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Crafty compensation and career continuation: Reviewing AFL Free agency 8 years on

Ah, free agency. Since its inception in 2010 and subsequent inaugural appearance in 2012, there has been a lot of conversation around whether we’re doing it right and whether the poached US process is even needed. Interestingly, the number of free agents has decreased steadily over the years, with varying scenarios and paths unfolding for the players and clubs that did decide to make the most of it. Varying positives and negatives have also unfolded from both a player and club perspective, putting a different angle into play when it comes to list management.

Players that maximised their career through free agency

While many free agents never truly thrived at their new clubs, some went on to either establish a lengthy career, resurge an underwhelming one or cap off a considerable one. Some notable ones include:

Shaun Higgins (North Melbourne)
Higgins came to the Kangaroos off the back of an impressive stint at the Western Bulldogs where he was a part of the leadership group and lauded for his professionalism – a stint that would have been even better if he wasn’t struck with multiple injury blows. Following his switch to a new home at Arden Street, he went on to become a prolific part of North Melbourne’s team, winning their Best and Fairest in 2017 and again being a part of the leadership team that has been only the tip of the iceberg in terms of his impact on the club. Alas, it appears that he’s looking to depart again to explore his options elsewhere, continuing his 237-game deep career and consolidating an undoubtable personal win where free agency is concerned.

Eddie Betts (Adelaide)
Eddie made a name for himself initially at the Blues, becoming one of the most exciting live-wire forward pockets in the game, gearing up to crazy form around 2011/2012. This made it even more evident to everyone that something just wasn’t right in 2013, during which he fell into a lull that was in desperate need of revitalising. Ultimately, Eddie broke Blues fans’ hearts everywhere when he decided to exercise his free agency rights by joining Adelaide, but it seemed to do wonders for his footy, seemingly reigniting his passionate display and overall career. Before returning to Carlton, Betts managed an impressive 310 games for Adelaide, where he got All Australian honours in 2015, as well as a top 3 Coleman medal finish, Goal of the Year and a pocket pretty much named after him at Adelaide oval – an exceptional boost to his career through free agency which may have looked different otherwise.

Dale Thomas (Carlton)
Daisy was as beloved as he was vital in the Collingwood side he left. After just his first year, the Collingwood merch shop sold double the amount of guernseys with his name on them than they did with skipper Nathan Buckley’s. He was a consistent performer who had a big impact on the side that saw him win a flag and Pies fans and players alike were sad to see him go – but he was able to maximise his career through free agency by signing with Carlton and went on to play 101 games for the Blues before he retired in 2019, again being a fan favourite and staple of the team for the most part.

Tim Membrey (St Kilda)
Interestingly, Membrey was picked up by Sydney in the 2012 draft and only played one game before being delisted in 2014. However, free agency was the spark that lit the flame of his career. After joining St Kilda as a delisted free agent he never looked back, kicking 189 goals in 109 games and becoming an integral key part of the team, also going on to feature in the leadership group.

Ricky Henderson (Hawthorn)
Henderson never really established himself at Adelaide, being hit with injuries that saw him miss considerable patches of footy before being delisted in 2016. However, he injected himself into Hawthorn’s best 22 and played almost every game in the next 3 years at the Hawks, including a career best year at the age of 31 where he finished runner up in the club’s Best and Fairest. Although an injury prone 2020 preceded his retirement, Henderson was able to see out his career on a pleasing run of footy that showcased his potential thanks to free agency.

Joel Hamling (Western Bulldogs)
Hamling was initially drafted to Geelong, but didn’t play a senior game for them during the 3 years he spent on their list. Although his total games played are still pretty modest at this stage, he has free agency to thank for kickstarting a career that could easily have come to an abrupt end instead, and even has a premiership medal to show for it – he got a lifeline from the Western Bulldogs where he played for 2 seasons, the latter being the 2016 fairy tale. He was then traded to the Dockers, where he only missed a handful of games in the next 3 seasons, solidifying his spot in the backline. Despite being troubled by injury this year, he is locked in to keep going – an opportunity he may never have gotten if it weren’t for free agency to start with.

