AFL in New Zealand

daniel fraser Roar Rookie

By daniel fraser, daniel fraser is a Roar Rookie


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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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    The Crowd Says (445)

    • November 1st 2010 @ 7:17am
      Jay said | November 1st 2010 @ 7:17am | ! Report

      “It is more skillful than rugby or league.”

      I’m not sure that I would agree with that – different silks, yes.. But more skillful? That’s rather subjective.

      In terms of the rest of the article.. The best thing that the AFL can do it expand and add a NZ team.. Similar demographic to Australia and a population of 4 million is a better market than a third team in Perth, Tasmania or North Queensland

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      • November 1st 2010 @ 10:19am
        JF said | November 1st 2010 @ 10:19am | ! Report

        The problem the AFL have in setting a team up in NZ is that they cannot rely on an army of Victorian expats like they have done in Queensland and NSW. It will never happen.

      • November 1st 2010 @ 7:08pm
        Chris said | November 1st 2010 @ 7:08pm | ! Report

        You have got to be joking AFL has gone no where for a reason.

        • November 2nd 2010 @ 9:50pm
          TCunbeliever said | November 2nd 2010 @ 9:50pm | ! Report

          Gone nowhere? Are you unaware of the growing numbers of people playing this sport in local competitions, as well as international tournaments throughout North America, Europe and Asia? The growing interest in China demonstrated by their willingness to purchase the rights to broadcast a game a week over there? Not to mention having a team in RL’s heartland that attracts more fans to its games than any League or A-League club gets?

        • November 3rd 2010 @ 7:22am
          ruckrover said | November 3rd 2010 @ 7:22am | ! Report

          Australian Football is starting to go places in Europe now –

    • November 1st 2010 @ 8:18am
      zach said | November 1st 2010 @ 8:18am | ! Report

      Apparently there was a league on the South island as well in the 1800s, and was known as “College Rules” in a reference to a university team that played it.

    • November 1st 2010 @ 10:03am
      Republican said | November 1st 2010 @ 10:03am | ! Report

      NZ don’t and won’t have any grassroots to offer for many many years if at all which should be the number one criteria to any expansion. The rest of Oz without exception, actually have an affinity for footy rather than some novel interest that takes place briefly after the Union and before the Cricket season.

      I have watched NZ footy over the years, both here and in NZ and to be frank, they play the game like they do Union, overly hard at the man and the ball and very agricultural indeed. They are always allowed much licence in this process by the Umps and the calibre of Australian opposition they are pitted against. Enthusiasm does not equate to potential talent and in my experience, Kiwis only really play the game for the novelty and the chance to travel and of course delusions of grandeur in beating us at our own is always something Kiwis are overly obsessed with.

      I personally find this sort of nonsense insulting especially given the history of footy in this country, not to mention the worthy grass roots that exists in regions i.e the ACT, Tassie, FNQ and the NT to name a few, all of which are crying out for recognition from the governing body. NZ should never be compared to any Australian Football demographic and to do so smacks of ignorance and outright parochial nepotism, courtesy of the ubiquitous Kiwi diaspora evident in this country in the main.

      That our code should ever be so recklessly benevolent in affording the Kiwis something they haven’t earn’t and at the expense of Australia’s true footy demos would be incredibly disenfranchising to the devotees of the code throughout this country. The only reason for going to a total back H20 i.e. NZ, would be for top down commercial gain which should never be considered as far as the indig code goes.

      First and foremost this not League, Soccer, Netball or Cricket we are dealing with here. This is a cultural institution and OUR game and although NZ may wish to covet it and misappropriate it’s origins as they do many other aspects of Australianna to their advantage, we as custodians of the game should never let them get their mercenary mits on it.

      Remember, this is a people that take exception to our game being called ‘Australian’ and who would have us rebrand it in appeasing their collective cringe to this end. PNG are way more deserving and indeed offer the game some substance as far as talent goes yet NZ as usual, are more likely to be given precedence in this respect, soley due to their commercial advantage and not footy pedigree as some would like to think. NZ also claim to offer a geographic, cultural and social affinity with this country, which quite frankly is grossly overstated since they are probably the single most anti Australian collective you could ever come across.

      To put a little perspective on any talking up of some vague NZ footy pedigree; NZ’s small window in playing the code pre war was as a result of all the ex pat Australians moving across the ditch during the gold rush. The majority of those playing the game in the south island at the time were in fact Australians.

      The NZ National U 20 side continues to struggle to compete with our Maffra selections and more recently, the VAFA U18’s, many of who are 16 y.o’s and who were selected not on merit but to offer a remotely equitable contest. Why should we allow NZ then, to glean any elite AFL presence, resourcing them with Australian personnel from the ground up while real demographics i.e mine, the ACT, are expediently left to whither on the vine!

      • November 1st 2010 @ 11:01am
        Black Diamonds said | November 1st 2010 @ 11:01am | ! Report

        You are really on this high horse aren’t you! Not to worry mate – there will not be a team in NZ before there are 24 teams in the AFL.

        And that won’t happen this side of 2050.

