Why Swans lost Origin hero to rugby league
THE Sydney Swans are lamenting the one that got away, after watching Tom Trbojevic put on a State of Origin masterclass, and the AFL club wants a change to rules to prevent future youngsters being lost to rugby league.
For the Swans, Trbojevic is the ultimate story of the one who got away.
But in reality, Sydney's hands were tied because they weren't allowed to make an offer to the multi-talented star until he was due to turn 18, by which time the Manly Sea Eagles had already swooped in with an NRL deal.
Swans Academy general manager Chris Smith watched on with a mixture of pride and anguish as Trbojevic dominated Origin II, admitting his former pupil's flying leap over Queensland's Kalyn Ponga for the opening try compelled him to "put his cup of tea down and kick the cat".
Smith has remained close with Trbojevic and chatted to him on Monday morning following his Perth masterclass.
But not before he'd woken up to messages from cheeky Swans staffers, led by premiership winner Dean Cox, ribbing him over the freakish talent that had slipped through his grasp.
But Smith says there is a serious lesson to learn from Trbojevic's meteoric rise in rugby league.
Whinging from jilted Melbourne clubs has prompted an AFL investigation into the operation of Northern Academies in Sydney and Brisbane, but The Daily Telegraph can reveal how the Swans had their hands helplessly tied by red tape when Manly guaranteed a 16-year-old Trbojevic a pathway to the NRL that they could not compete with.
"We've got to wait until the year that they are turning 18. That's when we can make some decisions at the draft. Prior to that, we've got our hands tied," Smith said.
"In Tom's case he was 16 going on 17 and Manly were hotly after him and (we had to) sit down and through gritted teeth say, 'OK, you're best to take it because we can't guarantee anything until another year or two.' Based on that (we had to) reluctantly concede.
"We're finding that even more with the academy at the moment … when boys in their under-16 and 17s year are coming and asking, what should they be doing? We've got 70 per cent of our boys who are playing three or more formal sports and a large proportion are playing union and league.
"(The NRL) have an under-15s program where they start to get their better talent on contracts and that's the situation we are faced with.
"A lot of the national debate is about how the northern academies seem to have this unfair advantage. But what we are actually trying to do is get access to first-choice athletes and those particular challenges aren't faced by southern clubs at all.
"I think if there were any incentives the AFL could provide in order to entice these kids and lock them in a little bit earlier it would be beneficial."
Trbojevic was in the same academy class as Swans young gun Isaac Heeney, who was also from rugby league stock in Newcastle, as well as Seattle Seahawks NFL punter Michael Dickson.
"I must admit when I was watching him on Sunday night I was imagining him in Swans colours," Smith said.
"Great family, great kid ... that (first try) was where I put the cup of tea down and kicked the cat. He was very well suited to AFL with his skill set and athleticism.
"It was a bit of an open book in terms of what he could have become.
"He always had great speed and footwork and was aggressive. Ideally you would have seen him being your centre-half-back key position player.
"The boy who could out-body, out-muscle and outsprint the forwards and then provide some rebound and dash from the backline. But equally, you could see him being a hard-leading forward."