Growing the sport of Australian Rules football in New Zealand makes too much sense to ignore, according to AFL champion Wayne Schwass.
The AFL needs to do more to grow the game in New Zealand and harness all of the benefits the fellow-island nation offers, according to former North Melbourne and Sydney champion Wayne Schwass.
Speaking to NITV ahead of appearing on The Marngrook Footy Show on Thursday evening, the New-Zealand born Schwass said it’s where a big part of the league’s development focus should be.
“It makes a lot of sense – it’s three hours away, same time zone (for broadcasting), New Zealanders have a really healthy appetite for competitive and combative sports, so I think that ticks a lot of boxes,” Schwass told NITV.
“We’re into Ireland, we’re into America and they’re great stories, but we’ve got a country of four million people – there’s 15 spots on a rugby union team so if you want to be an All Black, you wanna be very good.
“There are a lot of boys that aren’t able to play for the All Blacks, so what else are they doing?
“I think that would be an obvious choice for me that the AFL would invest significant money and significant effort trying to grow New Zealand – it just makes sense.”
North Melbourne hall of fame member and 1996 premiership winner Schwass moved with his family to Victoria when he was three and soon fell in love with Aussie Rules.
He says tapping into the market across the Tasman will require “a really smart, strategic plan to make it work”, but having already dipped their toes into growing the game there, the AFL need to increase their push.
“I would have a dedicated, full time academy in New Zealand, educating, gathering and training the best young talent on a consistent basis,” Schwass said.
“I would have a very close relationship with AFL New Zealand, not only in a financial sense, but a pathways program, developing talent, investing time into putting appropriately qualified AFL coaches on the ground in New Zealand.
“I would position the AFL as not a direct threat to the All Blacks, because I think if you do that, it’s the wrong strategy. I would position the AFL as an alternative sport to young men or talented football players who don’t or can’t play rugby union to the elite level, who don’t really have an interest in rugby league but are looking for something.”
Schwass pointed to Kurt Heatherley, who has been on Hawthorn’s list for a few years and in 2015 finished third in Box Hill’s VFL best and fairest, as an example of what New Zealand can boast.
“Kurt was a very talented basketball player, grew up in New Zealand. He made the move a couple of years ago to come over to Australia,” Schwass said of the now 22-year-old who made his AFL debut in 2016.
“We just need one or two players from New Zealand, New Zealand born who go on to play football at the elite level to illustrate that it’s possible and achievable and I think when you have that you’ve got an opportunity to tap into a market that currently hasn’t been tapped into.
“With all due respect to Irish players and American players – the time difference, the tyranny of distance – they make those investments and those commitments bigger investments because of those reasons.”
Having played for and coached New Zealand’s senior representative team, New Zealand Hawks, Schwass thinks more high-level games of Aussie Rules need to be taken there.
But he doesn’t think it’s viable at this stage to have a New Zealand team in a second-tier Australian Rules competition such as the VFL or NEAFL.
“It may be a different version of that, that the NEAFL have an agreement in place where they are to play two or three games in their season at the same venue as St Kilda played at in Auckland,” Schwass said.
“I know the AFL are currently working on a potential alternative venue in Auckland. It’s got some support, it’s got some commercial support. If that becomes a reality (and) St Kilda are playing one game, or two games a year, then I would complement that by including one or two games of the NEAFL, because then you are giving the New Zealand market four games to see what this thing, AFL football is. That’s what I’d be doing.”
Schwass, of Maori heritage, says he’s proud to have been a trail-blazer for Kiwi players in the AFL, but perhaps like many current-day footballers born outside of Australia, it wasn’t a focus.
“It’s probably only something that really meant anything to me once I retired,” he said.
“My background is my background, I know where I come from and I’m an incredibly proud New Zealand-born person who’s got a lot of family back there, but it was not something I ever focused on whilst I played.”
He says the power of sport to inspire positive change remains one of its special qualities.
“Sport’s a great vehicle of bringing people together from different backgrounds, different cultures. We’ve now got players from a whole host of cultures that perhaps 15, 20, 30 years ago we would have never thought possible.
“I think sport’s a great vehicle for breaking down barriers, creating opportunities and I think that should be celebrated, irrespective of somebody’s background.
“If they’re good enough, then they’ll earn the opportunity to play AFL footy and I think the ripple effect on that, is that reverberates down through the community and if a young Muslim boy who wants to play AFL footy, all he has to do is look at Richmond and see what Bachar Houli has done.
“We’ve got Indigenous players from all over the world now playing our game, not just Aboriginal players, and I think it’s really exciting – I just think that’s a great reflection on sport in general.”
Hear more from Wayne Schwass on Saturday as he joins hosts Grant Hansen, Gilbert McAdam and the rest of an all-star guest list for The Marngrook Footy Show, on Maori TV from 12.30pm.
Story – Will Davies, NITV