Zac O’Brien’s story proves the AFL talent pool hasn’t run dry

Ask anyone at Aberfeldie footy club what they make of the supposed AFL “talent drain” and they’ll beg to differ with a two-word answer. Zac O’Brien.
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“There’s definitely good footballers out there, no question,” says Mal Michael, the former Magpie, Bomber and famously triple premiership Lion who as coach of the “Abers” reckons he sees plenty of young footballers who missed the freeway to the top, but who he thinks are abundantly capable of making it via a different route.

O’Brien is the latest pin-up of the off-roaders. A fully qualified chiropractor who was lured to the Essendon District Football League in 2012 by mates who got in his ear about the weekly drive from uni to play for Yarrawonga, he split last season between Aberfeldie and Essendon’s VFL team, was rookie-listed by Brisbane, and on Saturday had 15 possessions on debut in just over a half and kicked the goal that put the Lions in front in the dying minutes.

That time under Hayden Skipworth in the VFL was crucial in planing his rough edges, but O’Brien’s story is rightfully being celebrated by the Ovens and Murray and Essendon leagues, too. At 23, he is the most recent beacon for the late-bloomers.

Michael says football clubs are about relationships, and O’Brien is fortunate those mates were at one that is remarkably well connected. Assisting him in the Aberfeldie coach’s box is former Bomber Damien Peverill, who helped hone a player who was too aggressive when he came to the club – at both ball and man – and who needed to improve his disposal.

Skipworth is an Aberfeldie old boy, and when he took over the Bombers’ VFL team he invited O’Brien down for pre-season. His improved conditioning when he came back to the Abers was clear.

He’d won the club best and fairest in 2012, but after last year’s shared duties ended with a strong showing in a losing Essendon final, then a quiet EDFL grand final when tagged in a loss to the Anthony Rock-coached Greenvale, the leap he would soon make seemed distant. The assumption that Michael’s Brisbane connection was crucial makes the former full back chuckle.

“I had no role in getting him there,” says Michael, adding that there was talk of interest from Gold Coast, but nothing from his old club. “I was a bit surprised I didn’t get a call.”

Aberfeldie president John Larkins, a Queen’s counsel with a rare passion for his club, is both proud and moved to be part of O’Brien’s story.O’Brien’s father Gerry is on a farm at Greta, yet has still attended a couple of Aberfeldie games this season even without his son playing. Last Thursday, Larkins was among the first people he called after hearing that Zac would make his debut.

“When I announced it to the assembled masses after training I said Zac satisfies the ‘Peverill Test’ of having to earn your first game,” Larkins says, recalling how the quiet former Bomber shakes his head in faux distress at how easy your run-of-the-mill draftees have it, when he had to wait until he was almost 22 to get a chance.

“I’ve got no doubt Zac would have picked up plenty from Pev, who also battled to get his first gig. Zac has just worked his backside off.”

Aberfeldie encourages professional toil. This season, the playing list includes former Bombers Courtney Johns, Kyle Reimers and Darcy Daniher, the latter on a quiet comeback trail after a promising career was destroyed by injury. His father, Anthony, is the club footy manager. Josh Toy, whose short Gold Coast career was dogged by health issues, is mirroring O’Brien’s Essendon or Aberfeldie experience, while ex-Cat Mark Blake is also at the club.

As is Luke Davis, who spent three years on Essendon’s list without playing a game, came to Aberfeldie in what Michael says was “a bit of a broken-spirited state”, and for whom the club’s focus was getting him to enjoy the game again. “I think we’ve done that,” Michael says. “He’s having a terrific season.”

Larkins says the club “jumped off the bridge a bit” in 2010 in opting to get Johns and Skipworth, and without gate takings to rely on, keeping in-demand performers is a struggle. “Our retention rate, when you’ve got quality coaching, good culture, terrific players around you, it’s so much easier to develop players.”

Michael agrees, citing Aberfeldie’s own “pathway program” to aid transition from junior to senior level as a key to the overall health of a club that has won the past two under-18 premierships. He sees AFL recruiters at their games, jokes that it’s something of a mixed blessing when they pluck your players (eight of last season’s list are playing VFL this year, plus O’Brien at Brisbane), yet he also sees talent throughout the EDFL. “Even the clubs who are struggling at senior level, they’ve got very good juniors. There’s a good talent pool.”

