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Tongans blown away by AFL megabucks

By Russell Jackson and Nick Perry 16/08/2011 05:04:12 PM Comments (0)

The Tongan Australian rules team were blown away when Greater Western Sydney assistant coach Mark Williams told them of the potential megabucks on offer in the AFL.

Code jumper Israel Folau's defection from the NRL to Greater Western Sydney last year sparked enormous interest in AFL in Tonga, who are fielding a side in the International Cup which includes two cousins of Folau.

The tournament is being held in Sydney and Tonga assistant coach Ed McCowan said Williams addressed the team during the week.

"The boys were blown away when Mark Williams spoke to us yesterday and said 'you know, literally, you can make $1 million a year playing AFL if you're good enough'," McCowan said.

"(He said) The biggest salary cap and highest paid players are all AFL players, and the boys were like 'Wow'."

While Williams' boast about the seven-figure sums on offer is technically correct, few players in the AFL make that money.

No player topped the $1 million mark in the past two seasons, even including AFL-approved club marketing payments, although Carlton's Chris Judd, St Kilda's Nick Riewoldt, Brisbane's Jonathan Brown and Fremantle's Matthew Pavlich were all close to that mark.

This year, Folau and fellow code-hopper Karmichael Hunt are believed to be in the $1 million-plus range, largely due to their unique promotional value to the code, along with Gold Coast captain Gary Ablett, another beneficiary of the game's expansion.

McCowan said the Sydney-born Folau's impact had been huge in Tonga.

"It is now being recognised as a proper sport in Tonga," he said.

"It's really good they can see the pathway from being in Tonga through the AFL international programs to being on the GWS list.

"We've actually got a few boys who were asked to play in the Under 20 (rugby union) World Cup squad and they said no because they wanted to come here and play AFL in the International Cup. It's amazing."

Around 2000 kids play Australian rules football in the Pacific Island nation through primary and high school clinics, while there are 200 senior players of the sport introduced there in 2004.

Folau - who is the public face of the GWS franchise - took part in a training session with the Tongan side at Doonside Technology High School in Sydney's west on Tuesday.

"It's pretty exciting for me. I'm pretty close with my culture and it's just good to be a part of it and see the game grow out to the Pacific. It's wonderful," Folau said.

"A lot of kids, most of them are playing rugby, but since AFL started over there, a lot of them changed over and had a crack at playing the game."

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