With the finals season fast approaching Australian Rules Football teams on the Sydney University campus could have a swag of flags aflutter come September, writes Graham Croker.

Tom Morrison, coach of Sydney University’s North East Australian Football League (NEAFL) side, is quietly confident his squad can go all the way this year after finishing third in 2015 and 2016 before being knocked out in the preliminary finals.

“We’re a stronger side this year,” Morrison said. “While we lost our past two games to the top two sides – the Sydney Swans and Brisbane Lions – they had full lists and we had some key players out with injury, including Jonathon Williams. We also lost Lewis Stevenson (dislocated shoulder) and Tom Young (ribs) in the first half against Brisbane.

“But we’ll have players coming back in the run to the finals. We have plenty of work to do but I’m excited by the make-up of the squad and our prospects.”

The coach said fielding a NEAFL side in Sydney has benefitted local clubs and strengthened the competition because local talent stays here instead of going off to Western Australia, South Australia or Victoria to get drafted. 

“We need to be able to compete with full-time athletes – that’s the challenge for the coaching staff and the players,” he said. 

“From the list of 47 players, the match committee meets on Wednesday night to name the 23-man NEAFL squad for each Saturday’s game and those not selected go back to their respective Sydney clubs.”

Sydney University’s Australian National Football Club’s (SUANFC) General Manager Chris Goodrope agrees.

“The 47-man squad is made up from boys studying at the university, former AFL players and players from other Premier Division clubs in the Sydney competition,” he said.

“It’s a unique make-up, particularly when we play the Swans or Brisbane Lions, which are fully professional outfits representing senior AFL sides.

“We try to be as professional as possible with the NEAFL side from management and coaching perspectives without having the resources of the major clubs.

“When the 23-man squad is selected each week the other players go back to their respective clubs. We have players in the NEAFL side from many Sydney AFL Clubs including, North Shore, UNSW, Pennant Hills and Manly. So the talent strengthens the Sydney Premier League by being spread across the board.

And Sydney players who miss the draft now have a pathway to the AFL without having to move interstate. “Having a NEAFL club in Sydney allows them to play in Sydney and gives back to their clubs,” the General Manager said.

“It’s important for NSW to retain local talent so it’s a win, win for everyone.”

Goodrope spent five years at the Sydney Swans as a talent and recruitment Manager before transferring to Sydney University last year. As a result, SUANFC has a strong relationship with the Swans, so those who don’t get drafted come to Sydney University.

This season they include Darcy Baron-Hay, Ryan Hebron, Nathan Cooper, Ned Reinhard, Matt Wilson and Callum McFadden, four of whom have won NEAFL Rising Star awards in 2017.

“Those players have added to the talent and depth of the club and that’s partly why the Premier League side is also doing so well in 2017,” Goodrope said.

“Premier Division coach Tony Overall is also reaping the rewards from NDS Swans Academy members and players who’ve been in the NEAFL for a few seasons and are dropping back to the Premier Division club football.”

Since coming across from the Swans the General Manager said he has been pleased with the process. “It’s an elite and professional environment in the playing group and coaching staff,” he said. “Players can now get into the AFL and be drafted. And all of our boys are retained locally, making the Sydney competition that much stronger and competitive.”

The North-East Australian Football League started in 2011 and Sydney University entered the competition in 2012 when they finished eighth. They finished eighth again in 2013 and seventh in 2014 before making preliminary finals appearances in 2015 and 2016.

Sydney University opened their 2017 NEAFL campaign with wins over Southport, the Giants, Redland, Aspley, Gold Coast Suns and Southport before losing to the Swans. They hit back with wins over Canberra Demons, Northern Territory Thunder and Redland before losing to the Swans and Brisbane Lions.

“They’re the benchmark sides,” coach Morrison said. “They are fully professional outfits with full-time athletes. Brisbane have 20 AFL listed players in their NEAFL ranks. 

“We only get to train twice a week; once at Sydney University and once at Henson Park and we play most of our home matches out at Blacktown International Sportspark – an hour’s drive away. They’re the barriers the players have to overcome.”

A premiership flag would be just reward.