Saturday, December 25, 2010


Former Rugby star Mike Pyke became the first Canadian to play in the AFL

 Mike Pyke was born in Victoria, British Columbia (24th March, 1984) and represented his country at the highest level of rugby playing for the Canadian national team. On the advice of a friend Mike submitted a DVD showcasing his skills to an AFL player agent and in August of 2008 Mike Pyke was signed by the Sydney Swans. After solid performances in the '09 NAB cup Pyke eventually made his official senior debut against Richmond in round 6.

In mid-2009 as the Ontario Australian Football League (Canada) launched it's second division competition the league decided to honour the first Canadian to have played in the AFL by naming the Division 2 Premiership cup the 'Mike Pyke Cup'. The Quebec Saints went on to win the premiership that year and whilst in Sydney, Australia in January 2010 I had the opportunity to present Mike with a Saints jersey and fire off a few questions.

LA: How did you stumble across our wonderful game of Aussie Rules?     
Mike Pyke: I already knew Aussie Rules existed when the possibilty of playing was suggested to me. I think alot of people in Canada are aware the game exists. They just perhaps don't understand the finer details of the sport.

LA: How do you feel about having a cup (OAFL Division 2 Cup) named after you?
Mike Pyke: Ah, (smirks) very flattering!

LA: I guess you can boast to your teammates none of them have a cup named after them.
Mike Pyke: It still amazes me that 'Roosy' (Paul Roos, Sydney Swans Coach) has a bronze statue of himself out the front of the SCG while he's still alive!

LA: First impressions of living in Australia?
Mike Pyke: It's different. The area I live in is beautiful with alot of gorgeous parks, great cafes and restaurants.

LA: You know we are the Quebec Saints and we're from Montreal. We know you're a BC native so the big question is what NHL team do you support?
Mike Pyke: Ha! Well you probably guessed it but I am a Canucks fan. Although I do have a soft spot for the Montreal Canadiens.

LA: Thanks Mike, good luck for the year
Mike Pyke: Thanks guys, my pleasure.

Friday, December 10, 2010


Karmichael Hunt was one of Rugby League's dominant figures before deciding to switch codes
When Rugby league star-turned Australian Rules footballer Karmichael Hunt runs out onto the field for the Gold Coast Suns in 2011, the eyes of a nation will be scrutinizing his every move, ready to pass judgment that the ‘experiment’ has failed.
That experiment of course is that of a 24-year old Rugby superstar in his prime trading codes to succeed (and cash in) with Aussie Rules.  It’s being touted as a brave and bold new move by the Suns. But players switching codes isn’t new in the AFL and certainly not in Aussie rules around the world. Canadian Rugby star Mike Pyke has successfully made the switch earning a regular spot in a top 8 team, Dean Brogan was a former National Basketball League star before pulling on the boots for the Port Adelaide Power and no one can forget the most successful of all ‘code-breakers’ Jim Stynes. The Irish sensation switched from Gaelic football and eventually was awarded Aussie Rules highest individual honour, the Brownlow Medal.
Of course having players switch codes is the bread and butter of all international Aussie Rules football. But is there a ‘preferred’ sport to poach players from? Many would suggest (including international AFL scout Ricky Nixon) that Gaelic football is the perfect breeding ground for future AFL stars. While Jim Stynes' success supports that theory, there have been plenty of Gaelic footballers that have tried and failed to make the switch. And Ireland has been strong at all three International Cups – but not dominant. The top two teams from the 2005 & 2008 cups (Papua New Guinea & New Zealand) are both Rugby nations.
From water-polo to weightlifting the Quebec Saints non-Australian players sporting background have been as diverse as the countries they have come from. And to get a better insight on where the success stories have come from it is best to examine each player and sport individually.
Cam Stark (Ice Hockey) The most successful Saint thus far Stark’s brilliant reading of the play was no doubt a by-product of the similar 360 degree game-play of hockey. The ability to absorb and lay hits have also been advantages of players swapping their skates for football boots. The cons – foot skills have to be learned from scratch generally, but as in Stark’s case in only three short years of hard work and dedication this skill can reach an exceptionally high level.
Chris Lagace, Kyle Graham, Aimee Legault (Soccer) No doubt these three players all exhibit similar strengths when it comes to Aussie Rules. Stamina, speed and high level foot skills have been par for the course from the Saints round ball trio. Each former soccer player armed with a booming kick. The similar game flow has also assisted these national team hopefuls/players.  The cons – the physicality of Aussie Rules is usually the biggest concern with ex-soccer players, luckily the Saints three ‘world game’ players have thrived on being able to exude a little more physical presence in their new  chosen sport.
Ronan Shaughnessy (Gaelic) Shaughnessy also lists Rugby as one of his loves. With a big issue for Gaelic players being the physical contact a former Gaelic/Rugby player is as perfect a ‘code-breaker’ as you can find. And it shows. Shaughnessy’s blistering pace, thumping right foot and lightning handball skills were all talents he imported from Gaelic football. It made Shaughnessy one of the Saints best assets in 2010. The cons – Gaelic football although extremely similar to Aussie Rules doesn’t involve any tackling. Many would be converts can be put-off by the physical contact. But given that 99% of former Gaelic players will be Irish and that Ireland also has an affinity for Rugby, finding players who enjoy both will be a goldmine of Aussie Rules talent.

