History has shown the AFL is too insular to support a player loan system

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IF YOU'RE a younger footy fan and you heard Richmond coach Damien Hardwick propose a "loan" system for players to swap clubs in-season, you probably immediately thought of international soccer, where it's been accepted practice for a long time.

If you're of my crusty old vintage, however, you're more likely to have revisited a few anecdotes about the old days of VFL football, when players could and occasionally did change the colour of their jumper midway through a football year.

It felt weird then back then in the 1970s and early '80s. And I'm not sure it's any less weird now even in the context of a fully-professional competition.

Hawthorn premiership player Russell Greene is one of the most celebrated stories. A long-time St Kilda star, in mid-1980 he left Saints training on Thursday night preparing to play against Footscray. Come Saturday, he instead rolled up to Waverley to play for Hawthorn against North Melbourne.

"My wife and I drove out to Waverley where we park, and a car pulled up on my left and a car pulled up on my right," Greene recalled last year.

"We all got out at the one time; it was Steven Icke (North Melbourne) on my left, who was the best man at our wedding six weeks prior ... and the right was (Hawthorn star) Leigh Matthews. I said to him (Icke): 'You're at the wrong ground' and he's gone: 'What's going on here'?"

That same year, former Melbourne skipper Greg Wells, who'd been desperate to taste finals success after having gone without for more than 200 games, played the first 13 rounds with the Demons.

He then crossed to Carlton, for whom he played his first game the following week against ... you guessed it, Melbourne, picking up a none-too-shabby 31 disposals no less.

Well before those examples, Geelong's Gareth Andrews and Richmond's Rex Hunt had swapped clubs seven rounds into the 1974 season. Hunt delivered some very handy goal hauls for the Cats (and later St Kilda).

Andrews played his last game for the Cats against North Melbourne in Round 7, and his first for the Tigers in Round 8 against, yep, North Melbourne. Indeed, Andrews would play against the Roos no fewer than five times in 1974, the fifth occasion in a Richmond grand final win.

They are the sorts of stories which had been consigned to the "funny moments of football history" basket. But like a few other vestiges of the old game which have been revisited in recent times, under Hardwick's plan, they'd be possible once again.

The mid-season draft is another, of course, a relic of the early 1990s restored in 2019 and (though still not confirmed) likely again this year, last season's version cancelled because of the COVID-interrupted season.

Hardwick's idea is a far bolder step, obviously, the mid-season draft acquiring players not currently in the system, the Richmond coach's plan swapping players from senior list to senior list.

Quirks aside, how well would it work now? I have my doubts.

Hardwick was quick to throw up young Richmond ruckman Samson Ryan, currently at the back of a long queue of Tiger big men, as an example of a player who'd benefit by a loan system. A Queenslander, Ryan could certainly give Gold Coast, bereft of proper ruckmen after Jarrod Witts' knee injury, a decent chop-out.

But apart from logistics about the professional workplace, for example, if Ryan went to the Suns and suffered serious injury, are they or Richmond responsible? There's a host of other considerations.

Is it fair to Ryan after having become familiar with the environment at Punt Road to expect him to make a sudden move interstate to another club and another system - and while likely on a salary not much more than a city office worker? If he prospers under the auspices of Gold Coast's coaching and environment, who deserves to reap the benefits should Richmond decide to take him back?

Intellectual property is another obvious consideration. It's one thing to have assistant coaches move from club to club between seasons, complete with their store of knowledge of from wherever they came, but a player mid-season? That has ramifications about gameplan knowledge that is current and valuable.

Even Hardwick added the qualifier about Ryan: "Not that I'd like to give them Samson if he's playing against us". Could a player loaned be precluded from being available against his parent club? More logistical and industrial relations issues, you'd think.

One of the reasons soccer's loan system works is because with so many different leagues throughout Europe, there's few "aren't you one of ours?" awkward moments for players.

West Ham midfielder Jesse Lingard is a notable exception at the moment, starring for the Hammers after being loaned by Manchester United, scoring eight times in nine appearances.

But that's raised its own dilemma; his great form for his "borrower" club has driven up his asking price to a now reported and, for West Ham, quite prohibitive $A54 million should the Hammers, logically, try to make the shift permanent.

Why would an AFL example prove any different? And with just 18 clubs involved in the marketplace as opposed to literally hundreds on the continent, that's a lot more potentially tangled webs.

I'm pretty old school on list management. As hideous as has been Gold Coast's luck with its stocks of tall potential ruckmen, as damaging as the Giants' longish-term loss of three very senior faces in Stephen Coniglio, Phil Davis and Matt de Boer, that's just the way it is.

Winning a premiership, as well as a test of endurance and resilience, is also about adapting to circumstances, no matter how adverse. And yes, you need a slice of luck, too.

Hardwick, understandably, wants to cover all bases. But I think our game is better for more being left in the lap of the gods. Even if that denies a kid a quicker AFL debut. Or, for that matter, denies us punters a good yarn about players thinking a prospective opponent has turned up at the wrong venue.

You can read more of Rohan Connolly's work at FOOTYOLOGY.com.au