The State of the ‘Union’

North-West Tasmania is my adopted home, a place that I am learning more and more about each day – the history, the people, the traditions.


It is a small area, boasting the lowest population figures of the three main regions in the State. A lack of jobs following the closure of industry related positions has also led to a steady flow of people leaving the region for greener pastures. Despite the restrictions created by geography and politics, I have learned that North-West football has been able to carve out a profound legacy that has monumentally shaped the national game. For evidence of this, you need look no further than the sustained contributions of the area to the National competition that we know and love today.


Don Gale had a long and prosperous career in the North West Football Union (NWFU or simply ‘The Union’), playing over 150 league games for Wynyard and Burnie. In 1958, he became the first player from the competition to be selected for All-Australian honours from the National Carnival held in Melbourne. Two years after this, he would be a part of the 1960 Tasmanian team that toppled Victoria by 7 points at Launceston’s York Park. Had a clearance to South Melbourne been granted for the 1956 season, his name may well still be thrown around as a champions from the VFL era.


Gale was not just a ‘bit part’ contributor to Australian football, but rather a star of the national game in his own right and a pioneer of the sport in the Tasmania’s North-West. It is with little wonder then that his son, former Burnie Hawk Brendon Gale, has had great success during his tenure with the Richmond Football Club – His 244 games (including preliminary finals in 1995 and 2001) for the club and achievement of life membership in 1997 has almost been overshadowed by his tenure as CEO since 2009. His time in the role has left a remarkable legacy that few will come close to emulating.


Some of his achievements include: the re-development of Punt Road Oval, overseeing the rise of the club from debt and into a cash surplus, helping to foster diversity through various programs aimed at Indigenous Australians and overseeing the creation of a VFLW team as a part of a greater plan to join the AFLW competition in the near future. Of course, this does not take into account the role he played in building towards the drought breaking premiership of 2017. Thus, he sits atop of a National football empire, shaping the AFL as one of its key leaders.


The point is proven – North-West football is not a just another microcosm of the national game. On any given weekend, Grant Birchall (Devonport) will stream off the half-back flank and use his left foot to find a teammate, no different to the way in which he played in Hawthorn’s four premierships from 2008-15 – two of which he was named among the best players on the ground. While he goes about his business, it is not unfamiliar to see Alastair Lynch (Wynyard) and Matthew Richardson (Devonport) among the media ranks, formulating opinions on radio and television about the spectacle that we see being played out in front of us.


In 2017, Nick Riewoldt called time on his AFL career after 336 games and 718 goals with the St. Kilda Football Club, making him without doubt one of the greatest players in the club’s history. The man he is often compared to is Darrel Baldock (East Devonport and Latrobe) – captain of the ‘Saints’ only premiership winning side in 1966 and the club’s 2002 Team of the Century. It is a debate that will rage on for many years to come.


It is clear then, that North-West Tasmania has been the breeding ground of some of the  greatest contributors and groundbreakers that the game has seen on a national level, of which there are countless examples similar to those aforementioned.


Season 2018 however, is a remarkably different one to that of years prior. The Tasmanian State League (TSL) that was reincarnated in 2010, is for the first time and for whatever reason, without a team on the North-West Coast. Both Devonport and Burnie have withdrawn as of February 6. Moreover, the Burnie Football Club may not have a league to play in at all if the North West Football League does not allow them admission.


For years, the region’s star young players have had the avenues in place to earn an opportunity to ply their craft to the national competition. These recent developments will now however, hinder the ability to even do this at State level. While it can be said that North Melbourne’s Next Generation Academy for kids aged 11-15 will foster the participation of young people in the game, questions still remain.


