When close to 50 young players from four Pacific nations trained on footy fields on the Gold Coast at the beginning of March this year, it was an exhilarating return to pre-COVID normality.
The 24 boys and 23 girls, hailing from Papua New Guinea (PNG), Nauru, Fiji and Vanuatu, were at the first U19 South Pacific Talent Male and Female Camps since COVID had closed national borders.
These week-long camps were a chance to take part in high-performance training and matches with players from the Brisbane Lions and Gold Coast SUNS academies. It was also the first time a female Talent Camp had taken place for players from the Pacific.
“Ever since we started off the training, everyone in the training camp was excited. The moment they got off the plane, they were excited for it … This is a big steppingstone for everyone,” said Bill Mark, an AFL South Pacific U19 coach, who has been involved with AFL in PNG since 2011.
Ben Drew [00:00:04] This is our South Pacific Talent Camp. The purpose of the talent camps is to provide education and real time experiences for our players. We're teaching the players pieces of the game that they may not necessarily be taught back home.
Ben Drew [00:00:21] So kick it out to the grass. That wide safety of the bench.
Ben Drew [00:00:29] Within the talent camp. We've got players representing Vanuatu, Nauru, Papua New Guinea and Fiji.
Lucillia Kami [00:00:39] The first time I fell in love with a AFL was when I found out that my grand uncle represented my country down here in the 1980 squad.
Anaseini Kamikamica [00:00:50] I play AFL because it's a continuous game. Yeah, just passing the ball forward. Yeah, it's fun.
Doreen Tokiong [00:01:00] So we're playing today. It's a privilege, especially like this is the first South Pacific Girls Academy, and it's history for us.
Ben Drew [00:01:23] It's a big learning experience. There's eight dorms, four beds in each dorm and a person from a different country in each dorm. And we have to find a way to communicate and we have to find a way to teach some skills of the game.
Zimmorlei Farquaharson [00:01:39] My role here is a Multicultural Ambassador, so I usually come down to the games. I try and get around and interact with the girls as best as I can. Do water running, talk to the girls, be in the line groups, have a chat with them if they need a little bit of extra talk about what you need to do in AFL and how you develop.
Anaseini Kamikamica [00:01:58] I learned so much and I came here, I have learned for to grap the ball properly and communications inside the ground.
Ben Drew [00:02:14] Part of our program encompasses umpiring. And they've had education through our through the week we've been here as well as our coaches.
Sam Wetton [00:02:24] Got involved with this program as a Multicultural Ambassador. So mom is originally from Papua New Guinea, so I've got a bit of culture there and yeah, it's how I'm involved with the South Pacific program out here in Springfield. This past week been very special, had three girls, two from Papua New Guinea and one from Vanuatu special to to meet them and hear about what their umpiring experiences are like back home.
Vanuatu participant [00:02:46] The challenge we're facing back at home is so when there is a game we just don't have umpires. So it's a great opportunity to be here and give some ideas out for the umpire. I'm biased here and then get back to Vanuatu and have some good umpires.
Ben Drew [00:03:03] Talent academies are there to help improve the skills of our players, of our coaches, of our umpires. If we can upskill everybody, then the quality of competitions and community competitions will grow, which will then increase the talent that will be a part of our game.
Zimmorlei Farquaharson [00:03:28] Hopefully when they do this program and really engage with the coaches, be like, I want to do this again. I want to be an elite athlete, I want to do more with AFL, then hopefully we can, they can come back, bring them here and we can start training them to be professional athletes.
Ben Drew [00:03:47] An aspirational pathway for our players and our coaches and umpires from the Pacific. It is important to us.
Lucillia Kami [00:03:55] I hope service in my country, actually, maybe in the next International Cup, down with the women's teams, The Flames. I hope to probably make the squad. Yeah.
Anaseini Kamikamica [00:04:08] Oh, maybe I'll get into one Australian AFL team.
Doreen Tokiong [00:04:17] I'm hoping I get into scholarships here in Australia and to carry the South Pacific name here and Papua New Guinea especially.
Zimmorlei Farquaharson [00:04:30] If they've been given this opportunity, I don't think they're going to throw it away because it's a big step in their life and especially being in another country and being away from family and getting that opportunity to kind of open up and be like 'I can do this'. Probably would change the whole mindset of life and like 'I can get out and do something for myself'.
Developing tomorrow’s footy stars
The camp was a highlight in a partnership between the Australian Government’s PacificAus Sports program and the Australian Football League (AFL), first announced in July 2022.
The AFL South Pacific High-Performance Pathway offers home-country training programs and regional competitions to young players from PNG, Nauru and Fiji. For the most promising athletes, it also provides opportunities to train with AFL academies in Brisbane and on the Gold Coast.
So far, the program has kicked more goals than expected.
AFL International Manager, Ben Drew, told us: “We are extremely proud with how each country has adapted the programs in their own way. 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, with identified Academy coaches.”
In the footsteps of Oea and Ratugolea
The program is now working with seven potential future stars to take up opportunities with AFL clubs in Queensland and Victoria: five male players from PNG, and a male and female player from Nauru.
They could follow in the footsteps of Hewago Paul ‘Ace’ Oea, the first locally developed Papua New Guinean to play senior AFL, who joined the Gold Coast SUNS Academy as a 15-year-old.
Another inspiration is Esava Ratugolea. Born to Fijian parents, Ratugolea debuted with the Geelong Cats in 2018 and is building an impressive career in the AFL. During a recent appearance on the ABC’s That Pacific Sports Show, he spoke of his excitement about growing the game in Fiji.
“Back home, there’s a lot of talent and a lot of these athletes that are untouched. Once you can get these people into a professional environment, you can only see what they’d be able to do,” he said.
Youth Oceania Cup will be the biggest yet
It’s an exciting time for Australian Football in the Pacific, with teams from Nauru, PNG, Fiji, Vanuatu, Tonga, NZ competing in the U16 AFL Youth Oceania Cup in Suva, Fiji, coming up in December.
“This will be the biggest Oceania Cup in history,” explained AFL’s International Manager Ben Drew. “It will also include the first female competition in the competition’s history, showcasing the sports growth through the region.”
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