Tanking is natural selection in action

Melbourne thought these men would be the saviours of their club. One of them plays for GWS now. (Image: Hallas, The Age)

This article first appeared on The Roar.

In light of Brock McLean’s comments on Monday night’s On The Couch, the ugly issue of tanking has resurfaced in the sea of AFL discourse.

Some commentators, such as Mark Robinson, have used this opportunity to condemn the practice. In Wednesday’s Herald Sun Robinson called for the AFL to take serious action against clubs that throw matches in the future.

This comes as the AFL has announced an investigation into McLean’s comments about Melbourne underperforming in 2009.

But the AFL don’t need to enforce sanctions. Clubs that are stupid enough to tank will inevitably fail in their vain efforts to mount the ladder. It’s natural selection in action.

Tanking hasn’t brought on success for the Demons (Image: Eurosport)

Melbourne finished the 2009 season in 16th place and was by far one of the worst teams in the league. But few could argue that Melbourne performed as well as it could have that year. Call it experimentation, list management or tanking – Melbourne wanted to win less than five games in 2009 and they succeeded.

Looking at Melbourne circa 2012, however, you wouldn’t call it a success.

Consistently finishing last – and subsequently scoring high draft picks – has not done the Demons much good since 2009. They have since won 16 games in almost three seasons, finishing no higher than 12th on the AFL ladder. They have also changed coaches twice in this time to compound the two coaching changes they endured in 2007.

To make matters worse, the club has endured a season of turmoil on and off the field in 2012. They are not likely to make the finals for another two seasons and currently possess the most ineffective midfield in the competition.

You could name a number of reasons for this current predicament. But the conscious decision of the club during the Bailey era to put draft choices over on-field performance surely has something to do with it.

During those years, tanking instituted a losing culture at Melbourne. Not only were players exposed to an environment in which losing was acceptable, but the club’s most successful contributors were being forced out from above.

The head honchos at Melbourne showed a complete lack of respect to the club’s senior players. A lot has been said about the James McDonald dismissal – arguably the worst decision of Bailey’s tenure – but other club champions also got a rough deal.

Demon hero Adem Yze was forced into retirement by the club so that they could experiment with inexperienced kids (Image: Rooney, Getty Images).

None of Adem Yze, Jeff White, Russell Robertson, Travis Johnstone, Paul Wheatley, Matthew Whelan, Brad Miller and Cameron Bruce got to leave the Demons on their terms. Combined with McDonald, this group represented Melbourne over 1700 times. They played in numerous finals series together and knew the value of winning.

Bailey inevitably had to prematurely end the careers of some of these players in order to breed a new generation of Demons. But given that most of these men could probably still get a game with the club today, it seems ridiculous that such a huge amount of experience was chopped in such a short space of time.

In the meantime, the club failed to recognise the talents of Simon Buckley (now a regular ball magnet at Collingwood) and Shane Valenti (a proven AFL performer now dominating the VFL). They cut these players – and traded away their best midfielders in McLean and Johnstone – in the hope of capitalising on fresh blood in the drafts.

Yet the draft has not given the Demons even a slight advantage over their rivals.

In the months following 2009’s wooden spoon finish, the Demons picked up Tom Scully, Jack Trengove and Jordan Gysberts in the first round of the draft.

Number-one selection Scully failed to live up to expectations in his first two seasons at the club. From 2010 to 2011, Scully only played a handful of decent games before landing arguably the most lucrative contract in the history of the AFL. Now he is underperforming in Blacktown.

Second choice Trengove has made a solid start to his career, this year becoming the youngest player to ever captain his club. If we’re to play the horrible hindsight game, however, he hasn’t done any better than fellow 2009 choices Dustin Martin, Lewis Jetta, Nathan Fyfe and Sam Reid.

Gysberts, meanwhile, is playing in the seconds. While the dual-Rising Star nominated midfielder has huge potential, he has spent much of the year languishing at VFL level with fellow unfulfilled talents. These include Cale Morton, who could have been a number-one pick in 2007, Ricky Petterd (#30, 2006) and Lucas Cook (#12 in 2010).

While Melbourne’s youngsters are struggling in the VFL, Collingwood’s young talent is thriving.

This is no indictment on this trio; each could still play a vital role in Melbourne’s re-build over the following seasons. But if these players were drafted into a club with a strong culture of winning and a value for old heads, who knows where they would be now?

A fleeting glance at the progress of Collingwood’s young crop puts Melbourne to shame. Fourth-year players Dayne Beams and Steele Sidebottom are bordering on superstar status, while youngsters such as Alex Fasolo and Ben Sinclair have slotted into the side with ease.

Gysberts, Morton, Petterd and Cook aren’t the only Melbournians to have not developed. For a five-year period in the late 2000s, Melbourne had more Rising Star nominees than any other club. Of those past up-and-comers only Jared Rivers and Nathan Jones have since matured into consistent leaders of the football club.

The moral of the story is that teams which tank punish themselves. While a few clubs have succeeded at manipulating the draft system, most have failed.

Draft picks and young kids do not equate to success. On the contrary a strong club ethos, constant player development and sensible list management is critical. Melbourne has failed in each of these regards and is paying the cost.

The AFL thus doesn’t need to enforce rules and regulations on tanking. If teams are foolish enough to try the supposed tactic, they will simply punish themselves.