In his final seasons at Essendon, Michael noted players getting cut who he thinks were still of AFL quality; he dislikes a system at the game’s apex that virtually encourages teams to discard worthy footballers in favour of bottoming out and getting access to tomorrow’s stars. “Until they change that, we’ll always be saying there’s a shortage of talent.”

At Aberfeldie, they’ll also be saying it’s just a matter of knowing where to look. “We’re part of Zac’s journey,” says Larkins, “and we’re very, very excited about what’s happened for him.”

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Owen Craigie speaks out against league brawl: video

Please enable Javascript to watch this videoFOOTBRAWL: Players spectators clash as violence erupts, video
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UPSET: Melisa Francis and former Newcastle Knight Owen Craigie want to encourage women to get involved in league. Picture: Peter Stoop

FORMER Newcastle Knights hero Owen Craigie fears an ugly all-in brawl at a second-division rugby league match last Saturday could scare women and children away from the game.

The Newcastle and Hunter Rugby League A-grade game between Wallsend-Maryland Tigers and Windale Eagles at the Grange Oval, Maryland, was abandoned six minutes before full-time because of a wild melee involving players from both teams.

Windale were leading 16-10 when referee Gavin West called the game off in the 74th minute after beer cans were thrown from the crowd onto the field. When players began shaking hands and walking off, spectators and officials became involved as the fight flared again.

More footage of the brawl – which circulated through social media on Monday – emerged yesterday and can be seen on the Newcastle Herald website.

Craigie captain-coached Wallsend-Maryland to the past two NHRL premierships and still plays in the competition for leaders Belmont South Rabbitohs.

The 36-year-old former prodigy regularly takes his wife, Renai, and their children – nine-year-old Jesse-Owen, Arakai, 4, and three-year-old Aaryah – to games, but he is considering leaving them at home in future after seeing photos and footage of the brawl.

‘‘From the top down, the game is promoting anti-domestic violence in our community, and our footy teams all support that. But when you see something like that, you’d be in fear of taking your family to watch the footy,’’ Craigie said.

‘‘It’s a terrible look for our game and neither side can play the victim card here. One team instigated it and the other team retaliated but both teams are at fault in this.

‘‘The police were called and it was just a really bad look, especially when you know how much the NRL are promoting anti-domestic violence in the community and in our game.’’

Craigie has just returned from serving a four-game suspension for a late high tackle, which he said was in retaliation to him being on the receiving end of a similar tackle, but he stressed that incident could not be compared to a brawl involving players and, eventually, spectators.

‘‘That’s just footy. That was something that can happen in any game of footy,’’ he said.

‘‘What I’m talking about is what happened last Saturday, and how bad it looked, especially if you want to encourage women to be a part of our game.’’

Craigie described Belmont South secretary Melisa ‘‘Curly’’ Francis as the heart and soul of his club, but he could understand if she and other women were reluctant to become involved.

‘‘What Curly does for our club is unbelievable. She basically started our club a few years ago and she runs the whole show,’’ he said.

‘‘But if you want to encourage women to become involved in the game, and stay involved, you can’t allow this sort of thing to happen.

‘‘If you want young kids to play, you don’t want this to be the sort of behaviour that they see and learn when they come and watch.

‘‘It’s unacceptable. Imagine if it happened in a National Rugby League game?

‘‘Imagine if it happened in Beaumont Street on a Saturday night? They’d all end up in jail.’’

The Newcastle Rugby League is still investigating the circumstances that led to – and the aftermath that followed – the brawl. Craigie said he trusted the league to take appropriate disciplinary action against both clubs.

Windale president Scott McDonell described it as a ‘‘normal footy fight’’ that turned nasty when spectators started throwing full cans of beer at players and officials.

Wallsend-Maryland secretary Craig Aspinall said he would not comment until after the league had completed its investigation.


THE referee in charge of the second division game that descended into ugly scenes on Saturday said it was the first time in 18 years he had been forced to call off a game.

The Newcastle Rugby League is investigating two ugly all-in brawls, allegations of beer cans being thrown on the field by supporters and a king-hit assault during and after an A-grade Newcastle and Hunter Rugby league match between Windale and Wallsend-Maryland at Grange Oval, Maryland, on Saturday.

