St Kilda keen to convert Kiwis to AFL code

SAM WORTHINGTON
Last updated 05:00 06/04/2013
St Kilda Saints
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NZ LINK: St Kilda Saints and Sydney Swans players compete for the ball.

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St Kilda have famously won just one premiership in an at times tortured 140-year history.

So it's no surprise the silverware from 1966 - when Collingwood were beaten in the VFL final by a single point - is one of the first things you see upon entry at the intriguingly named Linen House Centre in suburban Seaford.

The Saints' flash new facility opened in 2011 and, strangely enough, is 30km southeast of St Kilda.

While the move from Moorabbin caused some consternation, the new setup comes with a basketball court, pool, spas, lounge, kitchen, gym and the most important part - an MCG-sized training ground.

All to help the Saints hopefully add to a rather lonely trophy cabinet.

"Unfortunately, we've only won one premiership so in some respects that's a bit unique to our character," says St Kilda chief executive Michael Nettlefold, who played 43 games for the Saints between 1979-83.

"So we're still looking for that holy grail. We went close, a couple of years ago, but we're building again and in the next couple of years we're going to be right back in the hunt, we've got no doubt about that."

St Kilda drew with Collingwood in the epic 2010 grand final but lost the replay by 56 points the following week.

The club's stars - Nick Riewoldt, Lenny Hayes, Stephen Milne and Nick Dal Santo - are closer to the end of their careers than the start and the shock opening-round loss to a Gary Ablett Jr-inspired Gold Coast means there is an edge at training ahead of round two against Richmond.

As the women in the kitchen start preparing lunch - enough roast chickens and bowls of fruit to feed an army - the players warm up.

The first thing you notice is the sheer scale of the operation.

There are 45 players on each team's list, and for every player there is a staff member.

The players dive into giant garbage bins for Sherrins [AFL footballs] and start snapping shots at goal to get in the mood.

The star of this particular show is Milne, the goal sneak who sits fourth on the club's all-time scoring list headed by the great Tony "Plugger" Lockett.

Even at training, Milne is a showman, kicking outrageous goals from out of bounds with bend that puts David Beckham and Johnathan Thurston to shame.

His team-mates shake their heads as Milne hams it up for the visiting Kiwi media.

A crisis is averted as a club staffer demands an explanation as to why this reporter is fiddling with his mobile phone.

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All is well when it is explained a simple text message is being sent and there are no state secrets being smuggled out to rival clubs.

Everyone is welcoming and there is genuine excitement for the upcoming adventure in Wellington - the first time an AFL game will be played on foreign soil.

Veteran tall forward Justin Kotschizke - as true blue as they come - hollers: "The Saints are going abroad!" and recalls bowling in the nets to Brendon McCullum during a pre-season visit to Queenstown.

Head of football Chris Pelchen advises the media to do five stories on the Saints and just the one on defending champions Sydney.

"We're Wellington's team!"

Chatting to two injured players reveal some interesting stories.

Young ruckman Tom Hickey is a Queenslander who grew up idolising Gorden Tallis and Sonny Bill Williams.

He last visited New Zealand on a volleyball trip before his size and leaping ability were nabbed by the omnipresent AFL scouts.

Hickey thinks more and more top athletes will be snapped up by Aussie Rules because "everyone wants to play on the big stage".

How would SBW fare?

"I reckon he'd be a bit dangerous in the ruck, I wouldn't want to jump against him. He's a big boy."

Wingman Farren Ray visited Wellington in January and raves about Westpac Stadium's suitability for his game. Ray is not a high profile star but even he gets stopped for free advice when walking down the street.

"Australians love their football so you do get recognised a little bit. But everyone's entitled to their own opinion so if they give one to you, you just take it on the chin and just listen to the people that are close to you."

It is a light training session the day before the game but even so, Riewoldt shows flashes of his pedigree in a match simulation.

Afterwards, by a fruit bowl, the club's intense coach, Scott Watters, explains he leaves no stone unturned in searching for an edge.

A military buff, Watters instructed each player to read a book on the killing of Osama bin Laden as part of their pre-season.

He has studied football, hockey, ice hockey and lacrosse for ideas, is close with Robbie Kearns at the Melbourne Storm and observed the Hurricanes during January's visit to Wellington.

"We sat in on one of their pre-training meetings and straight out of that session there were some tackling techniques and defensive drills that we thought were terrific so you're always picking up different opportunities from other sports," Watters said.

"In the same way we'd like to think maybe the Hurricanes are an example of a side that can pick some aspects of our game to take into their own."

The players start demolishing their lunches, everyone else shakes hands and vows to catch up across the ditch.

The search for elusive premiership No 2 rolls on, and this time with what looms as a fascinating stopoff in Wellington.

- The Dominion Post

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