New statistics reveal the AFL’s massive push into the western suburbs has been a categoric failure with soccer and NRL-sanctioned sports smashing the GWS Giants in nearly every area.
Figures revealed by The Weekend Australian have revealed that just one per cent of participants in sport in the important Parramatta heartland are playing Aussie Rules, compared to a staggering 47 per cent participation rate in soccer and 24 per cent in rugby league when touch football and Oztag are included.
Of 11 sports covered in the participation rates, Aussie Rules sits dead last.
It’s a hugely disappointing finding considering the AFL has tipped an estimated $200million into the region over the last decade in a bid to gain ground on sports like rugby league and soccer.
Isaac Cumming of the Giants looks dejected after defeat during the round eight AFL match between the Greater Western Sydney Giants and the Geelong Cats
Dustin Martin (seen taking a mark against Hawthorn in their round nine clash) has ties to Sydney and has been connected to a move to the Giants. If he switched it would give the game a huge boost in the area, like Buddy Franklin’s move to the Swans
The Panthers players celebrate winning the NRL Grand Final between the Penrith Panthers and South Sydney Rabbitohs at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane
Dustin Martin has been connected to a possible move to the Giants. The Richmond superstar lived in Sydney for a year as teenager and is reportedly increasingly fond of life in the city, where he recently spent a month training with Paul Gallen while on personal leave from footy.
Speaking earlier this month, GWS chief executive David Matthews said Martin was a ‘genuine superstar of our game’ and noted several players had opted to leave Melbourne for the harbour city.
AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan has ruled out giving GWS any financial help to land Martin, but the findings about the game’s failings in western Sydney could force the league to revise that stance.
While the numbers at grassroots level are shocking, the performance of the top flight team the GWS Giants is hardly inspiring in 2022, either. The club sits 15th on the ladder and has just parted ways with coach Leon Cameron.
In contrast, the Penrith Panthers won the 2021 NRL premiership, Parramatta contested the finals and the Western Sydney Wanderers were A-League champions in their first season, Asian Cup winners in their second and are perennial finalists that attract huge crowds.
The AFL continues to pump money into the region to boost the sport’s profile and participation with seven new AFL facilities constructed and upgrades approved for 13 other clubs in the last decade.
Wanderers fans are highly passionate and almost half of all sports participants in Parramatta are choosing soccer over AFL and rugby league
Former Sydney Swans chairman Richard Colless said the AFL had seriously underestimated rugby league heartlands in NSW and believes the code has ignored key regions including the Hunter Valley and Illawarra – where 27 per cent of the Australian population he lives.
Colless warned that the NRL’s $800million war chest to develop suburban grounds could be a hammer blow to Aussie Rules participation in the state.
‘This is the world rugby league heartland and I fear the AFL may have massively underestimated the power and craftiness of rugby league,’ he said.
‘I reckon if all suburban grounds are materially upgraded and with no draft it will lead to greater local links being created. It will be back to the good old days [for the NRL].’
Mitchell Moses of the Eels celebrates winning the round nine NRL match between the Penrith Panthers and the Parramatta Eels at BlueBet Stadium
Despite the damning figures, AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan said the Giants are ‘a success story’.
‘The Giants have unquestionably been a success story for our game and in the broader Australian sporting landscape with three teams across men’s and women’s elite sport and while they have reached great heights on-field, they have also continued to expand their footprint at an extraordinary rate,’ he said.
‘Given the base the club has built in new territory in just 11 years, there is no doubt it is going to be a very powerful and large club attracting generations of fans for decades to come.’
The critical next step for GWS will be appointing their next coach after mutually parting ways with Leon Cameron during the week.
AFL journalist Daily Barrett believes former Hawthorn premiership-winner Alastair Clarkson is ‘the obvious choice’.
‘What [Cameron’s resignation] does to is allow this club to officially have these conversations with Alastair Clarkson and no other club can do that,’ Barrett said on AFL Daily.
‘One thing I do think I know of him, he’s not going to even personally take the call from a football club with a coach in place, particularly so with someone he’s had something to do with – I am referring to Stewart Dew at the Gold Coast there.
‘Clarkson ultimately sat 2022 out, he’s not going to be sitting 2023 out. He will be coaching next year and right now … it will be at the vacancy and right now the vacancy is the one that made the decision yesterday.’
Former Hawks coach Alastair Clarkson is a lead contender for the vacant GWS job
However another key contender is disgraced former Essendon coach James Hird, who is likely to throw his hat in the ring with the AFL’s blessing.
McLachlan said on 3AW this week that the AFL would not block Hird’s ascension to the head coaching role at GWS, where he is currently working in a mentoring capacity.
‘He has wanted to come back into football to an extent, but there is absolutely no reason [why the AFL would stop him from coaching].
‘They [GWS] want the right coach to take them forward.
‘Whether they’re a brand coach like Leigh Matthews or Clarkson, the club will work through what their playing group needs.’
Hird is already working as a mentor at the Giants and has been given approval to apply for the vacant head coaching role following his role in the Essendon Bombers supplements scandal
SEN and Channel 7 commentator and former Brownlow medallist Adam Cooney endorsed Hird for the job.
Cooney was convinced to join Essendon in hsi playing career rather than North Melbourne because of his relationship with Hird and Cooney believes he is the right man to turn around the Giants’ misfortunes.
‘If he walks into GWS, he’d be a great coach. He’s a great person,’ Cooney told Channel 7.
‘What happened in the past was horrible for him and everyone at Essendon and he has to take accountability for that.
‘But do you think he is going to come into GWS and set up a new supplement plan? Of course he’s not.
‘He’s a good coach, he’s a good thinker and he’s great with people. He’s learned those lessons in the past.’