Referee Gavin West, who is also the Newcastle Rugby League Referees operations manager, said a shortage of senior officials on Saturday prompted him to delegate himself for the Wallsend and Windale clash.

‘‘The report that I have submitted to the league, in regards to crowd behaviour … I haven’t witnessed anything like that,’’ West said.

‘‘It’s the first time I’ve called a game off in my career, and I’ve been refereeing at all levels for the last 18 years.’’

West said he would be assigning a senior referee, possibly himself, for the return match at Windale.

Newcastle Rugby League chief executive Matt Harris said administrators held an internal meeting yesterday morning to discuss possible sanctions or disciplinary actions against both clubs.

‘‘We’ll be looking into all of the allegations.

‘‘The investigation is well and truly under way, and we will try and address the issues within the next week,’’ he said.

‘‘Both teams have a bye due to the long weekend, which will allow us a bit of extra time to look into it.’’

He said the normal process dictated that both clubs would be involved in the investigation.

It’s believed if Wallsend-Maryland are found guilty by a Newcastle Rugby League disciplinary committee, they will be hit with strict regulations about how they conduct home fixtures.

If the committee deems the brawl and resulting unruly behaviour from spectators severe enough, Wallsend-Maryland could face expulsion from the competition.

Newcastle City Inspector Terry Burns said police received one call about the brawl on Saturday afternoon but arrived to find no one fighting and no one willing to make a complaint.

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Kevin Sobels a living legend

PIONEER: Kevin Sobels, the 2014 Hunter Valley Living Legend of Wine. Picture: Chris Elfes
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SINCE 1848 the Sobels name has figured prominently in the annals of Barossa and Clare Valley winemaking and last Thursday it won a place in the honour roll of Hunter Valley wine.

Kevin Sobels, 71, the fifth generation descendant of German immigrant winemaker Carl August Sobels, was installed as the 2014 Hunter Valley Living Legend of Wine at the Hunter Valley Wine Industry Awards dinner at Wyndham Estate.

Now in their eighth year, the awards recognise outstanding achievements within the Hunter wine industry.

The night saw Kevin Sobels join such Hunter notables as Max Drayton, John Tulloch, Karl Stockhausen, Brian Walsh, Brian and Fay McGuigan, Jay Tulloch, Bruce Tyrrell, Phil Ryan, Chris Barnes, Don McWilliam, Pat Auld and Ian Scarborough as a Living Legend.

The Sobels family saga began with Carl August, who in 1847 quit his home in the Saxony-Anhalt town of Queldinburg and migrated with his family to South Australia.

Trained in winemaking in his native Germany and in France’s Champagne region, Carl August settled at Tanunda in the Barossa and in 1848 made his first Australian wines for William Jacob, the government surveyor who mapped the Barossa.

He took a major role in developing the area’s winegrowing, including giving expert guidance to the Gramp family in establishing the Orlando wine venture in 1850.

Carl August planted his own vineyard and built his own winery at Tanunda and made his own wine with the help of his son – also named Carl August – who had been sent to Germany to learn winemaking.

Carl the younger took over the Tanunda wine business when his father died in 1863. He sold it, however, in 1869 when he accepted a job to finish building a new winery and make its wine at Watervale in the Clare Valley.

This later became the Quelltaler wine venture, controlled by Carl August II and succeeding generations of Sobels over the next 110 years.

Kevin Sobels’ father Larry took over as Quelltaler winemaker at the age of 26 and Kevin set off on a similar path with study at the Roseworthy wine school.

Kevin’s wine working life began in South Australia with a job in a Waikerie winery owned by the Hardy family. He also worked alongside the great Peter Lehmann at Saltram and in 1967 he was recruited by Seppelts to be winemaker-manager at the Chateau Tanunda winery.

After Kevin’s father died at work in 1968 he was offered the Quelltaler winemaker’s job but decided to stay with Seppelts. But in 1972 he swapped the Barossa Valley for a new challenge in the Upper Hunter Valley with the post of winemaker at the then new Denman Estate venture, based on grapes from the Roxburgh and Mindaribba vineyards.

In 1974 he and his wife Margaret established the Queldinberg winery on the New England Highway at Muswellbrook, basing production entirely on bought-in grapes – in those days a rare occurrence.

