SYDNEY has suddenly found its Academy under an intense glare following the stunning debuts of Errol Gulden and Braeden Campbell and the electric form of defender-turned midfielder Callum Mills.
Geelong premiership coach Chris Scott has publicly questioned the price the Swans pay for their Academy products, with Sydney CEO Tom Harley hitting back on Wednesday.
"A lot of the population is in Sydney and a lot of the talent is there and if they can harness the sporting talent - I think most of us would know that played when we were in year 10 or 11, the best cricketers were also the best footy players who are best rugby players. It's really smart," Scott told Channel Nine on Monday night.
"The key question for the competition is what price do they pay, because no one can argue that it‘s not good for the game to get the best talent playing AFL footy in NSW."
There's been a lot of controversy around the Sydney Swans Academy, but now the Swans are reaping the rewards of putting time and money into its young stars from an early age.— Footy on Nine (@FootyonNine) April 5, 2021
So, is the current system fair?#9FootyClassified | Watch @channel9 pic.twitter.com/Hr9h4pn58d
Harley was strong in his defence of the Academy system, explaining the club invests more than $1 million a year and trains up to 800 youngsters that live in the heartland of rugby league territory.
"Errol Gulden and Braeden Campbell have been in the Academy since they were 11 years old and I think we pay a very heavy price to do that," Harley told Channel Seven.
Meanwhile, Isaac Heeney (another Academy product who the Swans took with pick 18 in the 2014 NAB AFL Draft) is just as excited by less-hyped Academy graduates such as Sam Wicks.
Wicks, 21, is now in his third season, and in his 10th career game on Saturday the category B rookie had 21 disposals and booted three goals to be one of Sydney's best in the big win over Richmond.
"Players like 'Wicksy' had similar opportunities to the other high picks, but maybe they've joined the Academy later or taken a bit longer to develop. Now they're coming in and having a major impact on the club," Heeney told AFL.com.au.
"Look at 'Wicksy' on the weekend – had his best game for the club, kicked three, had amazing pressure and plenty of the footy, and sort of run amok against the best team of the past four years."
The immediate impact of Campbell and Gulden has been no surprise to anyone who saw them play junior footy, where they built reputations as hard-working yet highly skilled midfielders.
Their rapid impact at the top level raises the question whether being part of the Swans Academy has given them, and therefore Sydney, a headstart on the other 2020 draftees and their clubs.
One advantage that players like Campbell, Gulden and Wicks have, while most others don't, is that the select group that make it through to the Academy’s under 17s, 18s and 19s train with Josh Kennedy, Dane Rampe, Luke Parker and the rest of the Swans about once a week.
"I had the opportunity right before I was drafted to train with the AFL team a handful of times. The boys now in the Academy can come in and join us nearly every week," Heeney said.
"It's a pretty amazing experience for them. It helps with their development, coming in and training with the most elite of that sport."
Chris Smith, head of the Swans Academy, also sees the opportunity to train with the senior side as an important step in a young player's journey and part of what he calls a "whole club approach".
"It's about all parts of the club providing opportunities for them," he said.
"Whether it be the recruiters providing them with a bit of feedback, or putting them in a senior training environment in the gym, out on the oval or in team meetings.
"We're restricted by AFL rules about the time they spend in the club, but that senior integration is really important."
LIFE IN A NORTHERN TOWN
Sydney was the first club to set up one of what are now known collectively as the Northern Academies, in 2010. It now has more than 800 participants, across boys and girls teams from under 11s to under 19s. Brisbane, Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney have since followed.
But it is the Swans Academy that draws the most criticism, largely for the first-round draftees it has produced: Heeney (2014), Mills (2015), Blakey (2018) and Campbell (2020). Sydney also matched a second-round bid at pick No.32 last year for Gulden.
Yet other than these five elite players, a little quirk is that the Swans have been able to wait until rookie drafts to claim any Academy products that they like.
This includes Wicks, who was picked up as a category B rookie selection in 2018, as a small forward in his under-19 year who had just played a season in the NEAFL. James Bell, the unused medical sub against the Tigers, was taken the same way in 2017.
"When we started the Academy, a lot of the AFL clubs didn't have much interest in players from New South Wales. I think that old sentiment still lingers," Smith said.
"I'm hoping that they start to realise that these boys can run hard, they've been in a pretty strict program and their skills are at the levels required.
"Hopefully they'll start being strong considerations for second, third, fourth round draft picks, and getting onto senior lists."
About 3000 kids have passed through the Swans Academy, but few have made it onto AFL lists.
Only 12 players have broken through at Sydney for a senior game. A meagre three Swans Academy alumni are on other AFL lists – GWS's Jack Buckley (five games), Carlton's Luke Parks (debuted last week), and Adelaide's Ben Davis (two games).
As much as the Academy aims to develop potential Swans, Smith wants it to be an exporter of talent too.
"There's only so many seats on the bus with the Swans, so we're hoping that we'll see the supply to other clubs increase," he said.
"I personally like seeing the kids running around in a Swans jumper. But I'll be just as proud of a boy or girl that has come to our program at 10 or 11 years of age, and is later playing for any club in the AFL."
PAYING THE RIGHT PRICE
The noble aim of the Academies is to build a strong footy culture and interest in the 'growth states', get more kids playing the game, increase the number of them with high-level skills, and ultimately grow the talent pool.
"I feel [the Academies] are playing a really important role in getting our share of first-choice athletes in New South Wales," AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan said while in Sydney last month.
"The debate in Victoria is the price you pay."
Academy players at Sydney, GWS, Brisbane and Gold Coast are subject to the same bidding system as father-son prospects, so since 2015 clubs have had a 20 per cent discount on the draft points needed to match a bid.
Next Generation Academy (NGA) products were eligible for the same draft concessions. But access to NGA talent has now been watered down, so clubs won't be able to match bids in the top 20 of this year's draft, or in the top 40 of next year's draft and beyond.
A similar approach for the academies might restrict the NSW and Queensland clubs' access to elite talent, but would also weaken the incentives to fund the programs – which for the Swans is to the tune of more than $1 million a year.
With that sort of money being spent on the academies and growing the game, and relatively few players moving from them to AFL lists, maybe the price paid on draft night looks about right.