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.