At Muswellbrook both Margaret and Kevin took active roles in community affairs and Kevin was one of the prime movers in the establishment of the Upper Hunter Vineyard Association in 1976 and the Upper Hunter Wine Festival launched in 1977.

In 1986 the Sobels moved their operation to Pokolbin, taking over the vineyard on the corner of Broke and Halls roads formerly owned by the late Greg Ross-Jones.

Today Kevin and Margaret work alongside a sixth-generation wine industry Sobels, their Roseworthy marketing course graduate son Jason, who is taking a growing role in making the Sobels wines from bought-in grapes and from their own Pokolbin vineyard.

Kevin is proud that Jason’s 2014 Hunter wines mark the 166th unbroken run of Australian vintages by Sobels.

Kevin told me last week that he and Jason were the only Sobels still actively engaged in the wine industry and the Hunter Living Legends award was a great milestone in the family history.

He said he still enjoyed his involvement in wine as much as he did as the young Roseworthy graduate and the great, great grandson of Carl August Sobels.

A SHERLOCK Holmes-style deerstalker hat has long been the trademark of Kevin Sobels’ career in Hunter wine.

One habitually sits on his head as he works at the Sobels vineyard and winery on the corner of Halls and Broke roads, Pokolbin.

A drawing of a deer-stalker was used on the labels of the Queldinburg wines produced at the Sobels New England Highway, Muswellbrook, winery and Kevin says he adopted the headgear after a relative bought him one in 1974 during a visit to Scotland.

While Kevin and his wife Margaret were building their Muswellbrook winery, they spent a winter living on-site in a caravan and Kevin found the hat’s fold-down earpieces ideal for countering the intense cold.

Sadly, the original gift hat met its end when it fell into a tank of fermenting red wine, but Kevin has continued to buy replacements and to make a deerstalker part of his persona.

THERE hasn’t been much good news emanating from Wyndham Estate lately, with the announced closure of the Branxton Wyndham Estate cellar door, restaurant and function centre and sale of the prime Black Cluster vineyard in Mistletoe Lane, Pokolbin.

The historic former Penfolds Dalwood winery, however, provided a fine setting for the 2014 Hunter Valley Legends and Wine Industry Awards dinner last Thursday.

And the Viticulturist of the Year Award was won by Louise Eather of Orlando Wyndham.

Louise won the prize from a field of finalists that included Will Capper of Hunter Valley Vineyard Management, Andrew Margan of Margan Family Wines and Andrew Pengilly of Tyrrell’s Vineyards.

The Rising Star of the Year Award went to Belinda Stapleton of Spicers Vineyards Estate from other finalists Stuart Hordern of Brokenwood Wines and Jessica McLeish of McLeish Estate.

Andrew Thomas and the grand old J.Y Tulloch wine company scored second-time successes in the Winemaker of the Year and Cellar Door of the Year awards.

Known universally as “Thommo”, Andrew Thomas, owner and chief winemaker of Thomas Wines and contract winemaker for some of the Hunter top boutique wine brands, was crowned Winemaker of the Year, a title he previously won in 2008.

Other winemaker award finalists were Jim Chatto of McWilliam’s Mount Pleasant, Andrew Margan of Margan Family Wines and Usher Tinkler of Tinklers Wines and the Crush House consultancy.

The Tulloch headquarters on the corner of McDonalds and De Beyers roads, Pokolbin, won the Cellar Door of the Year title – repeating its success in 2007.

Other cellar door finalists were Bimbadgen and Oakvale Wines.

Hunter Valley Heritage awards went to Cessnock’s Marthaville Homestead and the 1973 Vintage Festival Poster.

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ACT government slashes new dwelling sites

The ACT government is expected to lose $244 million in revenue over four years from a reduction in land sales. Photo: Nic WalkerACT budget: at a glanceRate rises, higher fees and deficitsMajor changes for educationLight rail gets a $21.3m boost
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The ACT government has slashed the number of dwelling sites planned in the territory as a result of federal cuts to the public service. The loss in revenue from the reduction in land sales is expected to reach $244 million over four years.

The budget shows 3000 dwelling sites have been removed from the government’s Indicative Land Release Program. It now includes a sales target of 13,500 dwelling sites over the next four financial years.

Sites have dropped this financial year from 4700 to 3600, from 4500 to 3300 in 2015-16 and will stay at 3300 dwellings  to 2017-18.