        In front of NZ
        North Queensland
        3rd Perth Team
        Newcastle/Central Coast
        3rd Sydney Team

        then perhaps NZ. No need to worry about NZ jumping ahead of any of these.

        • November 2nd 2010 @ 10:09pm
          JamesP said | November 2nd 2010 @ 10:09pm | ! Report

          North QLD surely not I hope – the AFl chases the big population centres. Agree with Tassie if/when a Melbourne team re-locates…most likely North Melbourne, to keep an 18 team competition. Sit on that for a while befire investigating Canberra or a third Perth team (woudl preder to see a new 60-80k stadium in Perth first…WCE would fill it provided they start playing good football again and Freo are just about ready for a waiting list and cap on membership). Finally, would love to see Darwin get a gig…it is one fo the fasest growing capital cities in Australia…albeit of a low base….but the whole state id footy mad and cant eb discounted in the next 20-30 years.

      • November 1st 2010 @ 11:11am
        Jay said | November 1st 2010 @ 11:11am | ! Report

        im my books, expanding to nz is no different to the afl going into western sydney.

      • November 1st 2010 @ 11:31am
        Jason said | November 1st 2010 @ 11:31am | ! Report

        Don’t worry about New Zealand sullying your little sport, it would rank below conkers over there and always will.

      • November 1st 2010 @ 12:54pm
        Ken said | November 1st 2010 @ 12:54pm | ! Report

        I’m not sure if this post is displaying subtle wit or ignorant egotism, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and say bravo it was quite amusing… especially the bit about how AFL (unlike those other non-cultural institution codes!) should never consider top down expansion solely for commercial gain. I’m not sure how you could even think such a thing, I could never imagine the glorious leaders doing anything so perverse as that!

    • November 1st 2010 @ 11:18am
      Republican said | November 1st 2010 @ 11:18am | ! Report


      No not on any high horse at all ‘mate’.

      This is me simply shedding some glaringly stark light on something that is all too often swept under the sensitive p.c carpet, that is the NZ Aust relationship whereby NZ assumes such privilege in all and sundry with almost state like status with this country.

      I am quite resigned to other sports and aspects of Australian society and culture selling themselves short in this respect, however it is beyond the pale and indeed sacrilege to be entertaining NZ in any way or form as far as our Indig code goes, even in this day and age of top down corporate growth and generic sporting brands.

    • November 1st 2010 @ 11:25am
      Republican said | November 1st 2010 @ 11:25am | ! Report


      Western Sydney is integral to Australia, it’s land culture, people and society.

      NZ is a sovereign country last time I looked and that’s the way they like it mostly, except when there is some advantage in aligning themselves with us i.e., or have I missed something since Federation?

      • November 1st 2010 @ 1:04pm
        Jay said | November 1st 2010 @ 1:04pm | ! Report

        I don’t understand how western Sydney being part of Australia would justify Team GWS. AFL is about as relevant here as rugby league is in Cape Town.

        It might be called Australian Rules Football, but it doesn’t mean that it synonymous with every geographic location in Australia.

        In fact, based on the demographics, AFL is the dominant code in areas of Australia with less than 50% of the population(which despite these facts, it has grown to become a large sporting entity).

        • November 2nd 2010 @ 1:53am
          Anthony said | November 2nd 2010 @ 1:53am | ! Report

          AFL is the most popular football code in Australia. Very hard to ignore, even in Western Sydney. Or are they living in an island out there, wihout the interenet, or tv? This idea that Sydney people are only interested in league is so 20th century!

          • November 2nd 2010 @ 11:11am
            Rob C said | November 2nd 2010 @ 11:11am | ! Report

            Anthony when are you going to wake Sydney up to this fact then? As far as I can see (being a Sydney centric person) the games profile is smaller than Soccer and Rugby in Sydney (League is King). It does get consistent crowds for the Swans but I would be honest and say that the Swans crowd would probably represent 50% of total support in Sydney for the AFL (tv ratings don’t lie and there is enough evidence to suggest a long process before any real progress is made).

            In saying that I have no issue with GWS and the AFL investing in Sydney. I am a business man though and I consider this a high risk investment with a low return on investment. Not exactly something you would want your financial advisor giving you advice on. If it was me I would have put more money into the Swans and built on their brand awareness and market reach in Sydney (and make them into a Super Club). Not cannibalise their marketshare so in effect there will now be two clubs in Sydney with their hands out asking for assistance. Just my thoughts…

            • November 2nd 2010 @ 10:17pm
              JamesP said | November 2nd 2010 @ 10:17pm | ! Report

              Rob C – If TV figures dont lie, then what do you say to bums on seats (i.e. attendences)? I think TV figures can be rubbery, but considerign crowds and TV figures together then league is king. But after that, footy, union and soccer the lines are blurred. Yes soccer is number 1 participation wise, but so is netball, tennis and swimming. The AFL and its commissiona are widely regarded as the best run and most professional sporting organisation in the land. Whilst other codes/leaguies expand and fail – the AFL usually gets it right – and without the big billionaire backers supporting it…it relies on its greatest strength…people.

