The free-standing concrete grandstand overlooking the Dunshea Oval at Carey Baptist Grammar’s sprawling sports complex is completely full on this cold, misty Melbourne winter’s day.
To the rugged-up throng watching this game of Australian football between affluent private schools, the very Melbourne question – “which school did you go to?” – remains potent.
The vast majority of the spectators who ring the oval are students, parents and alumni of Carey and their opponents, Caulfield Grammar School. They’re here, on an expanse of Bulleen parkland near the Eastern Freeway, for the August 3 game that will decide the premiership of the prestigious Associated Public Schools competition.
Across the oval, there’s no seating, only a clunky rectangular electronic scoreboard and a backdrop of trees. Just metres from the boundary, a tall, bald, middle-aged man with a Roman centurion’s bearing is seated on a fold-up camping chair, taking notes.
Hamish Ogilvie, recruiting manager of the Adelaide Crows, and his offsider, Binuk Kodituwakku, are here to assess some of these teenagers for their AFL-worthiness.
The two most keenly watched kids are Carey’s co-captains and best mates, Matt Rowell and Noah Anderson.
On Wednesday night, the names of Rowell and Anderson will be the first called out, as picks one and two, in the AFL’s national draft by the Gold Coast Suns, whose successful pitch to the AFL for an extra early draft pick was predicated on the opportunity to recruit both the Carey captains.
I ask Ogilvie “who’s here” from the clubs? “Everyone,” he replies. Fingering through the team lists on the program, Ogilvie rattles off the names of the nine or 10 AFL prospects, as if they were his first cousins.
Certainly most of the 18 AFL clubs’ scouts are at Carey, not so much to watch Rowell and Anderson, who will be selected before 17 teams have a choice, but to assess several others.
No school – state, private or Catholic – has ever produced the first two players in the draft. When this happens, Carey will feel a burst of pride and see a surge of publicity.
But this novelty of two schoolmates going one and two in the AFL draft is really a signpost of a far more momentous shift within Australian Rules football.
For a host of reasons, which start but don’t end with scholarships, private schools are producing footballers for the AFL at an burgeoning rate. On Wednesday, the majority of the first 30 names called out will likely be from what can be characterised as elite private schools, either from Victoria’s APS, its Associated Grammar Schools (AGS) or equivalent schools in Adelaide and Perth.
It’s a gradual trend, like the slowly boiled frog. Most pertinently, it is a shift that was not driven by the AFL; rather, it’s a change that reflects competition and resources within our education system.
“Geelong Grammar’s got a bigger salary cap than Collingwood,” quipped one AFL official, explaining how so much talent had been herded into the boarding houses and immaculate fields.
Whereas the rugby codes, from the outset, were divided along class lines – traditional rugby union was the domain of the upper crust from private schools in NSW and Queensland, while upstart rugby league was the blue-collar game – Australian Rules owed its strength to the fact that it was played and watched by all-comers, by the sons of investment bankers and tradies, by lawyers and labourers, suits and singlets.
Footy remains the glue that binds disparate stratas in the southern states.
Yet the drift towards private-schooled footballers in this egalitarian code is undeniable. According to the APS’ figures, just over a quarter – 25.6 per cent – of the players drafted to AFL clubs in 2017 came from the 11 schools who make up the APS, which also supplied four of the first five picked. That’s just 11 schools from one state, out of 2755 Australian schools that run to year 12 (2018).
The 11 schools are cradles of the country’s owners and decision-makers: Melbourne Grammar, Scotch College, Geelong Grammar, Xavier College, Wesley College, St Kevin’s College, Haileybury College, Caulfield Grammar, Brighton Grammar, Geelong College and Carey Grammar.
In 2018, the percentage drafted from these elite 11 schools was 24.3 per cent and, on the basis of the AFL website’s phantom draft, the APS, AGS and schools with that stature in Adelaide and Perth are forecast to account for at least 17 of the first 30 next week. The definition of “elite” precludes the likes of established and well-regarded Catholic colleges such as St Joseph’s Geelong, St Patrick’s in Ballarat and Whitefriars (Donvale), whose alumni account for 31 current AFL players.
Professor John Funder has written more than 600 medical research papers, and chaired a series of international and national organisations, including VicHealth and Sane Australia. Last year, in London with his wife Val, he couldn’t resist a book in Hatchard’s bookstore called Posh Boys by Robert Verkaik. The subtitle more than hints at the author’s thesis: “How English Public Schools Ruin Britain”.
In Posh Boys, the author provides some astonishing breakdowns for the proportion of public school graduates in prestige fields. As in Australia, “public schools” is a misnomer, since the “public school” is utterly private – and male. The English public schools – exemplified by Eton, Harrow and Rugby – cover just 7 per cent of English male schoolboys, yet account for an extraordinary 74 per cent of senior judges in the United Kingdom, 71 per cent of senior officers in the armed forces, 50 per cent of cabinet ministers and, startlingly, 50 per cent of male Olympic athletes.