Mitch Robinson (Brisbane)
Robinson played 100 games for Carlton and went on to play 100 more (and counting) for Brisbane. He didn’t leave on great terms with Carlton, and was more or less at a crossroads of his career when he secured a second chance, which proved a great move all round as he proved his worth early – being a joint winner of the club’s Best and Fairest in his first year. Since then, he has become a passionate staple of the Lions’ midfield and looks to keep making the most of the latter part of his career, which sees him as a definite free agency winner.

Jarryd Lyons (Brisbane)
The fact that Lyons got to the point of exercising his free agency rights is puzzling to start with, given that his departure from the Suns is bewildering at best. However, his 2 seasons so far at Brisbane have been impressive to say the least – averaging 23.8 disposals in his first year and finishing 2020 as the runner-up club champion alongside a handful of best on ground performances. Time will tell as to what his career has in store, but you could confidently say that free agency has been more than a step in the right direction.

Matthew Wright (Carlton)
Delisted by Adelaide at the end of 2015 after 94 games, Wright went onto play almost every game in the next 3 seasons for the Blues and capped off his career after a handy free agency reboot. He averaged 20 disposals a game in his first season at his new club, while also jumping to become their leading goal scorer in the same year. Free agency also gave him the opportunity to share his experience and help in developing more junior players.

 Steve Motlop (Port Adelaide)
Despite a premiership proving elusive for Motlop, he has continued his career by exercising his free agency rights and is currently on track to play his 200th game for Port Adelaide. While he has struggled with consistency and injury throughout his tenure at the Power, he is still in a position to make the most of the end of his career.

Chris Mayne (Collingwood)
After struggling towards the end of his 9-year stint at the Dockers, Mayne was doubted early at his new club and found it tough to find his feet in his first year. However, he soon started to relish in his free agency found home, and went on to have a brilliant season in 2018 when Collingwood went on to make the Grand Final. He was consistently part of the best 22 until this year, and ultimately used free agency as a way to reinvent himself as a footballer and extend his career.

Brendon Goddard (Essendon)
Goddard had been a hugely important player for St Kilda, amassing All Australian selection and Brownlow Medal favouritism during his time there. He then went on to pursue free agency opportunity by joining Essendon, which proved to be somewhat of a challenge timing-wise, given that he joined during the controversial supplement saga. However, free agency was evidently a good move for Goddard, as he stood up to become club champion in his first year and ended up being named as captain in 2016.

Danyle Pearce (Fremantle)
After 154 games at Port Adelaide, which saw him perform consistently, Pearce went on to play 104 games for Fremantle. His fresh chance off the back of free agency enabled him to help the Dockers to a period of high performance and almost ultimate victory, before winding down to retirement in 2018.

James Frawley (Hawthorn)
After a successful stint at Melbourne that saw him named in in the All Australian team and pick up runner-up Best and Fairest, Frawley went on to play 100 games for Hawthorn. A reliable full back who performed well against the game’s best forwards, free agency gave Frawley the opportunity to win a premiership in 2015 and see out his days with his head held high.

Clubs that have done well with free agency compensation

Free agency compensation has always been a topic of frustration for many, with it not being uncommon for revealed compensation to cause some head scratches – and consequential question marks over the surrounding ‘secret herbs and spices’ formula. However, some clubs have fared pretty well after losing free agents due to how their compensation unfolded.

When Tom Rockliff departed, the Lions were compensated with a first round draft pick (18) which they subsequently used to nab Brandon Starcevich. While we didn’t see much of him in his first 2 seasons, he reinvented himself at half-back and broke into the club’s best 22 in a season that only saw him miss 1 game. While it’s still early days, Starcevich has huge potential for a flourishing career, winning the club’s Rookie of the Year award and developing to be noticed for his strength, determination and ability to thrive under added responsibility which could soon start paying dividends in a Lions team that is starting to look the goods.


