AFL in New Zealand
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He checks his boots are tight; he exhales deeply, releasing only some of the nerves in his gut, nerves that a have been a constant companion in the lead-up to this final.
His black attire and the huge stadium that awaits mean he could be an All Black but he’s not. He’s playing Australia’s game. Something more New Zealanders are doing both at home and across the ditch.
David Rattenbury is a New Zealand Falcon, a member of the nation’s Aussie rules team. In 2008 he played at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in the final of the Oceania Cup.
“It was incredible playing there. I realised the gravity of how important it is to play on there,” he says, the excitement still in his voice. “There is an aura on that field.”
Gracing the MCG is something not many New Zealanders get to do. On occasion the All Blacks do and the Black Caps do when they tour Australia. But playing AFL could mean the opportunity for Kiwis to regularly be the gladiators at the modern day coliseum.
Robert Vanstam, the Chief Executive of New Zealand AFL says the game “provides opportunities for young people”.
“There is a better chance of playing top level AFL being from New Zealand than from Melbourne.”
The opportunities AFL offers are wide and varied. Not only does the national team get to play overseas but there are scholarships for international players.
Each AFL club has a quota for eight overseas players in its roster. With two additional clubs coming into the AFL competition, the demand for the best young athletes has increased and that is where elite Kiwi athletes come into the equation.
Vanstam describes New Zealand as a market of four million people. “There has to be talent. It’s just a matter of finding it.”
As well as the talent. New Zealand has many advantages for AFL clubs.
“It doesn’t cost much to get over to NZ,” says Vanstam. It is closer to Melbourne than Perth is and Kiwis can be set up in Melbourne in a day with no requirements for visas.
The Hawthorn Football Club Melbourne has the Trent Croad scholarship for New Zealanders, named after the New Zealand-born AFL star.
Tauranga teenager Kurt Heatherley was the first recipient of the AFL International Scholarship. A talented basketballer and rugby player, Heatherley was signed by Hawthorn as a part of the scholarship. He receives specialist coaching through Hawthorn, travelling regularly from the Bay of Plenty to Melbourne to train at the club.
In order for young Kiwis to get to this elite level a lot of work is being done at the grassroots.
“In New Zealand we are long-term business. Our plan is that one in 20 kids will be able to kick a football.” Vanstam says.
Ben Boyle is a physical education teacher at St Peter’s College and the coach of the senior AFL side at the school. He says AFL is less physically demanding than the rugby codes and this could appeal to youngsters.
“It is less physical and there is more space. It is more skillful than rugby or league.”
All this work by the AFL means that other codes are benefiting from the up-skilling young New Zealanders are receiving.
Former All Black first five-eighth Nick Evans was an AFL player as a part of his apprenticeship before cracking the big time. His time in the Aussie code helped him improve his kicking.
The chairman of AFL New Zealand, Geoff Dickson says “six or seven years ago Nick targeted Australian football to develop kicking and marking skills. “
“AFL clubs were interested in him.”
Vanstam says if the All Blacks get the benefits, then “so be it”.
“I don’t mind because we’re not the chosen sport”. Only this year three kids from the NZ under 16’s AFL team were signed by the Junior Warriors.
AFL pre-season games played in New Zealand also exposed Kiwis to elite AFL. Brisbane and Adelaide were the last to play in front of a Kiwi audience, facing off in a preseason game in Wellington in 2001. Hawthorn and the Western Bulldogs played in 2000, and Melbourne and Sydney in 1998.
The Bulldogs continue to flirt with the idea of playing competition games in New Zealand in the next two years.
Interestingly this is not AFL’s or Aussie Rules’ first foray into the Shaky Isles. ‘Victorian Rule’ as it was known then was played in New Zealand from the 1870’s due to New Zealand’s close relationship with Melbourne.
There were eight Aussie Rules teams in Auckland in 1908 but the code was never able to establish itself with the dominance of rugby union and the introduction of Rugby League to New Zealand. By the beginning of World War One Victorian Rules had disappeared from Auckland’s sporting landscape.
As well as his goals at junior level, Vanstam wants to grow the local senior competitions. Currently there are four leagues in New Zealand, with six teams in Auckland, four in Wellington and Canterbury, three in Waikato and a newly formed league in Otago.
The best players from the four domestic leagues are then picked for the New Zealand Falcons.
Twenty-five-year-old John Maling and David Rattenbury are teammates in the Falcons and at club level for the Waitakere Magpies.
Maling has played AFL since 2003, and made his debut for the national team two years later. He says. “A mate said come along and after one training I was hooked.” He adds that he watched AFL on television and thought he’d be good at it.
Rattenbury began playing in his final year at school and cracked the national team in 2008. Both players list the tour of Melbourne in 2008 for the International Cup as the career highlight. Making the final of that tournament meant they got to play on the hallowed turf of the MCG.
Maling remembers the final well. “It was the curtain raiser to an AFL finals game between the Western Bulldogs and the Hawthorn Hawks.”
“By the end of the game we were playing in front of 30,000.”
He laughs as he recalls the Aussies heckling him from the stands.
“They know more about the game than you do”.
Unfortunately the Falcons lost to Papua New Guinea. A team Maling amusingly describes as being full of “skillful, rock-hard athletes”.
He says the experience at the MCG was amazing and ridiculous. “I didn’t want to walk off. Guys like Lance Franklin were warming up. They’re absolute superstars.”
He says it was a privilege “playing Melbourne’s game on Melbourne’s ground”.
The New Zealand team spent two weeks playing and training in AFL-mad Victoria. According to Maling living “like professional athletes in AFL heartland.”
The AFL season is played over the summer months in New Zealand, allowing soccer, union and league players to participate.
Despite continuing to play Rugby Union, Rattenbury says AFL his is first choice sport. “It’s a nice mix of soccer and rugby.”
The AFL is hoping to get more and more New Zealanders saying exactly that. So that Aussie Rules is no longer a Kiwi oxymoron, it’s a game too.
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