Here's a piece I published on the Roar 4 years ago. While I think I was generally right about the risks he posed to the AFL, I missed completely the central dilemma his defection would introduce.
While the AFL was sitting smugly in the glow of all of the publicity surrounding the defection of Karmichael Hunt and Israel Folau, a dilemma was never far away. If the players failed to make the grade, the ploy would be seen simply as a cynical exercise in attention seeking. But that was not the worst that could happen.
Their success might prove an even greater problem because it would raise the suggestion that Australian rules football is not that hard to play and that any developed athlete could learn to play the code with relative ease.
Footy might then be painted as a fall-back sport for athletes who don’t make the grade elsewhere.
It could also create a further disconnection between the game’s grass roots and the elite level.
Why should a boy play his heart out for a club, rising through the pathways and representative football, struggling in second tier footy hoping for a breakthrough when ‘elite’ athletes from other codes and sports are waltzing in through the side door and getting paid millions in the process?
Nonetheless, the code-switching of Folau and Hunt is a historic moment in Australian sport.
Even if their shifts are complete flops (which seems to be a distinct possibility at the minute) the impact of their decisions and the way they were engineered will be lasting.
They have raised the spectre of wholesale code-switchings based on the idea that certain players are such superb athletes that they could make it in any sport they chose. The AFL’s recent acquisition of the TV squillions certainly means that there could be a fund available to tempt players over.
Asked by Mark McLure on ABC Radio Grandstand (July 31, 2009) whether he felt there were other players in Rugby League who could make the shift, Hunt replied: “Oh mate, there’s a lot of names that come to mind but I guess the obvious ones would be Billy Slater . . . down in Melbourne . . . well Greg Inglis . . . I mean these guys are natural athletes, they can do what they want.
“They could go and play basketball or play soccer if they put their minds to it, they’ve got that much ability.”
Presumably Folau was also one of those on his mind.
As a soccer supporter this proposition had me vaguely excited. The prospect of league, union and Australian rules players giving our game a fair suck of the hydration bottle is appealing.
One long-standing frustration for soccer in Australia is that many of its tens of thousands of juniors end up playing (and supporting) other codes of football at the senior level – this drift might well be the game’s fundamental problem in its ongoing efforts to establish itself on an equal footing in Australian sporting life.
At the elite level, AFL players like Adam Goodes and Brad Green were standout junior soccer players. Rugby League’s Andrew Johns starred with the round ball as a junior in Newcastle. Preston Campbell loved playing soccer as a boy. Each of them left the game in their teens.
It’s a trend that leaves many supporters wondering if we might have had more success had those players and others stayed in the game. I know the words, “He would have been a great soccer player!” have often passed my lips.
Yet this intuitive sense needs to be countered with a good dose of realism. Whenever mature sportspeople have tried to cross codes, failure has more often been the result.
Aside from the relatively easy shifts between the rugby codes, football because of their astounding punting or place-kicking abilities, there the odd Gaelic player going to Australian rules and players entering American football are few examples of successful football code-switching.
In relation to soccer I can’t think of one in recent times. In Melbourne, Glen Manton and Angelo Lekkas both tried out with South Melbourne Hellas when they left footy; both were unimpressive.
Needless to say, Karmichael Hunt’s apparent belief in his and others’ adaptability is newly found. In June 2008 he had this to say about his own skill levels:
“Basketball’s my game,” he says. “And soccer. I’ve been watching a lot of Manchester United. Cristiano Ronaldo is amazing. Amazing. I just enjoy watching the Premier League. I admire the skill those guys have. Their vision and touch. It’s awesome to watch. I wish I had the skill to play soccer. I’d be in England playing there. Or basketball in America . . . But I never had to decide. I was born a rugby league player.”
Hunt was speaking from the heart in 2008. In 2009 he was speaking through his wallet.
I’m no great rap for Australian rules but even I can see how difficult the skill-set acquisition will be for men who were “born rugby league players”. Perhaps time will prove me and many others wrong but the clock is ticking and Hunt’s own words seemed to be poised to come back to haunt him.