Funder, a Collingwood supporter, decided to examine the whole AFL for schools of origin. His starting assumption was that, as a code that reflected the diverse breadth of Australian society, schools would be represented along the lines of overall secondary school enrolments for year 12. He based it on Victorian figures: 55 per cent from government schools, 24 per cent from Catholic schools and the remaining 21 per cent from independent schools.
But this was not what Funder found in his study.
Funder, 79, obtained a meeting with AFL boss Gillon McLachlan and two other senior executives, requesting the information on schools of origin for all male players on AFL lists.
Eventually, Funder got the AFL’s school breakdown. Of 787 AFL footballers in 2019 – 99.7 per cent of the total – the carve-up was: government schools 29.86 per cent, Catholic schools 31.38 per cent, independent 38.76 per cent. Thus, he concluded, your chances of playing AFL are almost four times higher if you went to an independent school than a state school and almost three times higher if you went to a Catholic school.The independent number would be even higher if he had counted the Xavier and St Kevin equivalents in Perth and Adelaide as “independent” rather than Catholic. Funder was surprised, but he shouldn’t have been.
What’s behind the disproportionate number of private-schooled footballers, and what does it mean?
IN the early and mid-1980s, there weren’t many successful league footballers from the likes of Melbourne Grammar, Scotch and their APS brethren.
In this era, strong Catholic schools like Assumption College and Marcellin College (both AGS) were more renowned for production of players than the schools that absolutely reeked of privilege.
In footy circles, there was a view that private schoolboys were softer than hardscrabble kids, that they “lacked the wound” as Norman Mailer once said of his aristocratic literary rival Gore Vidal; were less invested in making the grade, in part because they were destined for more lucrative careers. Capable private school footballers were expected to progress no further than the old boy teams in the amateurs.
In 1985, the Old Melburnians under-19 team that my brother played for forfeited their final game of the season because too many ex-Melbourne Grammar boys had gone holidaying in Noosa Heads and they couldn’t muster sufficient numbers to field a team. They returned, sun-tanned, to win the premiership.
Elite private school production – significant in the VFL’s early days – had dwindled. Then from around 1999-2000, a migration began, to the point that Haileybury alone has 20 players at AFL clubs in 2019 – nearly enough to field a team. Caulfield Grammar has 19 AFL players, Scotch and Melbourne Grammar 17, Xavier and St Kevin’s 14.
The AGS schools have their fair share, as Funder’s figures showed, headed by Trinity Grammar’s eight and Marcellin’s seven. It’s noteworthy that Assumption, once an assembly line, has long been surpassed by more moneyed Melbourne schools.
How did these schools turn into footy academies? As in Watergate, you follow the money.
THE ARMS RACE
“Scholarships” is the one-word response when you ask recruiters, AFL officials, player agents and the schools’ insiders to explain the private school takeover.
Around the onset of the millennium, these schools stepped up their recruiting for purposes of winning games and forging football reputations.
“The trend has sort of come through the last five to six years and it’s increasing every year,” said Luke Soulos, the executive officer for APS sport since 2003.
Haileybury and Caulfield Grammar were among most active schools in offering what then Melbourne Grammar headmaster Paul Sheahan called “inducements” for talented footballers. “Haileybury’s got better recruiters than St Kilda,” one club scout told me close to a decade ago.
An arms race ensued. Scotch pioneered scholarships to Indigenous kids from the Northern Territory, a system that Ogilvie called “the Cyril Rioli scholarship” after the Hawthorn virtuoso who came to Scotch from Tiwi Islands. Melbourne Grammar followed suit.
Scholarships proliferated, to the point that recruiters now divide their weekends between the AFL’s elite under-18 NAB League and APS/AGS footy.
Sheahan can remember the moment when school recruiting policy flipped at Melbourne Grammar. In 2001, the then headmaster of the South Yarra school watched the dark blue Grammar humiliated at the MCG in the season’s biggest game, the anniversary commemorating the first game of Australian Rules against arch-foe Scotch.
“We couldn’t see anything particularly educational in getting flogged,” said Sheahan, 73, a tall, angular ex-Test cricketer. Grammar’s “Marn Grook club” was formed by old boys and parents to bolster footy, and, at Sheahan’s behest the likes of Xavier Ellis, a subsequent Hawthorn player, arrived at the school.
Sheahan’s view was that the scholarship holders should uphold certain standards, not simply kick and mark proficiently. He wanted “beacons on the hill” and “positive role models, not just good footballers”.
Like Scotch, Melbourne Grammar awarded scholarships to Indigenous kids, such as Melbourne defender Steven May.
Geelong Grammar lately has been on a splurge, and will likely have two of the top 10 in Wednesday’s draft, as they did in 2017. As a predominant co-ed boarding school with modest male numbers, Geelong Grammar’s specialty is to attract country kids from year 10 or 11.