The State is without a profound presence in the Under 18 National Championships since the removal of the Tasmanian Mariners from the competition. While the state under 18s academy plays a five-game series against other academies across the country, the exposure is not the same. The replacement option, an Allies side made up of players from Tasmania, Queensland, New South Wales, ACT and the Northern Territory has meant that a select few players from Tasmania’s State-wide competition are able to play at the event – a carnival that has the attention of every major recruiter in the country. Putting two and two together, does this not mean that the 11 young academy players from Burnie and Devonport will now need to relocate to Launceston or Hobart to give themselves the best opportunity to fulfil their dream of playing AFL? Since the inception of the league in 2010, no player has been recruited to the AFL from outside of the TSL. Not a promising statistic for what Brendon Gale has termed ‘a proud and productive region’.


While AFL Chief Executive Gillon McLachlan is quoted as saying ‘we have a really clear plan for Tasmania’, many of us on the ‘Island State’ continue to ask where that may be. Indeed, our anxiety deepens with every funding figure that is reported to be given to the Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney.


An area that produced players such as Baldock, Richardson, Lynch and Gale should not be swept under the rug as the National competition continues to evolve, given that it continues to shape the AFL in many ways. This evolution is also something to be thankful for however. The establishment of a strong AFLW competition has meant that women from the North West Coast are able to earn an opportunity to shape the newest National league. In recent days, former Burnie players Emma Humphries (Melbourne) and Brittany Gibson (Brisbane) were key contributors in wins for their sides. Yet this is not a case of ‘something lost, something found’.


Players, both men and women should be afforded the avenues to continue to play at the game’s highest level. Take this not as an attack on those in charge in administrating the game – but as a voice of concern from those that do not want to see this great football region lose its presence on a National scale.



Read John Harms on this Tasmanian footy situation in the context of life.

And David Wilson on the juxtaposition of AFLX with Burnie – and a few questions this raises

About Liahm O'Brien

Tasmanian Tiger - Born into the Northey era, blinded by the Wallace era, healed by the Hardwick era - Twitter: @LiahmO_Writing


  1. Thanks for writing, Liahm.
    Points well made.

    It’s a bad, bad state of affairs that sees such regression in NW Tasmania.

    I wonder whose game this Australian Football is.

  2. Brendan’s brother, Michael, used to go alright, also ….. No.7 for the Mighty’s

  3. Carolyn Wood says

    You left out the Atkins twins from Wynyard – Simon with 127 games with Footscray, 41 games with Fitzroy, VFL coach of the year as Werribee Senior coach 2005 and Tas Football Hall of Fame. Paul had a less successful AFL career but coached in Tasmania

  4. Its troubling Liahm. Far more troubling than whether or not the Gold Coast Suns have a culture. Far more troubling than whether or not the Giants can win a flag.

    I have made more comments on this in e.regnans piece. There is no sense of history in the board rooms.

  5. Well said,Liahm yet another case of afl basically ignoring footy heartland the Afl care about the top level under 18s,AFLW and don’t give a flying continental re any thing else

  6. The whole thing is a disgrace, Liahm.
    Well played, by the way.

  7. Ken Perris says

    Absolutely nailed it, Liahm.

  8. Luke Reynolds says

    Well said Liahm. The treatment of Tasmania as a whole by the AFL has been disgraceful for a long time. Wide open for a big opportunity in the Apple Isle for the A-League, NRL or ARU to move in?

  9. Thanks guys! It’s a genuine shame that it’s come to this. Matthew Richardson makes a good point – he felt that he had a greater pathway to the AFL 25 years ago!

    Gerry – that he was, clean hands! Premiership player at Penguin in 1985 before going to Fitzroy.

    Carolyn – absolutely. I could’ve also mentioned Wynyard’s Chris Bond who is now the football operations manager at Fremantle. The examples are countless.

    Dips – without question – the big topic is really why are we allowing a proven football hotbed to be compromised by ‘expansion’. Funny word for money.

    Rulebook – I love the idea of boosting under 18s and AFLW, but not marginalising the participation of a strong football region in both.