Margo Legault, Renaud Carbonnel, Greg Bretiere, James-Robert Theis (Rugby) Tough, tackling machines who aren’t interested in flair - just getting the job done. These four former Rugby players all display the same traits – fearless courage, brutal tackling and the awareness to always protect their teammates. Margo Legault is a shining example of the Rugby convert. Regularly doing the hard work off the ball that rarely gets noticed, willing to put her body on the line in order to win the hard ball and pave the way for her team’s victory.  In a word ‘Irreplaceable’.  The cons – Handballing! Not the actual act but altering the thought process of the Rugby player who always wants to throw the ball. Stamina, the flow of the game and foot skills can also be other areas that in some converts need a little extra work.
Lindsay Belzie (American Football/Grid Iron) Much the same pros and cons to that of Rugby players. Lindsay’s experience in American Football where a loose ball sends players into a frenzy has helped her transform into an absolute weapon in extracting the Aussie Rules ball from pack situations. Again fearlessness, and the awareness to work with AND without the ball are all skills no doubt honed on the Grid Iron pitch.
At 24 years of age Karmicheal Hunt’s defection to Aussie Rules mirrors that of many Canadians who after growing up playing mainstream sports decide to try Aussie Rules in their 20’s. The truth of the matter is that in every sport different players play different roles, and therefore determining a clear cut breeding ground for the next Aussie Rules invasion can become clouded. Players from particular backgrounds will no doubt have certain short term advantages. But inevitably the player who puts in the most hard work to convert will ultimately be the winner. With a majority of the Canadian National team having started Aussie Rules post-teens, Canada’s 2011 International Cup squad will already be a shining example that the ‘experiment’ has already succeeded.

Monday, November 22, 2010


Winning the premiership in the OAFL's premier division is a herculean achievement that requires a multitude of factors falling into place at precisely the right time. There is however one ingredient that has proven key in all 22 premiership recipes so far, and it's not a star Aussie import, super coach or band of Canadian Aussie rules veterans. As they say in real estate, it's all about location, location, location.

The numbers are so clear cut you can put all the teams into clearly defined zones. Around 30 minutes from the heart of footy in Toronto is the premiership zone. If your club is located within this zone it probably already has a premiership flag, 6 of the 7 clubs do. The one that doesn't has made it to the big dance on three occasions. The Conacher Cup has never travelled outside this area in it's entire 22 years of existence. The next zone is located around an hour from the epicentre of the GTA. We'll call it the battler zone. If your club is located here it has a win-loss record of less than 50% over the past five years. In recent times one good year of footy is usually followed by a slide back down the ladder the next. Venture further out, two hours plus and your located in the survival zone. Here the numbers are grim. No team has survived longer than five years in what has become the OAFL's wasteland. A wasteland that is littered with the bones of now defunct clubs the London Magpies and Windsor Mariners.

At the very edge of the OAFL universe, an unprecedented six hours out from ground zero is Montreal. Although still only an OAFL division 2 club the speculation on whether the Saints franchise will enter the OAFL's top tier rages on year after year. The motives behind the young clubs reluctance to roll the dice in division 1 more apparent as the undeniable facts of road warrior teams are slowly unveiled.

There are exceptions to the rule of course. Hamilton were runner-up in '96. And Guelph have had two terrific regular seasons in the past three years despite first round exits in both finals campaigns. Both clubs have had strong 9 win seasons in one of the past two years, the final piece to their premiership puzzle may in fact be the creation of a shared division 2 squad that would help both clubs hopefully maintain momentum on their push for a premiership - not unlike the momentum the Blues have enjoyed and are likely to keep enjoying with their successful division 2 team. But more importantly both teams are also located in the battler zone, not the survival zone.

