AIS Academy edge Hawks in a thriller

A tense and absorbing contest between the New Zealand Hawks and the AIS AFL Academy has finished with less than one goal separating the teams. The Australians took the lead in the final minutes to win 4.16:40 – 5.6:36.

A vocal crowd turned out at Westpac Stadium in Wellington. In a match characterised by intense defense, it was the AIS who held their nerve when it mattered, hanging on for dear life against a passionate New Zealand Hawks team.

Chris Johnson, Head Coach of the AFL AIS Academy, paid tribute to the opposition. “It was a great contest. To the credit of the New Zealanders, your tackling and endeavour on the ball was first class today.”

Justin Davies, Head Coach of the New Zealand Hawks, spoke to the quality and character of the Australians. “When it mattered, you kicked the goal, and that’s what good players do.”

The Australians took an early lead, through the boot of Jake Sushames. Strong defensive pressure from the Hawks kept the score low, and a goal to Brendan Clark kept them in the match. The first quarter ended 1.7:13 – 1.0:6 to the Australians.

A brutal second quarter followed, with neither side able to get on top. The AIS AFL Academy chipped away, edging slightly further into the lead. At halftime the score stood at 1.10:16 – 1.1:7.

The match looked to be slipping away from the Hawks after the halftime break, with the first goal of the quarter going to Ryhs Mathieson of the AIS. However, the Hawks attack sparked into life, as they stormed back into the match.

St Kilda International Scholarship holder Joe Baker-Thomas played a tremendous match as a forward, picking up a crucial goal from open play. Tim Morton then took an incredible mark under pressure, before calmly slotting a goal. With one quarter to play, the deficit was only two points.

The crowd roared their approval when Andy Christensen stepped up to kick a goal, giving the Hawks a five point cushion. The lead fluctuated across the final quarter, with Michael Hagan picking up a goal to put the AIS back in front.

The Hawks weren’t finished though, working a passing move to perfection to put Sean Butler in on goal. He made no mistake, giving the lead back to New Zealand.

The final say of the match went to Ryan Burton of the AIS. His late goal gave the lead back to the Australians, with only minutes to play. Playing right up until the final siren, the Hawks maintained their intensity, though an upset win proved to be just beyond their grasp. The match ended 4.16:40 – 5.6:36.

Strong performances were recorded by many of the Hawks, with Andrew Howison and Khan Haretuku being awarded the Best on Ground trophies for the game. Numerous players stepped up with marks at crucial moments, especially in the Hawks backline.

The AIS AFL Academy also featured players who will surely go on to be stars of the AFL. For such young men, they played with intensity and heart against the Hawks. Chris Johnson made special mention of Stephen Tahana, saying “without him we would have struggled to hold our backline together.”

The AIS AFL Academy is well known for producing top quality footballers. From the 30-man team that toured New Zealand in 2011, 29 now have contracts with AFL clubs.

From the Hawks, the close match showed the incredible progress made by the AFL New Zealand High Performance programme. More than two thirds of the players in the team have been part of the system, coming through age group representative teams or through being selected for the programme off strong performances at the AFL New Zealand National Provincial Championships.

A small contingent of players also came from Australia, including a quartet of New Zealand born and heritage players who currently represent the Northern Territory Thunder. A trio of players also came over from Melbourne for the match, including Frankston Dolphins player Khan Haretuku.

Haretuku spoke for the team when he described the mood in the New Zealand Hawks camp. “It was a close loss, and I’m still hurting. I’m sure all the other boys are too. It leaves us all hungry for more.”

The afternoon concluded with a message from AFL New Zealand Chairman Geoff Dickson, who asked the AIS players and staff to carry a message back to Australia with them.

“The one weakness in AFL is the lack of international representative football. Our boys are proud and passionate to represent their country, and we want you to aspire to represent your country too.”

Final Score

AIS AFL Academy 4.16:40 (Sushames, Mathieson, Hagan, Burton)

New Zealand Hawks 5.6:36 (Clark, Baker-Thomas, Morton, Christensen, Butler)

Best on Grounds

Presented by Chris Johnson of the AIS: Andrew Howison (NZ) and Stephen Tahana (AIS)

Presented by Justin Davies of the NZ Hawks: Khan Haretuku (NZ) and Jacob Weitering (AIS)