              No one is doubting the move is without great risk, but for you to call it a low return on investment…well..frankly…you may be a businessman but I would not be wanting to do business with you…

              • November 3rd 2010 @ 9:11am
                Rob C said | November 3rd 2010 @ 9:11am | ! Report

                James not interested in code war. Just being honest. I think the AFL have been very good at talking up this move into GWS. But they have a mountain to climb and will only get small returns / big losses for a very long time before making any money (if at all). On top of this they will cut into the Swans marketshare. You tell me again how that is an investment that you yourself would put YOUR money into… Easy for the AFL to take money off other clubs through reductions in grants to bank roll this but they would struggle to get real investors to put their hands in their pockets at this stage to fund this venture. Like I said high risk for low return. In 25years this may change but who would poor significant money into something with a yield that won’t eventuate for over two decades…? The Swans have been in Sydney for longer than this and they still lose money some seasons. Case in point.

                I agree with TCunbeliever to an extent on the rivalry thing, but in my opinion think that the market base is not established enough in Sydney to run two professional clubs. As stated above I have no issue with the AFL having a crack at this and I can see what they are chasing. I just think they could have invested their money better and taken the organic growth approach in Sydney which is more sustainable. Be interesting to see what strain having two Sydney clubs, a Gold Coast Club and a couple of the perenial low income earners in Melbourne all having their hands out for money puts on an expanded AFL. I would say there will be a deflationary impact on salaries and a sudden rise in attendance / membership rises to cover these short falls. Only time will tell…

            • November 2nd 2010 @ 10:18pm
              TCunbeliever said | November 2nd 2010 @ 10:18pm | ! Report

              They are good observations. There is no doubt Australian Football is far behind in popularity in Sydney compared to the Rugby codes. The AFL are pretty intelligently run, and they would be aware that the Swans, while being a success club in itself, are not going to be able to get the broader population in Syd/ NSW / ACT interested in Australian Football.
              The Swans are a relocated club. They have a long history and still have a strong supporter base from the days they were known as the South Melbourne Football Club. A brand new franchise is something completely different, though. Watching a club form and take shape within a community that you are part of is a special thing. And because this club in a brand new entity, AFL fans in the area who support Vic based clubs will be more likely to jump on board, which didn’t happen so much with the Swans.
              As I said earlier, these expansion clubs are aiming to increase interest in Australian Football. And nothing creates interest like conflict. GWS are already competing with the Swans, and a local rivalry is going to develop between these two clubs. But more significantly, with these expansion clubs there will be an AFL game played every week in NSW and QLD.
              And while this exercise will not be an instant success, I have no doubt that the population of the area under discussion is perfectly capable of supporting two separate AFL clubs in the long term. And I believe the AFL is looking further into the future than most financial planners.

              • November 2nd 2010 @ 10:39pm
                Titus said | November 2nd 2010 @ 10:39pm | ! Report

                “There is no doubt Australian Football is far behind in popularity in Sydney compared to the Rugby codes”

                AFL is also far behind soccer in NSW. As Rob C has pointed out.

              • November 2nd 2010 @ 10:50pm
                beaver fever said | November 2nd 2010 @ 10:50pm | ! Report


                Record number of NSW kids getting onto AFL club lists this year.

                Quite impressive indeed.

              • November 11th 2010 @ 4:19pm
                rj said | November 11th 2010 @ 4:19pm | ! Report

                “There is no doubt Australian Football is far behind in popularity in Sydney compared to the Rugby codes.”

                It’s also not as popular in Sydney as Iron Chef (SBS version) which seemingly pounds it in the ratings whenever they clash.

    • November 1st 2010 @ 11:33am
      djsinnema said | November 1st 2010 @ 11:33am | ! Report

      You would be amazed by the number of teams actually getting players from overseas to train with their team. Hawthorn are attempting to get a player from New Zealand. I know that Kevin Sheady has long been after a young South African boy and there is Natanoui of Fiji playing in West coast.

      They are just a few examples of players from overseas finding a way into the AFL. They are attempting to gain a far wider talent base than Australia. PNG Africa, the Pacific Islands and South East Asia are just some examples of countries being targeted and are clearly gaining some leverage in these countries, with what will clearly be a better lifestyle here.

      The growth is far larger than you might think with the attempt to have two teams in the annual Under 16 championship carnival, for a Pacific Island XVIII and a world XVIII to play the junior state teams.

      It is an excellent development that will begin to create a pathway for kids from other countries, who show some of the desired skills to get into the AFL. In the future, a large number could be present in clubs, to the point that a Rep team could be created. (Australia Vs Rest of world)

      • November 1st 2010 @ 11:39am
        djsinnema said | November 1st 2010 @ 11:39am | ! Report

        All of what i said, Bringing Overseas players to play in the AFL, is a far cry from what “Repulican” is talking about. The AFL is never going to attempt to create teams overseas until such a point as there is a completely national competition that has teams representing every state in Australia. Thus having reguler top flight football games held all over the country