The empire strikes back

Garfield and Kooweerup could be part of an expanded, multi-divisional West Gippsland Football Netball Competition from next season. 194764 Picture: STEWART CHAMBERS

By sports editor Russell Bennett

The West Gippsland Football Netball Competition still seems destined for two divisions from the 2020 season onwards, including at least five of the six Alberton clubs in the second tier.

A meeting in Kooweerup on Monday night between the WGFNC clubs was also attended by representatives from AFL Gippsland and AFL Victoria, who provided an update on the current situation facing the competition.

The Gazette understands the current WGFNC clubs are still united and overwhelmingly in favour of limiting any structural change to their competition for at least the time being.

They want to let the competition – still only midway through in its third season – to settle, and evolve from there.

But it is understood that the existing WGFNC clubs were told that a multi-divisional structure, featuring the five Alberton clubs who applied to join, is a very real possibility from next season.

The exact make-up of that structure of that is still up in the air – including whether or not it’ll be promotion-relegation from the outset – but there is expected to be an announcement in the next five to seven days about the future of the Alberton clubs and, therefore, the WGFNC.

Meanwhile, Stony Creek’s appeal to join the Ellinbank and District Football League (EDFL) and Ellinbank and District Netball Association (EDNA) has been knocked back.

Stony Creek was the only current Alberton league club to proceed with its appeal after the other five – Fish Creek, Foster, Meeniyan Dumbalk United, Tarwin and Toora – withdrew theirs.

But, despite a number of reports, Stony Creek is absolutely still trying to pursue entry into the EDFL and EDNA even though the other five Alberton clubs seem headed for the WGFNC.

Stony Creek Football Netball Club president Mark Le Page spoke to the Gazette on Friday afternoon in an effort to correct the rumours doing the rounds.

“We’re a tiny town,” he said.

“In a perfect world, of course we want to stick with the other (Alberton) clubs.

“But the grey area around the current WGNFC structure doesn’t fill us with much confidence.

“If promotion-relegation is brought in, we could be playing against these south-east (Melbourne) towns.

“We’ve got a working group to get a fourths team back next year, and fifths by 2021. West Gippsland doesn’t suit the model of our club.

“It’s not the worst option for our senior side, but for every other team in our club it’s not on the radar at all – and we’re more than a senior team.”

Le Page said his club was prepared for their appeal to be knocked back. They could see it coming.

But he added it’s “categorically incorrect” to suggest the club is now looking to apply to join West Gippsland.

“At this stage we have absolutely no intention to join the West Gippsland competition,” he said, acknowledging the dismissal of Stony Creek’s appeal to join the EDFL/EDNA brought about some “significant roadblocks”.

“We’ll be exploring all our options to join Ellinbank,” he said.

“We’ll continue to talk to Ellinbank, along with other neighbouring leagues, to find a home that’s more suitable to our club.”

Elsewhere, ousted former AFL Gippsland commissioner John White came away from a meeting with the head of AFL Victoria confident that football’s governing body acknowledges the issues facing the game at a local level.

The meeting occurred in Berwick on Friday morning at the behest of AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan after White sent him a letter, directly, outlining his concerns for the game at a community level right across the state.

Rob Auld, the AFL’s head of game development, and Rick Bell, head of AFL Victoria, attended the meeting with White and former AFL Gippsland commission acting chairman John Schelling.

It is understood that meeting covered a broad range of topics including: the current strategies of AFL Victoria in dealing with the concerns of community clubs across the state, and the issues White has raised in a number of communications – in particular, the request to Victorian state Sport Minister Martin Pakula for an independent review into community football and netball.

“It’s fair to say there’s a significant gap to bridge before I’m satisfied the AFL is taking the matter seriously,” White told the Gazette.

“I understand the macro environment, such as the demographics, governance, and territorial issues play an important role.

“However, the primary concern across the state seems to be issues related to funding, volunteers, and the future direction of community football and netball.”

White said many towns across the state could become “ghost towns” if their community clubs weren’t adequately supported.

The Gazette understands that representatives of AFL Victoria discussed with White and Schelling a range of initiatives currently unfolding, which are yet to be made public, that address some of their concerns.

“It was agreed that communication plays a vital role in reducing the anxiety and stress that many clubs are currently experiencing,” White said, adding that he requested AFL Victoria be fully transparent with community clubs about the future plans for their sports.

“While no solution is on-hand, it was agreed that we would continue dialogue in the interests of coming up with the best possible outcomes for all involved.”

In the wake of the change.org petition set up by White in recent weeks, Nationals member for Eastern Victoria Melina Bath has also called on Martin Pakula to “initiate a comprehensive review of rural and regional football-netball clubs”.

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