Aussie Rules spreads wings
Had it been in Melbourne there would have been nothing out of the ordinary about the scene at Wellington's ASB Arena yesterday.
Excited talent scouts, three testing stations, a bunch of St Kilda's AFL stars and 40 young hopefuls punching and kicking red Sherrin balls.
Thick Aussie twangs extolled the virtues of "kick-catch-pass-bounce", rolled together so fast it became one word.
There were even short shorts and tight fitting guernseys, but the cold driving rain on the windows was an early reminder that this wasn't a regular Aussie Rules gathering.
The heavy dose of Polynesian or Maori kids on show was another giveaway that these youths hadn't been plucked off the beaches of Sydney or St Kilda.
Welcome to the AFL's inaugural National Combine, in which scouts from seven AFL clubs have made the trip across the Tasman.
It's the result of a nationwide search for New Zealand's most promising athletic talent, and evidence of the sport's growing global ambition.
AFL international talent manager Kevin Sheehan is one of the driving forces, a down-to-earth Aussie Rules devotee. Sheehan will head to Dublin next month, then to Los Angeles in April to spread the gospel of "our game". But first he's overseeing some significant events for the sport in Wellington, which will host an official AFL match between St Kilda and Sydney Swans this Anzac Day.
"This is a fairly new phenomenon to reach out to various parts of the world," Sheehan said. "It gives opportunities to those from various codes as well as some who play our game a chance to show off their athletic prowess."
And after 20 years in the sport, he knows exactly what that entails when it comes to the AFL.
"We test for speed, agility, endurance and power, the things that make an AFL player. We also look for some basic skills, some hand-to-eye co-ordination.
"Then we run the results against the best kids of this age [13 to 18] in Australia and then we see who comes up in the elite. We are looking for the X-factor, something that separates them from the others."
A 20-metre sprint, vertical leap and timed agility test are the three measures for the Kiwi contingent, but body type, preferably tall and lean, is important too.
"We've been educating them [our New Zealand scouts] on the type of boys who have a chance to make it for a number of years. Two boys, Shem Tatupu and Kurt Heatherley, have already shown the pathway."
Indeed, the pair are on three-year deals with Hawthorn and are being held up as proof of New Zealand's untapped talent pool.
"They've gone through the pathway where they have played for the South Pacific in the AFL under-16 championships in Australia for the past two years," Sheehan said. "They'd been playing 10 or 12 games of Aussie Rules a year as well as their other sports but were identified as potential AFL players."
A growing number of Kiwi kids are going to get that chance and about 30,000 a year are now giving the sport a go.
AFL New Zealand chief executive Robert Vanstam believes the sport is playing a dual role for the country's youth. It's gained more than a foothold with the KiwiKick initiative in schools, which has seen the Government provide the majority of its funding.
Now it is providing a pathway to either represent New Zealand or go on to a professional career, and with a "six- figure sum" from the AFL, the New Zealand arm has the resources to deliver.
"Yes, we get to spot talent.
"But from our perspective I don't care if these kids go on to play rugby for New Zealand or rugby league," Vanstam said. "Sam Dickson, who is playing sevens for New Zealand next weekend, Gordon Tietjens spotted him here playing for us.
"If we can assist kids with a professional career with the benefits of learning how to kick, catch, pass, bounce, which are the elements of the AFL, then this is definitely a New Zealand story."
As Vanstam talks, Hutt Valley's Kade Riddell is winding his way through the agility test.
The 16-year-old is 188m tall, the average height of an AFL professional.
Who knows, perhaps one of the scouts has circled his name in a notebook.
Tickets for the St Kilda-Sydney Swans match go on sale at Ticketek from today.
The Dominion Post