The Gold Coast AFL team in the middle of their training run at Oakes Oval, Lismore, yesterday.
The Gold Coast AFL team in the middle of their training run at Oakes Oval, Lismore, yesterday. DAVID NIELSEN

Gold in these hills

GOLD Coast Football Club coach Guy McKenna has declared the Northern Rivers fertile recruiting ground for the fledgling AFL club.

The league’s newest franchise is making its first visit to the region as part of the AFL’s Community Camps.

Last night, McKenna and assistants Ken Hinkley and Shaun Hart and club football manager Marcus Ashcroft held centre stage at a packed Ramada Hotel function room in Ballina in support of local football and to celebrate local junior AFL’s 10th year on the Northern Rivers.

McKenna, who is contracted to the top job until the end of the 2012 AFL season, took his team through a brisk one-and-a-half hour training session in humid conditions at Lismore’s Oakes Oval yesterday.

The club will play in the VFL this year ahead of its entry into the AFL in 2011.

McKenna, a dual AFL premiership player with West Coast Eagles in 1992 and 1994, said his club was keen to forge strong links to the region.

“(The Northern Rivers) is part of our area and we would like to see young footballers from here to eventually play for the club,” he said.

“You’ve got to start somewhere and that is part of why we’re here.

“Having said that, you could end up anywhere because of the (AFL’s) national draft but we just want to give local boys here in football a fair go.”

The 30-strong contracted playing group had something of a local connection in Northern Territorian Roland Ah Chee, whose mother comes from Grafton.

The team was part of Victoria’s TAC Cup (under-18s) competition last year, its first foray into competitive football.

The majority are in their late teens and the club is allowed several mature age top-up players to play in the VFL – Geelong 2007 AFL premiership player Nathan Ablett is one.

Prized recruit, former Broncos and Queensland State of Origin rugby league fullback, Karmichael Hunt, was an obvious no-show as he is playing rugby union in France until May.

Also part of the team in Lismore yesterday was Rex Liddy, nephew of current North Queensland Cowboys rugby league fullback, Matt Bowen.

McKenna is keen to stamp his own style on his playing group.

The 40-year-old was an uncompromising defender across half-back during the Eagles’ golden era in the early to mid-90s.

He played 267 games for West Coast in a 12-year career from 1988 and played State of Origin for Western Australia four times.

He followed former Eagles coach Mick Malthouse to Collingwood as an assistant.

“Obviously, it’s a work in progress,” McKenna said of his playing group.

“We were 1-1 from the (TAC Cup) finals last year and this year we basically have junior footballers playing in a senior competition.

“It will be more of an evolution but really, footy’s the same despite whatever different game plans other clubs have in place.”

The players will visit several schools today before returning to the Gold Coast.

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