AFL's St Kilda sign Porirua teen on scholarship
Porirua teenager Joe Baker-Thomas didn't think he would be able to sleep last night after becoming the first Kiwi to receive an international rookie scholarship from St Kilda.
The 16-year-old hadn't played a single game of AFL before this month but he caught the eye of the Saints while winning the MVP at last week's New Zealand under-18 championships.
Baker-Thomas only got the good news yesterday and a few hours later he was being handed a Saints guernsey by prime minister John Key at halftime of the AFL game at Westpac Stadium.
"It was real buzzy, especially the prime minister of New Zealand," he told The Dominion Post.
"I probably won't even get any sleep. Stoked, shocked, a mean opportunity though. My friends are going to be so surprised, I only found out [yesterday] so I'm really excited."
Baker-Thomas has grown up on a diet of rugby, league, high jump and indoor netball while brother Tepasu is a member of the Hurricanes development squad.
He will finish year 13 at Porirua College this year before potentially moving to Melbourne to continue his Aussie Rules education.
St Kilda head of football Chris Pelchen said Baker-Thomas' 1.93m, 87kg frame and his athleticism made him an obvious target.
"While he's new to the game we think it's a great opportunity for him to develop into a player of the future," Pelchen said.
"His athleticism stood out to us. He'll predominantly play centre half back, centre half forward as he develops. He'll stay residing here in Wellington [this year] and then we'll review it with an open mind about him moving across. We'd expect over the next 12 months to sign another three or four [Kiwi players]."
Baker-Thomas follows in the footsteps of fellow Kiwis Kurt Heatherley and Shem Tatupu, who are both on deals at Hawthorn, and Whakatane teenager Maia Westrupp, who is an international rookie at the Melbourne Demons.
He will play in Wellington's local competition and the South Pacific Championships this year.
"We certainly have to take into account that it's not an indigenous sport in New Zealand so therefore he doesn't have a thorough understanding of the basics of the game at this stage," Pelchen said.
"But as we've seen with a couple of boys at Hawthorn, they are fast learners. Having been brought up with the rugby pedigree, he's familiar with ball sports."
The retired Wayne Schwass (North Melbourne and Sydney) and Trent Croad (Hawthorn) are the most successful players with New Zealand heritage to have recently graced the game's premier stage.
The Dominion Post