    Luke – the A League rumours are circling and fair play too them. Sad that even if it succeeds, it may not change anything. The Hobart Hurricanes regularly draw bigger crowds than at a GC or GWS game in state that is ‘footy in the winter, cricket in the summer’. AFL would take off here too.

  10. Peter Fuller says

    Just a further footnote to Michael Gale (son of Don, elder brother of Brendon), he eventually found his way to Punt Road to play alongside Brendon. Total games 105 Fitzroy, 91 Richmond. His SOO appearances plus pre-season carry him across the significant 200-game threshold.

  11. Absolutely, Peter. He was involved in this beauty of a game too!

  12. Peter Warrington says

    this makes me sad given my Benny piece in the Almanac

    I know from instagram that Benny was in Burnie in January, visiting family

    it reminds me of the sad demise of the mighty Port Kembla Blacks in the Illawarra league. They were a powerhouse (and had 5 warringtons including my grandfather in their first premiership team). with the downsizing of BHP and the changes to the comp following the birth of the Steelers and then their merge with pooey Dragons. They ended up fielding a team in some B-grade version of a country league (no disrespect to that league, but Port were the strongest non-Sydney team at one stage.)

    independent of the debate about the Giants v Tassie – i support the giants concept because half the 90s working on Western Sydney regional development – surely there is a simpler short-term answer.

    Surely a club like richmond, with its strong links, a billion dollars, a flag and gunning for 90,000 members, can adopt a club, or even a region. rather than pumping even more money into youth footy in Melbourne, looking for talent, give something back for the regions? Surely Richmond can kick in 1-200K and even loan some players and coaches to the whole bloody NW comp, to keep it alive, as a different form of community service. And Thanksgiving (sorry JTH, reading Confessions… this week.)

    Maybe they do some of this stuff. But surely they could do more, and in a more structured, overt, and transparent way. You come to see the Swans, $1 of your ticket goes to NSW bush footy, to keep it alive?

  13. bring back the torp says

    What are the SPECIFICS of McLachlan’s “really clear plan for Tasmania”? The media must hold McLachlan to account -what EXACTLY is the plan?

    The AFL Executives are receiving $8,000,000 + pa, for 11 Executives -McLachlan is on $1,740,000 pa. These are HUGE figures, the biggest in Aust. for a Not For Profit Org -& the AFL revenues are certainly overpaid, cf. private sector ASX Listed companies & their revenues.

    The 18 AFL Clubs are spending c. $220,000,000 pa purely on their football departments (NOT including player wages!) & Club. admin. staff. The AFL is very “top heavy” with these bloated non-player wage costs. There are too many snouts in the trough, in the ” football industry” -how I hate that term, & its sense of implied entitlement. It is arguable these costs are an achilles heel for the AFL in the economics of establishing new expansion Clubs/keeping some current Clubs viable. The A League, for example, where soccer teams have only 11 on the field etc., have FAR lower costs to establish new sides/keep current sides viable.

    Recruitment of Tas. players, in quantity & quality, into the AFL has declined significantly from c.2000.
    Tas. defeated Vic. (without injured Baldock) in 1960 & WA (with Baldock) in 1970 -against these State teams now, a Tas. side would be lucky to kick 4 goals, to the opposition 30 goals+. There are fewer Tas. Champions now, cf. previous eras.

    The AFL is supposed to be “the keeper of the code”. It is doing a good job in NSW, ACT, & Qld. -& GC & GWS are helping these states’ GR to boom.
    Tas. U18’s must be fully financed by the AFL to raise their standards, & to compete weekly in the Vic. TAC Cup. Ditto the TSL initially in the NEAFL, then eventually in the VFL. It will probably take c. 5 years to get these Tas. sides competitve. The planning must start now. The long term plan is for a Tas. AFL team -in 10 years+?