Gold Coast
The Suns got an early first round pick for losing Tom Lynch, which they used to get Izak Rankine. While Lynch was a big loss, the Suns still have an array of top draft picks on their list, including Ben King, who seemed fitting to slide into the void. Not to mention that they finished 4 spots higher on the ladder in 2020 than they did the previous year, showing glimpses of promise in a season that showcased a fair amount of potential for them without Lynch. Izak Rankine is largely considered to be a future star too, despite the fact that injury robbed him of a few starts. He hit the scoreboard in each of his 12 games, and has shown a bit of magic in front of goal to accompany his fairly consistent performances.

When the Demons lost James Frawley to Hawthorn, they received the number 3 draft pick in 2014, which landed them Angus Brayshaw. While he has been struck with inconsistency and injury, he finished third in the 2018 Brownlow count after an enormous season and has shown his capability on a number of occasions. It could be noted as well that this came at a pretty handy time, given that Melbourne already had pick 2 which they used to secure Christian Petracca – not bad.

The Tigers lost Ty Vickery at the end of 2016, after 7 years at the club and a considerable, if inconsistent impact. They managed to receive a second round pick for him (29), which they then used to pick up Shai Bolton. This turned out well and truly in Richmond’s favour, because Vickery ended up retiring the following year after a 6-game season, paired with some impressive performances from Bolton that started gearing up from 2019.

Traded free agency compensation pick wins

There’s always been a lot of talk over free agency compensation, whether we should even have it, and whether the compensation that is given is adequate. In trying to understand the formula that the AFL use to decide compensation, is this just another thing that shines a light on salary misconceptions? In any case, some clubs have traded their free agency compensation picks to other clubs, which has panned out well for the latter in some cases…

West Coast

Collingwood received pick 11 after Dale Thomas’ exit, which they then traded to the Eagles who used it to pick up Dom Sheed (sense of irony there…).

While some trades are pretty straightforward, some are more of a chess game of draft picks, which was certainly the case in Geelong’s acquisition of Tim Kelly. The process started with a first round pick for Motlop (19), which was then included in the trade to bring Gary Ablett back to the club. This eventuated with pick 24 being received in return (amongst others), which was ultimately used for Tim Kelly.

The Crows used pick 23 to draft Matt Crouch, after it was traded to them from Melbourne in 2013 from Colin Sylvia’s free agency compensation.

The Lions got Daniel McStay after pick 25 was traded to them from St Kilda in 2013 as part of the compensation for Nick Dal Santo.

Other points to consider:

  • Free agency induced strategy
    Initially, there were a few assumptions and concerns about free agency – pointedly, that clubs would strategically offload players approaching free agency qualifications to ensure some guaranteed value in return. Some clubs’ list management have followed through with this and been applauded for it (think Jason Cripps from Port Adelaide offloading Jared Polec and Chad Wingard to secure Connor Rozee, Zak Butters and Xavier Duursma).
  • Paradigm shift on self-governed player flexibility
    One of the notable things about free agency is that is gives players a choice, and more freedom to decide their destination and future. In giving some power back to the player, this in turn gives clubs a real reason to build their culture and develop players to a point where they don’t want to explore their options should they qualify.
  • Premiership prospects
    One of the fears was that big, successful clubs would lure free agents with the tantalising promise of premiership success. Out of all the free agents that have found new homes, only 3 of them have tasted ultimate glory so far – Tom Lynch, James Frawley and Joel Hamling. In fact, there have been more free agents whose old teams have gone on to win (more in most cases) premierships soon after they’ve left – Xavier Ellis, Lance Franklin, Tom Murphy, Clinton Young, Reece Conca and Brandon Ellis. Interestingly, Hawthorn has lost the most free agents, but also won the equal most premierships during that period. Obviously it’s impossible to tell what would have unfolded had those movements not occurred, but there’s evidently a lot more in play than just premiership success straight away.




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