By Beth Newman
Seldom has there been a Queensland football season as highly anticipated as this one, before a ball has even been bounced.
With the newly restructured NEAFL, condensing to five Queensland teams including the SUNS and Lions reserves, and the reshaping of community footy, there are plenty of unknowns.
The point of these changes, announced last year, was realistically two-fold: to increase focus on talent pathways and create strong competitions at every level.
Queensland always faces challenges in producing talent to be drafted, in a non-traditional AFL state, and anything that can brighten the spotlight on the state’s best should be done.
As AFL clubs look towards more recruits in the 19-22 age bracket, the role of the state footy competitions becomes increasingly vital.
The NEAFL has provided numerous recruits in these categories in recent years, the latest being Labrador’s Fraser Thurlow, whose Under-22 rep performance earned him accolades.
As players like Thurlow, and Tom Bell, Dayne Zorko and Adam Oxley before him, are picked up, their successors will have more of their share of the spotlight.
This concentration of talent flows on into the next tier down, into the state league and beyond.
With the new QAFL, a number of clubs will see those 19-23 year olds pushing into a NEAFL side, but that is a positive for everyone – reflecting on their strong development pathways as well as the quality of Queensland talent.
With all QAFL clubs having an U18 side this season, the development of youth will continue to grow in future seasons, further shoring up the depth of the competition and its clubs.
Finally, players who might have otherwise looked elsewhere will stay with their junior club to play in the QAFL, as the top community competition.
On the flipside, the QAFL has absolutely no shortage of quality talent, both young and experienced.
Just this season, we will see players like Paul Shelton, Kurt Niklaus and Clint Kelly running around, as well as a host of players previously on AFL lists.
These players have proven their ability at the top level of Queensland footy, some even earning a shot in the AFL, and continue to provide some of the best performances each week.
Many of the QAFL clubs have also been some of the top breeding grounds for our young talents, with many of their juniors going all the way to the top.
While the QAFL represents part of a new focus, it also brings back some really important parts of Queensland history.
With awards like the Grogan Medal and Syd Guildford Trophy returning to the QAFL, the state’s highest honours will go to QAFL players, with the winners joining a pretty spectacular list of players who have gone before them.
The revival of old state rivalries should have footy fans salivating too, as Broadbeach, Labrador, Mt Gravatt and Morningside join Surfers, Palm Beach, Western Magpies, Sandgate, University of Queensland and Wilston Grange.
All of these things are not automatically going to come together on day one, and with teams from two competitions coming into ones, there will be a bit of pain in the immediate future, but over time talent distribution will even out.
Ultimately, the QAFL has been set up to be a source of strong local competition and a breeding ground for the state’s next generation of talent, which in time will happen.
There will be imperfections, there will be learning curves and there will be challenges, but I, for one, cannot wait for the footy to begin.