The government says the reduction  is a direct result of the ‘‘decisions of the Commonwealth government to significantly reduce the size of the Australian Public Service and the subsequent impacts’’.

‘‘Reduction in employment leads to lower economic activity, lower land sales and longer term reductions in the territory’s revenue base,’’ hit says.

The cuts to the land release program are expected to cause a fall in revenue of $244 million over the next four years.

Treasury figures forecast a loss in revenue of $40.4 million next financial year and $86 million in 2015-16.

The estimated loss in revenue for 2016-17 is $55.1 million and in 2017-18 will reach $62.5 million.

It is also estimated that job cuts will have had an impact on the current financial year with an $8 million loss in revenue predicted.

Land Development Agency chief executive David Dawes said the agency was still preparing sites for housing in addition to what was outlined in the program.

He said further dwelling sites would be released when the market improved and buyer demand increased.

The agency will also be funding $96.3 million worth of infrastructure works in large development sites such as Denman, Coombs, Moncrieff and Lawson.

According to the Indicative Land Release Program 2014-15 to 2017-18 the government will sell more than 1000 dwelling sites in Gungahlin and more than 600 in Belconnen next financial year.

There will be about 400 sites released in central Canberra, Molonglo, with about 500 to be sold in Woden and Weston Creek, and 531 in Tuggeranong.

The land release program includes the release of land in eight greenfield suburbs including Moncrieff, Coombs, Throsby, Taylor and West Belconnen.

The Land Development Agency has removed about 800 dwelling sites from central Canberra that were outlined for release under the previous program.

According to the budget papers, slowing economic activity driven by federal  fiscal tightening and job cuts would likely curb recent momentum in the established housing market.

The government has widened the Pensioner Duty Concession Scheme to all Canberrans over the age of 60 to provide a greater incentive to downsize. It means home buyers over 60 will pay stamp duty of just $20 on a house less than $595,000.

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TRY THIS: The Burwood Inn – a hidden Merewether gem

The Glenelg Rib Eye on the Bone 400g and the Tasting Plate for Two, at The Burwood Inn, Merewether. Photo by Marina NeilMEREWETHER’S The Burwood Inn has truly earned its gastropub status, taking home the coveted three schooners – best in class – in the Sydney Morning Herald Good Pub Food Guide.
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It also receives the biggest nod of all – a crowd of patrons who snap up tables in its restaurant and pub all nights of the week.

Below is a selection of dishes from the new menu at The Burwood Inn’s restaurant.

Small plates and things to share: Japanese pork and spring onion gyozas with soy and ginger dipping sauce, $12; mini Chinese steamed buns with Peking duck, cucumber and hoisin, $12; pulled pork soft taco with cabbage and fennel slaw, two for $12, four for $22; trio of croquettes: confit duck croquette with rhubarb, caramel slow-roasted lamb shoulder croquette with eggplant caviar, confit pork belly croquette with pea puree, $12; tasting plate for two: pea and chorizo arancini, Japanese pork and spring onion gyozas, pulled pork soft tacos, mini Chinese steamed buns and warm marinated Eden Valley olives, $32.

Steaks: Served with hand-cut chips and green beans plus your choice of accompaniment from cafe de Paris butter, truffle butter, house-made green mustard, port jus, chimichurri sauce and smoky chipotle barbecue sauce. Steak prices range from $26-$44.

Bigger plates: Pan-fried duck breast with spiced nut crust, confit duck croquette, butternut pumpkin and caramelised chestnuts, $32; twice-cooked pork belly with scallop ravioli, pea puree, brussels sprouts and speck, $32; slow-cooked lamb shoulder and wild mushroom ragout with pappardelle, spinach and peas, $26; spiced pumpkin and lentil dahl with raita and sweet pickles, $24.

Pub favourites: Crumbed lamb cutlets with mash, gravy and green beans, $27; Batlow Cider-battered snapper with chips, salad and tartare, $22; sticky roast American pork spare ribs slow cooked in a special marinade, with creamy mash and green beans, $30; classic chicken parmigiana topped with double smoked ham, napoli and cheese, $22.


Address: 77 Berner Street, Merewether

Open:lunch and dinner daily

Phone:4963 5000


Owned by: Ty and Julianne Burford

Head chef: Josh Sudana

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