    It should not be forgotten that Tas. is an heartland AF state -& has prime AF ” pedigree”, when one analyses its population. Tas. is primarily still an Anglo/Celtic population -which produces by far, most of the AFL’s players. Cf. Melb., Tas. has received very little Asian/Mid. Eastern/NZ-Islander etc. immigrants -very few of whom (inc. their offspring) ever make it into AFL ranks (but some do play at community level).

  14. Shane Johnson says

    Excellent piece Liahm
    I played 15 for Wynyard before heading to Hobart for 13 with the Tiges then 123 for Mayne in Qld
    Was there at West Park in 67 when the posts dissipated.
    Loved it when the Union or the NTFA beat the was massive!
    Also you could have mentioned Scratcher Neal and Colin Robertson ! LOL.
    The state league will never work….it is just too far… can dress a pig up and use all the right rhetoric but it is still a pig.
    Absolute shame Rob Auld left…my mail was he was very good…not sure Squires wlil have the same impact
    Shrinking populations and other interests for the young means action has to be taken and that has to come from the parochial volunteer administrators in the region. Sure the AFL could do more …absolutely… but the locals have to get smart or they will wither
    I posted the below on various Facebook pages this week and look forward to your thoughts on what the people of the region can do before I retire to Cat Country next year!!

    Now that Burnie isn’t in the state league, how is this for a plan.
    Get rid of the stage league and then AFL – TAS support three strong leagues with limited travel in the three regions like it used to be – SFL, NWFL, NTFA.

    For the talented kids the best Under 23 players from the South, North and North West play each other twice (6 Games) early in the season between March and the end of April. The AFL scouts can come and watch. Then at the end of those matches the players resume with their clubs. The State Under 18 academy program would run separately. This gives the mature age/late developer Under 23 players a second chance at making the big time. Maybe there is a State Under 23 game against someone decent as well.

    The country leagues around the NW coast need to get fair dinkum and restructure even to the extent of one team competitions for battling clubs like Yolla, Ridgely, West Ulverstone….it works well in the SE corner of Queensland, they mostly play Friday nights so they have the weekend free and yes..there is some good distances traveled to get to games in heavy traffic.Some do play Saturdays though and in Tassie that may have to be the case in winter.There is around 25 clubs doing that currently.

  15. Thanks for sharing your opinions everyone. I’d reply to each of you individually, but I really do not know what the plan should be. Since my original post, two moves have been made which are a step in the right direction as far as I’m concerned – yet there are still big strides to be made:

    1. Burnie has been re-admitted into the NWFL. A great move to keep the club going, however there are structural problems with the league which will now be causing some headaches. How will points allocation work for all players from the state league? In Tasmanian Regional football, each side is allowed a certain number of player ranking points for their side which they must not exceed. Players are ranked on the highest level of football they’ve played. Let’s say hypothetically that the number of points allowed is 35 and a state league player is ranked as being worth 2 points, the Burnie will exceed this every time. There are also questions being raised in regard to salaries now that AFL funding to the club has been, as it seems, cut off now the club is not in the TSL.

    2. The State underage academy has been extended to have a greater presence in the North-West in order to compensate for the lack of TSL football. Will this be enough to allow young players to stay on the coast and not worsen their chances of getting drafted? In theory, it seems that they will have a chance as the academy will play a series against other academies nation-wide, which is essentially a training run for players to be picked for the ‘Allies’ in the AFL U18 championships – the real question is, how much will the ‘lack of play at the highest level in the State’ come into play when recruiters make their final decision on draft nights?

    I’m sure these questions all have clear-cut answers, however Tasmanian’s would like to have them set out in front of us and for the media to hold the AFL accountable on behalf of the State.

  16. Bring back the Torp,
    That there are some amazing $$ statistics you quote. You neglect to mention the AFL umpiring and admin departments where money seems to be no object.

    There is so much more I could add to this but I would not want the Almanac to get into strife – if we ever meet up in person, have I got some stories to tell you!
    Suffice to say that a stand-alone Tasmanian team would be great for footy.

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