The AFL grand final will double as a reminder of the sport’s development north of the Murray River, with seven players set to represent both club and state at the MCG.
Sydney co-captains Jarrad McVeigh and Kieren Jack, veteran Ben McGlynn, defender Dane Rampe, ruckman Sam Naismith and young guns Isaac Heeney and Callum Mills were all recruited from NSW. In sharp contract there won’t be one player from NSW running out for Western Bulldogs on Saturday.
McGlynn hails from the border town of Dareton but otherwise they all learned to love football from beyond the Barassi Line. They took divergent paths to the SCG and reflect how recruitment and development has changed in Sydney and NSW over the past 20 years.
Heeney, who grew up south of Newcastle in the town of Cardiff, and North Shore product Mills have both declared they would have stopped playing Australian football if not for the Swans’ academy.
McVeigh, the oldest of Sydney’s NSW contingent, didn’t have the same luxury.
The 31-year-old was 11 when he watched an epic preliminary final from the SCG stands, revelling as Tony Lockett steered Sydney into the season decider with a point after the siren.
McVeigh was at the MCG for the ensuing grand final. It was a match that made many Sydneysiders, including Jack, first sit up and take notice of the sport.
But McVeigh was no stranger to the ground or the game, thanks to the fact father Tony played for Williamstown in the VFA.
McVeigh had dreamed of winning an AFL grand final since attending the 1993 season decider but being based on the Central Coast presented difficulties.
“AFL wasn’t talked about in the playground at all really, not many people knew much about it or the Swans … there was only one other person from my school that played the game,” McVeigh recalled in a column earlier this year.
McVeigh’s parents recognised the best place for him and brother Mark to be noticed by recruiters was in Sydney so they agreed to make a regular commute. The boys become draftees after playing for Pennant Hills.
Jack also made a big impression at the same club, having opted against following father and Balmain legend Garry Jack into rugby league.
Jack played Australian football for the first time in the school-based Paul Kelly Cup and was instantly hooked. His AFL career started on the Swans’ rookie list – as was the case with Rampe and Naismith.
Rampe was born and bred in the eastern suburbs of Sydney. The Swans supporter turned All-Australian defender still hasn’t forgiven father Indrek for not flying him down for the 2005 and 2006 grand finals.
Rampe moved to Melbourne after finishing school but returned home after a fruitless VFL stint. Dominant performances from the defender in the local Sydney league caught the attention of Paul Roos, then an academy coach, and word spread of his potential.
Roos also helped steer Naismith from the north-eastern NSW town of Gunnedeah to Sydney. The rugby league fan started playing Australian football late in his childhood and was set to stop until a call from Roos convinced him otherwise.
“I’d never been to the SCG and hadn’t watched much AFL at all. The first game I watched was the 2008 grand final. There was very minimal exposure to it in the country,” Naismith told AAP.
“Hopefully it’s a bit different now. I’m sure mum has been telling everyone there’s a game on and there’ll be a few people back home watching.”
Whenver Naismith drives through country NSW he is staggered by the changing scenery.
“It seems like it’s almost doubling every year. Before you’d drive around and wouldn’t see any AFL goal posts anywhere … I think it’s developing nicely,” he said.