Brien expressed his opposition to the way the current system is structured.

"It's certainly worth discussion. We see again (during the national draft)... that players were taken inside 40," he said. "It's really frustrating when you've done a lot of work with those players.

"We understand the rules and the objective behind trying to keep things equal, but if you're going to have the NGAs, and you're going to do the work with the players, we feel it's time for a real discussion around what that might look like."

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