There is one team that has the unenviable title as sole division one occupant of that survival zone, and yet the Ottawa Swans are likely the best equipped team to deal with the OAFL's uncompromising travel curse. After an expected tough inaugural year that failed to yield a single win. The Swans improvement in 2009 was such that after it's round 11 victory against the Toronto Rebels in just it's second official OAFL year, it was still mathematically in the hunt for a finals position. At that crucial moment when the Swans were ready to thrust themselves forward from pretender to contender they slipped up. Current head coach Chris MacLean was unknowingly handed a leaky ship at the start of the 2010 season. The exit of many of the Swans top line players along with injuries to a few of their stars made even their single victory this year somewhat of an achievement, especially in a season when the team endured many heavy defeats, one in excess of 200 points.

2011's motto for the Swans should be 'All or nothing'. For in the next three years the Swans need to lay down a solid plan that sees the club improve each year and make the finals in year 3. That will be the club's sixth year in the OAFL and a timely announcement that success on the edge of the Ontario AFL's limits is in fact achievable. And maybe, just maybe that the curse of the 'survival zone' is broken.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Former Quebec Saint Cam Stark was superb
 first time out for Canada against the USA in
2009 but missed out on a recall in 2010?
Photo: Rob Colburn
Canada has to make the final four of the 2011 International Cup. Anything less than that will be deemed a failure. For a country that boasts one of the biggest leagues in the world outside of Australia, the next twelve months are going to be the most important in it's 22 year existence. All the ingredients are there for success: excellent junior development out west, solid playing numbers in Toronto and promising satellite programs in Calgary, Ottawa and Montreal. Canada has even already had one of their own make it in the big time. Former Canadian rugby international Mike Pyke's quiet success in a Sydney Swans jersey hasn't been hailed as the start of an international invasion. But despite the fact he didn't come through the Canadian Aussie rules program it should be an indication that ice-hockey loving Canadians have got what it takes to compete with the very best with a Sherrin in their hand. There are however cracks beginning to open up that need to be quickly filled. This weeks announcement that Emile Studham has stepped down as head coach is a massive blow for a squad that is less than twelve months away from their defining moment. Studham, Canadian assistant coach in 2008 had an impeccable coaching record at club level in Canada. But it's not only his departure that has the top brass scratching their head. 2010's defeat to the United States is a clear indication that all countries are raising their game. Canada's record at the International Cup has been one of solid improvement, 9th in 2002, 7th in 2005 and 6th in 2008. The AFL is looking to invest in international footy like never before in the coming years. For Canada to figure heavily in those plans it needs to deliver in August 2011 or risk being put in the international B-grade basket.

How does it all affect footy in Quebec?

The eastern most point of footy in Canada has toiled away for three years building a football program that has gone largely unoticed by the driving force behind Canada's national program. To date, the one male representative the Quebec Saints has had play for the national team no doubt earnt his place on Team Canada wearing a Toronto Rebels jersey in the Ontario AFL. A clear indication that the Quebec program has been largely overlooked. In stark contrast, the Canadian women's program opened the doors to Quebec based players. Working together with Quebec's coaches Northern Lights coach Jake Anson welcomed two of the Montreal Angels best, Margo and Aimee Legault into the team. The result of course speaks for itself. With the Legault sisters in Canadian jerseys the Canadian team were able to defeat the United States for the first time claiming the 49th Parallel Cup. Furthermore both Margo and Aimee Legault were among Canada's best throughout the tournament. A clear indication that something must be going right out east. Cam Stark's shock omission from Canada's 49th Parallel squad was a direct slap in the face for Quebec footy. The Montreal based Stark, who was amongst Canada's best players against the United States in 2009 didn't play as many division 1 matches in 2010, Team Canada never making the time to cast an eye over the talent pool of the Quebec Saints that would breeze through the division 2 competition on the back of mainly non-Australian talent. The irony being that less exposure in Toronto no doubt counted against the dynamic on-baller in the eyes of team Canada, yet Stark was still able to make the OAFL All-Star team. The writing is on the wall now for Quebec's next two Canadian national hopefuls, Chris Lagace and Kyle Graham. Team Canada has shown that playing in Quebec's ECAFL which has developed players such as Cam Stark, Aimee and Margo Legault, two Irish team nationals and three French team nationals simply isn't enough. Perhaps it's time that Quebec footy stopped knocking on Team Canada's door, and they started knocking on ours.