Kurt Heatherley will soon learn if he joins a select band of New Zealanders to play in the top echelon of Australia's national winter code when defending AFL premiers Hawthorn open their title defence in Tasmania on Saturday.
The 19-year-old from Tauranga - a former New Zealand age group basketball rep who was the first Kiwi to be offered an international scholarship by the Hawks - is on contention to debut in an injury-depleted defensive line against the Brisbane Lions on neutral ground in Hobart.
Heatherley, who was identified as a potential premiership-quality player in 2009, is vying for a place with Derick Wanganeen, Kyle Cheney and Gus Litherland.
The 1.93m Kiwi, who was blighted by hip injuries last year, impressed for the Hawks during their successful pre-season NAB Cup campaign and was earmarked for a potential step up by the club's football manager Chris Fagan.
"Kurt's right in the mix. There's a few training sessions to go, but his form has been really pleasing. He's probably exceeded our expectations to some degree," he said.
"In the three NAB Challenge games he played he looked really comfortable. He has speed and he's athletic and he's a real competitor, so his belief in himself has really helped him improve."
Should Heatherly get the nod, he will become only the 17th New Zealander to play in the AFL - and the fourth Kiwi active alongside Auckland-born Gold Coast Sun former league and rugby player Karmichael Hunt plus former Hawks duo Brett Renouf (Port Adelaide) and Shane Savage (St Kilda).
AFL New Zealand chief executive Robert Vanstam was confident Heatherley could handle promotion to the elite level.
"Kurt's story shows the tremendous opportunities available to New Zealanders through AFL. It's only a matter of time before we see him playing regular top level AFL."
The Hawks named Hearherley and fellow Kiwi teenager Shem Tatupu in their rookie list this year, indicating they are regarded as long-term prospects and they also have Aucklander Siope Ngata signed to a New Zealand-based international scholarship.
Former North Melbourne and Sydney Swans star Wayne Schwass is the most prolific New Zealand-born player in the AFL, racking up 282 appearances between 1988 and 2002 while fellow premiership winner Trent Croad tallied 222 for Fremantle and Hawthorn from 1998-2008.
- Fairfax Media
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