Buoyed by the early success of Porirua teenager Joe Baker-Thomas, St Kilda are pledging to continue their aggressive hunt for New Zealand talent.
Baker-Thomas, one of St Kilda’s two Kiwi international scholarship holders, made a bright debut for the Sandringham Dragons last month, kicking four goals in one half.
The Dragons are St Kilda’s team in Melbourne’s elite under-18 competition, the TAC Cup.
”The first half he played in defence, the second half he played up forward,” said St Kilda’s head of football, Chris Pelchen.
”To kick four goals and have that quick an impact was extremely encouraging, not only for Joe but for us as a club too. We’re delighted.”
Baker-Thomas, 17, had not played AFL before last year but the Saints took a punt on his 1.93m, 87kg frame and raw athletic abilities.
Pelchen said he would split playing time between the Dragons and the Sandringham Zebras, St Kilda’s open-age VFL team.
Last month, St Kilda signed Auckland 16-year-old Giovanni Mountain-Silbery as their second Kiwi international scholarship holder.
”We anticipate that number of two to increase by another three or four, bringing it up to half a dozen, over the next 12-18 months,” Pelchen said.
”So we’re clearly looking to increase the numbers at our club and I wouldn’t say our development plans for New Zealand are speculative. I would say they’re deliberate and we’re certainly encouraged by recent events. We certainly appreciate the athletic ability that New Zealand lads have and there’s no doubt that athleticism is transferable, regardless of the sport you play. They have the capacity to play AFL football.”
Pelchen also signed Kiwis Kurt Heatherley and Shem Tatupu in his previous job with the Hawthorn Hawks.
Heatherley played two NAB Challenge pre-season games for the Hawks this year and is expected to make his full AFL debut this season.
”He’s now gone from being aspirational about playing AFL football to now expecting to play AFL football,” Pelchen said.
”Hawthorn were the first club to recruit talent out of New Zealand and now several other clubs are following suit. I expect it to grow considerably over the next 3-5 years. St Kilda are encouraged by that development, rather than see it as unfortunate or diluting the talent pool.”
St Kilda have established Wellington as their second home and will play their second Anzac Day game against the Brisbane Lions at Westpac Stadium in three weeks time.
St Kilda were beaten 79-63 by the powerful Sydney Swans in last year’s historic fixture but confidence is up this year following a 2-0 start under new coach Alan Richardson.
”We’re genuinely looking forward to playing over there on Anzac Day,” Pelchen said.
”We see ourselves as not just representing St Kilda in the traditional homeland here in Melbourne but also representing Wellingtonians. We believe we are their adopted AFL team and we want to do them proud.”