Many people in the football world have questioned the importance of the NAB Cup and some have even called for it to be discontinued. The month-long competition continues to be scrutinized with some experts calling for it to be replaced with a different system or stopped altogether.
Top flight teams continue to field B-grade sides and poor attendances at marquee games have made the major stadiums look like ghost towns. Injuries and reports to a number of players have again marred the 2013 instalment and the form of sides looking to take it easy unfairly comes into question.
Two teams that have made flying starts to the NAB Cup are Brisbane and Carlton. Both teams failed to make the top eight last year and in Carlton’s case had a very disappointing season. They have viewed the pre-season as a valuable opportunity to solidify their starting 22 whilst also playing some fringe players into form.
Carlton’s Sam Rowe impressed many with a return to the squad after battling cancer for much of 2012 and he could be a vital target up forward for the Blues this year. Brisbane Lions youngsters Mitch Golby, Dayne Zorko and Aaron Cornelius have also made significant impacts in their teams’ unbeaten start.
As it stands, last year’s Grand Finalists each have a NAB Cup record of zero wins and three losses, including upset defeats against league newcomers Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney. The fact that both teams have failed to register a win could simply be evidence that they have different approaches to the pre-season.
The respective coaches Alastair Clarkson and John Longmire are two of the best in the game and probably see the NAB Cup as purely a fixture of glorified practice matches. However, if we take a closer look at the recent history of this competition, that might be a premature assumption.
You have to go back to 2007 to find a team that has not made the top eight the same year they won the NAB Cup. Carlton bounced back from consecutive wooden spoons to defeat Brisbane in that year’s final, only to finish in the bottom four once again. Since then, the winners have achieved relative success in the regular season with Geelong managing to win both the NAB Cup and the premiership in the same year.
The last five NAB Cup premiers have averaged 16 wins and a ladder position of third in the year they won. This is a very enticing statistic for the sides who are consistently winning games throughout the NAB Cup.
An argument for the abolition of the NAB Cup is the risk of players succumbing to injury in fairly inconsequential games. A number of players have gone down with injuries in the past few weeks which could see them miss the start of the season and this merely strengthens the argument against the prolonged competition.
Young Adelaide midfielder Brodie Smith suffered a broken collarbone in last the Crows’ match against Port Adelaide at AAMI Stadium and reports suggest he could be out for eight weeks. In terms of team structure, the most damaging NAB Cup injury occurred in the Fremantle and Geelong match when three-time All-Australian ruckman Aaron Sandilands partially tore his hamstring. With a return date no less than two months away, you couldn’t blame coach Ross Lyon for being sceptical about the usefulness of the pre-season competition.
As the saying goes, every cloud has a silver lining and this can be true for injury-plagued teams in the NAB Cup. It gives coaches a platform to try players in new positions and unearth young talents. In Fremantle’s case, the Sandilands injury opens the door for backup ruckman Jonathan Griffin to shoulder most of the responsibility. Given the chance, he could emerge as a consistent contributor to the Dockers overall game.
The Bulldogs look to have found future stars in youngsters Brett Goodes and Jackson McRae as well as forward Jake Stringer, who kicked an excellent goal before suffering an ankle injury. The NAB Cup can also be the arena for second chances with players at their second club impressing, namely James Sellar and Trent Dennis-Lane who kicked seven goals between them in the second round of the competition.
If a primary reason for the creation of the NAB Cup was revenue then the AFL would be quite worried at the poor attendances this year, especially at the major grounds. The crowd average in the NAB Cup was a meagre 9,220 last year, despite 14 matches being held at larger venues such as AAMI Stadium and Patersons Stadium. This year’s attendances have so far improved slightly but still sit at approximately 12,000, much less than what the AFL would like for what it considers to be an important competition.
The pre-season is a vital time in the development of a team no matter what position they finished the year before. The best way to prepare for a gruelling six months of football is match practice, pure and simple. The AFL could scrap the NAB Cup but the teams would continue to play a number of games in the lead-up to Round 1. The AFL and its teams might as well use those games to garner sponsorship and TV ratings to bolster the league.
Arguments for and against the NAB Cup are strong but in the end, the players must be match ready when that first ball is bounced come Round 1 and this format offers great preparation.