If you’ve been paying attention to team rosters in recent years, you may have noticed the increasing number of Australians playing in the Canadian Football League.
Granted, they’re mainly kickers and punters, so chances are they could have escaped your attention, but you may be interested to know that there are more Aussies in the game now than at any one time in the past.
To illustrate the point, there were seven Australians in the CFL Global Draft in May and four of them were drafted. Jake Ford (B.C.), Cody Grace (Calgary), Joel Whitford (Hamilton) and Joseph Zema (Montreal) are on either the active rosters or practice squads of their respective teams. They’re all punters.
But Australia’s links with the CFL go way back, probably further back than you might think. The first Aussie to play for the Toronto Argonauts was A.H.L. Motley. He played for them in 1914, a year when they won the Grey Cup.
Fast forward to 1973 and former Australian rugby league player Mark Harris came to Canada from Sydney to play for the Montreal Alouettes. He was a long-range kickoff specialist and had one season with the Als.
Aussies have also been making it to the NFL. Since the mid-2000s, there have been several Australians who have played in the NFL, including Darren Bennett, Ben Graham, Jarryd Hayne and Mitch Wishnowsky, who currently plays for San Francisco. Prior to that, the first Aussie to play in the NFL was Colin Ridgeway. He was signed by the Dallas Cowboys in the 1960s.
Up until more recently, Australians had to know someone in the CFL or have some kind of connection in Canada to get a shot, but not so much anymore. Nowadays, Aussies wanting a crack at a spot on a roster in the CFL or NFL, start out by trying to get a scholarship to a university in the US because by playing in the NCAA collegiate game, they increase their chances of getting noticed by pro teams. And that’s where Prokick Australia comes into play.
The Melbourne-based business was established in 2007. It trains Australian Football League (AFL) players how to punt a football gridiron-style, and to date 150 of its graduates have earned scholarships to NCAA schools. That includes the four Aussies playing in the CFL right now.
Prokick Australia is run by Nathan Chapman and John Smith. Chapman tried out for several NFL teams in the early 2000s, while Smith played in the CFL and NFL in the 1980s. Both were punters.
Chapman said they figured out pretty quickly that if an ex-Aussie Rules player hadn’t played gridiron football, chances are he would probably be overlooked by CFL or NFL teams. Hence the realization of the need to get guys onto US college football teams by way of scholarships.
“Once we started to get guys into college, the ones with CFL or NFL potential could get runs on the board so they could build their resume,” said Chapman. “Then it was about finding the ones who have that next level ability and capabilities and helping them progress up to the next levels.”
“Before the Global Draft, we had guys who qualified as internationals. They had a real passion to play in the CFL as punters or kickers. That’s how we got Josh Bartel into the CFL.”
He said the AFL is Prokick Australia’s predominant resource and that’s because it’s the game that most emulates punting a football gridiron-style.
“There are a couple of other sports like rugby where you sort of punt it, but it’s not in a pure punting sense and there’s not as much of it in a game,” continued Chapman. “We find that the transition from the AFL kicking skill over to punting is what helps us overall.”
“We teach pinpoint accuracy, which is our natural instinct because it’s how we kick a ball.”
He said he sees the CFL as being the closest game of any sport to AFL, which is a benefit to what their end goal is.
“There are some plays that unfold in the CFL which are basically like Aussie Rules,” Chapman added. “There’s a bit more mayhem and the field’s wide. You can kick it and they can pick it up and kick it back. Well, that’s Aussie Rules, that’s a game of football.”
“It’s about having the ability or confidence to know what you can do with the ball. How far you can kick it. Do you need it to stop? Do you need it to roll on? Of course, you can’t tell the ball exactly when to stop. Once you kick it, it’s got some forces that are a bit uncontrollable, but if you have a good touch on it, there’s a good chance of it doing what you want it to do.”
“Whenever something happens in the game, and players have to make a decision in the blink of an eye that comes back to our Aussie Rules instincts.”
Chapman said he believes Prokick Australia has reached a point where their entry-level players are better, which gives their graduates a better chance of being drafted by CFL teams.
“Our job is to get guys into football. Their job is to do a good job so that special teams coaches say, I want another one of those.”