ON HIS first day in charge of Gold Coast, new Suns coach Damien Hardwick has bitten back in defence of the northern Academies, saying they are critical to the long-term success of the AFL.
The Suns selected four players from their Academy during last week's AFL Draft, all in the first round, raising eyebrows around the country about a potential leg-up for clubs in Queensland and New South Wales.
The other 14 clubs get special access to players via their Next Generation Academies, but only if those players slide beyond pick 40 on draft night. West Coast list boss Rohan O'Brien said last week there should be a "discussion" around the NGAs after a handful of NGA players were drafted by rival clubs inside the first 40 picks.
Hardwick said it was a "celebration" to bring four locally produced players to the Suns.
"These four kids might not be in the AFL system without the Academy," Hardwick said.
"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."
Jed Walter (No.3), Ethan Read (No.9), Jake Rogers (No.15) and Will Graham (No.26) have all been nurtured by the Suns for years.
The quartet is by far the best crop of Academy talent the club has had in one year and should help thwart the 'go-home' factor that has been a contributing reason to the Suns losing players like Dion Prestia and Tom Lynch, coincidentally to Hardwick’s former club, Richmond.
"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 said.
"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 said the Suns were in "ripping nick" on day one of their pre-season, with the younger players completing a 2km time trial and then 90 minutes-plus of training with ball in hand.
He said it would take some time to implement his game style, but paid credit to former coach Stuart Dew for leaving a great foundation.
"I was really happy with what I saw today," he said.
"Their endeavour is certainly there. The understanding and execution will come.
"It always happens when a new system comes in, they probably overthink at the start.
"Once they understand the concepts and how they link together, they're going to become a lot more fluent as the season wears on.
"I think we're always in a hurry to make progress. Our aim is to make finals and challenge for premierships.
"With the side we've got, we certainly think that's attainable."