They had to traverse between three states just to come together, but the success of the inaugural Fitzroy Cubs will always be measured across 21 days.

That was all the time it had to bring Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and culturally diverse footballers to a talent identification day to meet before the makeshift side ran over the top of a leading VFL club.

The program to better advance aspirational players who fall outside the conventional channels of traditional development had been launched with an eye on the AFL mid-season rookie draft.

While no Cubs were picked up this time around, the thrilling six-point win over a Carlton VFL side with multiple top tier players made talent scouts take notice.

Brisbane Lions premiership hero Chris Johnson put his hand up to manage a program to assist the 19 to 23-year-olds that also included father-son candidates from both Fitzroy and Brisbane clubs to gain a better foothold on the AFL landscape.

“I think over the last two and a half years the AFL haven’t been able to engage players for various different reasons as we all know through Covid,” Johnson said.

“But this is the first time we have done a face-to-face program like this, which is the main thing.”

Johnson, who grew up in an industrial outer northern suburb of Melbourne, wished the Fitzroy Cubs was around 30 years ago prior to making his way into the AFL.

“I was never brought up to talk about who I was, and I was from places that were not predominantly Indigenous,” he said.

“We feel that even with our (Indigenous) coach Jason Williams, he’ll run a culturally identity session and make sure it’s a culturally safe space.

“I think it gives the boys an opportunity to be themselves.

“The AFL has talked about these players being themselves; this is an opportunity that we see for our boys.”

 

The AFL today counts 72 Indigenous players, about 10 per cent of the league, on playing lists this year.

Some 25 Indigenous football academies are run across Australia while programs reach more than 87,000 Aboriginal people.

Johnson believed the Fitzroy Cubs could be the final extension for many Indigenous players to turn professional.

And that transformation from congregating at Brunswick Street Oval to celebrating the victory over Carlton is the start of something big.

“By giving all of these boys the opportunity in such a high-level game, they get to play against some real quality opposition so then they can be judged on their merits at the time,” Johnson said.

“But I think it is most important for our boys to have programs like this.

“They all have AFL aspirations and numbers say they won’t all play AFL, but we hope we can give them some opportunity within the program.”

  • Story by Andrew Mathieson