Sheahan sees nothing wrong with offering scholarships, which were a vexed topic at meetings of headmasters in his day. “There was an enormous reluctance to admit [to scholarships],” said Sheahan. “If you’re going to do it, do it and be open about it.”
APS sources say that Haileybury, having established a serious program, have cut back on sports-only scholarships under principal Derek Scott. It’s also commonplace for kids at the schools to be given “general excellence” scholarships that take academic performance into account – Geelong College, for instance, doesn’t dole out pure sports scholarships.
Haileybury’s success has been aided for the past three years by ex-Essendon champion Matthew Lloyd, who has been either assistant or co-coach for premierships (shared with Caulfield Grammar and Carey this year) in those seasons. Hitherto, smaller Brighton Grammar won three APS titles in a row when coached by Robert Shaw, a teacher at the school who’d been senior coach of Fitzroy and Adelaide.
A cottage industry has mushroomed within the private schools for ex-AFL club coaches, players and even fitness staff – Cameron Ling, the ex-Geelong premiership captain, has a role at Geelong Grammar, ex-Melbourne captain Brad Green is director of football at Melbourne Grammar. Barry Rowlings, distinguished ex-Hawthorn and Richmond player, has been a fixture at Caulfield Grammar. “The standard of training and games has gone through the roof,” Shaw said of APS footy.
More than one AFL club recruiter has compared the APS, in particular, to American college football and basketball. While a tiny fraction of the size of those billion-dollar enterprises, private school football has college football-like traits: aggressive recruiting, extensive coaching and, not least, the pride engendered through winning games, premierships or when their students are drafted.
Having accomplished AFL footballers among the alumni is a marketing tool for the schools, which also brandish fancy facilities. Lloyd said: “The parents believe they’re getting elite coaching and academics.”
Education academic Dr Emma Rowe, a senior lecturer at Deakin University, said there was “a huge branding advantage” for the private schools in the number of players drafted compared with state schools. “It’s part of the broader story of educational segregation,” said Rowe.
Government school football, thus, follows Newton’s third law (every action has an equal and opposite reaction), withering in proportion to private school footy’s expansion. State school competitions are minimal, and unless you’re a kid at a school with a well-resourced footy program – such as Maribyrnong College or Box Hill Secondary College – the state school lad is reliant upon his local community club.
“If you make it from a state school, you’ll make it from a club,” said Sheahan. “There are schools that will put a lie to that, but in general it’s true.”
On occasion, there have been tensions between the private schools and the AFL, which wants to ensure that the best players play in their competitions. Consequently, the AFL struck a deal with the APS and AGS to manage the school and club commitments. Tellingly, the agreed pecking order is: 1) AFL national under-18 championships, 2) school football, and 3) NAB League games.
Ogilvie says the pathway to the AFL might have become more difficult for “working-class kids” than when he was a young footballer from Melbourne’s northern suburbs who played for Collingwood’s under-19s, in part because of the demands on parents. “I reckon it’s making it a little bit harder.”
Ogilvie’s observation is backed by a 2019 study of 6492 students by University of Newcastle academics, who found that students of a higher socio-economic background were more likely to covet a career in sports than those with a lower SES, and those who attended advantaged schools, consequently, were also more likely to seek a sports career (Indigenous kids differed – lower participation rates, but more likely to seek a sports career).
That said, special players carve their own path. The game’s most feted player, Dustin Martin, dropped out of school in year nine, having grown up in challenging circumstances as the son of a bikie whom the Australian government has since deported back to New Zealand, while there’s a legion of disadvantaged Indigenous footballers.
Another change in the AFL landscape: the mean wage for a (male) player in 2018 was $362,409 – slightly more than a Cabinet minister in the Australian government. Schools want captains of AFL teams, not just of industry.
TOP OF THEIR CLASS
The red cinder running track encircles the oval at Collingwood Football Club’s Holden Centre headquarters on the edge of Melbourne’s sports precinct, where runners in black sleeveless shirts are completing two-kilometre time trials for the AFL draft combine.
Rowell, a sturdy 180cm redhead, does the time trial in six minutes 17, about the same time as his taller, lean and lightly freckled 191cm mate Anderson in a separate race.
Eight weeks earlier, they’d co-captained Carey to victory over Caulfield, securing their school’s second ever premiership. “One of the best days of my life I reckon,” recalls Rowell.
Carey was a poor football school when they arrived, the boys explain. “The perception of Carey as a football school was just nowhere, like Carey Fairies and all that stuff,” says Anderson. “To actually take them and win a premiership was so, like, satisfying.”
Recruited from year seven on scholarships from primary schools in Mont Albert and Hawthorn, Rowell and Anderson raised the performance, profile and spirits of a flailing school team. From next week, the Suns will seek to emulate Carey.
The school’s investment in the pair was vindicated. On Wednesday evening, Carey Grammar will be promoted, repeatedly, as the school that topped the draft class.
Sources: Professor John Funder/Associated Public Schools. Professor Funder’s research is published in Newman College’s bi-annual.