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No simple answer yet on draft age question

AFL 2015 Training - North Melbourne 091215
North Melbourne's Mitch Hibberd was drafted at No.33 in 2015 after playing the under-18 championships as a 19-year-old

LIFTING the draft age continues to be a topic of discussion for the AFL, with a paper commissioned by the League's research board edging closer to completion.

The ideal draft age has long divided the AFL industry, with many split over whether the minimum should remain at 18, or be lifted to 19 to allow prospects to finish their schooling before focusing fully on being selected.

In April last year, associate professor John Saunders and lecturer Matthew Pink from Australian Catholic University begun studying the issue and they are on track to finish the project in June, having recently presented an interim report to the AFL's research board. 

Matthew Pink, an ACU associate lecturer working on the project, told AFL.com.au he has been pleased with the results they have uncovered so far throughout their studies.

"We are seeking to understand how age drafted in association with other variables such as draft selection order, relocation status and talent development pathway influence tenure as an AFL footballer and whether increasing the draft age would appear to have any impact on the chances of a player experiencing an extended career," Pink said.

"The second theme focuses on the level of role strain experienced by under-18 players faced with combining their year 12 studies with competing at the elite under-18 level and how being drafted this way might influence their educational attainment and development once in the AFL system."

The ACU's next stage of the project will see players early and late in their careers be interviewed about their experiences and thoughts on transitioning to the AFL.

"The goal from that is to produce a report in the middle of the year with not necessarily a definitive answer on whether the draft age should be raised or remain the same, but a clearer understanding of issues facing the players and also how we can potentially tackle some of these problems," Pink said. 

"For example, if a player's education is being negatively impacted by trying to get drafted in their senior year, what can we do to provide support for players around that?"

The AFL's talent forum in 2014, which saw League, club and state personnel come together to debate the key issues of the pathway, showed clubs to be divided on lifting the draft age to 19.

The AFL chose to stick with its current rules, where a player is eligible to be chosen in the NAB AFL Draft in the year he turns 18. But the League wanted to explore further data before making a firm decision on the future. 

Some club officials and leading coaches, including Melbourne's Paul Roos, believe the draft age should be lifted to allow 18-year-olds to focus on their school without the pressure of trying to get drafted.

However others believe an extra year would stunt the development of top talent that is ready to graduate to the AFL. Of the first 30 players drafted in 2014, 23 made their debuts last year.

"We recognise that opinions are split among AFL clubs and coaches, and, realistically there might not be a simple answer to the issues associated with drafting age," Pink said.

"Nonetheless, through exploring the influence of drafting age on career outcomes, the negotiation of sport and school, and future educational development, the research aims to better inform discussions around potential adjustments (or any lack of adjustment) to the development pathways and drafting regulations surrounding aspiring AFL footballers."