The partnership between the Australian Government’s PacificAus Sports program and the Australian Football League (AFL) has reached new heights this year, with dozens of promising young Pacific players attending two week-long camps on the Gold Coast at the beginning of March.
A total of 47 male and female players from Papua New Guinea (PNG), Nauru, Fiji and Vanuatu, attended the U19 South Pacific Talent Male and Female Camps, undertaking high-performance training and taking on players from the Brisbane Lions and Gold Coast SUNS academies.
“This is a big stepping stone for everyone,” said Bill Mark, an AFL South Pacific U19 coach, who has been involved with AFL in PNG since 2011.
On the launchpad for success
The AFL South Pacific High-Performance Pathway offers home-country training programs and regional competitions to young players from PNG, Nauru and Fiji. The most promising athletes get an opportunity to train with AFL academies in Brisbane and on the Gold Coast.
The partnership was first announced in July 2022 at the QClash23 between the Brisbane Lions and Gold Coast SUNS at the Gabba, with senior diplomats representing PNG, Fiji and Vanuatu.
This was followed by AFL Talent Academy launches in Nauru and PNG. The Nauru academy was launched by the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Penny Wong, alongside Nauru Minister for Sport, Khyde Menke. The academy in PNG was launched by the Australian Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Pat Conroy, with the PNG Minister for Higher Education, Science, Research, Technology and Sports, Don Polye.
In just the first six months, more than 3,800 players have taken part in the talent identification program and more than 600 players are now training as part of the Academy programs. Seven potential future stars – five male players from PNG, and a male and female player from Nauru – are looking to take up opportunities with AFL clubs in Queensland and Victoria.
Supporting the game at grassroots
As well as developing players, the program provides elite-level training for coaches and umpires.
“Staff from AFL Queensland, the Brisbane Lions and Gold Coast SUNS Academy programs have been heavily involved in up-skilling their Pacific colleagues, with 146 coaches and 158 umpires attending workshops in the six months to April 2023,” said AFL International Manager Ben Drew.
The Australian Defence Force’s South Pacific Sports Cell also assists in the training, as well as donating much-needed sporting equipment.
“That is a major shortfall in the Pacific – they just don't have the resources like we are used to in Australia,” Commander Paul Cottier, the Director of the ADF Sports Program, told the ABC’s That Pacific Sports Show.
“We are giving them enough equipment that they could run a carnival or their sporting code for two or three years down the track.”
The benefit has been immediate.
“When I saw the equipment being donated, I actually teared up and felt so emotional because this is what we wanted for many years – because we don't sell AFL equipment here or AFL balls even,” explained Loata Vakausausa, an AFL development officer based in Suva, Fiji.
“I actually thought it would be just balls and cones and when I saw other things I was like, I was actually speechless … I was so overwhelmed and so happy.”
Loata Vakausausa [00:00:04] The first thing that attracted me to women's AFL is the struggle. Like, I like things that, you know, for you to work hard for it. So woman's AFL when it started there was struggling. They were hated. They had to to work their way up and they did.
Loata Vakausausa [00:00:26] I put that perspective towards AFL Fiji as well. We we are struggling and we are trying to get there and one day we will get the.
Loata Vakausausa [00:00:41] I started back in 2014. I was actually introduced by my basketball coach and then we started the female team, national team. We were actually pioneers of the AFL women's in Fiji.
Loata Vakausausa [00:01:07] As a Development Officer, I reach out to places that have never heard of AFL. So in Fiji since it's minor sport, we have got a lot of places here in Fiji to cover. When it comes to them knowing what is AFL. That part of the job I do love, going out to places that I've never even been to, seen. Seeing kids faces smiling, while playing the spot, that's a bonus point.
Commander Paul Cottier [00:01:49] We introduced Australian Rules Football for the first time in our program and of course a big part of our program is that we bring over sporting equipment that we donate and that is a major shortfall in the Pacific, they just don't have the resources that we are used to, you know, in Australia.
Loata Vakausausa [00:02:08] And when I saw the equipment being donated, I actually teared up and felt so emotional because this is what this is what we wanted for many years because we don't sell AFL equipments here or AFL balls, even. So when I saw it, I actually thought it was it would be just balls and cones. And when I saw other things I was like, I was actually speechless. I didn't even know what to say. I didn't even know what to think. I was just like 'oh, damn, this is it. This is the moment that we've been waiting for from the past few years'. We can actually do things that we've wanted to do from the past with this equipment. And I was so overwhelmed and so happy. Even even I told myself 'we are so blessed'.
Commander Paul Cottier [00:03:04] We're giving them equipment or enough equipment that they could run a carnival or their sporting code for two or three years down the track. It's probably one area that really, really has a great benefit for us. And Australia as a nation is to help these people be resourced. Yeah. These girls have done an amazing job here in Fiji in promoting Australian Rules Football, their dedication and commitment to travelling, hours upon hours to go to small villages to promote female participation. And they're absolutely wonderful role models for the sport.
Loata Vakausausa [00:03:49] How has AFL changed my life? I would say first and foremost it has gotten me to be physically fit always. And also I love kids. And my aim is always to have an impact on someone's life. That's how I joined coaching as well, because I want that person to be a better person or a better player in the future.
Going from strength to strength
It’s an exciting time for Australian Football in the Pacific, with more major events planned for the rest of 2023.
PNG and Nauru are expecting to send representative teams to the U14 Queensland Academy Championships on the Sunshine Coast in September.
And in December, the U16 AFL Youth Oceania Cup will be held in Suva. Six countries have been invited to what will be the biggest Oceania Cup in history: Nauru, PNG, Fiji, Vanuatu, Tonga and NZ. The tournament will also include the first female competition in the tournament’s history.
The future of the partnership is looking bright as it continues to support the development of talented emerging athletes from the region while deepening the sporting connections between Australia and our Pacific neighbours.
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