From the grandstand: Priority picks must go

9 August 2011

Written by: Ben Waterworth

Tanking – the ultimate swear word in football.

The eerie verb sends shivers down the spine of AFL officials. It’s the equivalent of a character from the Harry Potter series naively uttering ‘Lord Voldemort’ to a magician.

How can the AFL put an end to tanking? Simple – drop priority picks.

Firstly, let’s backtrack and define the undesirable ‘craft’.

Tanking in the AFL is when a team, which is out of finals contention, manipulates a game to increase the likelihood of losing it.  This is done by selecting inexperienced players over veterans or placing players out of their regular positions.

It sounds crazy, and almost farcical. Why would a team want to lose a game of footy?  It’s for long-term benefits.

In past seasons, a team that finished the home-and-away season with less than five wins or 18 premiership points or fewer, was entitled to a priority pick at the beginning of the next national draft.

Never had losing seemed such a winner.

The AFL tinkered with the rule in 2006 and moved priority picks to the end of the first round, which was approximately 16 selections later.

You couldn’t have blamed clubs for tanking. Why persist with players late in the season that aren’t part of a club’s future plans? Why try to win games when a team could finish on the bottom of the ladder and guarantee itself the best under-18 player in the nation? Why finish third last with more than five wins when you could finish last and earn juicy long-term rewards?

Since day one, the AFL has adamantly denied tanking’s existence. Who could blame it? It’s a horrendous representation of the league, hence why it refuses to admit publicly that it occurs.

But tanking exists. It’s alive and well.

Tanking talk went cold when the AFL announced its two newest clubs, Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney, would receive the majority of first round selections between 2010 and 2012 in a compromised draft. Both the Suns and Giants would therefore have first access to the best young talent on offer, which would help them significantly as they developed their respective brands.

However the t-word returned to fashion last week during Dean Bailey’s outgoing press conference.

Despite his sudden and, according to some, unfair sacking, the former Melbourne coach handled himself with class and sincerity.

He was humble and honest – perhaps too honest. Bailey uttered two ambiguous sentences that reignited the whole tanking debate.

Asked whether his team tanked during his four-season tenure, Bailey replied: ‘I was asked to do the best thing by the Melbourne Football Club – and I did it. I put players into different positions to aid their development’.

Wow – what a call. You could almost hear the clattering of paper as journalists frantically scribbled down notes. This sacking had just taken a new angle.

It was the closest the footy community had heard a coach admit his club deliberately lost games of footy to increase its likelihood of receiving priority picks. While he didn’t blatantly admit the club tanked, Bailey hinted he was complicit in an arrangement to field a team that allowed the Demons to recruit the best young talent in the nation.

Bailey never specified a game he played certain players out of position, but the media immediately highlighted a match between Melbourne and Richmond in Round 18, 2009.

The Dees played well and only lost the match by two points – thanks to a goal after the final siren from Jordan McMahon. But it was clear Bailey played a chunk of players out of position.

Defenders James Frawley and Matthew Warnock patrolled the attacking 50, forward Brad Miller played in the ruck, while ruckman Paul Johnson drifted into defence to play on Nathan Brown – a man 18 centimetres shorter than Johnson.

Brown recently admitted he and other Richmond players were baffled and highly sceptical of what Melbourne did that day.

‘It was a bit of a hollow feeling after the game,’ he told The Footy Show last Thursday night. ‘I’m pretty sure we didn’t sing the song or anything like that.’

‘We went out to win that game.

‘After the game, Jade Rawlings, our caretaker coach, said “you guys should be embarrassed because you just won a game against a side that was trying to lose it”.

‘I reckon it was embarrassing to both sides in the end. You’ve got to protect the integrity of the game.’

Let’s get this straight – players don’t tank. In the words of the legendary John Farnham, players ‘play to win’ whenever they run out onto an AFL field.

But clubs tank – undoubtedly.

Proof? Look no further than Bailey’s comments and Brown’s description of that 2009 game.

The time has come. Priority picks need to be abolished.

If these beneficiary draft selections are still in place when the draft returns to normal in 2013, tanking talk will still be around like a bad smell.

Change is needed. Otherwise the integrity of the game will continue to be scrutinised.

Full credit to AFL Operations Manager Adrian Anderson, who admitted the league will reassess the draft system at the end of this season. But now the challenge is to follow through and do something about it, before the league is embarrassed again.

An NBA-style lottery system seems like a logical replacement.

Teams who finish towards the bottom of the ladder would still be rewarded with early draft picks, but wouldn’t be guaranteed the best picks. Clubs would be grouped into pools, such as 15th to 18th and 11th to 14th, to ensure an equal chance of earning the best pick.

It’s a simple equation: eliminate priority picks, eliminate all tanking.

Scrap priority picks, now.

Ben Waterworth is a third-year Bachelor of Journalism student at La Trobe University and is upstart’s former sports editor. You can follow him on Twitter: @bjwaterworth