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    Austin Giusa playing for Taylor Swifts. Taylors Lake and Swifts have combined their junior football teams for 2024. Picture: RAELENE JOHNSTON
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    Wimmera Football Netball League chairman Peter 'Billy' Ballagh.

Frustration surrounds junior footy as age requirements tighten

By Colin MacGillivray

A Wimmera-region football administrator has praised clubs for working to find solutions as a new AFL policy causes havoc with junior age groupings.

The AFL’s National Community Football Policy, released last month, introduced new minimum age requirements for junior footballers across the country.

Age catchments for all junior competitions are now set at three years, meaning players more than three years below a competition’s age limit are barred from competing.

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The Wimmera and Horsham District leagues have this year introduced under-11 football competitions in response to the rules, after previously only running under-14 and under-17 competitions.

However, clubs are scrambling to fill junior teams due to the age changes, with many clubs previously using younger players to top-up junior teams – and the AFL handing down the rule changes just weeks before the season starts.

Under the new policy, children need to have turned 12 by June 30 this year to play in under-14 football competitions. 

The policy grants leagues an ability to permit players below age requirements to play in ‘exceptional and compelling circumstances’, but Wimmera and Horsham District league administrators said a majority of permit applications were refused.

Horsham District Football Netball League chair Rosemary Langley said the league had quite a few applications for exemptions and about half were granted. 

“Unfortunately about half missed out,” she said.

“We’ve given clubs the option to apply again in six weeks once they have had a chance to play in their normal age groups.”

Wimmera Football Netball League chair Peter Ballagh said the Wimmera league received about 25 to 30 permit applications, but only granted about a third of them.

“It will be a work in progress during the next month or so as we refine the process and get a feel for how the system works,” he said.

AFL Wimmera Mallee regional manager Angela Ballinger said AFL-affiliated insurer Marsh Advantage Insurance was behind the rule changes.

“With the insurer and the way risk is assessed, they wanted to put a lot more parameters around junior age groups,” she said.

“We can’t remove risk in our game – we know that. But what we have to do is mitigate risk.”

Mrs Ballinger acknowledged the policy would be difficult to follow for clubs and leagues in areas with low population bases.

“Previously under the AFL Junior Match Policy there was a two-year catchment for players, which we know has never been appropriate for regional and rural clubs,” she said.

“It’s been poorly adhered to and leagues have been writing their own policies in their bylaws.

“They’ve now expanded the junior catchment from two years to three years. It’s great that it’s been extended, but it still isn’t enough for us.

Peter Ballagh.

“In areas with low populations, we need four years or sometimes even five years. That’s what’s been evidenced over the years,” Mrs Ballinger said.

Parents of junior players took to social media to vent their frustration after the rule changes were announced, with a mother reporting one son had missed qualification for the under-17 age group by one day, while another had missed out on under-11s by 17 days.

Mrs Langley said leagues could no longer afford to be lenient on age requirements, as they could be liable for injuries suffered by juniors playing outside their age groups.

“The litigation that could come from a really bad injury if we played somebody who was outside the criteria is something that we as a board are not prepared to wear. We have to make those decisions,” she said.

Mr Ballagh said the policy would affect not only clubs struggling for junior numbers, but those that relied on junior players to fill senior and reserves sides.

Under the policy, a player must turn 17 by June 30 this year to be eligible for senior football.

“If you’re a 16 year old, you’ve to apply for a permit to play senior football. If you’re younger than that, it’s a definite no,” Mr Ballagh said.

“So there will no longer be a Timmy Watson who was playing senior AFL at 15, I think. Those days have gone.”

Stawell 13 and Under Football Association last week announced it would abandon its 2024 season as it struggled to comply with the rule changes.

Association president Andrew Dunn said the decision was not made lightly.

“We explored various alternatives and solutions to mitigate the impact of these changes, but ultimately, it became clear cancelling the competition was the most sensible course of action given the circumstances,” he said.

“We understand the disappointment and inconvenience this cancellation might cause to all involved, including players, coaches, parents and supporters.”

Different pain points

Mrs Ballinger, who is manager of both the Wimmera Mallee and Sunraysia AFL regions, said she was working to support leagues across her area in different ways.

“I cover six leagues and associations and they’ve all got different pain points with this,” she said.

“For the Wimmera and Horsham District leagues, it’s low populations and small communities.

“If you think this is difficult for boys, it’s been particularly challenging for girls, because we need bigger age ranges.

“We’ve done some collaborative work across all of them. I’ve been working on this for four weeks, and each league has picked it up and dealt with it in different ways.

“They’re all great volunteer boards and I admire them so much for what they do.”

Mrs Langley said the timing of the changes, which were introduced only weeks before the start of the season, was the primary frustration for clubs.

“If we had known halfway through last year, or even at the end of the year, we could have sat down as a league with our clubs and worked out age groups that would best suit all our children,” she said.

“The timing has been disappointing, and across the state that has been reiterated.”

Mrs Ballinger acknowledged the difficulty of the timing, but said AFL policy changes were always published in March.

“Within the National Community Football Policy, this change is one of about 15. This is the time every year when the national policy gets edited and provided to us,” she said.

“It was similar timing last year when we had the matrices around reportable offences come in really tightly before the start of the season.

“The national team from the rules and regulations crew meet during the off-season and they are the ones who create changes based on pertinent issues, or errors from the year before, or things that need to be addressed.”

Mrs Langley said the Horsham District league and its clubs would need to explore many possibilities to ensure the long-term viability of its junior competition.

She said this season’s combination of Taylors Lake and Swifts under-17 teams could prompt other clubs to investigate similar partnerships.

“Under-17s will be a bit of a worry with some teams if they can’t get those top-age under-14s up into their teams,” she said.

“Taylors Lake has already combined with Swifts, which is great. A couple of clubs have mentioned that a similar thing might be an option for them.

“We’ve an independent health check for the league underway, so we’re encouraging clubs to get engaged with that and we’ll listen to the findings of that in the coming weeks.”

Mrs Ballinger said a collaborative approach would benefit all leagues.

“We think our problems are really unique, but they’re not – our problems are somebody else’s problems, and if they’ve come up with a solution, let’s see what they’re doing,” she said.

“Lucindale and Padthaway in the Kowree-Naracoorte-Tatiara Football League have amalgamated their whole junior departments, and they’re about five or six years into it. It works well there. If a club ever wants to sit down and talk about what one, three or five years in the future might look like, I say come to the table, let’s talk about it and let’s get in front of it.

“I won’t be pointing fingers and saying ‘you two merge’ or ‘you do this’. That’s not what’s going to happen. It will definitely be driven from a club level.”

Mrs Langley said it was important for leagues, clubs and parents not to lose sight of the junior players amid the furore.

“The clubs are working together to try to make sure there’s a game each week and we can get as many kids playing as we can,” she said.

“There’s not a lot out there with our population, so we need to facilitate as many as we can.

“Hopefully we all band together to get the kids out there. It’s pretty simple, but that’s the bottom line of what we want.”


RELATED: Taylor Swifts unite to keep juniors playing football

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