There must be something in the water of the Murray River.
With the likes of reigning Brownlow medallist Ollie Wines (Echuca) learning the game on the banks of the mighty Murray, the areas surrounding the river are officially the most fertile breeding grounds for VFL/AFL talent.
North of the river, players like Tom Hawkins and Shane Crawford (Finley), Leo Barry (Deniliquin) and John Longmire (Corowa-Rutherglen) have put their marks on the game, leading to that region being the most prosperous per capita for producing VFL/AFL footballers in the draft era, as comprehensively logged by Dave Slutzkin at DraftGuru.
Just south of the river, areas like Shepparton and Hume — including the towns of Wodonga and Wangaratta — also punch well above their weight. If the Murray is the lifeblood of Australia, it’s also the heartbeat of football.
Australian rules football is truly a national game, with players in the top flight hailing from across the country. The face of the game at the top level is shaped by the body of grassroots players underneath, from a variety of backgrounds and locales.
The red dust bowls of the centre of the country differ from the lush green fields of the south, but the game played on them is the same. Footy isn’t always about the big stadiums and strobing lights. It’s also about the heartlands, and where the game is played every weekend, rain, hail or shine.
The footy-rich strongholds
The Murray isn’t the only place to produce a plethora of top-end talent. Each state has its own strongholds.
In absolute terms, the Melbourne metropolitan areas produces the largest amount of AFL talent anywhere in Australia. Within Melbourne, a notable hotspot is the Bayside area where the likes of Chris Judd and Jobe Watson (both East Sandringham JFC) learned the game.
In the regional areas, the ever-productive Geelong and Ballarat locales have produced dozens of footballers over the years.
Perhaps a lesser-known hotspot on the fringes of Melbourne has been the Yarra Ranges, where the likes of Sam Mitchell, Brett Ratten, Rory Sloane and David Wirrpanda plied their trade at clubs like Mooroolbark and Healesville.
Then there’s Warrnambool, which seems to breed them to last, with the most games per capita of any area in Victoria.
Draftguru’s data doesn’t record local clubs for most players from South Australia or Western Australia, recognising the strong pathways with the SANFL and WAFL. Each club in these leagues has their own recruiting zones, with rights over young players developed in the areas.
This still gives a picture over what clubs and regions have had the most success in producing AFL players.
In South Australia, Norwood has produced the most AFL players in the draft era, with Port Adelaide producing the most 100-game players. That would be no shock to followers of the South Australian footy scene.
In Western Australia, Claremont and East Fremantle have been strongholds, with the most players and 100-game players respectively. East Fremantle’s success has come despite the club not winning a WAFL flag since 1998. Oddly, East Fremantle has produced the most AFL premiership players of any club, an odd turnabout.
In NSW, beyond the strong border regions, Sydney has become increasingly productive in producing AFL players, particularly in the north and east of the city. That speaks to the strength of the Swans Academy, which covers these parts of Sydney.
The Riverina, just north of the Murray, has also produced more than its fair share of AFL stars, with Wayne Carey and Paul Kelly hailing from there.
Further north, the Gold Coast produces the most professional footballers north of the Barassi Line, with a strong Victorian expat community and local footy scene. The Southport Sharks, in particular, have produced more players than any other local club in the draft era. Nick Riewoldt might be the most famous Southport product, but he’s far from the only one.
Brisbane’s north has also been increasingly productive, with Lions Academy players like Harris Andrews and Eric Hipwood springing from the north of the river in recent years.
In the Top End, most players end up coming to the AFL from Darwin. Of the 82 AFL players from the NT in the draft era, only 14 have come from outside Darwin, and the NTFL, directly before being drafted. That’s despite the devotion to footy in central Australia, and the near year-round competition in some communities.
Tasmania has been the home to footy legends over the years, with Hobart and the North West being the strongest breeding grounds of talent. On a club level, North Hobart and Glenorchy have produced the most Taswegian AFL players.
There’s also a select number of players that have made their way to the AFL from international locations. Ireland has produced 63 AFL players from 24 of the 32 Irish counties. In addition, six Americans and one Canadian (Mike Pyke) have spent time in the AFL.
Pyke’s flag with Sydney means that Canada has the highest ratio of AFL players to premierships of any country in the world.
A current view
The current state of the league sees different parts of the country contributing to on-field production. Given Melbourne is home to eight of the league’s clubs, it is unsurprising that players from the Victorian capital have produced about a third of the league’s player output measured via Player Approximate Value, or PAV.
In particular, Melbourne’s eastern and southern suburbs, home to players such as Max Gawn, Jarryd Lyons and Jack Macrae, have been strong contributors of talent this year.
Outside the major cities, Gippsland and Shepparton figure strongly, each contributing about the output of half a team each.
Outside Victoria, players from the north of Perth and south-eastern South Australia are making a large impact this year. The strength of that part of SA is largely driven by 2020 Brownlow medallist and Kybybolite product Lachie Neale, alongside Jordan Dawson and Rhys Stanley.
Local strengths and weaknesses
Looking a little deeper, a certain pattern emerges about what type of player comes from each different state. Using PAV, ABC Sport has broken down what type of contribution players from each state (and territory) have made this year — whether it is offensive, defensive or in the midfield.
If Tasmania were to field a team full of homegrown talent, it would be hard to score against. A look at the defender-heavy list of Tasmanian players reveals why.
ABC Sport calculates that the defensive contributions of the cohort far outweigh their exploits in other parts of the ground, with Jeremy Howe, Ryan Gardner, Jake Kolodjashnij and Alex Pearce hailing from the Apple Isle.
By way of contrast, NSW-origin players have excelled most strongly up forward. A NSW state of origin team wouldn’t lack for scoring power, including the likes of Hawkins, Isaac Heeney, Luke Breust and Taylor Walker.
The ACT, led by midfield guns Jack Steele and Tom Green, have the highest proportion of midifield contribution.