The 2021 Canadian Football League season has chartered new territory for Australian players. For starters, seven players from down under were drafted in the CFL Global Draft. That is the highest number ever, and of them, five made the cut for teams’ active and practice rosters.
They included punters Jake Ford (B.C.), Cody Grace (Calgary), Joel Whitford (Hamilton), and Joseph Zema (Montreal). There was also a New Zealander in the mix, defensive lineman Misiona Aiolupotea-Pei (Edmonton).
Tiger-Cats punter Whitford has also achieved a rare Australian milestone in the CFL by making it to the Grey Cup, and he has done it in his rookie year. Only two other Australians have played in a Grey Cup game in CFL history, most recently in 2013 when Josh Bartel was on the Ticats team that lost to Saskatchewan.
Bartel, also a punter, played in the CFL for seven seasons. He was with Hamilton (2012-2013), Saskatchewan (2014, 2016-2018) and B.C. (2019).
But you have to go all the way back to 1914 to find the very first Aussie to play in a Grey Cup game. That was Arthur Motley, who was on the championship-winning Toronto Argonauts team that year. Motley was also the first Australian to play in the CFL.
“He started at middle wing, sort of offensive tackle/defensive end, in the 14-2 Grey Cup win over University of Toronto,” said Argonauts’ historian James Fraser. “His tackling was praised in the Canadian Press match report.”
2021 also marked the very first time that Aussies have played against each other in both the regular season and the playoffs. Most notably, the Eastern semifinal between Hamilton and Montreal was the first time in CFL history that there were two Australians in a postseason game. Whitford and Zema were on opposing teams.
“Before this year, I don’t think Josh Bartel had played against another Aussie, and then this year I played against Joseph Zema twice and he would’ve played against Calgary and Cody Grace,” said Whitford. “Maybe it’ll become more of a thing in the future, we’ll see.”
As for playing the East Division semi in front of hometown fans in Hamilton, Whitford said it was an unforgettable experience.
“I was super excited and ready to get out there, go to work and do my thing,” he said. “There was a challenging element to it, but I was more excited about playing in the snow in front of all those people. I thought it was awesome.”
“We had a huge emphasis on hitting the right location and not giving their returner a chance and I think it’s something I did well in the game. Joe and I both had seven or eight kicks and it just re-emphasized the importance of the kicking game in the CFL.”
“It’s important for us as the second wave of Aussies to set the standards high and prove that we can come here and compete and be successful. And maybe that will convince coaches to use a roster spot on a punter as opposed to the traditional CFL trend of having someone who does all three.”
Likewise, Zema said he thinks the fact that Australian players have made CFL history this year bodes well for the future.
“I think it was a good attribute to Australian punting in the CFL,” he said. ”I think we got some good representation.”
And as for the game in Hamilton being a playoff game that pitted him against a fellow Aussie, Zema said he tried to go into it treating it as much like a regular-season game as possible.
“I think it was probably the coldest game we played in this season,” he said. “As a punt team, we want to kick the ball to a certain location. Obviously, you want good distance and hang time and I think I did my job.”
“Joel and I had fun playing against each other. He kicks a lot more drop punts than me, so it was good to see how he goes about it as we can always learn off each other.”
Zema added that he would like to see the Global Draft continue to be a part of the CFL in the future and that hopefully, more Australians will have the chance to play in the league.
“There’s definitely a spot for it,” he said. “I think the Global Draft is particularly geared towards specialists. And in terms of Australian guys, you could probably see a lot more coming.
“It’s a great way to get the CFL name out there a bit more and it creates lots of good opportunities for guys like myself from another country to keep playing football.”